Listed below are books I’ve personally read in full (or at least partially / currently reading) and have had a lasting impression on how I think and see the world. Enjoy!
The Selfish Gene is iconic for being the book that coined the term meme. Dawkins explains memes as ideas, behaviors, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture. Memes are analogous to the genes of our biology in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. This book not only helped me better understand the concept of evolution, but also how interesting cultural phenomena come to be the way that they are. In addition, The Selfish Gene provides fascinating ideas on how altruism and cooperation could have arisen in a ruthless and selfish world. The Selfish Gene is my favorite book from Dawkins and my all time favorite book on the evolutionary process.
The Wealth of Nations is required reading for any inquiring mind to the field of economics. Despite being written in 1776, The Wealth of Nations touches upon broad topics such as the division of labor, productivity, and free markets which ultimately helped accelerate the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. While not all of Smiths’ ideas are still accepted today, many of them are fundamental to grasping the concept of markets and how they function within society. This book is an intellectual masterpiece that is often misinterpreted in the teachings of neo-liberal economics while at the same time not recognized enough by leftists for its valuable historical insight into the market economy.
Thinking, Fast and Slow takes a look at the dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” which is fast, instinctive and emotional and “System 2” which is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book describes cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking and dives into a lot of fun thought provoking experiments. The book highlights several decades of academic research that suggests that people place too much confidence in human judgment. I love this book for the exploration of human cognition and discovering the reasoning or lack thereof humans use in all types of decision making. This book more than any other helped me become more aware of my own cognitive biases.
Reasons and Persons is my favorite piece of philosophical work I’ve read thus far. The book is split into 4 parts and tackles a variety of topics. Part 1 looks at certain ethical theories and criticizes them for being self-defeating. This includes schools of thought like ethical egoism and “common sense” morality. Part 2 looks at the fascinating relationship between rationality and time and asks interesting questions like should I do something I will regret later, even if it seems a good idea now? Part 3 argues for a reductive account of personal identity and introduces the reader to a bunch of bizarre thought experiments on what it means to be “you.” Part 4 deals with questions of our responsibility towards future generations and the kind of world we bring them into.
Stumbling on Happiness shows how through perception and cognitive biases our imagination tricks us of the reality of our past experiences and the potential of our future ones. Gilbert argues that imagination tends to add or remove details of our lives to exaggerate events. This is especially true though our psychological immune systems which will make bad things feel not as bad as they are imagined to feel. Gilbert suggests to use other people’s experiences to predict the future rather than to rely on our own imaginations. Stumbling on Happiness provides powerful insight into our minds by understanding the illusions it plays on us and why this understanding is fundamental for a fulfilling life.
Democracy in America, as Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield calls it, is “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” It is a historical account of why representative democracy was able to succeed in the United States while it failed in so many other places. Tocqueville touches on topics like the separation of church and state, the democratic social state of equality, and the looming threats to democracy. Tocqueville correctly predicted the abolition of slavery and the civil war, the rise of women and the lessened patriarchal rule in the family, the 20th centuries totalitarian states excessive passion for equality among men, and todays Tocqueville effect of growing social frustration.
The Moral Landscape is the book I attribute the most for adopting a secular humanist philosophy. Harris perceptively argues how many thinkers have long been confused about the relationship between morality, facts, and science. Harris is convincing in that science can tell us which values (aka a specific type of of fact) lead to human flourishing. Harris thus paves a new path between an empty moral relativism and the ancient religions that have claimed the reigns of morality for millennia. The Moral Landscape is filled with intriguing thought experiments, including the Worst Possible Misery For Everyone, that is certain to leave a deep impression.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century shows how modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. Nevertheless, the deep structures of capital and inequality are much deeper than we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. Regardless of your opinion on his analysis, Pikettys’ data collection effort is an important contribution to our knowledge about our modern economy and where we’re heading.