The best books for getting a grip on our reality

Alex Rosenberg Author Of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories
By Alex Rosenberg

Who am I?

Even before I became a philosopher I was wondering about everything—life the universe and whatever else Douglas Adams thought was important when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. As a philosopher, I’ve been able to spend my life scratching the itch of these questions. When I finally figured them out I wrote The Atheist’s Guide to Reality as an introduction to what science tells us besides that there is no god. In How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories I apply much of that to getting to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us, me included, to really absorb the nature of reality. 


I wrote...

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

By Alex Rosenberg,

Book cover of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

What is my book about?

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right? Wrong. Narrative history is always, always wrong, not just incomplete or inaccurate but deeply wrong. Our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long Darwinian pedigree and a genetic basis. Our love of stories is hard-wired. Human evolution improved primate “mind-reading”—the ability to anticipate and explain the behavior of others, whether predators, prey, or cooperators—to get us to the top of the African food chain. It was a useful enough tool in its time, but neuroscience reveals that human culture shaped hard-wired mind-reading from a tool useful for survival into a defective theory of human nature. As science has revealed, we'll only understand history if we don't make it into a story with a plot.

The books I picked & why

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Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Why this book?

Easier to read than On the Origin of Species, this book connects Darwin’s overwhelmingly significant explanatory insight to the last fifty years of advance in our understanding of biology, psychology, social science, and the nature of the mind. Dennett is a brilliantly ingenious builder of images and metaphors that really enable you to grasp Darwin’s breakthrough, one at least as important as Newton’s and Einstein’s, but more relevant to understanding the meaning of life. 


Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Why this book?

Diamond carries the Darwinian method from biology to human history and culture, in an argument so simple and so powerful that one ends up feeling as Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley felt, when he finished On the Origin of Species: “How stupid of me not to think of that!” Starting with an open mind and no “theory” Diamond advanced the most powerful argument for a Darwinian process of human cultural evolution. 


The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

By Sean Carroll,

Book cover of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Why this book?

A cosmologist and particle physicist, Carroll shows us how starting from physics, everything else—including everything that matters to people, emerge through a small number of natural processes. Having paid his dues in basic physical science, Carrol provides an accessible pathway from the fundamental level of reality all the way to human values. No mystery mongering, and a Darwinian finish of course! 


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

By Joseph Henrich,

Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Why this book?

Henrich threads together the data and the theory to explain the nature of human culture, the character of its most important institutions, and how environments interact with our genetic inheritance over a couple of hundred years right up until the present to make us psychologically and socially the kind of animals we are. It’s Darwin without the nature/nurture dead ends, without the silly Social Darwinism Darwin never believed himself, and without the crazy hereditarianism of the racists.


The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good

By Robert H. Frank,

Book cover of The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good

Why this book?

Frank explains why Darwin is a better guide than Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to the problems the economy raises for almost everyone. The most important market and the only market where almost everyone is a seller instead of a buyer is the labor market. Yet it is the one that Adam Smith got almost completely wrong and Charles Darwin got almost completely right. Frank shows us how the Darwinian process of the labor market makes employers rich at the expense of workers, and how they stitched their advantage into the “Right to Work” (at lower wages) laws.


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