Brain Pickings

5 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers, Part 2

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From life before birth to living with death, or what marine life has to do with global equality.

With TED Global a mere 24 hours way, it’s time for the second part of this year’s reading list of books by TED Global speakers, a continuation of the first installment of five featured here last month. Here are five more powerhouses of cognitive stimulation for your vicarious TED experience, spanning everything from philosophy to economics to marine biology.

ORIGINS

We’ve previously pondered the grand questions of what makes us human and what makes us uniquely us. But most inquiries into these existential fundamentals have focused on insights from life after birth — after the commonly agreed upon marker for our entry into selfhood and the world. And yet there’s an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that our selves begin before our first breath. That’s precisely what Annie Murphy Paul explores in Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives — a fascinating journey into the emerging science of epigenetics and how it has changed medicine’s understanding of pregnancy and even psychology’s understanding of self, blending equal parts scientific rigor and human tenderness.

An excerpt from the book was a TIME cover story last year and The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof rightfully called it a “terrific and important new book.”

[P]regnancy is now something it’s never been before: a frontier. The nine months of gestation are at the leading edge of scientists’ efforts to cure disease; to improve public health; to end vicious cycles of poverty, infirmity, and illness; and to initiate virtuous cycles of health, strength, and stability. Life on a frontier can be nerve-wracking, no question — but it’s also among the most interesting and invigorating places to spend your time.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Engrossing and deeply enlightening, Origins tackles the age-old mystery of what makes us who we are with a compelling new vision for our beginnings at the intersection of science, philosophy and personal memoir.

THE SPIRIT LEVEL

How come some of the world’s most “developed” nations are also among the most dysfunctional? The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson explores the multitude of social problems that income inequality creates, but rather than a somber meditation on the statistics — like, for instance, the high positive correlation between income disparity and homicide, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness and high school dropout rates — at the heart of the book lies an empathic belief in the human ability to transcend self-interest, framed in a set of practical propositions for closing the equality gap.

The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggest that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Above all, The Spirit Level is the vessel for a powerful political message and a tremendously important call for social action, made all the more compelling by the crisp writing, meticulously culled evidence and remarkable timeliness of the issue.

CENSUS OF MARINE LIFE

Last fall, the world witnessed its very first Census of Marine Life — an ambitious global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. In Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count, Paul Snelgrove explores the most dramatic and fascinating findings of the census, how new technologies and partnerships have enabled a richer understanding of the world’s oceans, and what humanity needs to do in the future to honor and conserve wondrous worlds that live beneath the ocean’s surface. At the heart of the book are the stories, manuscripts, imagery and ideas of the dozens of scientists involved.

Snelgrove’s presence on the TED stage is a fine reflection of TED’s continued commitment to marine sustainability and ocean conservation.

The Census of Marine Life is a different intellectual enterprise. Disregarding many objections from Mainstream Road, the leaders of the initiative used a metaphor to rally the interest of the relevant scienti?c community: to conduct a Census of marine life, an impossible task sensu strictu. By choosing an extremely broad subject, the living ocean, and setting a research vector, or direction, to count and account for the living in the ocean, the founders were able to form a community of researchers with quite disparate research interests and objectives, to weave a delicate fabric of research topics that brought together the main ingredients of scienti?c discovery: deploying new technologies, poking through disciplinary boundaries, transporting knowledge produced in one ?eld to another, attacking simultaneously the small and the large and the extremely large scales usually unavailable to single teams of scientists. Using as an epistemic Occam’s razor the distinction between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable, they collectively and systematically selected a limited number of bets to maximize results. This book demonstrates unreservedly their success.” ~ Paul Snelgrove

With dozens of breathtaking full-color photographs and glimpses of previously unknown species, convoluted migration routes and otherworldly habitats, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life explores the ocean with equal parts urgency, poeticism and enthusiasm, stimulating, illuminating and enchanting at the same time, leaving you with a newfound respect and profound love for the extraordinary universe of life beneath the surface.

POST-SECULAR PHILOSOPHY

Last week, we explored 7 essential books on faith and spirituality. But where does philosophy fit into the conversation? The Western philosophical tradition, with its insistence on the secular, has remained largely wary, of not dismissive, of religion. In Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology, Phillip Blond gathers 15 essays distilling how iconic philosophers like Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida have placed God at the center of their thinking. Blond — who in the 13 years since the book’s publications has become a leading British political theorist, the mastermind behind David Cameron’s “Big Society” concept — pens a poignant introduction to the anthology, discussing the broader role of theology in secular philosophy and the often conflicted relationship between the two.

