The best books on social evolution, social neuroscience, and social connection

Who am I?

As a young sociologist, I shunned explanations of human behavior informed by psychology and biology, but over the years my research showed me that individual predispositions and capacities influence social structure, as well as the other way around.  Books like those I recommend helped me recognize how evolutionary dynamics gave rise to our intensely social nature and so explain many social processes.  And as I began this intellectual journey, events in my own life ripped off the psychological seal I had constructed over my childhood experiences of maternal abandonment and paternal suicide and finally enabled me to make sense of them. We can improve our individual and societal health by increasing our understanding of our fundamental social needs.   

I co-edited...

Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

By Russell K. Schutt (editor), Larry J. Seidman (editor), Matcheri Keshavan (editor)

Book cover of Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

What is my book about?

Human beings evolved in the company of others and flourish in proportion to their positive social ties. To understand the human brain, we must situate its biology in the wider context of society. To understand society, we must also consider how the brains and minds of individuals shape interactions with other human beings.

In Social Neuroscience, leading researchers in the fields of neurobiology, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology provide a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary explanation of the mutually reinforcing connections between brain, mind, and society. With a special focus on mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, the book’s chapters highlight the profound implications for human health of emotional damage due to severe social deprivation, neurological deficits resulting from parental abuse, cognitive deficits after neighborhood violence, and the gains in cognition and functioning that can result from systematic socially-oriented rehabilitation programs.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Why did I love this book?

In clear, captivating prose, Blueprint provides a dazzling body of evidence in support of the need for explanations of human behavior to take account of genes as well as environment, neurotransmitters as well as social norms, our species’ hunter-gatherer past as well as its technology-enabled present.  Distinguished sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis argues that the genes selected in our evolutionary past produced a group-oriented human nature—the “social suite”—that prizes love for partners and offspring, friendship and cooperation, relative egalitarianism, and social learning and teaching, and recognition of individual identity, as well as in-group bias. Whether shipwrecked sailors or utopian communities, online or in-person networks, Christakis demonstrates that human groups function better and survive longer when they reflect elements of the social suite and recognize the fungibility of “in-group” boundaries.

By Nicholas A. Christakis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics, and more" (Frank Bruni, The New York Times), Blueprint shows why evolution has placed us on a humane path -- and how we are united by our common humanity.

For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all of our inventions -- our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations -- we carry…

Book cover of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Why did I love this book?

“The bad news is that as a society we’re blowing it.” Not because the GDP isn’t high enough, distinguished psychologist Matthew Lieberman argues, but because we don’t understand basic facts about our social brains: (1) Physical and social pain share the same neurocognitive processes, as do responses to physical and social rewards; (2) Our ability (and proclivity) to mentalize—to understand others’ actions as driven by their thoughts—relies on and competes with a different neural system than nonsocial thinking; (3) Our sense of self is a Trojan horse transmitting social influence and so harmonizing behavior in groups.  As a result, improving our social relations—not increasing our financial wealth—makes us happier; maximizing social capital increases our productivity at work; and engaging our social brains improves our learning. If that gets your attention, you’re ready to read Social

By Matthew D. Lieberman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Why are we influenced by the behaviour of complete strangers? Why does the brain register similar pleasure when I perceive something as 'fair' or when I eat chocolate? Why can we be so profoundly hurt by bereavement? What are the evolutionary benefits of these traits? The young discipline of 'social cognitive neuroscience' has been exploring this fascinating interface between brain science and human behaviour since the late 1990s.

Now one of its founding pioneers, Matthew D. Lieberman, presents the discoveries that he and fellow researchers have made. Using fMRI scanning and a range of other techniques, they have been able…

Book cover of Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

Why did I love this book?

For almost four centuries, many philosophers, politicians, and social scientists have considered Thomas Hobbes as having provided great insight into human nature with his “thought experiment” imagining the state of nature as a state of war.  After more than one century, Darwin’s contrary insight in The Descent of Man (1877:125) is finally being given the attention it deserves: the “social instinct” is a more powerful influence on human behavior than “the base principal of selfishness.”  In Moral Origins, one of the best books in this genre, cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that higher levels of group support increased the survival of hunter gatherer bands and so favored evolution of more altruistic individuals.  Group culture that included gossip, expulsion and other forms of collective social control became ubiquitous as means to suppress free riders and egoistic bullies in human societies.

By Christopher Boehm,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the age of Darwin to the present day, biologists have been grappling with the origins of our moral sense. Why, if the human instinct to survive and reproduce is"selfish," do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. But evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm finds existing explanations lacking, and in Moral Origins, he offers an elegant new theory. Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million…

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?

Do you believe that genes determine our success as individuals and as a species?  By the time you finish this book, I’ll bet that psychologist and polymath Joseph Henrich will have broadened your perspective.  Our genetic endowment developed through a process of culture-gene coevolution that favored the survival of individuals who were better able to tap into the growing body of cultural knowledge.  The “secret” is that the collective brains of our communities make us smart due to their vast repertoires of tools and techniques; the key to success is not the intelligence of individual minds within those communities.  Our uniqueness as a species is our prosociality and ability to learn from others, allowing intense cooperation in large groups and an ever-increasing body of cultural information.

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 Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Why did I love this book?

René Descartes must have turned over in his grave a few more times after renowned neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky added this book to the growing body of research-based scholarship exposing the falsity of the Cartesian dualism between mind and body.  What makes Behave so remarkable is Sapolsky’s chapter-by-chapter explanation of how human behavior is shaped by the “utterly intertwined” influences of neurobiology, perception, hormones, neurogenesis in the adult brain, epigenetic influences in the developing brain, genes, culture, and evolution.  Sapolsky then uses this multifactorial approach to understand key behavioral challenges: us versus them distinctions, hierarchy, morality, empathy, religion, free will, and war. In each case, Sapolsky shows how the science he has reviewed can elicit more of the best behavior and less of the worst.   

By Robert M. Sapolsky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The New York Times Bestseller

"It's no exaggeration to say that Behave is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read." -David P. Barash, The Wall Street Journal

"It has my vote for science book of the year." -Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"Hands-down one of the best books I've read in years. I loved it." -Dina Temple-Raston, The Washington Post

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal

From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cognitive neuroscience, shame, and neuroscience?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cognitive neuroscience, shame, and neuroscience.

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Neuroscience Explore 133 books about neuroscience