8 Books on Worldly Wisdom — Musing Zebra

How do we attain wisdom? It starts with knowledge. What kind of knowledge should we acquire? Peter Kaufman’s three buckets of knowledge can guide us.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

The three buckets of knowledge are math and physics, biology, and human behavior. Below are a few that fill these buckets.

Why do some parts of the world reach civilization faster than others? Why did the Spanish colonize the Americas instead of the other way round? Jared Diamond studies how environmental factors and geography such as climate, food production, agriculture, and livestock create an advantage cascade for some countries over the others. This book opened my eyes and I admire Jared Diamond for his multidisciplinary thinking. This is also one of Charlie Munger’s favorite books.

As the name implies, this book covers everything from agriculture, the industrial revolution, to the development of religion, language, and scientific revolution. This book fascinates me and terrified me at the same time. Questioning some of my most deeply held beliefs and what reality is. A book that will give you a fresh perspective on who we are.

Steven Johnson looks across many domains from biology, society, business, to information networks and ecosystems to understand the essence of creativity, how each domain finds solutions, and if any commonalities form the fabrics of innovation? One can think of these seven patterns of innovation-the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, and platforms-as mental models. If you want to be more creative, be good at problem-solving, or develop second-level thinking, these seven models are your buffet. What if you want to improve your chances of finding new ideas in the stock market? You need liquid networks, serendipity, and platforms. Improve analytical skills? Try the adjacent possible, slow hunch, and error. If you want to understand (or find) disruptive technologies or companies, exaptation, error, and platforms are the DNA.

Another Munger’s favorite read. The Selfish Gene is a gene’s point of view on evolution and natural selection. Richard Dawkins argues that the group selection theory cannot explain the biology of altruism or selfishness. Because what ‘group’ are we referring to? Species, genus, order, family, class? Dawkins, therefore, proposed that “the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity…We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

Before the arrival of Homo sapiens, there were five mass extinctions in Earth’s history where over 75% of the species got wiped out. And according to Elizabeth Kolbert, the sixth one is happening right now. Kolbert looks into the discovery of the past five extinctions, what happened during those geological epochs, before turning our attention to the present day, “fragmented Amazon rainforest, on a fast-warming slope in the Andes, on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef.” This is a story about the relationship between Homo Sapiens and other animals. How Homo sapiens alter the planet and drive the sixth extinction on Earth’s wildlife.

We aren’t aware of why we always behave in certain ways under certain conditions. Our thoughts and behavior are largely concealed from us, operating under the subconscious level. In this book, Robert Greene shows how understanding the laws of human nature will make you calmer, more observant, and less judgmental. You’ll learn how to avoid toxic dramas, alter negative thoughts, and elevate yourself into a better being. I’ll be surprised if these traits don’t turn you into a better investor too.

“This book is the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the “gene,” the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.” How do genes replicate? How can thousands of cell types arise from an embryo out of the same set of genes? And what kind of role do genes play in cancer or heritable mental illnesses? Siddharta Mukherjee, a cancer biologist, dives into the history of genes, the discovery of diseases-linked genes through gene sequencing, and cloning to understand how genes make us who we are. It is also a story of how genes intertwined with race, politics, science, morals, and sexuality as we went from explanation to manipulation of genes.

Will & Ariel Durant wrote in the opening chapter that “since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads-astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war-what history has to say about nature, conduct, and prospects of man.” Some consider this book to have the most page-for-page wisdom. I don’t disagree.

Worth mentioning

If you like books on mental models, check out Seeking Wisdom, Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Filters Against Folly, and Super Thinking. Thinking Fast and Slow and Thinking in Systems are my favorite. For physics, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a good start. How to Solve It and How Not To Be Wrong teach you how to think mathematically.

Originally published at https://musingzebra.com on September 16, 2020.

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