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The best books I’ve read in 2021


The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. His previous book, The Secret of Our Success, argues that humans are successful not because they are smart or social, but because of their culture and their learning ability. People survive not because they solve puzzles well, but because their ancestors figured out how how to build houses from ice and how not to die from eating cassava. This, in turn, influences human genetics, biology, and psychology (you can have lactose tolerance if you have domesticated cows, you can be a long-distance runner if you have containers for water, you can have social status based on prestige if learning is important).

The WEIRDest People in the World is focused on one particular instance of this interplay between culture and biology: differences between WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) people and everyone else. WEIRD people are more individualistic, follow rules, and experience guilt; in other cultures people are focused on their group and experience shame. One way this is important: when you build a modern society, clans are extremely bad. It’s hard to get anywhere if all your finance ministers put their family’s wealth above the country’s prosperity, or if don’t trust non-relatives enough to hire them.

Henrich argues that the main reason West got rid of clans is the Catholic church ban on cousin marriage: if you are forced to marry someone who is not your relative, families get weaker over time. The Catholic church part, I think, requires more extraordinary evidence (and I would love to see in the book more discussion of the hypothesis’ predictivity: e.g., if you’re hired as an economic advisor in a poor African country, should you recommend banning cousin marriage?). More generally, the important question is: when cultures do change, how does this happen?

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon. Most of the books in the genre of “let me tell you about a specialised subject in down-to-earth language with jokes about the contemporary world” aren’t good because they lack substance. A Fatal Thing has a lot of substance on both Roman murders and how do we know anything about them.

The Quick Fix by Jesse Singal. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to fix racism by running a single training? Deal with confidence issues by standing correctly? Handle obesity crisis by using smaller plates? Of course it would, and all these ideas are so amazing that people forget about checking whether they work. When we check, it turns that implicit bias doesn’t predict real-world behaviour, power posing doesn’t replicate, and plate studies were produced by Industrial P-Hacking & Magic. (Singal actually doesn’t cover Wansink’s food studies, but if you want more on them, Stuart Ritchie’s Science Fictions is still very good). In reality, most hard things are hard, and getting rid of “one weird trick” hopes is one of them.

The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef. Soldier mindset: how can I win this argument and prove to someone that A is true? Scout mindset: how can I learn what is true? If you would like to spend more time in the scout mindset, this book might help you.

Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom by Brian Porter-Szücs. If you want a single volume on general Polish history, this is my current pick.

We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins. A history of Bellingcat creation mixed with some of their greatest hits.

Europe: The First 100 Million Years by Tim Flannery. What animals lived in what is now Europe 100, 65, or 5 million years ago? What happened to them and why don’t we have forest elephants in Europe anymore? Speaking of which: Flannery thinks we should have elephants (and other extinct animals) in Europe again, especially since they may have been hunted out by early humans. Sure, living close to elephants can be quite inconvenient, but why should only Africa be responsible for preserving the species?

The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman. A short overview of our current understanding of human skin and related illnesses (including ageing). Sunlight is your main enemy; eating or injecting stuff that your skin is missing generally doesn’t work.

The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. The main reason foreign aid is so bad is misaligned incentives: if you work at a foreign aid agency, the opinions of people in your first-world country matter more than the opinions of people who are supposed to be helped. The former pay your salary and decide how much money you manage, the latter… well, maybe you see their finance minister once or twice? And since effective altruism is an idea that somehow still isn’t universal, you can get away with doing completely useless stuff for a very long time without any of the stakeholders really caring. Of course, there are successful programs, but generally we should have fewer large agencies and more GiveDirectly donations.

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger. Climate change is bad, but not “we’re all gonna die by 2030”-bad. On the other hand, living in extreme poverty is also bad, and to lift people from it we need a lot more energy. We can combine dealing with both, but a lot of current environmentalism has a strong whiff of neocolonialism (no, you can’t build that dam, haven’t you thought of your unique fauna, it’s such a pity that in Europe we don’t have anything like this anymore—would Soccket, a power-generating soccer ball from Kickstarter be good enough for you?). Also, nuclear power is still very good and useful and leaves a lot of space for animals to roam.


The Complete Short Stories by Saki. Only Wilde’s sentences are better.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. An excellent novel about life in Nigeria before and during the Biafra war.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. Fighting climate change properly is expensive and slow, but sending some sulfur into the stratosphere is (relatively) cheap, so why not do it if your city may go underwater tomorrow? Some people’s answer is “geoengineering is so bad we should never think about it and ban any research”. The novel’s answer is “covert operations against your installations by countries that don’t like the effects of sulfur”. Comes with a bibliography.

Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey. The final book in the The Expanse series, which, ultimately, is also about (not) dealing with an existential crisis.

(In 2017 Ty Franck was complaining about Mass Effect 3’s ending, and yet, The Expanse’s ending is, in a lot of ways, the same—and Wilson Duarte is definitely the Illusive Man.)

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. A graphic memoir about Sattouf’s childhood spent in Libya, Syria, and France. Life in Libya and Syria under Gaddafi and Assad was as good as you’d expect (“Of course you’re poor and your life sucks, but have you seen how great our country is and how afraid the whole West is?”), and yet it’s his life in a small Syrian village, far away from any dictators, that is the most terrifying part. At least no one made him kick that Soccket.