What makes us Human

June 25

Our ambitious reading group (started in 2017) will continue in 2021 (after the COVID-19 break), with a new set of books and topics. However, this year will also revisit several books from the previous three years of reading groups (see lists for 2017, 2018, and 2019). Combining both the old and the new will result in a heavy reading load.

This month, we invite you to join us for the June Mammoth Reading Group – What Makes Us Human. We will be discussing several books that relate to that topic. Please find attached the list for this month. We will be very happy if you approach us to present a book in one of our monthly meetings. This month, Nikita will be presenting the book Nicholas A. Christakis (2019). Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.

  • Date: Friday, June 25th
  • Time: 5-9pm (AEST)
  • Location: Gardens Point Campus | GP-Z808
  • RSVP: Please e-mail Ivan Aranzales Acero at ivan.aranzalesacero@hdr.qut.edu.au
  • Want to join via Zoom? Please e-mail Ivan for details

Following the usual format: read as much or as little as you want and stay for as long as you like. Feel free to extend this invitation to others who may be interested.

Happy reading and I hope to see you at our event!

  1. Nicholas A. Christakis (2019). Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.
    • Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Internal Medicine & Biomedical Engineering provides a tour de force on the bright side of our biological heritage; according to Christakis, this is a side that has been denied the attention it deserves.
  2. Peter Kropotkin (1902). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
    • We discussed this classic contribution in 2017 thanks to Tony Beatton’s presentation. Kropotkin thought that a book written on mutual aid as a law of nature and factor of evolution would fill an important gap, correcting Huxley’s misrepresentation of nature in his “Struggle-for-life” manifesto. In their book A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, Bowles and Gintis (2011) acknowledge that Kropotkin’s work has taught us “a kinder, gentler view of the evolutionary process in opposition to the then popular dog-eat-dog Social Darwinist claims about what natural selection entails for human behavior” (p. 7).
  3. Jon Elster (1989). The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order
    • What is it that glues societies together? What are the conditions for order in our social world? In this book Elster discusses two concepts of social order; namely stable, regular, or predictable patterns of behaviour and cooperative behaviour. Elster: “I do not claim to provide a complete answer, nor are the partial answers I offer very deep ones. At the present time, the social sciences cannot aspire to be more than social chemistry: inductive generalizations that stick closely to the phenomena. The time for social physics is not yet here, and may never come” (p. 1)
  4. Jon Elster (2007). Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Science.
    • One of Jon Elster’s masterpieces. He lists some puzzles that can be illuminated by the approach that he takes in this book (see pages pp. 1-5).
    • The Mind: Why do some gamblers believe than when red has come up five times in a row, red is more likely than black to come up next? Why do other gamblers believe than when red has come up five times in a row, black is more likely than red to come up next? Why do preferences sometimes change through the sheer passage of time? Why do many people who seem to believe in the afterlife want it to arrive as late as possible? Why are people reluctant to acknowledge, to themselves and others, that they are envious? Why are people reluctant to acknowledge, to themselves and others, that they are ignorant? Why, among sixteenth-century converts to Calvinism, did the belief that people were predestined either to heaven or to hell induce greater peace of mind than the belief that one could achieve salvation through good works? Why is it (sometimes) true that ‘‘Who has offended, cannot forgive’’? Why is shame more important than guilt in some cultures? Why did the French victory in the 1998 soccer World Cup generate so much joy in the country, and why did the fact that the French team did not qualify beyond the opening rounds in 2002 cause so much despondency? Why do women often feel shame after being raped? Why do humiliating rituals of initiation produce greater rather than lesser loyalty to the group into which one is initiated?
    • Action: Why do more Broadway shows receive standing ovations today than twenty years ago? Why may punishments increase rather than decrease the frequency of the behavior they target? Why are people unwilling to break self-imposed rules even when it makes little sense to follow them? Why is the pattern of revenge ‘‘Two eyes for an eye’’ instead of ‘‘An eye for an eye’’? Why is the long-term yield on stocks much larger than that on bonds (i.e., why does the value of stocks not rise to equalize the yields)? Why do suicide rates go down when dangerous medications are sold in blister packs rather than bottles? Why did none of thirty-eight bystanders call the police when Kitty Genovese was beaten to death? Why did some individuals hide or rescue Jews under the Nazi regimes? Why did President Chirac call early elections in 1997, only to lose his majority in parliament? Why are some divorcing parents willing to share child custody even when their preferred solution is sole custody, which they are likely to get were they to litigate? Why are poor people less likely to emigrate? Why do some people save in Christmas accounts that pay no interest and do not allow for withdrawal before Christmas? Why do people pursue projects, such as building the Concorde airplane, that have negative expected value? Why, in ‘‘transitional justice’’ (when agents of an autocratic regime are put on trial after the transition to democracy), are those tried immediately after the transition sentenced more severely than those who are tried later? Why, in Shakespeare’s play, does Hamlet delay taking revenge until the last act?
    • Lessons from the Natural Sciences: Why are parents much more likely to kill adopted children and stepchildren than to kill their biological children? Why is sibling incest so rare, given the temptations and opportunities? Why do people invest their money in projects undertaken by other agents even when the latter are free to keep all the profits for themselves? Why do people take revenge at some material cost to them and with no material benefits? Why do people jump to conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence?
