The Human Swarm by Mark MoffettIn most accounts of world or macro history, you get a few introductory sections or chapters on our hunter-gather past before moving on to the civilizations of written history. Yet 6,000 years of written history represents only three percent of our collective 200,000 year history as a species. Surely this span of time has more relevance and deserves more attention than it is typically given.

The Human Swarm by biologist Mark Moffett does not suffer from this limitation; it takes 21 chapters and 275 pages before the author gets to the societies of written history. In what truly represents a biologist’s take on the history of our species and societies, the majority of the book discusses our deep evolutionary past and our connections to other social species, including chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and even ants.

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Infinite Powers by Steven Strogatz book coverCalculus is one of those subjects that is so complicated that most people not only don’t understand it, they don’t even know what it is that they don’t understand. But that’s unfortunate, because calculus is one of humanity’s most impressive achievements, an accomplishment that unlocks the secrets of the universe and delivers our most profound and useful technology, from radio and television to GPS navigation and MRI imaging. Calculus is the main protagonist in the story of science, and is a subject every educated person should understand at least conceptually.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trudge through a thousand-page textbook to appreciate the story and power of calculus. Steven Strogatz, in his latest book Infinite Powers, has provided a clear, concise, and fascinating tour of the subject. In fact, if you don’t understand what calculus is all about after reading this book, then the prospects are not great that you ever will. There is simply no better, clearer presentation of the ideas available. Strogatz uses metaphors, illustrations, stories, and examples to guide the reader through the most difficult concepts. While this is not an easy read, it is as reader-friendly as possible; remember, you’re tackling the most sophisticated branch of mathematics, the underlying logic of all science, and a subject that the sharpest mathematical minds in history had to grapple with for thousands of years.

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Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

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On Freedom Book CoverIn this short book of 136 pages, titled On Freedom, Cass Sunstein makes the case that freedom is enhanced by the intentional restriction or gentle manipulation of free choice. Just as a GPS system guides you to the desired destination while preserving your freedom to take an alternate route, “nudges” can point you in the right behavioral direction while preserving your ability to choose otherwise.

A simple example is automatic enrollment in a 401K retirement savings program. This particular “nudge” is beneficial because it helps to overcome two common biases. The “present bias” makes it difficult for people to save for the future, and the “default option bias” makes it difficult for people to make changes to the status quo.

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This View of by Life David Sloan WilsonIn the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

From this poetic ending we get the title of David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, This View of Life, which seeks to expand the evolutionary worldview beyond the biological realm to the realm of human culture and policy.

Biology is one of the few disciplines that already has its grand unifying theory: evolution by natural selection. It’s what prompted the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declared in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

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The Unihabitable EarthWhether or not you will find The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells valuable depends on what you’re looking for; if you’re interested in the science of, or evidence for, global warming, or in creative solutions to save the planet, then you are bound to be, like me, disappointed.

The book, rather, focuses almost exclusively on the potential consequences of living on a planet that will experience anywhere from 2 to 8 degrees celsius of warming between now and the year 2100.

First, to state the obvious, global warming is definitely happening, it’s mostly caused by human activity, and the consequences are and will be devastating. This is all beyond reasonable doubt; if you think otherwise, you stand in direct opposition to NASA and to an intergovernmental panel of 1,300 experts from around the world.

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The Coddling of the American Mind book coverImagine that you want to start a fitness program to increase your strength and endurance and sign up at the local gym. Upon arrival, you notice that management has removed all of the weights, concerned that heavy weights can cause stress and injury. Instead, you are instructed to perform light body-weight exercises that you can already safely handle. As you go through the motions of exercise, progress is nonexistent and you’ll be entirely unprepared for any activities that might require greater strength and endurance.

Welcome to (some) modern universities, which engage in the intellectual equivalent of removing the weights from the gym by creating safe spaces, disinviting speakers, removing offensive material, and inhibiting free speech and inquiry that should be the staple of a college education. Attending a university with these policies to prepare for the challenges of the outside world is like training for a marathon in our weightless gym.

Continue reading “Review of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”

How Fascism Works book coverThe key takeaway from How Fascism Works is that fascist politics does not require or necessarily lead to a fascist state. As the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once said, “This will always remain one the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”

Plato recognized this tendency over 2,000 years ago; as Jason Stanley wrote, “In book 8 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that people are not naturally led to self-governance but rather seek a strong leader to follow. Democracy, by permitting freedom of speech, opens the door for a demagogue to exploit the people’s need for a strongman; the strongman will use this freedom to prey on the people’s resentments and fears.”

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21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyHumanity faces unprecedented global challenges in the 21st century: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, growing inequality, artificial intelligence and automation, job loss and worker irrelevance, and a growing sense of disillusionment with liberalism that is driving humanity to embrace the counter-enlightenment values of nationalism and religion.

Yuval Noah Harari spends much of his latest book outlining these problems, placing them in historical perspective, and providing philosophical insight into their possible solutions. In this sense, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a brilliant primer on current affairs from a wider angle, presented by a historian that can transcend the parochialism of political debate and define the problems from a historically-informed and rational position. As Harari has said elsewhere, he prefers to think in centuries rather than in hours, days, or months.

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