My top three reads of 2016

If you are looking for book reviews, stop here and move on. I selected these three books from 2016 because they made a major impact on either expanding on what I already thought I knew or changed my frame of reference entirely. They should be required reading for everyone and especially the next generations coming up to make better sense of the world going forward. The following are just a few quick references to hopefully get your mind wanting to dive deeper on its own.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A book about evolution this is certainly not, however, from that aspect it does bring up a question early in its opening:

Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted?

Obviously that did not happen but more importantly the linear process you see so often referenced in the ‘charts’ of an ape’s transition into man are misleading at best. It is actually more natural for separate species to exist at the same time than it is for only one — and in this case Homo sapiens…

Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Something to think about and perhaps a reason why we continue to be so intolerant of our brothers and sisters who choose to be different through culture or have been born different because of race.

Moving onto the agricultural revolution here is another frame of reference that paleo dieters would appreciate:

The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.

The above brings you less than a quarter into the journey of the book which constantly challenges the common conception of how we got where we are and explains a lot of the challenges we still face as we move forward.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Maybe you have read, or at least heard of, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets or The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility. I have read them long ago and I think they started the shift in my brain that always itched about the BS (a term Taleb uses a lot) delivered from investment advisors and economists. (I have not touched The Bed of Procrustes yet)

Reading this book gave syntax to the barbell strategy I use in portfolio management today, and in general, far greater context to putting a word to something that gains from disorder — antifragile.

Suckers try to win arguments, nonsuckers try to win.

Yes, I would rather win than win an argument and being human it is sometimes hard to push past natural biases but as Taleb says…

We can also see from the turkey story the mother of all harmful mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence, a mistake that we will see tends to prevail in intellectual circles and one that is grounded in the social sciences.

Thus, reaching for the bigger picture even when life gets in the way can yield amazing usefulness. The best part of the book is that it is written with a humor of confidence few, other than Taleb, have the ability to deliver. As he said a while back on Facebook: “Be aggressive in private, be robust in your public work. You will sleep well at night.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.

I have read books on psychology. I have read books on psychiatry. I thought, and probably did, learn a lot yet after reading this book my mind once again shifted to what I saw as the world around me. As much as people are different they are also different because of their past experiences. The statement sounds obvious but the depth of its truth goes well beyond the academic. One striking example was a couple involved in a massive car accident:

Not all people react to trauma in exactly the same way, but in this case the difference is particularly dramatic, since Ute was sitting right next to Stan in the wrecked car. She responded to her trauma script by going numb: Her mind went blank, and nearly every area of her brain showed markedly decreased activity. Her heart rate and blood pressure didn’t elevate. When asked how she’d felt during the scan, she replied: “I felt just like I felt at the time of the accident: I felt nothing.”

Trauma is a hard subject and gives foundation to the issues where overly prescribed drugs sometimes, at best, mask symptoms without solving any long term problems. I took it as good news there are ways help people move on, yet depressing that there seems to be so much in the way of real progress on this front…

Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

At the end my conclusion that the only real solution to finding world peace is ensuring a happy childhood for everyone on their journey to adulthood. Though I am a firm believer that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, Bessel gave me a greater appreciation for the spectrum of the challenges for what it is to be human.

As I mentioned at the start — this is not a review or even an attempt at highlighting the most interesting parts. Rather it is an attempt to hopefully pique your interest enough to dig into the full texts of each book. (All also available on audio and Kindle) If you have any connection at all to what I noted above you will not be disappointed!

(Originally posted in Medium)