    • Interaction: Why do supporters of a Socialist party sometimes vote Communist and thereby prevent their party from winning? Why do some newly independent countries adopt as their official language that of their former imperialist oppressor? Why are ice cream stalls often located beside each other in the middle of the beach, when customers would be better off and the sellers no worse off with a more spread-out location? Why does an individual vote in elections when his or her vote is virtually certain to have no effect on the outcome? Why are economically successful individuals in modern Western societies usually slimmer than the average person? Why do people refrain from transactions that could make everybody better off, as when they abstain from asking a person in the front of a bus queue whether he is willing to sell his place? Why did President Nixon try to present himself to the Soviets as being prone to irrational behavior? Why do military commanders sometimes burn their bridges (or their ships)? Why do people often attach great importance to intrinsically insignificant matters of etiquette? Why do passengers tip taxi drivers and customers tip waiters even when visiting a foreign city to which they do not expect to return? Why do firms invest in large inventories even when they do not anticipate any interruption of production? Why, in a group of students, would each think that others have understood an obscure text better than he has? Why are votes in many political assemblies taken by roll call? Why is logrolling more frequent in ordinary legislatures than in constituent assemblies?
  5. Robert M. Sapolsky (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
    • A tour de force of 700 pages exploring the biology of violence, aggression, and competition, the behaviours and impulses behind them, and also the biology of cooperation, affiliation, reconciliation, empathy, and altruism. See also his excellent lectures here.
  6. Paul Seabright (2012). The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present.
    • Some may recall that Seabright has visited us in the past. He is an economist who can write books (writes well). Here he provides a valuable contribution towards a better understanding of the essence of life: conflict.
  7. Cecilia Heyes (2018). Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.
    • What makes us such a peculiar animal? How did human minds become so different from those of other animals? What accounts for our capacity to understand the way the way the physical world works, to think ourselves into the minds of others, to gossip, read, tell stories about the past, and imagine the future? Heyes’ key message: “[i]t is the information we get from others, handled by general purpose mechanisms, that builds distinctively human ways of thinking” (p. 2). A pursue by a “Campbellian” selectionist.
  8. Robert Boyd (2018). A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species
    • Do individuals adopt beliefs and practices because they understand why they are beneficial? Or do they adopt beliefs and practices because that’s what the people around them believe and do? In that case, why are the beliefs and practices useful? What makes humans special? How are we able to adapt to a large variety of changing environments? This book offers an insight into how culture transformed our species, from one of the leading scholars of human evolution and social change.
  9. William von Hippel (2018). The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy.
    • Bill von Hippel, a professor of psychology at our neighbour uni up the river (University of Queensland), digs into our evolutionary history to understand how life in the distant past continues to shape our lives today. Here an example out of the section Throwing Rocks at Lions. “I grew up in a neighbourhood that was inattentive to leash laws, and my friends and I were often chased by a German shepherd and Doberman pinscher that lived on our street. Even though I was a scrawny kid, and these dogs would still intimidate me today, by the age of seven or eight I had become pretty good at defending myself by throwing stones. Especially if my brothers or friends were with me, all we had to do was bend over to gather rocks, and the dogs running toward us would pull an immediate about-face. When I was alone, I took off for the nearest fence or tree, because I couldn’t throw rocks fast enough to do the job, but the addition of even one other person meant we could stand our ground. These experiences suggest how our ancestors might have responded to the threat of predation on the savannah: by throwing stones, particularly if they could band together and throw lots of them… If you want to learn to throw with power and accuracy… you need to watch baseball players, quarterbacks, or hunter-gatherers… Chimps are stronger than we are, but they can’t generate this sort of elastic energy when they throw because their joints aren’t flexible enough and their muscles don’t line up in their right way” (pp. 23-25). For an overview see here:
  10. Paul R. Ehrich (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Penguin Books.
    • Jared Diamond defines Paul Ehrich’s book as the “The one book to read on human evolution”. It provides a lot of information and is well written, covering topics such as “Evolving Brains, Evolving Minds”, “From Grooming to Gossip”, “The Dominance of Culture”, “Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” or “Evolution and Human Values” and more.
  11. Kevin N. Laland (2017). Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.
    • According to Tomasello, this book “brings together processes of biological and cultural evolution in unique and fascinating ways to explain what it means to be human”. Some remarks by Laland in his first chapter as follows:“[M]y central argument is that no single prime mover is responsible for the evolution of the human mind. Instead, I highlight the significance of the accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback, whereby an interwoven complex of cultural processes to reinforce each other in an irresistible runaway dynamic that engineered the mind’s breathtaking computer power” (p. 3).“[S]cience has accrued a strong understanding of the evolution of animal behavior, while the origins of human cognition and the complexities of our society, technology, and culture remain poorly understood” (p. 5)“A satisfactory explanation demands insights into the evolutionary origins of some of our most striking attributes – our intelligence, language, cooperation, teaching, and morality – yet most of these features are not just distinctive, they are unique to our species. That makes it harder to glean clues to the distant history of our minds through comparison with other species” (p. 6).“Humanity’s success is sometimes accredited to our cleverness, but culture is actually what makes us smart. Intelligence is not irrelevant of course, but what singles out our species is an ability to pool our insights and knowledge, and build on each other’s solutions” (p. 7).

