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We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. --Richard Dawkins

Learning from the Past / Looking to the Future

Carl Sagan

In looking at humanity's gradual adoption of science as a way of understanding the world, Sagan reviews the horrors we humans have inflicted on ourselves across the ages and reminds me how easily we slip back into superstitious ways of thinking.

  • The Demon-Haunted World

Sarah Hrdy

A professor at UC Davis, Hrdy examines the evolution of cooperative breeding, the survival pressures which may have encouraged it, the benefits which arise from alloparenting, and proposes that the emotionally modern human preceded the anatomically and cognitively modern human.

  • Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

Allison Jolly

A primatologist working with lemurs in Madagascar, Jolly uses evolutionary biology to develop an understanding of why gender and sex exist and how these two meta-traits influence human behavior.

  • Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evoluation

Richard Wrangham

A biological anthropologist, Wrangham suggests that influential strains of human culture -- dominance-seeking males using coalitional violence to pursue status -- arose from early ecological pressures which fractured human bands into small groups and which isolated human females from one another. Wrangham uses chimpanzee and bonobo cultures as comparisons, with chimpanzees sharing similar dynamics and outcomes, whereas bonobos live by a moral code which humans can admire but rarely attain. In particular, female bonobo coalitions, made by possible by an ecology which supports relatively large foraging bands, dampen male violence. Hidden female ovulation (a trait shared with humans but not with chimapanzees) reduces male motivation to monopoloize females. And group size appears to eliminate the effectiveness of intertribal raiding.

  • Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

Yet as soon as we look beyond our little threesome, humans and chimpanzees and bonobos, we quickly discover how odd that system really is. If spotted henas could understand the notion of patriotism, for instance, they might laugh uproariously at it. Male defense of the group? What a nonsensical idea when the prime warriors in the clashes of rival clans are females, united through generations of mothers, not of fathers. Any self respecting hyena clan with some language and a little history would ivnent female gods, revere female ancestors, and consecreate female principles of power...

... As we have seen, the evolutionary logic of our odd cluster of ape social systems is explicable, albeit still imperfectly. Ecological pressures kept females from forming effective alliances. With females unable to rely on each other, they became vulnerable to males interested in guarding them. Males seized the opening, collaborated with each other to possess and defend females, and started down the road to patriarchy. We are fascinated by the lives of patriarchial men and the histories of their patriotic alliances -- not becauwe we are humans or because we are primates, but because we are apes, and in particular because we are part of a group within the apes where the males hold sway by combining into powerful, unpredictable, status-driven and manipulative coalitions, operating in persistent rivalry with other such coalitions.

...Males have evolved to possess strong appetities for power because with extraordinary power males can achieve extraordinary reproduction ... Because of the large potential reproductive rewards at stake for males, sexual selection has apparently favored male temperaments that revel in high-risk/high-gain ventures. And where men combine into groups -- gangs or villages or tribes or nations -- this driving, adventurous ethic turns quickly aggressive and lethally serious. Based on this logic, we conclude that imperialism derives partly from the fact that human foreign policy is based on male rather than female reproductive interests.

Jared Diamond

These texts follow Diamond's evolving view of societal dynamics, starting from his understanding of bird evolution and physiology and expanding into the interplay between geography and human history. Along the way, he, rather tidily in my opinion, demolishes the typically racist explanations for why some meta-populations dominate others ... and offers his view of the defining challenge for the third chimpanzee over the next few decades.

  • The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Elie Wiesel

For me, Wiesel describes the consequences of human kind-sight overlaid with right/wrong thinking and a reminder of just how high the stakes are.

  • Night

Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo argues that both dispositional (character) factors and situational (environmental) factors influence human behavior -- on the surface, a hard-to-disput stance, and an insight which has shifted me away from looking purely at character for the source of my understanding for how we behave as we do. On top of this, he layers a systems model for how humans create situational influences. I'm unconvinced that these models map to anything measureable in the biology of the human brain and therefore wary of incorporating this way of looking at human culture into my world view. On the other hand, the data and insights packed into his recounting of the Stanford Prison Experiment along with the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib require explanation, to my way of thinking. Zimbardo not only makes an effort at explaining these events but is also trying to do something about them.

David Freedman

A journalist, Freeman specializes in examining how our best efforts to characterize nature fall short.

Jonathan Haidt

A professor first at UVA and now at Stern, Haidt offers a model in which our shared human heritage wires us to weigh a handful or more factors (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation) when responding to social experience, but that we vary in how substantially we respond to each of these influences. He uses this model to describe how we fractionate into political groupings -- conservative, liberal, libertarian. I find his model useful in understanding and why individuals respond so differently to controversial choices.

