My reading of non-fiction books has plummeted the last 2 years. Today, I tend to only read articles. Nevertheless, I think the listed titles will continue to have an appeal in the foreseeable future. This list excludes philosophy books, as those will get a favorite list of its own someday.
Books are listed by publication year, youngest first – but check below for younger additions I made to this list after it was first published. Click on the covers to go to the Goodreads page for the books.
Here is an index of all my other non-fiction reviews, mostly books not included in this list.
MORAL TRIBES – EMOTION, REASON AND THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM – Joshua Greene (2013)
This is the best book about ethics and human behavior I’ve ever read. It combines insights from biology and philosophy in a great way. It’s up to date, written in a lucid, crisp prose, and generally even fun. You don’t have to have a scientific or philosophical background to understand it, Greene has written a self-contained book. It is nonetheless important and might even be revelatory for people who do have a large knowledge of both fields. Maybe the most important book on this list, as it also offers solid advice for shaping politics.
POWER SYSTEMS: CONVERSATIONS ON GLOBAL DEMOCRATIC UPRISINGS AND THE NEW CHALLENGES TO U.S. EMPIRE – Noam Chomsky (2012)
Interviews David Barsamian had with Chomsky between 2010-2012. Fairly recent, with a broad scope. The focus in this collection is on American imperialism/capitalism and the failing of democracy. As Chomsky is an icon of progressive thought, this short book (under 200 pages) should be an obligatory read for anyone interested in contemporary politics, economy and world affairs. The interview form makes it not as dense and difficult as some of Chomsky’s other publications, but it is still chockfull of convincing arguments & facts. Especially Kim Stanley Robinson fans should take note.
THE FLEXIBLE PHENOTYPE – A BODY-CENTRED INTEGRATION OF ECOLOGY, PHYSIOLOGY, AND BEHAVIOUR – Theunis Piersma & Jan A. Van Gils (2011)
This is the best hard science book I’ve read in the last decade. It’s self-contained, and not that difficult for a non-specialist. The main focus is on the flexibility of the phenotype, as the title suggests. Eye-opening stuff.
I couldn’t do a better job than the blurb from Oxford University Press, even though it is a bit heavy-handed: “The Flexible Phenotype attempts a true synthesis of physiology, behavior, and ecology by developing an empirical argument that describes the intimate connections between phenotypes and their environments. It portrays an ecological angle to the rapidly growing extended synthesis in evolutionary biology that incorporates developmental processes, self-organization, and the multiple dimensions of inheritance. The book starts with a synthesis of the principles guiding current research in ecophysiology, functional morphology, and behavioral ecology. Each aspect is illustrated with the detailed results of empirical work on as wide a range of organisms as possible. The integrated story of the flexible phenotype is woven throughout the book on the basis of the authors’ long-term research on migrant shorebirds and their invertebrate prey.”
THE ATLAS OF THE REAL WORLD: MAPPING THE WAY WE LIVE – Danny Dorling, Mark Newman & Anna Barford (2008)
In this book “sophisticated software combined with comprehensive analysis of every aspect of life represents the world as it really is. Digitally modified maps depict the areas and countries of the world not by their physical size but by their demographic importance on a vast range of topics.” It has 366 maps, with topics as different as fuel use, alcohol consumption, population & malaria.
There’s an excellent free website with the source material. The site even has 696 maps, and has more up-to-date data, so you don’t really need to buy the book at all… http://www.worldmapper.org/
PRIMATES AND PHILOSOPHERS: HOW MORALITY EVOLVED – Frans de Waal (2006)
THE APE AND THE SUSHI MASTER: CULTURAL REFLECTIONS OF A PRIMATOLOGIST – Frans de Waal (2001)
When one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters in Green Earth talks about humans being from the savanna, that sounds familiar because of I’ve read quite a lot of Frans De Waal, probably the most prominent primatologist alive. His Chimpanzee Politics (1982) was revolutionary for the field. To me, the biological outlook proved to be a revelation and still is something that’s liberating when talking about ethics, behavior and society. At the same time he proves time and time again that the gap between animals and humans isn’t nearly as wide as we tend to believe. De Waal’s prose is accessible, even witty at times.
