Most Interesting Books I Read in 2022
Ritual behavior, ancient Greece, healthy eating & human power dynamics
Another year has passed. As usual, I finished a number of books—fewer than I hoped. I’m not the type of person who feels committed to finishing every book I start. Sometimes I read them all the way through in a relatively short period of time. Some I read bit by bit over extended periods. Still others I never finish. (Not all books are worthy of your loyalty).
These are the most interesting books I finished in 2022. All come highly recommended and reflect a range of subjects. Together with each I have included books and M&M podcast episodes they pair well with, which can be consumed to supplement your learning experience.
Book: Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living by Dimitris Xygalatas
What I liked & learned: A younger version of myself used to scoff at the irrationality of so much of human behavior. We believe in things that have no empirical basis. We engage in irrational behaviors that seem antithetical to a modern, scientifically informed understanding of the world. Religious beliefs and their associated rituals are prime examples. Aren’t these just superstitious anachronisms that we can do without now that we’ve been Enlightened by the knowledge and technology bestowed upon us through the scientific method?
That attitude, which I once held firm, is actually produced by failing to apply good evolutionary thinking. Any time that costly behavior persists in a population over many generations, it’s a good hint that some evolutionary purpose is being served. Even if the behavior seems dumb, and even if the behavior’s actual purpose has nothing to do with people’s conception of it’s purpose, it may still be adaptive in the evolutionary sense.
So why are seemingly senseless acts in form of ritual behaviors strongly expressed by all human cultures, past and present? If they’re just useless anachronisms, why hasn’t evolution weeded them out? The answer is that evolution hasn’t weeded them out because they aren’t useless. “Ritual” explains why.
This book explores many different ritual behaviors across a wide range of human cultures and animal species. We learn, for example, that it’s probably no coincidence that humans and songbirds are some of the most ritualized species on the planet, and what this has to do with the evolution of music, language, and rhythmic group activities.
Xygalatas argues that instead of merely being senseless quirks of culture, “rituals serve as a mental technology that helps us live outside our ecological niche.” The concept of mental or social technology is powerful. It helps you reappraise cultural behaviors in functional terms. Couple this with evolutionary thinking, and you can turbo charge your ability to think about culture. Ritual behaviors—mental technology—may often seem senseless or arbitrary, but these practices evolved for a reason. They arose to serve some ecological function, just like physical adaptions. (Whether long-standing ritual practices still serve an adaptive function in modernity—in environments different from those they first evolved in—is a separate issue. They may or may not).
Specific ritual practices can and should be analyzed on their own terms, but ritual behaviors in general speak to vital psychological needs tied to the anxiety we naturally feel as inhabitants of an unpredictable world. This is especially true for ecological generalists like humans, who are specifically adapted to thriving in diverse and highly dynamic environments across the globe.
Xygalatas does a good job of defining ritual, contrasting it with habit. In addition to providing a fascinating survey of human cultural practices, Xygalatas’ arguments are rooted in biology and good evolutionary thinking. If you’ve ever been puzzled by the fact that we harbor so many odd or empirically unjustifiable beliefs and what this has to do with the universality of ritual behavior, read this book. Especially if you’re a hyper-rational, scientifically minded person, “Ritual” may illuminate something uncomfortable: you also engage in these seemingly senseless acts, whether you realize it or not.
Pair with: The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence Deacon. I discussed the ideas in this book with Terrence on M&M #20. It’s all about the evolution of language and how this was made possible by humans’ capacity for symbolic cognition, including how symbolic ritual practices (e.g. marriage/mating rituals) may have bootstrapped the emergence of language.
Book: The Story of Civilization, Vol. II: The Life of Greece by Will Durant
What I liked & learned: If you’re like me, then you’ve probably spent most of your life thinking of ancient civilizations in monolithic terms. But ancient civilizations that existed for centuries weren’t just one society or culture, they were each many. There wasn’t one “ancient Greece,” but many distinct cultures which flourished, died out and recombined with one another over the centuries. These cultures all influenced and gave way to others through a process of cultural evolution that involved conquest, trade, and migration.
