This second post in a series of collections curated from Hoggan's bookshelf is from the fields of sociology and history.
As Jim explores in his forthcoming book, the biggest environmental and social justice problems are actually people problems. The hardest nuts to crack seem to be tragedy of the commons problems – collective challenges requiring collective solutions. Are we able to transcend our selfish selves for the greater good? These books shed light on the core of who we are as social beings, what we can learn from the history of societies and how we are evolving to live together better.
1. The Social Conquest of Earth – E.O. Wilson (2012)
"Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere."
2. A Short History of Progress – Ronald Wright (2005)
"Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided an answer, whether we care to notice or not. From Neanderthal man to the Sumerians to the Roman Empire, A Short History of Progress dissects the cyclical nature of humanity's development and demise, the 10,000-year old experiment that we've unleashed but have yet to control. It is Wright's contention that only by understanding and ultimately breaking from the patterns of progress and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we avoid the onset of a new Dark Age. Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance. Wright's book is brilliant; a fascinating rumination on the hubris at the heart of human development and the pitfalls we still may have time to avoid."
3. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond (2005)
"In his million-copy bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in this brilliant companion volume, Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?
As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of these societies, but other societies found solutions and persisted. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.
Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?"
4. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – Steven Pinker (2011)
"Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
This groundbreaking book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society."
5. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger – Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2009)
"It is well established that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Now a groundbreaking book, based on thirty years’ research, takes an important step past this idea. The Spirit Level shows that there is one common factor that links the healthiest and happiest societies: the degree of equality among their members. Not wealth; not resources; not culture, climate, diet, or system of government. Furthermore, more-unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them—the well-off as well as the poor.
The remarkable data assembled in The Spirit Level reveals striking differences, not only among the nations of the first world but even within America’s fifty states. Almost every modern social problem—ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness—is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average lifespan, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation.
Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world, but they do not simply provide a diagnosis of our woes. They offer readers a way toward a new political outlook, shifting from self-interested consumerism to a friendlier, more sustainable society. The Spirit Level is pioneering in its research, powerful in its revelations, and inspiring in its conclusion: Armed with this new understanding of why communities prosper, we have the tools to revitalize our politics and help all our fellow citizens, from the bottom of the ladder to the top."
6. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement – David Brooks (2011)
"With unequaled insight and brio, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and bestselling author of Bobos in Paradise, has long explored and explained the way we live. Now, with the intellectual curiosity and emotional wisdom that make his columns among the most read in the nation, Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered, profoundly illuminating work grounded in everyday life.
This is the story of how success happens. It is told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica—how they grow, push forward, are pulled back, fail, and succeed. Distilling a vast array of information into these two vividly realized characters, Brooks illustrates a fundamental new understanding of human nature. A scientific revolution has occurred—we have learned more about the human brain in the last thirty years than we had in the previous three thousand. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind—not a dark, vestigial place but a creative and enchanted one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, personality traits, and social norms: the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made. The natural habitat of The Social Animal.
Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to school; from the “odyssey years” that have come to define young adulthood to the high walls of poverty; from the nature of attachment, love, and commitment, to the nature of effective leadership. He reveals the deeply social aspect of our very minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. Along the way, he demolishes conventional definitions of success while looking toward a culture based on trust and humility.
The Social Animal is a moving and nuanced intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress. Impossible to put down, it is an essential book for our time, one that will have broad social impact and will change the way we see ourselves and the world."