Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Lillian Smith: One Writer’s Brave Journey

Lillian Smith was a highly-acclaimed writer, successful business woman, a creative educator, an early civil rights advocate, and one of the most effective champions of social justice in the 20th century. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally excerpted in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Her best-selling first novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944 and told the story of an inter-racial love affair in a rural Georgia town shortly after World War I. Although she lived most of her life in Georgia, Smith was born in 1897 about 90 miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Jasper, in Hamilton County, Florida.   She was the seventh of the nine children of Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith. The town of Jasper was founded in the 1830s, but it really didn’t begin to grow until shortly before Lillian was born with a rich trade in turpentine, tobacco, cotton, and pine lumber. Calvin Smith was one of the entrepreneurs in the area who capitalized on that trade with his business ventures in lumber and naval stores.

Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White
Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White

Lillian Smith spent all her childhood and the better part of her teenage years in this town. On many occasions throughout her life, she introduced herself with a story from her childhood years in Jasper, a story she later titled “Trembling Earth.” She said the land in North Florida is strange. She described it as “a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama.” It felt like the ground was floating. Much later, as a seasoned writer, Lillian Smith used this image to describe the human experience: “I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something that we’ll never know, something unknown and mysterious?”

There’s little doubt that her years in Jasper shaped Lillian’s worldview for the rest of her life. As she put it, “No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood,” which included telling stories to her friends, like Marjorie White. For a story to become vividly real, it needs a listener, and Marjorie played that role very well. As Lillian put it, “Her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for.” Near the end of her life, Lillian confided in a friend that when her family moved from Jasper when she was 17, the whole town was all frozen for her – she could go back in her mind and see all of it, and in a sense, she never left it.

When his Florida businesses failed in 1915, Calvin Smith moved the family to the small town of Clayton, in northeast Georgia, where he had recently acquired property on Old Screamer Mountain in his wife’s name and where the Smiths soon opened a summer camp for girls. During the 1915-16 academic year, Lillian Smith attended a small college thirty miles south of Clayton in Demorest, Georgia, called Piedmont College. Many years later, Smith wrote about her short tenure at the institution and expressed her gratitude for the fine instructors she had, some of whom were trained at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, and Cornell. Although she was offered a scholarship to continue at Piedmont for the next year, family obligations prevented her from returning.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and in her mid-twenties she served as the head of the music department in a Methodist mission school for girls in China. She witnessed terrible cruelty and repeated examples of discrimination and injustice. In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. With the demands of the growing summer camp operated by her family, Lillian Smith was obligated to leave China and return to Georgia in 1925 to help with the operation. She had different ideas from her father on how the camp should be structured, and with her parents’ blessing, she soon became the owner and director of the family-run business: Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. Moving far beyond the traditional hallmarks of summer camps, such as swimming, horseback riding, archery, arts, and crafts, Lillian Smith created a female community at Laurel Falls that challenged Southern conventions of gender, sexuality, religion, and race.

Through writing, drama, music, visual arts, and in-depth discussions, she instilled within her campers the importance of independent thinking, compassion, and confidence. Very few camp directors in the South were as bold as Lillian Smith in confronting the issues of segregation and racial inequality. Laurel Falls Camp continued through the late 1940s and developed quite a reputation. Lillian Smith did not manage the camp alone. A woman named Paula Snelling came to work for the Smith family for the summer of 1921 as an athletic director for the camp.  The two women formed a close friendship after Smith returned home and took over the camp, an intimate and loving relationship that developed and grew into a life-long partnership.

Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling
Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Lillian Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1953. Later that year, her third book, titled The Journey, was published. The book expresses the author’s hope for humanity and her belief in our infinite possibilities. The final paragraph of the book begins with this sentence that exemplifies this optimistic vision: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.” Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality, all of which were written from her home on Screamer Mountain. She died on September 28, 1966 and was buried there. Paula Snelling suffered a stroke in 1979 that left her partially paralyzed.  She died in 1985.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive and powerful books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. So many of the words we read from her works are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

Yes, Viva Las Vegas, Because It Is So American

Europeans moved into the Mexican-held area of what is now Las Vegas in the early 1800s on expeditions to open trade routes between New Mexico and California. “Las Vegas” is Spanish for “the meadows,” which described the grassy area in the desert that was fed by a series of springs. By the mid-19th century, this valley region was a part of the United States. The railroads came through in the early 20th century, but southern Nevada was still very much a frontier region. Everything began to change in 1931 with a huge project that would completely alter the physical and cultural landscape of the valley: the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Thousands of workers needed entertainment, and they found it on the city’s only paved road, Fremont Street, where gambling houses and saloons began to pop up with their signature flashing neon signs made possible with the plentiful electricity generated at the dam.

Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club
Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club

As mob money funneled from the east began to pour into the city, the funds went from playing the tables to building casinos, and even legal investors became interested, including the Mormon Church. By the mid-1950s, millions of tourists were making their way to the city, driving up the demand and the supply of casinos, hotels, and night clubs. The Old-West character of the city was replaced by massive, more modern resorts in the 1960s with the interest and influx of cash from big players like Howard Hughes. Into the 1980s and 90s, investors such as Steve Wynn pushed the envelope even further with the introduction of the Mirage and numerous resorts popped up with international themes from places like Paris, Venice, Egypt, and Rome.

Las Vegas resorts
Las Vegas resorts

With its reputation for providing an endless supply of legal amenities around the clock, such as gambling, striptease shows, and alcohol, along with the not-so-legal activities of drugs, money-laundering, and prostitution, Las Vegas has earned the nickname “Sin City.” It is the premiere destination for self-indulgence, excess, and over-the-top entertainment for adults. Over the decades the city has produced a distinctive sub-culture and has inspired hundreds of cliches, myths, and jokes. It attracts more than 41 million visitors each year from every state in the union and all around the world. Seventeen of the twenty largest hotels in the country are in Las Vegas, and they are all luxurious.

Las Vegas night life
Las Vegas night life

Both historians and sociologists have observed that among the advanced countries in the world, America is still like a reckless, impetuous adolescent — full of energy and life, always on the run, flashy and even gaudy, a little out of control, and perhaps a bit naughty. If this is a fair assessment, then Las Vegas is an exhibition of America to the extreme. Visitors come to the city for many different reasons, but most of those reasons revolve around the entertainment options available. Certainly, Vegas is not everyone’s cup of tea, and many people find it shallow, gratuitous, or even repulsive. Be that as it may, this city undeniably presents us with an honest and vivid reflection of an important part of the American spirit. We are a nation driven by sensation. We love to be dazzled, impressed, shocked, and amazed. Las Vegas never fails to deliver.

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino
Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.

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Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.