      “Our language, cooperativeness, and ultrasociality, just like our intelligence, are frequently lauded as setting us apart from other animals. But, as we shall see, these features are themselves more likely products of our exceptional cultural capabilities” (p. 8).

      “Understanding the rise of culture has proven a remarkably stubborn puzzle, largely because many other evolutionary conundrums must be addressed in the process. We must first understand why animals copy each other at all, and we must isolate the rules that guide their use of social information. We then need to identify the critical conditions that favored cumulative culture, and the cognitive prerequisites for its expression. The circumstances leading to the evolution of the abilities to innovate, teach, cooperate, and conform must all be established. Also critical is knowing how and why humans invented language, and how that led to complex forms of cooperation. Finally, and crucially, we need to comprehend how all of these processes and capabilities fed back on each other to shape our bodies and minds. Only then can researchers begin to understand how human beings uniquely came to possess the remarkable suite of cognitive skills that has allowed our species to flourish” (p. 11).

  12. Augustín Fuentes (2019). Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being.
    • How do we believe? What are the processes by which we believe? How did the changes we made in the world enable the infrastructure for contemporary belief? What key evolutionary events and processes make us human? How do humans relate to the rest of the world biologically and ecologically?
  13. Joseph Henrich (2016). The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Princeton University Press.
    • Henrich’s most influential book so far. It covers a broad range of topics, such as the origin of faith, prestige, dominance, taboos, norms, or communication. He is able to successfully integrate insights from social and biological sciences when studying human nature and human evolution. I have added here two books by Michael Tomasello that have appeared on past reading group lists. Tomassello has been back to his roots at Duke where he did his B.A. in Psychology (before he was Co-Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig).
  14. Michael Tomasello (2009). Why We Cooperate.
    • A short book based on the 2009 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Stanford. Tomasello derives interesting conclusions based on research on young children and chimpanzees. The book is supplemented with forum comments by Joan Silk, Carol Dweck, Brian Skyrms, and Elizabeth Spelke. See also his book A Natural History of Human Morality.
  15. Michael Tomasello (2017). A Natural History of Human Morality.
    • This book offers an exploration of how early humans gradually became an ultra-cooperative and eventually moral species. Thus, he attempts to provide an evolutionary account on the emergence of human morality, in terms of both sympathy and fairness. He assumes that human morality is a form of cooperation that emerged as humans adapted to new and species-unique forms of social interaction and organization. Topics include: “The Interdependence Hypothesis; Evolution of Cooperation; Second-Personal Morality; “Objective” Morality; Human Morality as Cooperation-Plus”.
  16. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2011). A Cooperative Species. Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
    • From Chapter 1: A Cooperative Species. “In the pages that follow we advance two propositions. First, people cooperate not only for self-interested reasons but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, try to uphold social norms, and value behaving ethically for its own sake. People punish those who exploit the cooperative behavior of others for the same reasons. Contributing to the success of a joint project for the benefit of one’s group, even at a personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, even elation. Failing to do so is often a source of shame or guilt. Second, we came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments, both natural and socially constructed, in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and expand relative to other groups, thereby allowing these prosocial motivations to proliferate. The first proposition concerns proximate motivations for prosocial behavior, the second addresses the distant evolutionary origins and ongoing perpetuation of these cooperative Dispositions”. For an overview of book reviews that can be directly downloaded, see Gintis homepage here. For a more recent interview in The Dissenter, see here.
  17. David Sloan Wilson (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.
    • Wilson: “The harmony and order that we associate with the word “organism” indeed has a movable boundary that can be expanded to include biological eco-systems, human societies, and conceivably the entire earth. Special conditions are required, however, and when these conditions are not met, evolution takes us where we don’t want to go. There is no master navigator for our journey. We must be the navigators, consciously evolving our collective future, and without the compass provided by evolutionary theory, we will surely be lost” (p. xiv). Sapolsky: “David Sloan Wilson has long been one of the most visionary and trail-blazing evolutionary biologists around, forcing the field to recognize that evolutionary change occurs from far more than selection solely at the level of the gene. In This View of Life, he explores the various surprising things that ‘evolution’ is and isn’t and its relevance to everything from everyday life to global policy decisions. It’s thick with ideas and insights, written in a graceful, accessible style”.
  18. Antonio Damasio (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Culture.
