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

The Books I Picked & Why

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

By Nicholas A. Christakis

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Why 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.


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Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

By Matthew D. Lieberman

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Why 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


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

By Christopher Boehm

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

Why 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.


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

By Joseph Henrich

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

Why 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.


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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

By Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Why 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.   


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