10 incredible books from Jordan Peterson's 'Great Books' list

The Canadian professor has an extensive collection posted on his site.

  • Peterson's Great Books list features classics by Orwell, Jung, Huxley, and Dostoevsky.
  • Categories include literature, neuroscience, religion, and systems analysis.
  • Having recently left Patreon for "freedom of speech" reasons, Peterson is taking direct donations through Paypal (and Bitcoin).

We like to know what informed thinkers we respect, to better understand what shaped their worldview. On his website, Jordan Peterson offers his Great Books list, granting insight into the turning of his own mind. I've discovered a few that I'll pick up from the numerous titles that he offers. The following ten also resonated with me.

Island -- Aldous Huxley

Everyone loves dystopia. There's a reason we all have to read Inferno in high school yet most people don't even realize Paradiso exists—it was a terrible ending to the trilogy. Island was Aldous Huxley's utopian counterpart to Brave New World, yet unlike Dante, he concluded this series (and his life; it was his last novel) quite well. This is a more reflective, psychedelic-loving Huxley sharing his profound connection to Buddhist philosophy in the guise of the disbelieving writer, Will Farnaby. The myna birds screaming "Attention!" throughout the book serve as an important reminder to everyone walking around with their head glued to a screen today.

The Grapes of Wrath -- John Steinbeck

This is simply one of the greatest novels of 20th-century America. I think of it often, reading about Amazon caravans traveling around the country in RVs seeking the next factory to try to work at. Not much has changed in the nearly 70 years since Steinbeck published this masterpiece. Too many Americans are still clawing at the imagined dream. This book is the poet and patriot in his finest moment.

The Denial of Death -- Ernest Becker

This book was my introduction to philosophy and psychology, given to me by my brother-in-law's brother while I was in high school. It opened my eyes to the reality of fear and death, and the reality that most of our fears are rooted in the existential threat of biology. It's also Becker wrestling with his own questioning and validation of Freudian psychology. I also recommend the posthumous follow-up, Escape From Evil.

Answer to Job -- Carl Jung

Jung saw this book as describing the unmentioned fourth face of God: evil. It's hard to read the biblical book any other way (though many have tried). Jung doesn't mince mythologies, however. Unlike the "ultimate perfection" of God as espoused by many religious, Jung sees his treatment of one of his most faithful as the deity's own development—a sharp rebuke to anyone believing in an ultimate good, but also a valuable lesson that we're all works in progress.

Affective Neuroscience -- Jaak Panksepp

You have to love any man that tickled rats for a living. The Estonian neuroscientist did much more during his illustrious career, but discovering that rats laugh is certainly a highlight. It's part of the mammalian PLAY system, one of seven primary affective systems included in our neurological hardware. The recently deceased Panksepp knew what separated humans from the other animals, but perhaps more importantly, he devoted his career to what united us all.

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy -- Mircea Eliade

Everyone in America (and beyond) who calls themselves a "shaman" because they're certified in yoga and have tried ayahuasca needs an actual education, and that starts with this book. Eliade was one of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th century, also penning one of the best scholarly books on yoga. Just as Joseph Campbell discovered links between archaic religions, Eliade sought out common occurrences in shamanic practices across the planet, writing them down in this exquisite work.

The World's Religions -- Huston Smith

Originally titled The Religions of Man, Smith's publisher was early in the #metoo movement, realizing it didn't reflect the religious inclinations of an entire gender. Not the case for Smith, however, who discovered mysticism after a Methodist upbringing. He was a lovely man and beautiful writer, appealing to our highest angels in his lifelong pursuit of comparative religion. While he produced many important books over his 97 years, his debut remains a class in the field.

Animal Farm -- George Orwell

Whenever I see an animal tackle a social cause in a Pixar movie, I credit George Orwell. Of course, we've been anthropomorphizing other species for millennia, projecting our fears and strengths onto them. Orwell worked as a police officer in Burma, a political journalist in Paris, and a teacher in England before settling into his novelist career. He put a history of experiential knowledge into Animal Farm, an overt critique of Stalinist Russia. Too bad he's not around today to serialize the current state of affairs on his old beat.

The Origins and History of Consciousness -- Erich Neumann

Two Jungians seriously evolved their teacher's knowledge. James Hillman dove deep into archetypal psychology, while psychologist Erich Neumann wrote a number of important works, including this opus. In it he explores the mythical ouroboros as the catalyst for unconscious urges stretching into conscious awareness. There is plenty that doesn't hold up in this work—he believed that homosexuality was the result of underdevelopment and that even in women, consciousness has a masculine bent. But his exploration of creation and hero mythology makes this a fascinating read.

The Emotional Brain -- Joseph LeDoux

Few neuroscientists have taken anxiety as seriously as LeDoux. While his last book, Anxious, is the book on the topic of anxiety and the human nervous system, he laid the groundwork in this 1996 classic. Even though we don't face the types of threats we endured for hundreds of thousands of years, our brain's threat detection system is what relates us to the rest of the animal kingdom. We like to think we've scaled to the top of that pyramid, but from a neurological perspective, we're still running through the proverbial forest seeking shelter at every turn.


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • 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.