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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Daniel Dennett,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Darwin's Dangerous Idea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life Daniel C. Dennett argues that the theory of evolution can demystify the miracles of life without devaluing our most cherished beliefs.

From the moment it first appeared, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has been controversial: misrepresented, abused, denied and fiercely debated. In this powerful defence of Darwin, Daniel C. Dennett explores every aspect of evolutionary thinking to show why it is so fundamental to our existence, and why it affirms - not threatens - our convictions about the meaning of life.

'Essential and pleasurable for any thinking…

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did I love 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. 

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Guns, Germs, and Steel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, a classic of our time, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond dismantles racist theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for its broadest patterns.

The story begins 13,000 years ago, when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire human population. Around that time, the developmental paths of human societies on different continents began to diverge greatly. Early domestication of wild plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent, China,…

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

Why did I love 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! 

By Sean Carroll,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Big Picture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Fascinating' - Brian Cox, Mail on Sunday Books of the Year

Where are we? Who are we? Do our beliefs, hopes and dreams hold any significance out there in the void? Can human purpose and meaning ever fit into a scientific worldview?

Award-winning author Sean Carroll brings his extraordinary intellect to bear on the realms of knowledge, the laws of nature and the most profound questions about life, death and our place in it all.

From Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness and the universe itself, Carroll combines cosmos-sprawling science and profound thought in a quest to…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Joseph Henrich,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Secret of Our Success as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert H. Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Darwin Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who was the greater economist--Adam Smith or Charles Darwin? The question seems absurd. Darwin, after all, was a naturalist, not an economist. But Robert Frank, New York Times economics columnist and best-selling author of The Economic Naturalist, predicts that within the next century Darwin will unseat Smith as the intellectual founder of economics. The reason, Frank argues, is that Darwin's understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith's. And the consequences of this fact are profound. Indeed, the failure to recognize that we live in Darwin's world rather than Smith's is putting us all at risk by…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in evolution, natural selection, and human evolution?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about evolution, natural selection, and human evolution.

Evolution Explore 112 books about evolution
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