The Best Books For Understanding Human Nature

By William Von Hippel

The Books I Picked & Why

The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals

By Thomas Suddendorf

The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals

Why this book?

If you want to understand humans, you need to know how we differ from and how we’re similar to the rest of the animal kingdom. This book covers that topic better than any other. It might seem like the differences between us and them are obvious, but when you read this book you realize that it’s not so obvious after all. Suddendorf does an amazing job describing the science of us and them, and then shows you two key differences that you’ve probably never thought of, but play a central role in separating us from everyone else.


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A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

By Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Why this book?

This book is a ton of fun. Sapolsky is a brilliant thinker and amazing writer, so much so that the book reads like a novel. But it’s the true story of Sapolsky’s experiences across more than two decades studying savannah baboons in Kenya. Disguised as a memoir about his adventures with the baboons, you realize at the end that you have learned a ton about primate psychology from this wonderful book.


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The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past

By Samira Leakey, Meave Leakey

The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past

Why this book?

I’ve always dreamed of being an archeologist who somehow talks a rich philanthropist into funding a life of exploring human origins in East Africa. But my back gets sore after picking strawberries for just 15 minutes and I’m not so good with flying insects either. So I’ve left this field to others. But if you want to get a worm’s eye view of what it’s like to explore the lives of our ancestors from millions of years ago, there’s no better guide than Meave Leakey and this wonderful book.


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Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

By Christopher Boehm

Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Why this book?

To understand human nature you need to take a deep dive into anthropology, particularly into the lives of hunter-gatherers. Because humans are the most flexible animal on this planet, it can be incredibly difficult for an outsider to tell which lessons from any one society are general and which relate to just their small part of the world. The beauty of this book is that the brilliant anthropologist who wrote it does the hard yards for you, narrating a fascinating and highly accessible trip through the lives of hunter-gatherers.


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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

By Steven Pinker

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Why this book?

This book is now almost 20 years old, but Pinker’s observations are still fresh. In this book he lays out a view of human nature that is based on Darwinian principles and that definitively puts to rest the idea that humans are born without any preprogramming. When I went to college I was taught that society shapes us to be who we are and that there was little to no biological basis to human behavior. Not only is this the best book I know for correcting that erroneous view, but Pinker is such a great writer that my own style improves just by reading his.


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