I’ve read a lot of books over the years and unfortunately have forgotten far more than I will ever know. These are a few of the ones that managed to stick and changed how I view the world.
The Selfish Gene
Like many great ideas it seems so obvious after reading it, but with further thought it changes everything. The implications are still stirring things up decades later – and the group selectionistas still don’t get it.
Evolution and the Theory of Games
Classic work on mathematical biology, but without an over-reliance on math to present the ideas. It changed the way I think about interactions of all kinds. Parasites and hosts and their corollaries in human society were a theme for me long before public choice theory got much attention.
In a similar vein, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture illuminated the underlying forces behind some unusual cultural phenomena. The section on witch trials and their eventual end was particularly memorable.
Human Action, The Scholar’s Edition
Economics, beginning with “man acts” and proceeding from there, demolishing nearly every fallacy of modern economics along the way. Great discussion of means, ends, and the meaning of rationality, plus far more.
Neuroscience and consciousness have long been a big theme for me, all have been important in turning me into a strict materialist when it comes to explanations of consciousness. These are some of the best:
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
A wonderful explanation of the indispensable nature of emotion; that without it, knowing what you should do isn’t enough to alter behavior. I guess that explains a lot of people’s retirement planning too.
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Vintage)
The second of Damasio’s books specifically about consciousness is probably the better explanation of the physical basis of consciousness but The Feeling of What Happens is still the more emotionally satisfying to me. Both changed how I view what goes on between my ears (though as he points out, the elements of consciousness are not confined to the brain).
Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
Significant for promoting the view that emotions are another way of restoring homeostasis. From that point of view emotions aren’t something to be struggled with, but listened to and acted upon.
The Society of Mind
More artificial intelligence than neuroscience but to me it’s directly related. When written it was almost entirely speculative but science has since in many ways confirmed the fragmentary and often uncommunicative nature of the mind.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
Deservedly popular, the clinical anecdotes alone are priceless and it’s a wonderfully written book as well.
The Baron In The Trees
Though I no longer remember any of the details I still get an odd feeling when I think of this book. It might be the earliest influence on what would become temporal spatial arbitrage. A man who goes his own way…at least for a time.
I Am a Strange Loop
The discussion of how his wife lives on as patterns in his mind and in the minds of those who knew her may ultimately be the reason I started this blog.
Easily the best book on the subject of why religion persists and is so pervasive in human society. Though I never used it to start my own religion, for the more entrepreneurial it also features a wonderful framework for devising “good” religious beliefs.
Crime and Punishment
The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector, and Selected Stories
Discovering the absurdists in college made me realize I wasn’t the only one who thought human affairs often made no sense at all. All had a keen eye for the arbitrary and capricious details of bureaucracy so familiar to anyone waiting in line at some office.
I couldn’t understand how people could say in 1984 that Orwell had missed the mark when New speak was everywhere and the USSR and USA were enemies of convenience to incite support for further power grabs at home. Now that the surveillance state has caught up with what Orwell imagined it’s even more familiar territory.
Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America
Outlined the elements that were already in place several decades ago. It made complete sense to me when I read it in 1984 (oddly enough) and unfortunately has turned out to be quite prescient.
Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
My first introduction to the reasoned approach to atheism and to a great mind as well.
Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times
Simply a fascinating book on the mixed blessings of progress from domesticating animals to agriculture adn urbanization. After reading the list of diseases that came with each common domesticated animal you will never look at Fido the same.
Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles
In many ways brings Evolution and the Theory of Games to the world of sex. Chock full of interesting vignettes and the science behind them.
Though I am limiting this to books that influenced the current version of me, for the sake of accuracy I have to say the first book I remember is How and Why Wonder Books – Dinosaurs. I made my mother read it to me countless times when I was three. It’s probably what got me interested in science (though not as a career, which likely would’ve ruined it for me, as often happens when an avocation becomes a vocation).