A lot of De Waal’s work has some overlap, so I could have just as well listed Our Inner Ape: A Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005). I haven’t read his more recent books The Age Of Empathy – Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society (2009) and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), but I’m sure they’ll be good entry points too.
THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: SPACE, TIME AND THE TEXTURE OF REALITY – Brian Greene (2003)
The best and most complete book I’ve read on time, space, quantum physics, Einstein, superstrings, black holes, subatomics, the Higgs boson, the big bang, &cetera. You don’t need previous knowledge to read this book, but it isn’t an easy read. There’s not a lot of math or formulas, but you do need your brain to handle all the dense information. Well written, smooth, with the occasional entertaining anecdote.
The basic question it tries to solve is why time has a direction, whereas there is nothing in physics which seems to dictate that. Using that angle, the entire history of the field passes through the book’s 500 plus pages.
THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: A BIOGRAPHY – Barnaby Rogerson (2003)
Let me just quote Jason Webster in The Guardian: “Scholarly works on Muhammad have tended to bog themselves down in arguments over sources, or new theories cunningly devised to undermine their rivals in the field. While obviously knowing his subject inside out, Rogerson has cleverly avoided this trap, concentrating instead on the tale itself, freeing up the flow of knowledge blocked by the academic approach. Some will scoff, others will simply ignore it, but the book is designed for the general audience, not for university dons. If, as the medieval Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali suggested, people oppose things because they are ignorant of them, then this is an important book, and couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.”
BIOLOGY, EVOLUTION AND HUMAN NATURE – Timothy Goldsmith & William Zimmerman (2001)
The titles says it all, but the stress is definitely on the first word. Certain parts are quite technical and heavy on chemistry, but you can’t beat this if you want the basics of life explained thoroughly. It has a lot of illustrations and a broad reach, from molecular biology to nervous systems to human culture.
It’s a modular book, so if you’re not interested in a certain (sub)section, you can just skip it.
DEMONIC MALES – APES AND THE ORIGINS OF HUMAN VIOLENCE – Richard Wrangham & Dale Peterson (1996)
Fantastic book. Its basic question is why humans use violence against each other, and are pretty unique in the animal kingdom in doing so. Its approach is quite broad, and after a few chapters it starts comparing us to the other three great apes. The answer is a surprising combination of biology and geography that influences society and behavior.
Both eye-opening and entertaining!
FORCES IN MOTION: THE MUSIC AND THOUGHTS OF ANTHONY BRAXTON – Graham Lock (1989)
Revelatory book on American composer, multi-instrumentalist, saxophone virtuoso and musical theorist Anthony Braxton. Braxton is a seminal figure in the world of jazz and contemporary music, and was the very first to release a solo saxophone album in 1969 – fully improvised nonetheless. Graham Lock recounts his travels with Braxton’s classic quartet in Britain in 1985. The book also features interviews with Braxton and the band. Insightful and at times funny & heartfelt, it is a must read for any Braxton fan, and will surprise any other serious lover of the avant-garde. Forces In Motion offers a way into the often murky and dense thoughts of one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century.
Later additions to this list:
THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD – David F. Lancy (2014)
I wrote this list in September 2016, and about two years later I have to add this book. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but as we were all children, and most of us become parents too, ‘childhood’ is just a lens to look at humanity as a whole. An eye-opening book with a vast scope.
I wrote a review too, that’s here.