    • A relatively recent book9 by Damasio, who has previously brought us contributions such as Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain or The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. He has new facts and interpretations to share on questions that he has been exploring for years: Why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct ourselves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how brains interact with the body to support such functions. His focus: “feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiations of human cultural endeavors”.
  19. Rachel M. McClearly and Robert J. Barro (2019). The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.
    • Preface: “With Robert as an economist and Rachel as a moral philosopher, we bring a diversity of tools and perspectives to study the nature of human agency and the beliefs on which humans choose to act”. A collection of articles that were published over the course of 16 years.
  20. Roy Baumeister (2005). The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life. Oxford University Press.
    • Baumeister is one of those unique social scientists, able to “connect the dots”. Nearly all other animals are willing to have sex in the presence of others: why is it that we don’t have sexual intercourse in shopping malls or in any public space? Why is it that no other species has latex fetishes, golden showers, professional flagellants, phone sex, mediated sharing of sexual fantasies and many more realms of idiosyncratic titillation? “One standard way to answering these questions is to say that humans are shaped by culture as well as nature, and so due to historical circumstances Jack and Linda’s culture has taught them not to have sex in public. That answer is not satisfactory either, however. Why should culture teach such a thing? … Most cultures approve of sex between spouses, and most socially desirable actions are admired when performed in public. Moreover, why are so many cultures similar in this regard? It’s not as if American tourists who travel to Spain, India, or Peru find themselves stumbling onto married couples who are absorbed in sexual intercourse in public thoroughfares or shopping areas. Nearly all nations have restaurants, but is it normal in any country for people to copulate while waiting for their food to be served (which, after all, would be an efficient way to pass the time)?” (pp. 4-5).
    • Content of the book
      1. Beast for Culture
      2. The Human
      3. What People Want
      4. How People Think
      5. How and Why Emotions Happen
      6. How People Act and React
      7. How People Interact
  21. James Q. Wilson (2000). Moral Intuition.
    • Short booklet based on Wilson’s Hans L Zetteberg lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy of the Engineering Sciences in May 1998.
      How does moral intuition arise? According to Wilson our morals emerge from human sociability. “They arise from the fact that we are born as small, helpless infants, who must be raised for many years. Only human affection will make it possible for us to be raised” (p. 22).
  22. Michael J. O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley, and William A. Brock (2019). The Importance of Small Decisions.
    • Foreword by John Maeda: “Can individuals ever break free from the idea of the people around themselves? Or can individuals break free from the ideas embedded in the generations that came before themselves? I’d like to believe so. How? By starting from a conscious understanding of where they stand on the social behavior map and then making the small, important series of decisions that can move them to wherever they want to be.”
  23. Erving Goffman (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
    • The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is Goffman’s first book and his most cited (close to 60,000 citations). He argues in the Preface that the book serves as a “sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organized within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. The perspective employed … is that of a theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situation presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. (p. xii)”.
  24. Frans de Waal (1996). Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are.
    • “One can take the ape out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the ape”.
  25. Pascal Boyer (2018). Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create.
    • Six Problems in search of a new science: What is the root of group conflict? What is information for? Why are there religions? What is the natural family? How can societies be just? Can human minds understand society? Steven Pinker’s recommendation: The best book yet on one of the deepest issues in our understanding of ourself. Leda Cosmides says: The most important work on a science of human culture in years. Dan Sperber’s comment: It will change forever your understanding of society and culture.
  26. Leon Festinger (1983). The Human Legacy. Columbia University Press
    • Introduction: “Four years ago I closed my laboratory which, over time, had become devoted to studying ever narrowing aspects of how the human eye moves… That is not a proper occupation for an aging man who resents that adjective. Young men and women should work on narrow problems. Young people become enthusiastic easily: any new finding is an exciting thing. Older people have too much perspective on the past and, perhaps, too little patience with the future. Very few small discoveries turn out to be important over the years; things that would have sent me jumping and shouting in my youth now left me calm and judgmental… Forty years in my own life seems like a long time to me, and while some things have been learned about human beings and human behavior during this time, progress has not been rapid enough; nor has the new knowledge been impressive enough. And even worse, from a broader point of view, we do not seem to have been working on many of the important problems. Let us take a look at this curious animal…”