The Best Books For Understanding Power

The Books I Picked & Why

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

By Nick Lane

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

Why this book?

When I was younger, biology was mostly about chemistry. The central role of energy in metabolism and life was mostly taken for granted. That’s changed, and this book on recent advances in the field of bioenergetics was an eye-opener for me. Life is all about power, and, gram for gram, the average cell is far more powerful than the sun! This book informed the first chapter in my own book Power.


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Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

By Peter Turchin

Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

Why this book?

Turchin’s book is one of the best sources I found for understanding the development of human social power during the past 11,000 years. As he succinctly puts it, “competition within groups destroys cooperation; cooperation between groups creates cooperation.” Societies grew bigger to compete more successfully for resources, but doing so required that they become more internally cooperative. Necessity was the mother of social innovation, and the result was kingdoms, then empires. Turchin is one of the foremost proponents of group (or multi-level) selection, still a controversial idea in biology, but, in my view, an essential frame for understanding human evolution.


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Energy and Civilization: A History (The MIT Press)

By Vaclav Smil

Energy and Civilization: A History (The MIT Press)

Why this book?

Over the last two centuries, human per capita energy usage has grown 800 percent, while the population has also grown to the same degree. Life has changed profoundly due to our adoption of fossil fuels—but puzzlingly few people are curious to understand energy’s role in society and history. Smil fills the void to overflowing with this detailed account of how people have harvested energy from their environments, and how doing so has changed the ways they live.


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The Energy of Slaves

By Andrew Nikiforuk

The Energy of Slaves

Why this book?

If the goods and services that we enjoy in America today all had to be provided by human muscle power, we would each, on average, need roughly 150 people working full-time for us. Instead, fossil fuels do the work. The good news: coal helped end the horrors of slavery. The bad news: we’re all now utterly dependent on an energy system that’s destroying the world and the survival prospects of future generations. In many ways, we have become slaves to the fossil fuel regime, and Nikiforuk explains how. This book deserved far more attention than it received when published in 2012.


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The Social Psychology of Power

By Ann Guinote, Theresa K. Vescio

The Social Psychology of Power

Why this book?

Social power is the ability to change the thoughts and behavior of other people. Power affects many people like a drug: they become addicted to wielding power or serving the powerful. We’re all embedded in webs of hierarchy and rank that often make us literally crazy. This rather obscure book does a good job of summarizing an enormous trove of research by clinical psychologists on the pathologies of power.


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