The best books on why such nice people as we are nevertheless so nasty

Who am I?

I was raised a Quaker in England in the years after the Second World War. Quakers don’t have creeds, but they have strong beliefs about such things as the immorality of war. In the 1950s there was also huge prejudice, particularly against homosexuality which was then illegal. Issues like these gnawed at me throughout my 55-year career as a philosophy professor. Now 82 and finally retired, I'm turning against the problems of war and prejudice, applying much that I've learnt in my career as a philosopher interested in evolutionary theory, most particularly Charles Darwin. For this reason, intentionally, Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict is aimed at the general reader.  


I wrote...

Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

What is my book about?

Human nature is paradoxical. Thanks to our leaving the jungle some five or so million years ago, we became bipedal and, from this, hunter-gathers, living in groups of about fifty far from others. The emphasis was on cooperation, and to this end, we started the progress of our brains from the size of our fellow higher primates (400cc) to the size we have today (1300cc). We developed sophisticated adaptations promoting solidarity, notably language.

Then about 10,000 years ago, agriculture arrived on the scene  At once, population numbers started to explode upwards, and with this came war. Before agriculture, the emphasis was on ingroup cooperation. Now it was more on outgroup hostility. In the case of prejudice, knowledge can right much. As with war, we can set about reducing prejudice.

The books I picked & why

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The Descent Of Man

By Charles Darwin,

Book cover of The Descent Of Man

Why this book?

Understanding human nature – nice and nasty – demands that we dig into the past, and this brings us at once to evolution. What are we and why are we? The powerful conceptual tool that we use for explanations is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The Descent of Man is about human evolution. At times it reads very much like something out of the nineteenth century – Charles Darwin’s discussion of women makes your hair stand on end (and, if it doesn’t, it should). But the central doctrine of evolution through natural selection brought on by the struggle for existence is right there and once you grasp that, you have grasped the key to unlocking the main issues.

The Descent Of Man

By Charles Darwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Descent Of Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace

By Douglas P. Fry,

Book cover of Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace

Why this book?

Douglas Fry is a paleoanthropologist who shows unambiguously that war is a modern human invention.  Before the advent of agriculture there was no war. There was often violence – bumping off a resource-draining grandmother – but no systematic fighting and killing. With agriculture came an exploding population, nowhere to flee and hide, and fixed assets that you just couldn’t pick up and leave. But as starting war is a function of culture, so ending war is a function of culture. The United Nations is not perfect, but it has been hugely important in reducing conflict.  

Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace

By Douglas P. Fry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A profoundly heartening view of human nature, Beyond War offers a hopeful prognosis for a future without war. Douglas P. Fry convincingly argues that our ancient ancestors were not innately warlike-and neither are we. He points out that, for perhaps ninety-nine percent of our history, for well over a million years, humans lived in nomadic hunter-and-gatherer groups, egalitarian bands where warfare was a rarity. Drawing on archaeology and fascinating recent
fieldwork on hunter-gatherer bands from around the world, Fry debunks the idea that war is ancient and inevitable. For instance, among Aboriginal Australians, warfare was an extreme anomaly. Fry also…

Little Dorrit

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Little Dorrit

Why this book?

Reading any book by Charles Dickens is time well spent. Little Dorrit, one of Dickens’ mid-career novels, gives incredibly penetrating insights into the prejudice that people show towards strangers. In this novel, it is about the prejudice shown by working-class Londoners towards foreigners, like the French and Italians. Trump, with his hatred of South American immigrants, shows only too well that such an attitude persists and is universal. 

Little Dorrit

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For all of her twenty-two years, Amy Dorrit has lived in Marshalsea prison, trapped there with her family because of her father's debts. Her only escape is to work as a seamstress for the kind Mrs Clennam. When Mrs Clennam's son Arthur returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kind-hearted interest in poor little Amy. But when it is unexpectedly discovered that her father is heir to a fortune, some shocking truths emerge and Amy's life changes for ever.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

By Margaret MacMillan,

Book cover of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

Why this book?

If we are not killer apes, if war is not inevitable, how does it happen? Obviously because people were not up to the challenges of maintaining peace. Margaret MacMillan’s riveting account of the events leading up to the Great War, the First World War, shows in all-too-clear detail how not to go about avoiding war. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm, was petty and boastful and altogether too proud and confident of his totally inadequate abilities. The Tsar of Russia, Nicholas, was cut from the same cloth. But whereas Wilhelm made up his mind quickly and then was unmovable, Nicholas could never make up his mind. Between them, helped by other inadequates in places of high status and power, millions of young men lay dead on the fields of Flanders, in Northern France.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

By Margaret MacMillan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

WINNER of the International Affairs Book of the Year at the Political Book Awards 2014Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2013
The First World War followed a period of sustained peace in Europe during which people talked with confidence of prosperity, progress and hope. But in 1914, Europe walked into a catastrophic conflict which killed millions of its men, bled its economies dry, shook empires and societies to pieces, and fatally undermined Europe's dominance of the world. It was a war which could have been avoided up to the last moment-so why did it happen?
Beginning in the early nineteenth…

Brexitland

By Maria Sobolewska, Robert Ford,

Book cover of Brexitland

Why this book?

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The vote was 17.4 million in favor of leaving against 15.1 in favor of staying. If ever there was a case of shooting oneself in the foot, this was it. Why? Simply, because the English don’t like foreigners. Whatever, the consequences were immediate and predictable. Try crossing over to France in your car in the summer. Try selling perishable fish to the Germans, before the indeterminable paperwork is finished. Try solving the border barriers between Eire (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (out of the EU). Judging from the voting patterns, this was indeed the revenge of the unwashed against those contemptuous products of higher education,

Brexitland

By Maria Sobolewska, Robert Ford,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Long-term social and demographic changes - and the conflicts they create - continue to transform British politics. In this accessible and authoritative book Sobolewska and Ford show how deep the roots of this polarisation and volatility run, drawing out decades of educational expansion and rising ethnic diversity as key drivers in the emergence of new divides within the British electorate over immigration, identity and diversity. They argue that choices made by political parties from the New Labour era onwards have mobilised these divisions into politics, first through conflicts over immigration, then through conflicts over the European Union, culminating in the…

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