How the World Works

The first 16 years of my education focused on memorizing facts: passphrases that I handed back to my teacher at exam time (with varying success). After I left the formal education system, I learned about the world through articles and front-page news: stories – interesting stories – that usually had little connection with reality.

Which is to say I went the first 20 or 30 years of my life not learning how the world actually works. To understand how the world actually works requires building a model of the fundamental forces and causes that drive events and behaviors. It requires zooming out of time and place to see the bigger patterns. Memorizing for exams doesn’t incentivize that kind of learning, but it’s the most valuable kind.

The books below helped give me the right frameworks for interpreting and predicting the world. After I had read them I felt like I had a superpower, like the hood had been lifted off the world and I could see it's moving parts plainly for the first time. Such is the power of the condensed knowledge of hundreds of years of thought and research contained in books. It’s like cheating, if you can call 8,000 plus pages of dense reading cheating.

The best books are comparative history books. They ask: what are the big events and unknowns that need to be explained and what is the best explanation that fits the cases we can find? You won't find any theory-first books on the list (e.g. of the Gladwellian type). They suffer from a selection problem: it’s too easy to find history (or science) that supports a given theory, so we end up with the most seductive (or confirming) theories being the most popular and widely accepted. Without starting with the history, the whole picture, it's hard to know what theories to believe.
This list isn’t the only such list you could create – there are great books I’ve missed (please share your suggestions) and even greater books that have yet to be written. But it's a start.
  1. History
  2. People
  3. Organizations


History

The first four books are “big history”, covering the whole sweep of humanity and its creations. These books give a foundation for interpreting the modern world. Reading history is like having the magical ability to live parallel lives and explore parallel worlds.

1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens is a big history of the human species, from our evolution in Africa millions of years ago, through the cultural, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. It’s an unvarnished look at the human condition on the grandest scale. It introduces us to a recurring theme: the world is fundamentally evolutionary (“Darwinian”) – those organisms, empires, cultures, organizations, and ideas that survive and/or “reproduce” successfully are the ones that will tend to exist in the world. As in: religion spread not because of its righteousness or the will of a higher power, but because groups of humans that happened to adopt (or be susceptible to) religion cooperated better than those that did not, and were therefore more successful at reproducing and expanding.

Further readingNon-zeroGuns, Germs, and Steel

2. The Origins of Political Order

Origins of Political Order is another big history book, covering political development and the formation of states from the earliest civilizations up to the industrial revolution. Fukuyama’s sweeping knowledge of comparative history makes for a highly credible journey through the basic realities of state building and what it means to have a functioning government, and how you arrive there. Few history books achieve so much in so few pages.

3. The Worldly Philosophers

Heilbroner gives us a tour of the history of economic thought, through the lives of the great minds that developed it. Along the way we learn the fundamentals of economics and its historical development, as well as about economic philosophy’s (large, occasionally catastrophic) role in shaping our world, all while giving perspective on modern economic orthodoxy. Immeasurably better than the remedial calculus course you were given as economics 101.

4. The Birth of Plenty

For most of human civilization economics was boring: almost all production was agricultural, growth was driven by a Malthusian population cycle, and entrepreneurship and innovation were limited. The industrial revolution and rise of modern liberal capitalism changed that and transformed the world in the process. Today, direct economic forces drive nearly everything in our daily lives. This is why we are reading a second book on economics.
The Birth of Plenty gives a history of modern economic development, describing the conditions under which economic growth and prosperity occur.



People

We all have an intuitive understanding of ourselves, the people in our lives, and the social interactions that are so important to our world. Nonetheless, we carry blindspots (often by design) to some of the basic aspects of our behavior. The three books in this section illuminate the more hidden elements of people and their behaviors, as well as providing a foundation for thinking about the source and motivation of behaviors in general.

5. Sociobiology

Sociobiology provides the foundation for understanding animal, and thus human, behavior as social organisms, covering the biological and evolutionary origins of altruism, cooperation, aggression, sex, and everything in between.

Further readingSelfish GeneOn Human Nature

6. The Social Animal

Psychology is plagued by bad science and popular writing misinterpreting it. There are a lot of over-reaching extrapolations and over-confident generalizations of narrow, contrived experiments on college students. This isn’t researchers’ fault, the science is inherently hard: you can only manipulate one variable in an experiment, but social and psychological contexts involve dozens of complex dimensions, many of which can be important to the outcome. To make it worse, often both context and outcomes are not directly observable, but can only be measured in proxy. Bottom line: it is hard to experimentally verify human behavior.
With that giant caveat, I present The Social Animal, one of the best of the lot. It is a compendium of social psychology research, covering our behaviors under social conditions, including all our quirks and dysfunctions.

Further readingInfluenceThinking Fast and Slow

7. The World’s Religions

For most of human civilization, religion was (and still is, to various extents) the foundation of society, culture, rule of law, and even economic production. The World’s Religions is a dive into each of the world’s seven main religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – plus consideration of primal religions. Smith is an engaging, if not particularly critical, narrator.



Organizations

Organizations are the foundation for the basic functions of society – businesses, municipalities, civic groups, churches, etc. They are the day-to-day institutions that operate the world. We’ll study the two most important here: Political and business organizations.

8. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller

Titan is the story of the life of John D. Rockefeller and the rise of Standard Oil. It’s also the story of entrepreneurship, industry, and business – and the fundamental forces at work in capitalism. [Sidenote: I’m looking for a better business book recommendation, since the list includes another, more important, book on oil. It would be nice to have some diversity of industry!]

9. The Power Broker

This biography of New York public servant Robert Moses is a case study in power and politics – how an individual can accumulate power and resources politically, and the true dynamics of political systems. One of the best biographies ever written.

Further readingThe Dictator’s Handbook

10. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power

A recounting of the 20th century through the lens of oil, which is a very illuminating lens. It shows us the interaction of state and business, and how the dynamics of power and money play out on a grand scale.