What am I reading?

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg: In this book, UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna and co-author Samuel Sternberg overview one of the biggest technological breakthroughs of the 21st century: CRISPR gene-editing.  Despite having been first introduced to the scientific community a mere five years ago, CRISPR––which has made gene-editing so easy that you can buy do-it-yourself kits online––has already made a major impact on scientific enterprises around the world.  Doudna and Sternberg do a good job painting a picture of the possibilities––cures for genetic diseases, the acceleration of cancer research, crops and livestock genetically edited to be healthier––and perils––the risks of germline editing and gene drives––represented by the technology originally birthed in the Doudna lab.  With CRISPR research moving forward at breakneck speed, Doudna and Sternberg also present a timely call for more discussion among societal stakeholders so that the benefits of the technology can be realized in a safe and equitable manner.

Follow the Leader?: How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance, by Gabriel Lenz: Do voters vote for politicians based on entirely superficial characteristics, like their physical appearance, or do they make well-informed votes based on which politician’s policy views most align with their own?  Lenz finds that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  Voters fail to vote for politicians on policy grounds, instead “following” politicians by aligning their own policy views with those of politicians they already like for other reasons.  Those “other reasons” are not necessarily superficial characteristics, however; Lenz finds that voters are responsive to what he calls “performance,” which includes the past track record of politicians as well as their character traits.  This is an important conclusion for anyone interested in the inner workings of democracy, although Lenz presents it through dry and academic writing.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, by David Deutsch: Deutsch’s main thesis is that the tradition of alternating conjecture and criticism of ideas, which began in the Enlightenment, set us on a path to potentially unlimited knowledge: a beginning of infinity.  He analogizes this process to the variation and selection that accounts for biological evolution.  Also included in the book are discussions on a wide range of topics, including mathematical infinities, the quantum multiverse, and the pros and cons of a first-past-the-post voting system.  While there are some interesting ideas here, the book suffers from muddled writing, as well as its tendency to jump from topic to topic, with the book’s main thesis serving only as a loose thread running through each.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond: In this classic book, Diamond seeks to answer one of history’s biggest questions: Why have the inhabitants of Eurasia come to dominate the world in wealth and power, while the original inhabitants of other continents, such as sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, and aboriginal Australians, have fallen behind?  Why did Christopher Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1492, leading eventually to European conquest of the Americas, rather than the other way around, with Native Americans sailing to Europe?  You could come up with various proximate causes that give this book its title: Europeans had guns, germs, and steel, and Native Americans did not.  But this just begs the question: What led to these disparities?  Diamond ultimately traces this causal chain all the way back to the origins of food production; with food production comes population growth, stored food that allows for non-food-producing specialists, technological development, stratified societies with complex political organization, and evolved immunity to infectious diseases ultimately arising from livestock.  Diamond then deftly leverages evidence from fields as diverse as archaeology, linguistics, plant molecular biology, and genetics to argue that initial environmental conditions gave the inhabitants of Eurasia a decisive advantage in developing and spreading food production, and therefore an early head start in civilizational advancement–a head start whose ripple effects are still apparent to this day.  Diamond does a good job backing up his propositions with ample evidence, and I found his overall thesis quite persuasive, as long as you restrict its scope to long timescales and over large areas.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari: In Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari traces the history of humankind through four main stages: First, the Cognitive Revolution around 70,000 years ago, an evolutionary development that took a human species of no greater significance and granted it greater cognitive capacities, allowing it to develop language and spread throughout the Earth; second, the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago, which transformed our then-mainly-hunter-gatherer nomadic societies into settled, food-producing societies, leading to whole slew of consequences including population growth and the development of sociopolitical networks; third, the “Unification of Mankind,” which involves the development of larger and more complex societies held together by the glues of money, religion, and empire; and lastly, the Scientific Revolution, the aftermath of which has massively increased human capacity over the last 500 years and has largely shaped our experiences today.  It’s a great zoomed-out view of human history, and gives you some perspective on the larger causal forces guiding human historical developments.

Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit: A work of philosophy that many describe as a contemporary classic, Parfit’s Reasons and Persons is in many ways an exercise in applying reductionist thinking to different philosophical problems.  Parfit’s book is split into four parts: In Parts I and II, Parfit argues against the theory of self-interest––i.e., the theory that it is most rational for each individual to maximize positive outcomes for themselves––on the grounds that the fundamental unit we should be concerned about is not an agent over the course of his entire life, but rather an agent at the time of acting; in Part III, Parfit further continues along this line, and indulges in fascinating thought experiments to suggest that our concept of personal identity is flawed, and that experience, rather than personal identity, is fundamental; and in Part IV, Parfit struggles to find an ethical framework that describes our obligations towards future generations, and which also avoids the repugnant conclusion.  While the book is dense and the line of reasoning often circuitous––Parfit often strays from the main road to parry other philosophers’ critiques, both real and predicted––the conclusions that it reaches are profound, and can shape anew one’s outlook on morality.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath: You’ll learn how to navigate the Heath brothers’ four-step WRAP process (Widen your options, Reality-test your assumptions, Attain distance before deciding, and Prepare to be wrong) for making better decisions, both personally and professionally.  Full of stories and with plenty of evidence from the cognitive sciences to back up its claims, Decisive is a delightful, easy read.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom: Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom discusses what could be one of humanity’s most pressing problems: the risks of advanced artificial intelligence.  As the subtitle implies, Bostrom goes into detail on the potential paths to superintelligence, the challenges for humanity in the face of superintelligence, and potential strategies that we can use to prepare ourselves for it.  The dry, academic style of the book makes it a tough read at times, but you won’t find a more comprehensive, well-thought-out perspective on superintelligence anywhere else.

Economics Without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism, by Joseph Heath: In this very readable book, philosopher Joseph Heath tackles six economic fallacies of both the left and the right, and in doing so provides a great avenue for readers to learn some fundamental economic concepts along the way.  As you read through why some common mantras taken up by either side of the political spectrum (e.g., “Private sector good, government bad!” or “Redistribution good, profiteering bad!”) fail as prescriptions for good policy, you’ll realize that proposing economic policy always requires thinking a few steps ahead.

The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll: If you’re looking for answers to big questions, then this is your book.   How do we interpret the weirdness of quantum mechanics?  Where did life come from?  What is the probability that a God exists?  What is consciousness, and is it compatible with a naturalistic world?  And oh, what about free will?  Physicist Sean Carroll tackles these questions and more in a wonderful tour of everything metaphysics, all within his preferred metaphysical framework, “poetic naturalism.”

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki: This book aims to show that, contrary to popular belief, the aggregate opinion of a crowd of people tends to be more accurate than even the opinions of the smartest individuals in that crowd, as long as the crowd is made up of a diverse group of individuals whose opinions are generated independently from each other.  Surowiecki illustrates this principle not only with published psychology research, but also with a host of real-world examples, ranging from livestock weight-guessing contests to the stock market.  Also discussed is how groups can be unwise, leading to events such as the Columbia disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner: Tetlock and Gardner describe how, year after year, a group of ordinary people were able to predict the outcomes of future global events – from US elections to stock market swings to obscure policy changes – with higher accuracy than even US intelligence analysts in a huge government-sponsored research project.  They conclude that these “superforecasters” were not news junkies or mathematical geniuses.  Instead, what they all had in common was a knack for probablistic thinking, an awareness of their own cognitive biases, and a willingness to learn from their mistakes.  A supremely important book that could change how the US government – and perhaps governments around the world – forecasts the future.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman: Kahneman summarizes decades of cognitive psychology research to detail how our own brains can work against us, in the forms of heuristics and cognitive biases.  An extremely important read for anyone who is interested in making decisions in a rational manner.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker: Pinker, in this epic 850-page book, argues that, despite a constant barrage of news telling us that the world is full of war, poverty, and terrorism, violence has actually reliably declined over the millenia, and we are currently living in the most peaceful era in recorded human history. Pinker utilizes a host of graphs, figures, and statistics in a convincing tour de force that will leave you with a renewed sense of optimism for the future of humanity.

What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers: This classic introductory text goes through the history of the philosophy of science, starting with a brief discussion of empiricism and ending up in the modern-day realist vs. anti-realist disputes.  If you want to know why it is that science as an institution has been able to successfully illuminate our understanding of the world, this book will certainly help clarify your thinking.

Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, by Heather Douglas: Douglas argues against the current notion that science, in order to maintain its objectivity, should remain “value-free,” and instead proposes a new ideal under which cognitive, social, and ethical values would play a role in scientists’ recommendations to policy-makers.  A little bit of a dry read, but an interesting read nonetheless.