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Three Books to Change the World

Sort of an off week. Perhaps these books haven't changed the world, but they revolutionized my point of view on the world, much more so than better-known pop science books like Freakonomics or Blink.

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

Prior to this book, Pinker was primarily known for his popular-science books on the inner workings of the mind, and particularly its relationship with language. He's a professor of psychology at Harvard, having spent much of his career studying cognitive neuroscience at MIT.

But The Blank Slate is something different: it aggressively makes the case that much of our behavior is inherited, rather than a product of environment or somehow handed down through a "spirit" separate from the body, as in Cartesian dualism -- but that's just the beginning. By the end of the book, he has made a compelling case for secular humanism, based on the argument that this genetic, tangible base for the human condition makes seemingly abstract concepts like love even more real than any religion can claim them to be. Knowing these facts of our existence, he asks, how should we live? Rather than nihilism, he finds a much richer experience in a humanist, atheist world.

John Dunn's The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics

This is one of the most intellectually dense books I have ever read; one of the few that has made me reach for my dictionary, or read sentences over and over again to grasp their full meaning. There are pages in this book that have more content and insight than whole textbooks. Dunn studies in turn many different models of human society, building slowly his argument that the search for a perfect system is ultimately futile. But, trite as it may seem, the seven hundred or so pages effectively boil down to one of the most compelling arguments ever made that representative democracy isn't great, but it's far better than anything else ever attempted.

Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

What happens when there's no more scarcity -- even of life? Doctorow's novel begins with the cure for death, the end of money, and the society that is built afterwards. It's the ultimate unstated goal of modern society, but what would you do with a few extra centuries, and the Earth at your doorstep? How does human nature cope with those possibilities, and what becomes most valuable?

Best of all, this one is actually free to read online, at Cory Doctorow's website.

Ok, here's a Fourth Book

Finally, an honorable mention to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I just finished reading. It's remarkable for its ability to place the aspirations of humans in the context of the workings of our home here on Earth.