I recommend these books to my readers. Each of them has held my interest, influenced my thinking, and/or made me laugh. I regularly add to the list.
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Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World – Dan Koeppel
Who knew our taste for a sweet, yellow tropical fruit would change the world? This wonderfully obsessive history of the banana covers everything from its political consequences (you’ll learn why they’re called “banana republics”) to its environmental consequences (“30 bananas a day” kills far more plants, animals, and people than a good steak) to the frantic race to breed disease-resistant versions of a plant so far removed from wild ancestors that no edible variant can reproduce on its own. And somehow Dan Koeppel turns it all into an entertaining story without descending into superficiality or cheap moralizing. Well done. (Buy It Here)
Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization – Richard Manning
We’re taught in school that history began somewhere around 10,000 BC with “The Great Leap Forward”. It’s as if nothing at all happened during the millions of years that shaped us from little, 60-pound savanna apes into modern humans; nothing at all happened during the nearly 200,000 years during which modern humans invented art, painting, sculpture, fishing, monumental architecture, and everything else we think of as ‘civilized’, before taking up agriculture; and as if the wars, famines, genocides, and other atrocities that only appear in the archaeological record since the advent of agriculture are simply unfortunate coincidences.
While it’s obviously impossible to cover such a huge topic in detail in one volume, Manning does an admirable job of connecting the dots—tracing agriculture’s impact on humanity from the dawn of the Neolithic era to the present. Highly recommended. (Buy It Here)
Perfect Health Diet – Paul Jaminet, Ph.D and Shou-Ching Jaminet, Ph.D
If I had to explain my classic how-to article Eat Like A Predator at book length, it wouldn’t look or sound at all like the Perfect Health Diet! Yet of the ‘paleo’ books out there, the PHD is most similar to what I recommend—and it takes a calm, science-based approach that I believe readers of gnolls.org will greatly appreciate. Its limited and well-chosen supplement recommendations will easily save you the purchase price of the book…and there’s now a Kindle version at a greatly reduced price. (Buy It Here)
(Note that the Perfect Health Diet website is updated regularly, and is also very much worth reading.)
The Old Way: A Story of the First People – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
The paucity of Paleolithic fossils is frustrating…we’re not even sure what our ancestors looked like, let alone how they might have lived together. And while it’s risky to draw analogies from any post-contact modern societies, “The Old Way” (along with this article on the Hadza) gives us a rare glimpse of what the thousands of generations of life on the African savanna—the generations that shaped us into modern humans—might have been like.
Most importantly, and completely unlike all the stereotypes of pre-agricultural barbarism, the Ju/wasi (who are Kalahari Bushmen…the pseudo-anthropological term “San” is actually a pejorative) are highly civilized in every social sense of the term. They are strongly rational in outlook, conflicts are usually solved by one party leaving the group instead of by violence, and they understand the difference between mythology and reality. For example: When asked where the stars go in the daytime, =Toma said, “They stay where they are. We just can’t see them in the daytime because the sun is too bright.”
Highly recommended, especially when placed in contrast with the unrelenting brutality and nearly continual warfare of early agricultural civilizations. (Buy It Here)
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
Understanding the individual as a temporary container built by its collection of genes, each competing with the others, is a dizzying and nearly mystical perspective at first. By doing so, The Selfish Gene squarely addresses many of life’s Big Questions by showing how complicated and seemingly counterintuitive behaviors, such as cooperation and altruism, arise from natural selection. Particularly fascinating is Chapter 12’s exploration of the ESS (evolutionarily stable strategy), and its obvious applications to modern political and cultural situations.
As Dawkins himself understates dramatically, “The full implications of Darwin’s revolution have yet to be widely realized.” This book effortlessly replaces endless shelves of speculative and prescriptive baloney on “human nature” and “the meaning of life”. If I could choose one book to assign to my readers, The Selfish Gene would be it. (Buy It Here)
The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene – Richard Dawkins
“It doesn’t matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this,” pleads Dawkins on the front cover of the first edition. I’ll add two caveats: first, you’ll want to have already read The Selfish Gene, and second, The Extended Phenotype is tougher going.
That being said, The Extended Phenotype makes a simple claim: genes have effects beyond the development of the individual organism of which they happen to be a part. “We are accustomed to asking, of any widespread biological phenomenon, ‘What is its survival value?’ But we do not say ‘What is the survival value of packaging life up into discrete units called organisms?'”
Just as The Selfish Gene dissociates the individual into a collection of genes and reassembles the individual from that new perspective, The Extended Phenotype dissociates the effect of the gene beyond the individual in which it resides and reassembles the entire world from that new perspective.
It’s just as dizzying as it sounds—at first. But you’ll quickly realize why an understanding of the extended phenotype is both important and necessary to a greater understanding of Life’s Big Questions. (Buy It Here)
Here’s a question for my readers: what’s the best book for someone who needs a more basic-level introduction to evolution and natural selection? I’ve heard good things about Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True”, but I haven’t yet read it myself…if you have a recommendation, please contribute it to the discussion thread.
(Disclaimer: I do not agree with every word of every book on this list, and their authors’ opinions are not necessarily my own.)