The best books on humans and other animals

Who am I?

The most important formative experiences of my life were contained in the years I spent living and traveling with Brenin, a wolfdog. I can safely say that just about every worthwhile idea I have had – I am a professor of philosophy and ideas are supposed to be my thing – stemmed from those years. I have written many books since Brenin died, all of them, in one way or another, concerned with the question of what it is to be human. I am convinced that we can only understand this if we begin with the idea that we are animals and work from there.


I wrote...

Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness

By Mark Rowlands,

Book cover of Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness

What is my book about?

This is the story of the decade I was fortunate enough to spend living and traveling with a wolfdog named Brenin, spanning life in the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France. It is a book about love and about growing up. It is also a sustained attack on human exceptionalism. There are certain stories we like to tell ourselves about why are different from, and better than, other animals. Our intelligence makes us better than them? Or perhaps it is our morality? Or perhaps our sense of our own mortality? These are just stories we like to repeat, articles of faith, and nothing more. Moreover, each story has a dark side in that it reveals something deeply unflattering about us and our nature. 

The books I picked & why

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Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

By Franz DeWaal,

Book cover of Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

Why this book?

Ever wonder why so many people are just so unpleasant? It’s because we are apes. As such, mendacity, deception, trickery, and a thirst for power are simply part of what we are. That’s how we got to be so (allegedly) smart. Frans de Waal has written many excellent books since this, his first – an observation and interpretation of the behavior of chimpanzees in the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. However, as a young man, far from home, and taking my first steps in the often poisonous world of career and responsibility, the scales well and truly fell from my eyes when I read this book.

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

By Franz DeWaal,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Chimpanzee Politics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first edition of Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics was acclaimed not only by primatologists for its scientific achievement but also by politicians, business leaders, and social psychologists for its remarkable insights into the most basic human needs and behaviors. Twenty-five years later, this book is considered a classic. Featuring a new preface that includes recent insights from the author, this anniversary edition is a detailed and thoroughly engrossing account of rivalries and coalitions-actions governed by intelligence rather than instinct. As we watch the chimpanzees of Arnhem behave in ways we recognize from Machiavelli (and from the nightly news), de…


Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

By John Gray,

Book cover of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Why this book?

A brilliant attack on a collection of human vanities, most importantly the idea of progress. The political left and right are united in the idea that history has a direction. Human societies gradually progress towards a perfect endpoint – an end of history – where no further improvement can be made. Left and right disagree on what this endpoint will look like, but they agree that there is one, and that one can, therefore, be on the right or wrong side of history. Not so fast, argues John Gray. History is a long time, and the idea of progress is an article of faith that does not survive careful examination. Brilliant engagement with the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer among others.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

By John Gray,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Straw Dogs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A radical work of philosophy, which sets out to challenge our most cherished assumptions about what it means to be human. From Plato to Christianity, from the Enlightenment to Nietzsche and Marx, the Western tradition has been based on arrogant and erroneous beliefs about human beings and their place in the world. Philosophies such as liberalism and Marxism think of humankind as a species whose destiny is to transcend natural limits and conquer the Earth. Even in the present day, despite Darwin's discoveries, nearly all schools of thought take as their starting point the belief that humans are radically different…


The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

By Rainer Maria Rilke, Burton Pike (translator),

Book cover of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Why this book?

Commonly thought to be about death, and our fear thereof, what I find most striking about this book is its piercing and utterly haunting analysis of the role of memories in making us who we are. The most important memories are the ones that are lost, and then return in a new form, deeply woven into our bodies, emotions, and feelings – as blood, as glance and gesture, as Rilke puts it. Rilke was a poet; this was his only excursion into the art form of the novel. So, the book falls apart after a while. But if anyone has written anything better than the first fifty pages or so, I am unacquainted with it.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

By Rainer Maria Rilke, Burton Pike (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1910, Rilke's "Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" is one the first great modernist novels, the account of poet-aspirant Brigge in his exploration of poetic individuality and his reflections on the experience of time as death approaches. This new translation by Burton Pike is a reaction to overly stylized previous translations, and aims to capture not only the beauty but also the strangeness, the spirit, of Rilke's German.


Being and Nothingness

By Jean-Paul Sartre,

Book cover of Being and Nothingness

Why this book?

Sartre was not a good philosopher in the classical sense. He wasn’t great at constructing arguments. But what he was unquestionably great at was intuitions. He had them, and they were usually spot on, and as a result he was right about most things. In this large book, we find a sustained development of a single brilliant, intuition: anything you are aware of is not you. You are the awareness rather than anything you are aware of. You are nothingness. One implication of this helped me get through the second half of my first marathon. Experiential unpleasantness is a motive to stop, but not part of me, and it is up to me how I interpret it. My motives can never compel me. I am in this sense free.

Being and Nothingness

By Jean-Paul Sartre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Being and Nothingness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sartre explains the theory of existential psychoanalysis in this treatise on human reality


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

By Milan Kundera,

Book cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Why this book?

An acutely perceptive analysis of the fundamental choice facing all humans: lightness or weight. Weight is an attachment of various sorts – of love, affection, obligation, commitment, and so on. Lightness is the absence of these. Are we humans defined by our attachments? Or is there a core of us that exists unencumbered or attachment-free – a core self that chooses its attachments to others rather than being defined by them? Both options have their drawbacks.

In the background, there is also a striking case for animal rights, grounded in the virtue of mercy.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

By Milan Kundera,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Unbearable Lightness of Being as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A cult figure.' Guardian
'A dark and brilliant achievement.' Ian McEwan
'Shamelessly clever ... Exhilaratingly subversive and funny.' Independent
'A modern classic ... As relevant now as when it was first published. ' John Banville

A young woman is in love with a successful surgeon; a man torn between his love for her and his womanising. His mistress, a free-spirited artist, lives her life as a series of betrayals; while her other lover stands to lose everything because of his noble qualities. In a world where lives are shaped by choices and events, and everything occurs but once, existence seems…


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Interested in existential philosophy, humanism, and Paris?

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