The best books for understanding human nature

William Von Hippel Author Of The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy
By William Von Hippel

Who am I?

I’m a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Queensland. I’ve had the good fortune to spend my life studying humans and trying to figure out how they got that way. These are some of the best books I’ve read on this fascinating topic. They might seem to be all over the map, but understanding human nature requires approaching it from many different perspectives, and these books will get you started.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy

What is my book about?

In the compelling popular science tradition of Sapiens and Guns, Germs, and Steel, a groundbreaking and eye-opening exploration that applies evolutionary science to provide a new perspective on human psychology, revealing how major challenges from our past have shaped some of the most fundamental aspects of our being.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Thomas Suddendorf,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

There exists an undeniable chasm between the capacities of humans and those of animals. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, whereas even our closest animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their dwindling habitats. Yet despite longstanding debates, the nature of this apparent gap has remained unclear. What exactly is the difference between our minds and theirs?In The Gap , psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose. Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert M. Sapolsky,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Primate's Memoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Robert Sapolsky, a foremost science writer and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, tells the mesmerizing story of his twenty-one years in remote Kenya with a troop of Savannah baboons.

“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,” writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist’s coming-of-age in remote Africa.

An exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, A Primate’s Memoir interweaves serious scientific…

Book cover of The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past

Why did I love 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.

By Meave Leakey, Samira Leakey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Extraordinary . . . This inspirational autobiography stands among the finest scientist memoirs."
—New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

Meave Leakey’s thrilling, high-stakes memoir—written with her daughter Samira—encapsulates her distinguished life and career on the front lines of the hunt for our human origins, a quest made all the more notable by her stature as a woman in a highly competitive, male-dominated field.

In The Sediments of Time, preeminent paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey brings us along on her remarkable journey to reveal the diversity of our early pre-human ancestors and how past climate change drove their evolution. She offers a…

Book cover of Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Why did I love 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.

By Christopher Boehm,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hierarchy in the Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Are humans by nature hierarchical or egalitarian? Hierarchy in the Forest addresses this question by examining the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior. Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist whose fieldwork has focused on the political arrangements of human and nonhuman primate groups, postulates that egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong.

The political flexibility of our species is formidable: we can be quite egalitarian, we can be quite despotic. Hierarchy in the Forest traces the roots of these contradictory traits in chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and early human societies. Boehm looks at…

Book cover of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Why did I love 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.

By Steven Pinker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A brilliant inquiry into the origins of human nature from the author of Rationality, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Enlightenment Now.

"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read..also highly persuasive." --Time

Updated with a new afterword

One of the world's leading experts on language and the mind explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in nature versus nurture, East Africa, and hunter gatherers?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about nature versus nurture, East Africa, and hunter gatherers.

Nature Versus Nurture Explore 25 books about nature versus nurture
East Africa Explore 14 books about East Africa
Hunter Gatherers Explore 28 books about hunter gatherers