To start today’s list off, we have a few books about humans as a social animal.
Social by Nature:The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics by Catherine Bliss. 2018. Stanford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0804798341
Sociogenomics as a recognized field is both relatively new and old. At its heart, it is simply the study of the intersection between social factors and genetics. More often, it is viewed and used with the idea the genetics controls social factors. This is eerily similar to previous extensions of this idea in “social Darwinism” and eugenics. That there is a correlation between some social factors and genetics in broad strokes is undeniable. However, the level of control genetics has on the social factors is much more dubious. Dr. Bliss explores the tremendous good that can be done with the introduction of good genetic studies into sociological issues, as well as delivering a warning for the unbridled rush to reduce sociology to a set of genes.
Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies by Edward O. Wilson. 2019. Liveright. ISBN-13: 978-1631495540
E.O. Wilson has been famous for decades, first for his groundbreaking work on ants and then this wide-ranging contributions to ecology, particularly social behavior, garnering him the nickname, the “father of sociobiology.” It is no small surprise then that in his latest book, he has turned to the most complex social systems in the animal world, our own, to examine how we became so social and developed our complex societies. To do so, he examines the evolution of complex social structures in other animals, often in some very surprising areas. With the understanding of these independent and very different groups, he hopes to pull together a basis for elucidating the evolution of our own societies. In every book I have read from Wilson, his style is easygoing and clear, making his book informative and interesting. I expect this one will be just as thought provoking.
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett. 2019. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-0465055685
If Wilson set himself a difficult task at studying the origins of societies, his previous student Dr. Moffett sets himself an even harder task, looking at the entire life cycle of human societies. Moffett attempts to cover societies from their origins to their deaths. Moffett is a biologist. Using that as a basis, he brings in anthropology, particularly the sociology and psychology aspects (one might say evolutionary psychology) to bring a holistic, grounded view of what makes societies tick. More than half the book, as befits his background and focus, discusses other animals and human prehistory, which he then uses to make sense of modern societies. Moffett concludes that we may need an adversarial outgroup to make our societies work. Anyone who has seen The Watchmen knows the dangers of that if we don’t figure out a better way. But read the book and decide for yourself if we can make peace with our biology.
Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas A. Christakis. 2019. Little, Brown Spark. ISBN-13: 978-0316230032
Dr. Christakis covers much the same ground, but comes to a different conclusion. Of course, he is a medical doctor and sociologist, so he starts from a more optimistic viewpoint. Nevertheless, he points to the positive psychological aspects natural selection has also given us. He discusses the ideas of love, cooperation, and learning (which combined with our capacity for teaching, as per Rutherford’s thesis) give us the opportunity to transcend the negative aspects of our biology and move beyond tribalism toward a better society. Interestingly, this book, like Social by Nature, states that genes affect our behavior. Unlike the other books listed here, Christakis views this in a positive light, attempting to show the benefits that natural selection has given us and encourages us to focus on these aspects as we move forward. Whereas Moffett may be pessimistic about our ability to build a better tomorrow, Christakis views it as inevitable that we will eventually rise above.
I think these four books together make a fascinating example of people viewing the same data through different lenses. Perhaps reading all four is the best way to get a sense of who we are as a species, what we are capable of, and what we may accomplish together for good or ill. One could make an intriguing college seminar out of this set of books.
The Biological Mind: how Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are by Alan Jasanoff. 2018. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-0465052684
The last book I want to talk about today hearkens a bit back to previous lists. It is a reminder that we are not separate from our surroundings in very real, important ways that define who we are as individuals. Dr. Jasanoff takes the unusual and refreshing stop of detailing that our personalities are not locked within the brain, nor can our personalities be separated from our bodies, our brain included. Brain damage from strokes, injury, or simple poor nutrition, can alter our personalities, in some cases radically and generally irreversibly. But illness in the rest of our bodies can also do that. What we eat, bacteria in our gut, parasites, chemicals, even the weather can alter our behaviors and thoughts. Combine this with the profound impact experience and peerception have on our thoughts and actions and the question of free will becomes less than academic or philosophical, grounding it in the cold reality of our concrete existence. Dr. Jasanoff goes through all this and more, discussing the implications of what it all means when we say what makes us individuals.
Tune in tomorrow for something completely different as we take a look at paleoart books.