[I]t is a classical and cardinal point that the utterly dissimilar would have great difficulty in attaining any knowledge of one another, for mutual knowledge can only be achieved if ‘like is known by like.'” ~ Phillip Blond

Though the writing is anything but light and at times fringes on academia’s most prolix, the volume’s broad lens and sharp focus make it a powerful and read-worthy synthesis of the Western philosophical tradition’s tortured yet fascinating relationship with theology and religion.

Blond’s most recent book, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is being released in the US in 2012 as Radical Republic and reworked with an international focus. Blond is the opening speaker for this year’s TED Global.

FINAL EXAM

Facing mortality is hard enough for us ordinary people, but it’s particularly challenging for medical parctitioners, whose very mission in life is so profoundly antithetical to the concept of death. That’s exactly what transplant surgeon Pauline Chen examines in Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. From her first dissection of a human cadaver to the first time she pronounced a patient dead to having to face taking responsibility for the accidental death of a patient in her care, Chen uses profound personal anecdotes as the linchpin to a deeper discussion of mortality in the context of medicine, but also in the broader context of human existence.

There is an essential paradox in medicine: a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes the dying.” ~ Pauline Chen

Beautifully written, passionately argued and lined with equal parts humility and dignity, Final Exam is poetry for medicine, equally thought-provoking for those in the medical profession as it is for those of us in the profession of merely living with the diagnosis of the human condition.

If you missed the first part of this year’s TED Global reading list or last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

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Polymorphic Computing, Explained in Vintage Stop-Motion (1959)

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What wooden boxes and stick figures have to do with predicting the future of the social web.

Though the world didn’t see its first polymorphic computer until 2007, the concept of “polymorphic computing” predates it by nearly half a century. In this lovely stop-motion animation from 1959, found on The Internet Archive and now in the public domain, John Salzer illustrates the principles of polymorphic computing, first outlined by technology pioneer Simon Ramo, and, in the process, presages subsequent landmarks in the evolution of technology, from parallel processing to peer-to-peer filesharing to cloud computing to the very architecture of the Internet — a striking case of two contemporary fixations, the social web and stop-motion animation, converging long before either had reached critical cultural mass.

This is distributed control, distributed memory, distributed arithmetics, distributed everything. And it makes sense. Because now more than one guy can be using the system at the same time.”

Also curious to note is how cluelessly reflective the film is of the fundamental biases of the era, what with its male-centricity (hey there, computing “guys”) and its analogies to the telephone as the base-level, universal standard for communication.

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7 Fundamental Meditations on Faith

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What the magician Penn Gillette has to do with a ring of earth 700 miles north of the equator.

Belief lies behind the best and worst of human history. Faith in something larger than the self — or lack thereof — has shaped our societies for millennia, so we thought it about time to take a survey of the topic. (Perhaps you agree, since the BBC4 documentary The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion is one of Brain Pickings‘ most popular posts of all time.) Given the rich and faceted nature of the subject, it’s practically impossible to produce a list that is exhaustive, conclusive and universal, but we’ve narrowed it down to six absorbing and provocative books, plus one documentary, about the human quest for existential meaning.

THE POWER OF MYTH

The Power of Myth is considered a classic of the faith canon, and for good reason. In a 1988 six-part PBS series of the same name, host Bill Moyers and folklore and mythology expert Joseph Campbell place belief within the perspective of human history. The Q&A format makes for a fun read, and allows Campbell to weave a comprehensive picture of faith across cultures and from prehistory to the present moment.

From ritual sacrifice to the symbolism of Star Wars, the transcript of Moyers and Campbell’s sessions articulates fundamentals of our value systems so widely accepted as to be taken for granted.

The source of life — what is it? No one knows. We don’t even know what an atom is, whether it is a wave or a particle — it is both. We don’t have any idea of what these things are. That’s the reason we speak of the divine. There’s a transcendent energy source. When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he’s seeing a trace on the screen. These traces come and go, come and go, and we come and go, and all of life comes and goes. That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Like a fascinating post-dinner conversation with your fabulously erudite uncle, The Power of Myth is a great survey of the spiritual stories humans have held to be self-evident throughout time.