This is a long but beautifully written book. Durant tells the stories of the many cultures constituting “ancient Greece”—what they were like, how they came about, and the factors leading to their demise. This book helped me see something clearly: cultures, like organisms, are dynamic systems subject to evolutionary change. They mutate and evolve. They can flourish. They can go extinct. From the opening, I was hooked:
As we enter the fairest of all waters, leaving behind us the Atlantic and Gibraltar, we pass at once into the arena of Greek history. ‘Like frogs around a pond,’ said Plato, ‘we have settled down upon the shores of this sea.’
The title, “The Life of Greece,” subtly implies an important lesson revisited throughout the book: all lives eventually come to an end.
Pair with: The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku, which was the subject of M&M #1. Brian tells an amazing story about how secret rituals involving the intentional use of psychedelics, nearly forgotten to history, may have been critical for the emergence of Western civilization. More than anything, it emphasizes a key piece of wisdom known to many ancient peoples: the purpose of life is to prepare for death.
Book: Eat Like the Animals: What Nature Teaches Us About the Science of Healthy Eating by David Raubenheimer & Stephen Simpson
What I liked & learned: This is not your typical diet book. It is first and foremost a biology book, rather than a self-help guide to losing weight or a promise that [insert trendy diet] is the diet.
“Eat Like the Animals” extracts useful wisdom from a curious but widespread observation that holds true across species: when given a diverse array of foods in their environment, animals are able to spontaneously balance their diets. From locusts to baboons, wild animals choose what to consume in just the right portions in order to obtain the calorie and nutrition content their body’s need. They are somehow doing without consulting dietitians, reading books, or watching hours of curated video content.
How is it that even the dumbest animals are able to perform this balancing act? What is the underlying biology and what, exactly, is the body optimizing for? “Eat Like the Animals” provides interesting insights into the modern human dilemma of healthy dieting through the study of how and why the physiological systems regulating hunger and satiety evolved to operate. As it turns out, our sensory systems are geared toward detecting and seeking out a surprisingly small number of critical macro- and micronutrients. This gives us the natural ability to detect specific flavors to use as a guide to food selection. A major reason why big-brained humans have so much diet trouble is that many of our modern consumer creations are specifically engineered to hack our sensory systems, preventing us from doing what other animals achieve naturally.
A key takeaway that the book unpacks in more detail: if an animal’s minimum protein requirements are not met, then it will be motivated to keep eating until they are.
Pair with: A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying. My academic roots are in evolutionary biology, so I’m a firm believer in the utility of evolutionary thinking for understanding humanity. This book is a great introduction to applied evolutionary thinking. If you want to understand why humans act the way that we do, including how “mismatches” between our modern environment and those that our lineage evolved in can explain many of our modern maladies, this is an excellent starting point. I also spoke to Bret & Heather on M&M #36.
Book: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
What I liked & learned: There’s a reason why this is considered a classic. Now I know why. Machiavelli is a misunderstood historical figure. In psychology, Machiavellianism is a personality trait used to describe people who are manipulative, callous, and indifferent to morality.
In my reading, “The Prince” is not a nihilistic book, advocating that it’s good or bad to behave in certain ways. It’s a dispassionate study of human power dynamics, which Machiavelli put together through a clear love of the study of history (see the quote below).
While his subject is inherently political, his approach reminds me of a naturalist, seeking to understand how and why things happen the way they do, without getting distracted by a desire for the world to be a certain way. If you were a zoologist studying animal life in the African Serengeti, you would observe many tragic and “unjust” acts. But the zoologist is not concerned with whether it’s right or wrong for hyenas to eat baby gazelles. The aim of the zoologist is to observe what actually takes place on the Serengeti and understand why things happen as they do. This is Machiavelli’s approach to the study of power. The power games people play are often brutal, violent, and unfortunate. Machiavelli’s aim is to understand, not to judge.
Pair with: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green, which we discussed on M&M #66. In this uniquely structured book, Robert Greene tells the story of many historical figures, Machiavelli among them. How did various people obtain, wield, and hold or lose power? Like Machiavelli himself, Greene takes a dispassionate look at human power dynamics in order to illuminate how things work. Another good supplement is M&M #34 with Rob Henderson, which is all about social status, moral psychology, and human social behavior.