THE VITAL QUESTION – ENERGY, EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGINS OF COMPLEX LIFE – Nick Lane (2015)
What a juggernaut this is. It deals with the latest in the research about the origins of life, and while it once was a question too hard to answer, over the last decade real progress has been made. The question from the title deals with why all complex life is the way it is (including sex & death), and why that differs from bacteria – who evolved for 4 billion years without changing their basic form. Lane’s book is about his own research, and it is both a thesis and a page turner. I have to admit there were a few pages that went over my head, and some sections were maybe too detailed for my tastes, but the bulk of the book is accessible to the layman, that is if you are willing to put in a serious effort, and have brains enough to recall some of the chemistry from high school. Lane’s prose is smooth and snappy. A seemingly narrow topic, but with a broad scope – genetics, biology, chemistry, geology: it’s all relevant to the answers. I’ve read praise saying this is on a Copernican level, but I can’t judge that myself.
THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)
A truly first-rate piece of scholarship, setting the paradigm for the thinking about this topic. It is thorough, honest and courageous, attempting to bring some clarity in a highly emotional debate. This is not an ethics treatise, but a scientific study. At the same time, the book wants “to exorcise ethnicity by trying to understand it”. I wonder if it could have been written today, in the age of #woke and keyboard outrage. Be that as it may, this is an important book, a landmark, absolutely mandatory for everybody that seriously studies the history and the contemporary effects of colonialism, racism, nationalism and ethnicity.
My full review is here.
CONTINGENCY AND CONVERGENCE : TOWARD A COSMIC BIOLOGY OF BODY AND MIND – Russell Powell (2020)
Not for the faint of heart, but self-contained, and as such accessible to the able layperson willing to put in the effort with a good dictionary at hand.
My full review is here.
WHAT IS REAL? THE UNFINISHED QUEST FOR THE MEANING OF QUANTUM PHYSICS – Adam Becker (2018)
Both a solid overview of the science and possible interpretations of quantum theory, as a sociological history of the workings of the physics field. There is much to learn here: about quantum science, about science as a practice, and about philosophy of science as well.
My full review is here.
HOW MOLECULAR FORCES AND ROTATING PLANETS CREATE LIFE: THE EMERGENCE AND EVOLUTION OF PROKARYOTIC CELLS – Jan Spitzer (2021)
Very complex book, so let me quote from the MIT website:
“In this book, Jan Spitzer reconceptualizes origins research by exploiting a modern understanding of non-covalent molecular forces and covalent bond formation (…). Spitzer develops (…) a physicochemical jigsaw puzzle that identifies key stages in life’s emergence, from the formation of first oceans, tidal sediments, and proto-biofilms to progenotes, proto-cells and the first cellular organisms.
Spitzer argues that non-covalent molecular forces, acting in cycling geochemical processes, bring about phase separations—the creation of purified, lower entropy, potentially living biological matter. Geochemical cycling processes—diurnal solar radiation and tidal hydration-dehydration—underpin life’s emergence and evolution. After presenting a physicochemical view of how non-covalent molecular forces stabilize a bacterial cell during its cell cycle, Spitzer assembles the puzzle pieces into a working provisional picture of life’s emergence. (…) Finally, he describes some experimental ideas, based on cyclically driven processes.
My review is here.
– DUTCH ONLY –
ALS GOD SPREEKT – Geert Lernout (2005)
Erg interessant en heel breed van opzet, met heel veel randinformatie uit de algemene (cultuur)geschiedenis.
EEN BEKNOPTE GESCHIEDENIS VAN HET BOEK – Geert Lernout (2004)
De titel zegt het al. Opnieuw heel erg breed van opzet, waardoor je niet alleen een goed zicht krijgt op de geschiedenis van het boek, maar op grote delen van de menselijke ontwikkeling: het begint bij de ontwikkeling van het schrift, en focust op de laatste 5 eeuwen. Erg, erg vlot geschreven.
Heel wat van de boeken uit de lijst in het Engels zijn ook in het Nederlands vertaald, met name die van Frans de Waal, Brian Greene, Barnaby Rogerson, Richard Wrangham & Dale Peterson en Nick Lane.