How the World Works

Below are 10 books that helped me understand how the world actually works.

The first 12 (or 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 the underlying truth.

Which is to say I went through the first 20 or 30 years of my life not really learning how the world actually works. To understand how the world 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 and forces. Memorizing for exams doesn’t incentivize that kind of learning – but it’s the most valuable kind.

The books below gave me just that – the right frameworks for interpreting and predicting the world around me. After I had read them I felt like I had a superpower, like the cover had been lifted off the world and its moving parts had been exposed – all the mechanics of people and society right there for me to see. Such is the power of the condensed knowledge of hundreds of years of thought and research contained in these books.

It’s like cheating. If you can call 8,000 plus pages of dense reading cheating!

The books below are:

  • Fundamental - They approach a discipline from a systems perspective, focus on the most important aspects, and distill it to fundamental forces. They don’t worry about being opinionated, biased, or not comprehensive – they just want to get to the bottom of things. Also, the readings expose the underlying causal mechanics, not just narrow observations or experiments strung together.

  • Readable - The books are engaging to the curious mind, are well written, and respect the reader’s time and attention.

  • History-first - They focus on a comparative history of the important events and their interpretation, as opposed to focusing on a theory and then supporting it with history. Why? There’s a selection problem: it’s too easy to find history (or science) that fits to any given theory, so we end up with the most seductive (or confirming) theories being the most popular and widely accepted. A history-first approach asks: What are the big events and unknowns that need to be explained and what is the best explanation given the facts of the situation? This question makes us less susceptible to attractive theories and allows our minds to build their own causal models of the world, whereas theory-first books are incentivized to present an over-simplified world-view.

This is not a “Greatest books of all time” list, so the books are not necessarily:

  • Influential - This list isn’t for celebrating past achievements, it’s for teaching us how the world works. Books that were revolutionary and ground-breaking in their day are often superseded by a new synthesis of modern thinking (or are already incorporated into our world-view), and so are not a good fit for this list. (Sorry Darwin!)

  • Gripping - Lots of great non-fiction books are great because of the depth and color they bring to a particular story: a biography, a subject matter, a journey. Sometimes these stories have deep and broad implications on how the world works (like #9), but often they are just captivating in their narrow way. Most of the books on this list are actually fascinating, but by consequence and accident of the primary criteria, not by selection.

  • Moral - Other great books teach us how we should act – they emphasize moral lessons or great triumphs or violations of justice. These books are important and rightly deserve the recognition they get, but this list is for the what, how, and why; not the should or shouldn’t.

This list isn’t the only such list you could create – there are great books I’ve missed and even greater books that have yet to be written. But I hope it succeeds in its aims nonetheless: to give you the superpower of knowing how the world works.

Last Updated: May 13, 2017

  1. History
  2. People
  3. Organizations

History

First, four “big history” books covering the whole sweep of humanity and its creations. These books give a foundation for interpreting the modern world. Reading history is 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.

Pre-read: Non-zero - A shorter, more optimistic zoom through human evolutionary history, with an emphasis on the trend of increasing cooperation at increasingly large scales.

Follow-on: Guns, Germs, and Steel - If you still haven’t had enough grand early human history you can check out the similar, also very popular (but flawed and less comprehensive) Guns, 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.

Pre-read: No pre-read, just read Fukuyama. Both volumes ideally.

Follow-on: Political Order and Political Decay - The second volume in the series. Similar, but covering political development from the industrial revolution up to modern times. Highly recommended.

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.

Pre-read: Economics in One Lesson - [PDF] Quick primer on basic economics if you’ve never taken a course, or forgot the one you did take. Mind the libertarian slant.

Follow-on: The Road to Serfdom - A bit more Hayek to balance out Heilbroner.

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.

Pre-read: Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy - Another, alternative, intro to economics, also with a strong libertarian slant.

Follow-on: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty - Another comparative look at economic development.


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.

Pre-read: Selfish Gene - The classic evolutionist’s text.

Follow-on: On Human Nature - O.E. Wilson’s next book, going deeper on the implications for human behavior.

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.

Pre-read: Influence - A lighter, more targeted introduction to similar concepts.

Follow-on: Thinking Fast and Slow - An impressive catalog of psychology and behavioral economics research, if tedious. All the same caveats from above apply here as well.

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.

Pre-read: Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction - Quick, readable overview.

Follow-on: The Varieties of Religious Experience - Old classic, religion from the perspective of a psychologist.


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!]

Pre-read: Business Adventures - There’s a reason Bill Gates and Warren Buffet recommend this book – it’s because it is the epitome of a history-first book: no grand seductive theory, just real stories that illuminate interesting aspects of how the world works.

Follow-on: Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco - A highly entertaining introduction to the world of finance and corporate management.

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.

Pre-read: The Dictator’s Handbook - Presents a coherent theory of power and how to keep it.

Follow-on: No follow on, the 1,400+ dense pages of The Power Broker is enough!

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.

Follow-on: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World - Deep into the world of finance and international politics – not much has changed in the intervening 90 years.