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The 5 Books That Most Informed My Worldview
Phantom Limbs, Geographic Prisoners, and the World's Tallest Tree
“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” —Joseph Addison
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.” – Socrates
My sophomore year of high school I had to do a social studies paper on someone important from the 1920s. I picked Albert Einstein from the list because he was everyone’s go-to reference as a smart person, but I knew nothing of what he actually studied; I thought it might be interesting to learn what he actually did to earn his status as go-to smart guy reference. A book I got from the library for my research explained Special Relativity and my mind was blown. Time moves more slowly for someone traveling close to the speed of light? Say what? I became deeply fascinated by physics. A Brief History of Time was one of the first books I read during this fascination. It conveys a great understanding on the most fundamental of all sciences in a very conversational and non-technical way. A great way for a layperson to learn about the fundamental forces and elementary particles; and how everything else rests on top of them.
Virtually everyone who has a limb amputated will at some point experience sensations in their amputated limb. These are called phantom limbs. Sadly some of these can be extremely painful; for instance the sensation that ones hand is balled into a tight fist with their fingernails digging into their palm. Before I read this book I had a vague sense that the brain operated somewhat like a computer. The degree to which I was shown to be wrong by this book was impressive and engrossing. Besides phantom limbs the book also covers other bewildering conditions like capgras delusion, pseudobulbar affect, and hemispatial neglect. Neurology researcher Michael E. Goldberg, writing for The New York Times, described the book as "enthralling not only for its clear, eloquent descriptions of neurological phenomena, their relationship to physiological mechanisms and their integration with philosophy of mind, but also for its portrait of Ramachandran, the enthusiast in search of the secrets of the human mind." I concur.
Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1200 feet tall?
What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?
Unless you’re a weirdo who happens to know the exact height of Hyperion, your guess of the the height of the tallest redwood was influenced by the anchoring bias, and you probably guessed a number a great deal higher than the real answer (380). The San Francisco Exploratorium did an experiment where they asked these two questions to visitors; except in the first question half the people were prompted with 1200 feet and half the people with 180 feet. The average guesses for these two groups were 844 feet and 282 feet respectively.
What Phantoms in the Brain taught me about how flawed brain’s can be in edge cases, Thinking Fast and Slow showed me how flawed all our brain’s are in everyday ways. This book is filled with chapters about various interesting cognitive biases, like the aforementioned anchoring, that shows just how susceptible our decision making is to irrelevant factors. This book can help you be more aware of them. You’ll still be wired to be subject to them, as are we all, but you can use your awareness of them as a helpful counterbalance.
As I started learning about history I learned a lot about the “great men” who shaped the world through their actions. This book opened my eyes, in enthralling fashion, to how the geography of the world shaped the actions of these figures.
“From the Grand Principality of Muscovy, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist- the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.”
If only the Ural mountains were about 800 miles further west, Russian history and the resulting present would be very different. The ease of European armies attacking Russia from the west on the North European Plain, and Russia’s lack of access to a warm water port, when analyzed and understood, serve to explain almost all of Russia’s geopolitical posturing. This book illuminates that excellently, as well as the equivalent geographic conditions in the other 9 regions given a chapter in the book (China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India/Pakistan, Korea/Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic).
“Geography is clearly a fundamental part of the “why” as well as the “what.” Take, for example, China and India: two massive countries with huge populations that share a very long border but are not politically or culturally aligned. It wouldn’t be surprising if these two giants had fought each other in several wars, but in fact, apart from one monthlong battle in 1962, they never have. Why? Because between them is the highest mountain range in the world, and it is practically impossible to advance large military columns through or over the Himalayas.”
My ability to understand the world as it is; and the geopolitical behavior of world powers was greatly enhanced by reading this book.
Related Books: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
I don’t think any book has made me feel more positive about the trajectory of humanity and pushed me further in the direction of optimism (not my default setting) than this book.
Each chapter explains a different “instinct” that serves to negatively misleads us about the world. For example chapter 5 talks about the “size instinct”.
5,189,000 children under the age of five died in the year 2019. That is horrible.
“To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.
Compare. Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.”
Let’s take the advice of the book. Let’s compare that number over five year intervals going backwards:
In 2014 that number was 6,045,000. 2019 was 856,000 children’s lives better.
In 2009 that number was 7,163,000. 2019 was 1,974,000 children’s lives better.
In 2004 that number was 8,553,000. 2019 was 3,364,000 children’s lives better.
In 1999 that number was 10,061,000. 2019 was 4,872,000 children’s lives better.
In 1994 that number was 11,486,000. 2019 was 6,297,000 children’s lives better.
That’s a hell of a positive trend.
Over this same period of time the world population increased 37.5% as well, so the trend is even stronger when you express the number as a percentage.
This book is full of compelling data and graphs illustrating just how much better things are than we all probably think.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: A broad overview of the success of Homo Sapiens. 100,000 years ago there were at least six different human species on earth. Now there is just us, Homo Sapiens, this book shines a light on why we were the ones who succeeded.
I Contain Multitudes: A book about microbes and the symbiotic relationships between them and multicellular life.
The Selfish Gene: Normally when people think about evolution it’s from the perspective of an individual organism or species. This book instead analyzes it from the POV of genes.
Destined for War: China and the United States are heading toward a war neither wants. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This book looks at the historical occurrences of this trap; when war broke out and when it was avoided. It looks at the current version of it with a rising China looking to surpass the United States. Hopefully this one ends with an avoidance of war.
Triumph of the City: An urban economist argues that the city is humanity's greatest invention.
Which books were most influential to you? Leave them in the comments.