5 books that explore our humanity
Fri, May 31 2013 at 2:42 PM
Photo: Compilation of book jackets
In his latest book, Michael Pollan notes that anthropologists describe cooking as a “defining human activity,” and that Claude Lévi-Strauss actually referred to it as the act with which culture begins. The way we prepare and share our food is just one of the many pieces to the puzzle of our humanity, along with our relationship to morality, how we experience and express empathy and compassion, the biases — both implicit and explicit — that drive our behavior, and the ways in which we reach back through history for insights on how to better live our modern lives. The following five books all explore one aspect of our humanity, each complex and significant in its own ways.
By Michael Pollan
Publisher: Penguin Press HC
Michael Pollan has written a lot about both agriculture and "the opposite end of the food chain — the eating end." With his latest book he delves into "the middle links of the food chain, where the stuff of nature gets transformed into the things we eat and drink." “Cooked” explores how the four classical elements and building blocks of cooking — fire, water, air, and earth — transform the stuff of nature into delicious dishes and drafts. We follow Pollan’s journey as he learns from culinary masters how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. Of course, the theme of transformation throughout the book is much more multifaceted than simply appreciating how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread. Pollan also addresses how the American relationship with cooking has been transformed over the past five decades. “Cooking is no longer obligatory, and that marks a shift in human history, one whose full implications we're just beginning to reckon. Today, the typical American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation, and another four minutes cleaning up. That's less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up in 1965, when I was a boy.” The problem with this, in Pollan’s view, is that our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is, and subsequently damaging the health of our bodies, our families, our communities and our land. Pollan also notes an interesting cultural development, what he calls “the Cooking Paradox”: That while we're cooking less and buying more prepared meals every year, we're also talking about and watching cooking more. "When you consider that 27 minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of 'Top Chef' or 'The Next Food Network Star,' you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves." Pollan notes that anthropologists describe cooking as a “defining human activity,” and Claude Lévi-Strauss actually referred to it as the act with which culture begins, so its no surprise that “Cooked” seeks to shepherd us back into the kitchen and inspire us to spend more time cooking our own transformative meals.
By Adam M. Grant PhD
Publisher: Viking Adult
Are you a giver, a taker or a matcher? Takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, and givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. Conventional wisdom might lead us to believe that givers are the good guys who finish last, but as organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant shows in his recent book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” it really isn’t that simple. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: claim as much value as we can, contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return, or find some in-between option. We all differ dramatically in our preferences for reciprocity — our desired mix of taking and giving — and over the past three decades social scientists have discovered that the ways in which we give and take have staggering consequences for success. Grant aims to persuade his readers that we underestimate the success of givers. A lauded giver and incredible success story himself, Grant has dedicated over a decade of his professional life to studying how people choose whether to give, take, or match at work, and much of his book works to establish the difference between the givers who are exploited and those who end up as models of achievement. Though the tendency is to stereotype givers as chumps and doormats, Grant shows time and again that strategic givers can be overwhelmingly successful. He offers studies and stories that illuminate how giving can be much more powerful and less dangerous than most people believe, and introduces strategic givers who are enjoying success as consultants, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and in many other fields. It’s an approach to success that has the potential to transform not just individuals and groups, but entire organizations and communities.
By Frans de Waal
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Respected primatologist and avowed atheist Frans de Waal has spent more than three decades studying and writing about the behavior and social intelligence of primates. From politics to empathy, de Waal has long drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. With his latest book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,” he works to show that rather than coming to us top-down from God or any other external source, morality is actually built into our species. In de Waal’s view, morality springs bottom-up from our emotions and our day-to-day social interactions, which themselves evolved from foundations in animal societies. Unlike the confrontational neo-atheism of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, de Waal really isn’t interested in disproving God's existence or demonstrating that religion poisons everything. "What good could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?" he asks. "And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer?" That alternative is the idea that the greatest enforcer of good behavior isn't the wrath of an omniscient deity or any dogmatic ethical framework, but rather our emotions. Offering vivid examples of emotionally guided moral behavior in animals, de Waal argues that religion should not have a monopoly on morality, and that empathy and reciprocity, the basis of prosocial behavior, appear to have much deeper evolutionary roots than faith. From bonobos, chimpanzees, and monkeys, to dogs, elephants and dolphins, de Waal presents decades of research that clearly show that many animals have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. Like us, primates repeatedly demonstrate that they understand the value of co-operation in specific tasks, that they have a strong sense of fair play, an awareness of the permanence of death, and that they use their own experience and imagination to empathize with others. The main takeaway: What we think of as our humanity, including the self-control needed for a livable society, comes from within.
By Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, professors of psychology at Harvard and the University of Washington, respectively, have been studying a computer-based assessment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures the speed of people's hidden associations, since 1995. These hidden associations reveal unconscious biases, described by the authors as "bits of knowledge about social groups” (think race, age, gender, weight), which can influence our behavior towards members of these groups. The IAT routinely predicts discriminatory behavior even among participants who earnestly espouse egalitarian beliefs. But what, aside from seeming to accuse of prejudice those of us who regard ourselves as unbiased, is the point? In their book “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” Banaji and Greenwald explore the far-reaching effects of these widespread hidden biases, from the way that we hire to the medical care we receive. For example, an automatic white preference has been found to correlate with suboptimal treatment of black emergency room patients and unfavorable judgment of black job applicants, and scores on the Race IAT predict such discrimination even better than do overt statements about one’s beliefs. It’s a difficult mirror to look into, but Banaji and Greenwald propose that most of today’s racial discrimination stems not from attempts to harm anyone, but rather from selective helping. We’re each part of several groups, defined by race, gender, religion, family, alma mater and so on, and when we go out of our way to help an in-group member, we don’t see that as a bad thing. But such selective privileging reinforces the status quo. The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions, and the aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can arguably adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Want to test yourself? Go to implicit.harvard.edu and click on “Demonstration.” You’ll have a choice of a dozen or so tests (included are Weight, Age and Race IATs.
By Jared Diamond
Publisher: Viking Adult
Scientist and author Jared Diamond is no stranger to controversy, and his latest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” may be his most divisive yet. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Diamond expounded on the role of geography in human history; In “Collapse,” he explored the dangers of disregarding those geographic conditions. With his newest work, Diamond presents the differences between contemporary cultures and traditional societies, examining topics close to our modern hearts, such as child rearing, eldercare, conflict resolution and risk management. He explores the benefits of multilingualism and healthy diets, and plays with the idea that the dangers inherent in indigenous life may have contributed to modern religion’s origins. Mining material drawn from decades of fieldwork in the Pacific Islands and other world regions for applicable lessons, Diamond explores the degree to which modern society draws from earlier and ancient cultures and concludes that we have much to learn from indigenous peoples.
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