First published October 22, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Last week, I shared 11 titles that explore the intersection between marketing, psychology and neurology. In retrospect, though, I think I approached this backwards. While the titles I discussed are all interesting (and fairly easy reads), they are somewhat dependent on a fundamental understanding of why humans do what we do. So this week, I’ll share a good starting library of human behavior, which can then be applied more generally.
“The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are” — Robert Wright. If you’re on the fence about or simply do not believe in evolution (along with 50% of Americans) you probably want to stop right here. The first three titles in this list are by authors who together create a pantheon for evolutionary psychology and Darwinism. In the first, “The Moral Animal,” Wright employs an interesting literary device: exploring human behavior by referencing biographical details in Charles Darwin’s own life. He discusses monogamy, child rearing, differing attitudes towards sex and self-deception, among many other mysteries of the human condition. A compelling and highly intelligent read.
“The Selfish Gene” — Richard Dawkins. This book was first published over 30 years ago, and somehow still manages to remain controversial. Perhaps it’s because Dawkins’ assigning the human characteristic of selfishness to our genes has confused many, many readers. If you take the time to read the book, Dawkins explains at length that humans are not necessarily selfish. In fact, one chapter is titled: “Nice Guys Finish First.” Dawkins’ premise is that our genes only care about propagation. That’s it. End of story. Morality and all the ethical trappings that go with it only survive if they help the gene meet this one objective. A couple of other noteworthy nuggets in this book include the first introduction of memes — ideas that share the propagation directives of genes — and an exploration of how the impact of genes can extend into all aspects of our lives and society.
“The Third Chimpanzee” — Jared Diamond. Diamond starts off the book by stating that we share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, then spends the rest of the book describing how that remaining 2% can make all the difference. In that thin wedge of genetic difference lie all our culture, achievement and history. Some human achievements are admirable, even remarkable. Some are regrettably base and cruel. Diamond chronicles both the good and the bad, along with a warning: our dominance of our world may end up spelling our doom. A professor of geography who combines the eye of a naturalist, the curiosity of a sociologist, and the ponderings of a philosopher, Diamond makes “The Third Chimpanzee” a masterful book.
“The Stuff of Thought” — Steven Pinker. Following in the steps of Noam Chomsky (up to a point), psychologist Steven Pinker uses language as a door to explore the shadowy recesses of how our minds work. This book is a seminal piece of work in this area. Pinker is masterful at exploring complicated concepts without “dumbing down” his commentary. He has written an entire library of books worth reading, but this is as good a place to start as any.
“Descartes’ Error” — Antonio Damasio. Damasio was introduced to the common masses in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” but Damasio’s work on somatic markers and the role of the prefrontal cortex in how we make decisions goes much further than Gladwell was able to cover. “Descartes’ Error” delves deep into our gut instincts, explaining why pure rationality is an unworkable model for humans. To paraphrase Descartes’ famous quote: We feel, therefore we are.
To round out my 11 suggestions, here are six other titles worth exploring:
“The Mind and the Brain” – Jeffrey Schwartz
“Synaptic Self” – Joseph LeDoux
“A Whole New Mind” – Daniel Pink
“Mapping the Mind” – Rita Carter
“The Emotional Brain” – Joseph LeDoux
“The Female Brain” – Louanne Brizendine