Joshua Greene

A professor at Harvard, Greene builds on Kahneman, Haidt, and others, synthesizing neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy to offer his understanding of how our evolved psychology does a passable job of encouraging intra-tribal cooperation but does so at the cost of exacerbating inter-tribal competition. Morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation. Greene suggests that our conservative mind-sets tend to be particularly attuned to tackling the free rider problem, while our liberal mind-sets tend to do better at increasing the size of the tribe and thus mitigating Us vs Them conflicts. He then proposes a deeply pragmatic approach to combining the best of both, i.e. for resolving both The Tragedy of the Commons and The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality. (I myself found his sketch of deep pragmatism attractive but unpersuasive -- I don't have anything better to offer, and I'm skeptical that it will gain traction.)

  • Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Paul Bloom

A psychology professor at Yale, Bloom spends time on cognitive development and intuition, particularly in the very young.

  • Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

Bruce Schneier

A leading IT security professional, Schneier pulls together input from a wide range of disciplines to give the reader a feel for the complexity of modern society through the lens of social trust, defection from that trust, and the perhaps surprising value that defection can bring to society, on occasion. I think Bruce bites off a bit much here ... but then again, human society is complex, and ignoring that complexity can lead to simple but woefully inaccurate models: I would not accuse Bruce of oversimplifiying.

  • Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Edward O. Wilson

One of the leading lights of evolutionary biology, Wilson lays out the case for multilevel selection and sketches his understanding of how our brains are torn between optimizing for individual success and group success.

  • The Social Conquest of Earth

How the Brain's Limitations Influence Our Perceptions

The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. --Steven Pinker

I hope that understanding the compromises our brains make as they interpret what our senses give them, and understanding our psychological biases, helps me resist the more toxic consequences of these limits.

Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert studies how the limits of our biology reduce the accuracy with which we perceive ourselves and others.

Gary Marcus

A psychologist at NYU, Marcus offers a model of the brain which integrates, however roughly, an older, quicker, simpler, more reactive core working in tandem with a more sophisticated, but far slower, set of modules -- the result being a pastiche of results, amazing in its entirety but dismayingly flawed in its particulars.

  • Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

Cordelia Fine

Fine integrates psychology and neuroscience to offer a view into how the brain edits reality to deliver its skewed result to consciousness.

  • A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives

David Livingstone Smith

A philosopher at the University of New England and director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology, Smith looks at the evolutionary roots of deception and self-deception, war, and incest avoidance.

He suggests that we deceive ourselves in order to better deceive others and speculates that humans in small groups, particularly in the presence of dominant figures, communicate covertly, hiding the content of these communications even from our conscious selves.

We are wired against harming each other, suffering psychological damage if we override these protective mechanisms ... unless we also deceive ourselves, imaging the 'other' as a predator, prey, or a contaminant and activating those modules in our brains dedicated to handling, and responding violently toward, such actors.

  • The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War

Ian Leslie

An author with wide-ranging interests, Leslie's survey of current thinking around social deceit provides a light and easy read of this area.

  • Born Liars: Why we can't live without deceit

Robert Burton

A neurologist at UCSF, Burton describes how a sense of certainty is merely a sensation, induceable via electrodes and poorly correlated to reality.

  • On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of "knowing what we know" arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason. --Robert Burton

Robert Cialdini

Cialdini applies his psychology work to understanding business settings, from advertising and marketing to media campaigns and strategic communication ... and along the way, helps me to armor myself against the array of manipulative tactics employed in these efforts.

  • Influence: Science and Practice

Neal Roese

Roese starts from social psychology to illustrate how the brain's skill at regret can lead to improvement or to paralysis -- and in any case, to distorting our perception of reality. When reality contradicts our perception, human brains will first push to change the situation -- practice harder in order to win the game next time, to take one example. But if that fails, brains employ their 'psychological immune system' to change their perception, to decide, or example, that winning this game is no longer important. This 'immune system' delivers tangible benefits, boosting our self-perception; brains which malfunction in this regard become depressed.

  • If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity

Causation is the Excalibur sword of science ... any person armed with an understanding of causation has the power to change, alter, repair, and control. Causal knowledge is the essential tool for changing the world for the better. -- Neal Roese

Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

Newberg and Waldman describe how groups traverse a path toward teaching themselves how to hate others, extracted here from their book Why We Believe What We Believe.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Thaler and Sunstein, professors at the University of Chicago, mix observations on human behavior with economics first to offer a model for understanding why the choices we make are not always optimal and second how to modify choice design (they focus on businesess and governments) to nudge people toward choices more likely to meet their needs.