DISCOVERING GOD

Author Rodney Stark set himself an ambitious agenda in Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. From primal belief during the Stone Age, through the so-called “Axial Age” of the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Zoroaster, to modern Christian missionaries and the rise of Islam, Discovering God surveys every major form faith has taken in the last 2.5 million years. Even more remarkably, Stark does so in under 400 pages, including maps of various religions’ births and images illustrating how belief was reified by culture. Ultimately, the book even pushes beyond an anthropological, historical, and sociological study into whether there is, in fact, a there there.

Thus we reach the fundamental question: Does God exist? That is, have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so many similarities among the great religions because God is really the product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or have people in many places, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?”

Leaving no stone unturned in its quest to draw a map of mankind’s belief, Discovering God will satisfy those looking for deep background on pre- and post-modern ideology, and everything in between.

THE BELIEF INSTINCT

Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes a very different tack with The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, posing the salient question:

If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”

Referencing the latest in cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology, this highly engaging exploration of faith touches on the concept of an afterlife, whether animals too have existential needs, and how the movie Being John Malkovich plays on a philosophical puzzle most succinctly formulated by Descartes. Read our full review from earlier this year here.

THE TENTH PARALLEL

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam takes you on a riveting tour across the real-life middle earth, with gorgeous language as a guide. Its author, award-winning investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, spent the last seven years traveling along the eponymous tenth parallel — the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator — where more than 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians and half the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims reside. The Tenth Parallel unfolds across the enormous canvases of Africa and Asia, in deserts and megacities, and shows how completely theology, culture and politics intersect. Griswold places faith into geographical context, or perhaps the other way around — her discovery being how much land influences what we think about how to live.

We pulled into the pastor’s village after true dark — the absolute profundity that occurs only when no city lights bruise the sky plum. He was waiting on the riverbank outside his small house, its windows edged in lace doilies. Heavy-headed marigolds bobed in the gelid breeze the river made. The churning water seemed phosphorescent; the pastor’s white eyebrows and hair seemed to glow against the darkness.”

If you want to understand the present and future of global geopolitics but prefer to read breathtaking prose over AP-style wire reports, The Tenth Parallel won’t disappoint.

GOD IS NOT GREAT

Tailored to those who prefer pugilism to poetry, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by famously devout atheist Christopher Hitchens excoriates every organized religion while also putting a range of historical figures, from Thomas Aquinas to Zen Buddhists, in their place. As an alternative, God Is Not Great proposes a “new enlightenment” with knowledge, reason and science at the center of human pursuits.

Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful — and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding — than any creation or ‘end of days’ story.”

Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with Hitchens’s signature passion and rigor, God Is Not Great makes a clear case for what’s wrong with keeping the faith, historically and today.

THE BUDDHA

We were thrilled to find that the 2010 documentary The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha can now be viewed in its entirety for free online. Narrated by celebrity Buddhist Richard Gere, The Buddha is a biography of Siddharta Gautama, the Indian sage whom the stories say gained Enlightenment more than 500 years before Christ’s birth.

The chronological tale of his life takes us on a visually stunning journey matching Gautama’s travels, from his birthplace in present-day Nepal across the Gangetic Plain and back. Featuring interviews with The Dalai Lama, poet W.S. Merwin, and Uma Thurman’s father and Columbia professor Robert Tenzin Thurman, The Buddha both entertains and enlightens.

Illustrated by beautiful animations,The Buddha is a meditative and thought-provoking tour through one remarkable man’s life.

THIS I BELIEVE

Eighty essays comprise the book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, based on an NPR series of the same name. The anthology spans nearly 60 years and contains incredibly intimate observations from famous figures including Albert Einstein ( ), Temple Grandin (), Martha Graham, and Helen Keller. We get the personal reflections of Kay Redfield Jameson: “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do;” and the searching doubt of Eleanor Roosevelt: “I don’t know whether I believe in a future life. I believe that all that you go through here must have some value; therefore, there must be some reason.”

A rare opportunity to glimpse the innermost thoughts of prominent people, This I Believe constantly reminds the reader of the vast range of belief which inspires our every action.

We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of food. We must believe, without fear, in people.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

And if you enjoy the many ideas on display in This I Believe, there’s also a second volume of 75 more essays.

As society grows increasingly interdependent, understanding each other’s existential positions has never been more important. Whatever your own spiritual orientation, we hope the selections here provide insight into the plurality of faith and provoke deeper thought into your own beliefs.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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