As 2019 wraps up, here were my top 3 non-fiction books, movies, and music of the 2000-teens.
Best Non-Fiction I read
- The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich
- Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind
Prior to reading The Righteous Mind, I primarily thought about morality from a religious or philosophical perspective. The book introduced me to a naturalistic way of thinking about morality that has informed my thinking ever since. Not “what is right?” but “why do humans believe this is right?” Even if Haidt’s preferred explanation is under critical scrutiny, just the notion that why we believe things are right might not actually come down to philosophy has been an extremely useful thinking tool for me this decade.
Back in 2013, I went into Haidt’s book extremely skeptical. I knew that he was a proponent of motivated reasoning (then a new concept to me), which as a rationality-loving economist I found suspicious. But Haidt won me over.
Haidt is an effective arguer. He knows just how to pace and order his arguments, and how to open you up to his ideas with intuition and empathy before turning to reason and evidence. He doesn’t challenge you with a provocative thesis off the bat… instead, he feeds it to you spoonful by spoonful until you are surprised to see how much you’ve swallowed.
I feel like I need to have a couple copies of this book, so that I am able to give it to people who are at a critical juncture in their lives. In college I once found myself in a crisis of revulsion against the simultaneous existence of extreme poverty and extreme affluence in our world. It happened to some friends of mine too, and I’m sure it happens to many others. For me and my friends, eventually the crisis passed and we accepted a basically conventional life (to some degree). But there’s always the unknown of paths not taken. Was there another way?
There is, and MacFarquhar will show you those terrible and beautiful paths.
The book revolves around Peter Singer’s famous drowning child story. In brief, this parable has five parts:
- Would you save a drowning child if you could do it with little risk to yourself? (answer – obviously)
- What if you would ruin a $1,000 suit though? (no problem)
- Then why don’t you donate $1,000 to save the life of a non-hypothetical person separated from you by space? (uhh, wait…)
- Actually, what if there was an ocean of drowning kids? (uh, I guess I would need to at least try to save as many as I could)
- So why don’t you devote your life to saving the lives of non-hypothetical people who just need your money? Is the money more important to you than their lives?
It’s a moral trap that tends to catch all of us. Well, almost.
This book is a series of profile of people for whom the trap does not apply. This is a brilliant strategy that instantly cuts through tomes of philosophical back-and-forth and dives right into the reality of escaping Singer’s trap.
These vignettes are wonderful purely as a way to grapple with the diverse possibilities of human life. It’s easy to think we have to live a certain way, because that’s the way it’s always done. This book shocks you with the reminder that you have a lot more autonomy than you think, and there are lot more ways to live than you think.
But the vignettes also illustrate the complexities (and absurdities) associated with escaping Singer’s trap. In a moral crisis, is there time for indulgences like candy apples? What about moral acts that make you feel good but don’t help as many people as other moral acts (for example, being a social worker instead of a banker who donates enough money to pay the salaries of two social workers)? What about sleep? What about children? These questions seem like philosophical thought experiments, but the people in this book really do struggle with them.
Woven through the book is a reflection on how society came to be skeptical, rather than admiring, or these extreme do-gooders. MacFarquhar notes throughout the book the discomfort her subjects feel at being called modern saints. Sainthood is simultaneously a form of praise, and an exculpation, because it implies “ordinary” people should not be held to the same standard. The subjects, in contrast, assert that the way they choose to live is the only decent way to live.
The Secret of Our Success
The Secret of Our Success is a tentative masterpiece. While I have no doubt a lot of the claims will need further shoring up and revision, the book has the contours of a comprehensive theory of humanity.
The key idea is that humans are fundamentally incomplete as isolated autonomous individuals. We have been shaped and molded by evolution to serve as components of a group. We are incapable of thriving without various technologies that we do not know how to create, but must instead be taught. Our jaws are too weak and our intestines too small to pull necessary nutrients out of uncooked food. But we aren’t born knowing how to make fires. We are world class distance runners, but only if we have access to water, which we can carry in containers we must be taught to make. Our nimble hands are among the most dexterous in the animal kingdom, but we need to know how to make tools to put that wonderful ability to use. We are incredible at throwing objects; but we must be taught to make anything worth throwing.
Our enormous brains are primed to imitate, to infer intention, and to retain information. This lets them soak up technologies, but only if teachers are out there. Our brains are not large enough to reinvent these technologies anew out of whole cloth. We spend a very long time helpless or as juveniles; all the better to learn from others, and to allow others to protect and care for us until we are ready, after two decades, to fend for ourselves. Our goals and values are plastic rather than hardwired. Social norms can be internalized and we learn what is important from the group, rather than sensing it innately.
This is largely a book about the primacy of culture in human evolution. It’s not the first book to tackle the importance of cultural evolution, but I think it succeeds brilliantly by adopting a much more interdisciplinary strategy than other books in the genre. The book is a great example of how to weave together evidence from disparate fields: economics, anthropology, neurobiology, history, archeology, etc. He uses case studies, statistical studies, simulations, and laboratory experiments with equal skill.
Other Notable Non-Fiction of the 2010s
- The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker
- The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
- The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves by Brian Arthur (technically published in a few months before 2010)
Best Genre Movies I Saw
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- It Follows
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Though many disagree, for me, as a movie The Last Jedi works great, anchored by fantastic performances from everyone, but especially Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. It’s operatic and larger than life: star-crossed magic space wizard in love but destined to be enemies! But what I love about the movie is that I can think about it so much – it’s packed with ideas about failure, symbolic actions, the weight of the past, heroism, sacrifice, and the power of ideas/information.
We are living in a new golden age of horror. From Hereditary and Midsommar to The Babadook, The Witch, and The Invitation, the new horror is smart and relies on ideas and craft rather than gore to scare. An incredible decade for horror, but I think this one tops the list (barely). Its an instant classic that finds inventive new ways to make the mundane scary. Who knew people walking straight towards the camera could be so scary?
Mad Max: Fury Road
Music, acting, characters, story, world building, dialogue, set design, editing, cinematography – the movie excels along every dimension. It’s basically perfect.
Best Songs I Heard
- Time, as a Symptom by Joanna Newsom
- Power by Kanye West
- Two by The Antlers (technically released in 2009)