10 Big Idea Books

In a recent conversation Brad Denenberg of seedphilly.com was lamenting that the pressures of being in a startup had kept him from reading anything non-work related for months.  We got to talking about what a list of big idea books might be.  Herewith a list of ten of my favorites, chosen because they are

  1. Readable
  2. Are about a big idea (or several)
  3. Changed the way I think about something
  4. Keep coming up in conversation

The 10,000 Year ExplosionGregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Human evolution hasn’t been frozen by culture: in fact it seems to happening at great speed, with some significant changes in the last 10,000 years. Cases in point:

  1. Malaria resistance
  2. Lactose tolerance
  3. Higher intelligence in the Ashkenazi

The Selfish GeneRichard Dawkins — How genes use us to propagate themselves. Dawkins invented the term “meme”, one of those pesky terms that refer to themselves.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from MatterTerence Deacon. Online talk. Extra capacity, coalesced into language, then became fixed. Analogies to entrepreneurship.

Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We ReadStanislas Dehaene — Dehaene hooked people up to NMI machines while they were reading & watched how the brain processes text. For instance, there seems to be more need for context to understand Chinese than English, so brain activation patterns are different when reading Chinese than English.

Consciousness ExplainedDaniel C. Dennett — what do we mean by consciousness, by free will? Most striking, Dennett discusses this without reference to the underlying physics:  he defines free will in operational terms, in terms of our ability to make choices.

The Beginning of InfinityDavid Deutsch.  Argues with great force for the superiority of open-ended, evolving societies over static.

Guns, Germs, & Steel: the Fates of Human SocietiesJared Diamond — how geographic factors led to the success of the west. Diamond argues geography explains why European diseases decimated American Indian populations (rather than vice versa) & why European technology out performed Indian, Chinese, & American Indian technology.

The Checklist ManifestoAtul Gawande. Simple checklists can produce significant improvement in medical results.  For instance, a five step checklist for inserting a catheter reduced mortality rates enormously.  In a hospital environment, one of constant interruption, it was just very easy to lose track of what had been done/was till to be done, with often fatal results.

Thinking Fast & SlowDaniel Kahneman — how our instinctive responses to problems can lead to error & failure. We can’t function without relying on our instincts; at the same time they often lead us astray — and in fairly predicable ways.

Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of EverythingSteven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner — economics in everyday life; why drug dealers live with their moms.

Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time – Huw Price.  Price argues that our normal view of time as asymmetric & one way has a stronger foundation in psychology than physics.  The only thing that gives time a direction is that the Big Bang was a point of low entropy.  It has all been downhill since then.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableNassim Nicholas Taleb — how real world success is dominated by rare “black swan” events; the failure of Long Term Capital Management a case in point.

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