Cass Sunstein

Sunstein offers a model for understanding how we can end up believing weird things, how we can end up abusing this weakness in each other, and what legal remedies might look like. And offers insights on how virtual communities across the Internet modify this behavior.

  • On Rumors: Why Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done
  • Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge

Sharon Weinberger

Weinberger focuses on the intersection between science and war and how participants in this space lose themselves in self-deception, illustrating how human thinking derails.

  • Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld

Steven Pinker

Faculty in the psychology department at Harvard, Pinker looks at the intersection between evolution, language, and the structure of the brain. More recently, he asks why violence has declined so steadily throughout our history, and so preciptiously during the last handful of decades.

  • The Language Instinct
  • How The Mind Works
  • The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
  • The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Windows into Human Nature
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Susan Pinker

A psychologist, Pinker looks at the genetic basis of gender differences.

Michael Gazzaniga

A psychologist at UCSB and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, Gazzaniga draws from a range of disciplines to summarize our current understanding of how human cognition works, why we think the way we do, and what distinguishes Homo sapiens from social birds and mammals.

  • Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
In 1962, Schachter and Singer injected epinephrine into subjects participating in a research experiment. Epinephrine activates the sympathetic nervous system and the result is an increased heart rate, hand tremors and facial flushing. The subjects were then put into contact with a confederate who behaved in either a euphoric or an angry manner. The subjects who were informed about the effects of the epinephrine attributed symptoms such as a racing heart to the drug. The subjects who were not informed, however, attributed their autonomic arousal to the environment. Those who were with the euphoric confederate reported being elated and those with the angry confederate reported being angry. This finding illustrates the human tendency to generate explanations for events. When aroused, we are driven to explain why. If there is an obvious explanation we accept it, as did the group informed about the effects of epinephrine. When there is not an obvious explanation, we generate one. The subjects recognized that they were aroused and immediately attributed some cause to it. This is a powerful mechanism; once seen, it makes one wonder how often we are victims of spurious emotional-cognitive correlations. Split-brain research has shown us that this tendency to generate explanations and hypotheses-to interpret-lies within the left hemisphere. -- Michael Gazzinga

Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending

Faculty at the University of Utah, Cochran and Harpending emphasize the genetics behind the influences on human history and development, from HLA variation and resistance, or vulnerability, to particular diseases through lactose tolerance and intelligence.

David Buller

A professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, Buller critiques Evolutionary Psychology, suggesting that the human brain may be more of a general purpose computer than EP suggests.

  • Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature


These authors explicate the cost, and suffering, humans inflict on themselves and others through their weakness for faith, by which i mean belief without evidence. I see faith as an inevitable side-effect of human-style cultural transmission (a receptivity to indoctrination of the young) plus an over-active agency detection module (arising from politics of an intensely social lifestyle), likely enhanced by such factors as success in building power-wielding hierarchies.

Daniel Dennett

A professor of philosophy at Tufts University, Dennett's research interests include cognitive studies. He describes why we humans tend to think 'magically' so much of the time and offers a programme for quantifying the damage and suffering that such thinking incurs upon us.

  • Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomena

Sam Harris

A neuroscientist, Harris explores the links between our skill in faith and our skill at violence, arguing for shifting our mind-set from relying on authority to tell us what is right and wrong to determining this for ourselves, based on a willingness to consider evidence. In more recent works, he explores the ramifications of recent understanding of the fast & slow neural systems, how that refutes the notion of free will, and thus shifts our view, if not the practice, of crime, retribution, and rehabilitation.

  • Free Will
  • Letter to a Christian Nation
  • The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Richard Dawkins

An evolutionary biologist, Dawkins translates science into lay terms. He suggests that memes, encapsulating ideas and other cultural phenomena, compete for survival in human minds in ways similar to how genes compete in human bodies, that faith is a highly successful meme which leads to a range of toxic behavior.

  • The God Delusion
  • A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

Christopher Hitchens

A journalist, author, sometime foreign correspondent and professor, Hitchens reviews the ignorance which lead to our ancestors to inflict such suffering on themselves and argues for loosening the ways in which we model our current behavior off their murderous yet inevitably petty tribal squabbles.

  • god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Justin Barrett

A professor at Fuller School of Psychology, Barrett describes the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, a proposed cognitive module which biases humans toward seeing intent and agency behind the natural world, focussing on its effects during early childhood. This evidence suggests that which religion a person follows is heavily influenced by early childhood exposure, using the same mechanisms which influence which language a person speaks. But that belief in the supernatural is the human default, regardless of the particulars of cultural exposure.

  • Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion

Cognition and Evolution

These authors combine anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary analysis to better understand the engineering trade-offs in the brain and its susceptibility to various errors.

Robert Wright

A science writer, Wright surveys evolutionary psychology, outlining how the ancestral environment, combined with the flexibility of mammalian behavior in general and primate cognition in particular, influences our behavior today.

  • The Moral Animal: Why we are the way we are

Both chimp and human hierarchies are subtler than chicken pecking orders. Which person or chimp defers to which may change from day to day - not just because the hierarchies get reshuffled but because dominance can depend on context; which primate gets its way can depend on which other primates are around. The reason is that chimps and humans have something that chickens don't: reciprocal altruism. Living in a society with reciprocal altruism means having friends. And friends help each other during social conflicts.

The evolutionary fusion of hierarchy and reciprocal altruism accounts for a good part of the average human life. Many, if not most, of our swings in mood, our fateful commitments, our changes of heart about people, institutions, even ideas, are governed by mental organs that this fusion wrought. It has done much to form th texture of everyday existence.

It has also formed much of the structure of existence. Life within and among corporations, within and among national governments, within and among universities -- it is all governed by these same mental organs. Both reciprocal altruism and status hierarchives evolved as an aid to the survival of individual genes, yet together they're holding up the world.

Wright combines a historical reading of Abrahamic texts (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Koran) with evolutionay psychology to suggest that the 'facts on the ground', the tension between cooperating and competing with rival factions / tribes / nation-states, drive whether a given author promotes tolerance or aggression in particular passages in these scriptures.

David Buss

A professor at the University of Texas, Buss uses biology to understand human mating strategies, struggles for status, and the use of violence.

  • The Evolution of Desire: Human Mating Strategies
  • The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill

Satoshi Kanazawa

A professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Kanazawa uses biology to understand social dynamics amongst humans. In this book, he provides a high-level introduction to how biology influences behavior, sketching out the tantalizing possibilities that future lines of research may uncover.

  • Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

Pascal Boyer

A cognitive psychologist and anthropologist at Washington University, Boyer looks at the structure and strategies of the human mind to better understand the strengths and limitations of how we think, for what seems obvious to us and what tends to escape our notice. In his model, much of our cognitive functioning occurs in the basement, such that the executive function has trouble even noticing the premises handed up from the diligent efforts of the subsystems operating beneath it. The result describes how religion, along with many other oddities of human thought, arises inevitabily from the techniques which the brain uses to produce thought.

  • Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

Scott Atran

I don't have the background to grasp many of Atran's points, but I list his work here because he has pushed my understanding of how the flaws in the brain's design interlock with the requirements of social living to create our predilection for supernatural thinking.

  • In Gods We Trust: The Evoluationary Landscape of Religion

This book began with a rough-and-ready characterization of religion as a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counterintuitive world of supernatural causes and beings. The criterion of cost commitment appears to rule out purely cognitive theories of religion as sufficient. Such theores are motiveless. In principle, they can't distinguish cartoon fantasy from religious belief. The criterion of belief in the supernatural rules out commitment theories of religion as sufficient. Such theories are mindblind, in that they ignore the cognitive structures of the mind and its causal role. In principle, such theores can't distinguish strong secular ideologies form reglious belief.

All human socities pay a price for religion's material, emotional, and cognitive commitments to unintuitive, factually impossible worlds. From an evoluationary standpoint, it's odd that natural selection wouldn't have forestalled the emergence of such an expensive ensemble of brain and body behaviors ...

Such explanations of religion are not wrong; however, none predicts the cognitive peculiarities of religion that this book attempts to account for. These include the predominance of agent concepts in religion, the cultural universality of supernatural agent concepts; why some supernatural agent concepts are more easily conceived, remembered, and transmitted than others; how it's possible to validate the truth about supernatural agent concepts when they can't be factually confirmed or logically scrutinized; and how it's possible to block people from simply denying and defecting from religion's moral authority or to prevent them from merely feigning acceptance through deception.

Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff

Researchers at the University of British Columbia take a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the effects of religious thinking on human behavior and the development of modern, large, and cooperative socieities.

Dave Grossman

A former Ranger and paratrooper in the US Army, as well as professor at Arkansas State, Grossman studies the psychology aspects of killing. I have not enjoyed reading his book; I'm skeptical of many of his claims and don't see the kind of rigor around his analysis that I would need to believe his theory. However. I acquired some understanding and empathy for veterans in general and Vietname veterans in particular. And I see the value in studying this topic and haven't, to date, found anyone else who has done the foot work that Grossman has done. Until I did, I'm posting links to his material on my web site.

  • On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Last modified: 2017-04-28