They say that you are the sum total of the half-dozen closest people you associate with.
Similarly, I firmly believe your worldview is the sum total of the half-dozen books that blew your mind the most.
I’m talking about the ones that upended everything you thought you knew, the books where you could almost feel your brain re-wiring itself as you rifled trough the pages.
I’m talking about the books it hurt to read, but which you couldn’t quite put down – that bitter-sweet feeling of having your preconceptions ground into dust and cast into the wind, bringing joy and wisdom and pain in about equal measure.
So here it is – the 6 books that came down, like sledgehammers on soft clay, shaping my young and malleable little brain in ways that have totally diverted the course of my life.
1. The God Delusion – By Richard Dawkins
I was never particularly religious as a child – my family were Buddhists, a religion that is not exactly renowned for jamming their dogma down their children’s throats (I’m looking at you, Abrahamic religions…)
But mysticism and superstition is so pervasive in our culture – and indeed hard-coded into the human psyche by evolution – that it is hard for the young mind not to soak up at least a touch of magic-thinking.
The God Delusion was the first worldview-shaping book I ever read.
It completely and irrevocably eviscerated all forms of religion and superstition, instilling me with a lifelong passion for truth that drives me to this day.
It was also the first time I ever saw this magical thing called ‘science’ in action, the first time I had seen an issue dissected systematically using the scientific method, the first time I had witnessed the synergy of empirical evidence and logical reasoning as they skip hand-in-hand together down the path of truth.
2. The Selfish Gene – By Richard Dawkins
It is well known that in order to be considered a ‘true’ athiest, one must partake of a sacred blood-ritual – the sacrificing of a goat, or other small animal, on a shrine dedicated to Richard Dawkins, may Darwin bless him eternally.
While that is not exactly true (I much prefer virgins, frankly), the fact that two of the most life-changing books I ever read were written by this man speaks volumes about the
level of respect I have for his work, and the contributions he has made to the cause of science and reason.
The Selfish Gene represented the first time I truly understood the nature of ‘life’ – that mysterious force which drives all living things, all things that grow and crawl and love and die.
From that first ‘Eureka’ moment, where I felt the pieces snap together and all things become clear, the ‘selfish gene’ theory of evolution by natural selection has driven my understanding of biology and human nature to levels I could never have imagined.
The fact that creatures that once crawled out of the primordial soup can now turn back and marvel at the wondrous path they had trodden, that is surely one of the crowning jewels in the history of our species.
3. How the Mind Works – By Stephen Pinker
Consciousness has to be one of the most mysterious and misunderstood processes in the known universe.
That is, at least until you read the work of the remarkable Stephen Pinker.
The computational theory of mind – treating the brain as an information-processing computer, a control system designed by evolution to ‘pilot’ the human animal – cuts through millennia of mysticism and quackery and gets to the heart of what it is to be a conscious, sentient being.
4. A Universe From Nothing – By Lawrence Krauss
A Universe From Nothing told me what the universe is, where it came from and where we think it is going.
From fluctuations in a quantum foam, to runaway expansion, to an eventual heat death as entropy collects its dues – the whole marvelous story of all that is and all that ever shall be is summed up in the pages of this remarkable work.
Although the details of our understanding of physics may change – perhaps when we finally find the theory that encompasses both quantum physics and relativity – there is one thing that is certain:
The universe is explicable – it is something that came about through natural processes, processes that are logical and can be explained and grasped by our little monkey brains.
And THAT is a marvel in and of itself.
5. Anatomy of the State – By Murray Rothbard
Though far less ‘cosmic’ in nature, the work of Rothbard has nonetheless re-routed the entire trajectory of my life in a way that few other people ever could.
When Rothbard proclaimed “the state is a gang of thieves writ large’, when I finally saw the edifice of thousands of years of propaganda and ideology crumble before my eyes, I was rapt with both wonder and rage at the sheer evil and brutality of an institution which claims to be the very foundation of society, the font of all that is good and righteous and just.
Rothbard’s work is the primary inspiration for my own book on the state, in which I compare ruling classes to organised crime syndicates like the mafia and yakuza – a comparison which I think would have made the old man proud.
6. Evil Genes – By Barbara Oakley
What is morality? What is ‘evil’ and why does it exist?
Like most aspects of human nature, evolutionary biology gives us the answer:
‘Good’ or ‘morality’ is not a matter of philosophy or a choice that we consciously make, but a set of hard-coded social protocols which evolution has built into us, protocols which our ancestors evolved to help their hunter-gatherer bands co-operate and function more smoothly.
‘Evil’ is simply a pre-scientific term describing what clinical psychologists now call ‘psychopathy’ – the small subsection our species that is devoid of these protocols, totally lacking empathy, conscience and most other social emotions, and who ruthlessly manipulate normal people for their own gain. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, psychopaths are the ‘cheaters’, piggybacking on the success of the co-operative majority and thus gaining the benefits of co-operation without bearing any of the costs.
Psychopathy is not a mental ‘disorder’ any more than a lion having claws is a ‘disorder’ – psychopathy is a predatory survival strategy, coded into a small sliver of humanity through a combination of ‘evil genes’ and the tempering effects of culture and upbringing.
She explores the clear division which exists in the human species between predator and prey, between the normal people – the ones with empathy and morality, guilt and shame – and the machiavellian subspecies of human-like creatures who are devoid of those social emotions.
Oakley also describes what happens when these predators achieve positions of power – in the corporate world, in politics, indeed in any realm of life – and how psychopaths in positions of power may be the root cause of most of the world’s social ills.
Indeed, since the advent of ‘civilisation’ and the rise of hiearchical societies, she argues that the most successful people have almost always been the most consistently evil – from Genghis Khan to Caesar, the list of the ‘successfully sinister’ who got rich through manipulating, plundering and slaughtering innocent people is a harsh reality-check for those of us who think living a moral life is the way to success.
Fortunately, Oakley also hints at a solution – psychopathy and similar predatory personality types can be detected with a PET or fMRI brain scan, suggesting that we may be on the cusp of crafting a healthy, non-psychopathic society by screening predators out of positions of power.
Essential reading for anybody who cares about the struggle between good and evil.