10 science books that will make you see the world differently
To better understand our place in the world, check out these groundbreaking books.
Science is often counterintuitive. When we become habituated to our environment our frame of reference reflects the minds of those around us and the geography we live within. Good science doesn't lean on anecdote; it constantly pushes us to think and act better. The following books push boundaries by confronting common wisdom and updating our collective knowledge through a combination of research, integrity, curiosity, and passion.
The Age of Wonder
by Richard Holmes
Starting with a history book might seem odd, but without a firm understanding of how germ theory, disease specificity, and the placebo response—among other important breakthroughs — came to be, you won't be grounded in what we now consider basic knowledge. British biographer Richard Holmes does justice to the evolution of eighteenth and nineteenth century science.
We need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
by Robert Sapolsky
If you want to know why humans behave how we do, start with American neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky's tour de force. Having spent time studying baboons in Kenya, here he trains his gaze on the peculiar, outlandish, and even mundane aspects of humans, traversing neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to better comprehend what makes us us.
We are constantly being shaped by seemingly irrelevant stimuli, subliminal information, and internal forces we don't know a thing about.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk
Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk began studying post-traumatic stress in the seventies. His masterful work stretches across decades of research in an attempt to piece together a clinical and heartfelt approach to trauma. His understanding of the biology and physicality of his discipline is unmatched.
We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.
The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity
by Norman Doidge
Canadian psychoanalyst Norman Doidge is also a poet, a fact that became apparent with his breakthrough book, The Brain That Changes Itself. His follow-up addresses important issues that research these and more in his beautiful prose. Including an entire chapter on the work of movement genius Moshé Feldenkrais added an even bigger smile to my face.
"The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining."
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I first read Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee's debut out of curiosity. A few years later it offered comfort when dealing with my own cancer. His gorgeous style and sympathetic approach, displayed as a columnist for The New Yorker and NY Times, portrays cancer as an integral part of what we are as animals. His follow-up to this exhaustive biography is the highly recommended The Gene. On Twitter he told me his final installment of what he considers to be a trio will be on vaccines. Plenty to look forward to from this masterful writer.
Cancer is built into our genomes: the genes that unmoor normal cell division are not foreign to our bodies, but rather mutated, distorted versions of the very genes that perform vital cellular functions. And cancer is imprinted in our society: as we extend our life span as a species, we inevitably unleash malignant growth (mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging; cancer is thus intrinsically related to age). If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett presents one of the most counterintuitive books in recent memory by claiming that we don't react to our environment so much as constantly construct our reality. This groundbreaking work will change how you view your inner world forever, empowering you with the knowledge that pretty much every “reaction" can be changed. (Listen to my chat with her here.)
With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions.
The Organized Mind
by Daniel J. Levitin
Inattention is one of our greatest modern problems. We know cigarettes and alcohol are addictive; we've come to terms with opioids. Sugar is a killer, one few give up. Yet we seem light years from admitting what technology is doing to our brains. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin's insightful book will change how you view tech—and your life. Fortunately it's all for the better, should you heed his advice.
"Evolution doesn't design things and it doesn't build systems—it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like a new construction."
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
by Peter Godfrey Smith
Australian philosopher and professor Peter Godfrey Smith has exposed the unworldly reality of the octopus in such candor that we'll never view this incredible cephalopod the same way. In the process he offers keen insights into the development of sentience and intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, humans included.
To some degree, unity is inevitable in a living agent: an animal is a whole, a physical object keeping itself alive. But in other ways, unity is optional, an achievement, an invention. Bringing experience together — even the deliverances of the two eyes—is something that evolution may or may not do.
The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
by Daniel Lieberman
To wrap your head around any facet of human biology, anatomy, and physiology, start with Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman. This eye-opening masterpiece explores the intricate details of digestion as well as our posture and feet, forcing us to reconsider movement patterns and cognitive habits that are actually killing us. His deep dive into mismatch diseases will inspire you to change the course of your day.
By developing through myriad interactions between genes and environments, organisms are able to build extremely complex, highly integrated bodies that not only work well, but also can adapt to a wide range of circumstances.
The Well-Tuned Brain: A Remedy for a Manic Society
by Peter C Whybrow, MD
Scouring through the innumerable books with “brain" in the title is challenging, as neuroscience has become a catchword for every possible agenda. English psychiatrist Peter C. Whybrow takes a truly unique and essential take when discussing capitalism's effects on our behavior. He argues that many technological advances are actually enslaving us; our survival as a species is under threat due to our reliance on what's being sold.
We find ourselves rewarded less in the role of concerned citizen than in that of self-seeking consumer. Through habituation, we have grown indifferent to those aspects of human culture that fall outside market reference.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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