Shortly after publishing my book The Better Angels of Our Nature , on the historical decline of violence, I attended a conference sponsored by a foreign policy magazine at which a journalist asked me: “What would it take to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide? ” Thinking it was a trick question, I quipped: “Redefine ‘poverty’. ” An eavesdropping economist said to me: “That was a cynical answer”, and recommended a short new book by the development expert Charles Kenny called Getting Better .
Though I already knew that war was in decline, especially wars between nation states, the guide documented how every other measure of human wellbeing had increased over the decades: longevity, child mortality, infectious disease, malnutrition, democracy, literacy, basic education, and yes, extreme poverty. And it noted that the World Bank and the UN Sustainable Development goals had set the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030 as a feasible, albeit extraordinarily difficult, aspiration.
This lifted my view of history and the current state of the world to a higher level. The decline of violence was just one aspect of a historical process that we can legitimately call “progress” – not a romantic or utopian or naive ideal, but an empirical fact that we can see in graphs and numbers. It led me to ask what made this seemingly mystical process happen, and inspired me to write Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress .
Steven Pinker is Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Allen Lane)
When I was starting to write my PhD thesis, it was Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger that opened my eyes, and helped me see different things not just in Roman history but in the world around me too.
Its basic idea was to ask: “What counts as dirty (or polluted) in different cultures? ” (Why is gravy on your tie “dirty” but on your potatoes not? ) A large part of her answer to that was “ambiguity”: “dirty things” are often those that “fall between established categories”. And her key example was not gravy, but Jewish dietary rules, which she argued were based on precisely that kind of ambiguity (pigs, for example , are prohibited or polluted because they are animals with cloven hoofs but they do not , as most cloven hoofed animals do, chew the cud). She later questioned that idea herself and it’s probably wrong.
But it had already set me personally off on a new track. I had never before thought of asking that kind of question about the Romans. What did they think was dirty? And how different were they from us?
I am not sure that the answers I came up with were any more correct than those of Douglas herself. But her book showed me how to ask different questions – and it demonstrated that a book doesn’t have to be right to be important.
Mary Beard is a classicist and author associated with books including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile) and Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Princeton).
It was 1966 or 67 when I first read Ralph Ellison’s essay collection Shadow and Act . Those were fierce, tumultuous years and I has been avidly reading Black literature across generations and genres: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Paule Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka; poets from the Harlem renaissance to the Black Arts Movement. I’d been floored by the greatness of Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these essays showed another Ellison, a scrupulous explorer associated with America’s cultural landscape, finding new paths through the fraught territory of American history and art. Racial bigotries enhanced by intellectual fallacies. The ethos and aesthetics of jazz; the ethos and aesthetics of books and folklore. He probed the ways – stark and subtle – in which Black and white traditions engage plus intermingle with each other, how they clash and cohabit. He parsed the relations between group and personal identity. He probed large themes and ideas, “the enigmas, the contradictions of character and culture”. And he never stopped pursuing “inflection, intonation, timbre and phrasings … all those nuances of expression and attitude which reveal a culture”.
His precision had been scrupulous and expressive. This won me over. And because it sharpened my mind, it gave me room in order to disagree with him. He made me want to be a more independent thinker. Reading him, I realised that even great novelists (and poets) needed to write criticism, that will criticism lets them delineate and transmit passion, character and history in ways that fiction did not. For me this change of hierarchies was a change of mind and a change of heart.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer prize-winning cultural critic and the author of books including Negroland (Pantheon) and Constructing a Nervous System (Granta).
Marcus du Sautoy
The planet is facing a climate emergency. We need to reduce carbon emissions. But what can I personally do to help? I often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues.
It was reading Sarah Bridle’s book Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air that helped me understand a very important way that I really could contribute. Change the diet. As Bridle explains, this is the easiest way to help save the planet. Bridle’s book is really a follow up to David MacKay’s equally wonderful book Lasting Energy – Without the Hot Air. MacKay’s mantra is “numbers not adjectives”. I’m the numbers guy. I need things translated into numbers before I can make a decision about the best course of action. This is precisely the thesis of both books. It allows the reader to see plus compare the impact of a change of behaviour.
To see the effect through numbers that the production of meat and meat-related products has on the environment was a revelation. A quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions that will cause climate change comes from food. Just giving up food from cows could have a massive impact. Bridle’s book changed how I eat. I am a good aspiring vegan, which means We still can’t resist cheese. But perhaps I don’t need to be perfect. It just takes millions doing their bit imperfectly. More people reading this book might help.
Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi teacher for the public understanding of science at the University associated with Oxford and author of Thinking Better: The Art of the Shortcut (4th Estate )
The language of politics can shut down or open up possibilities, as I was reminded when I recently reread one of Doris Lessing’s novels about her time in the Communist party in which party members speak to each other in stale and abstracted terms that obfuscate, distort and most of all bore.
The particular lingering impact of this kind of political language is part of why the Zapatistas’ sudden appearance on the world stage, with their uprising on 1 January 1994, and the battles they fought with language, were so astonishing and exciting for me and to many others. “Thousands of indigenous, armed with truth and fire, with shame and dignity, shook the country awake from its sweet dream of modernity, ” Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos wrote shortly thereafter, in a piece titled The Long Journey through Despair to Hope, which is collected in Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings , a gorgeous English-language compilation edited by Juana Ponce de León and published in 2001. I have drawn inspiration from it ever since.
Marcos was a non-Indigenous Mexican leftist who had gone to Chiapas to lead the Indigenous communities in revolution, only to find that it was they who were to lead him, in reconceiving what revolution was and its goals could be. There was hope, ferocity and brilliance in his words for the next dozen years or so, but also playfulness, humor, vivid imagery, emotional immediacy and metaphors drawn from the natural world.
Poetry and politics are often treated as entirely separate matters; part of Marcos’s genius was to see that there was no great politic without poetry.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. Her most recent books are Recollections of My Nonexistence plus Orwell’s Roses (Granta).
As a scientist I have spent most of my life wading through dry academic textbooks. But I also have a passion for popular science. Often such textbooks will be on subjects I just wish to know more about, but I also have to read outside our expertise as preparation for interviewing a guest on The Life Scientific on Radio 4. However , I cannot think of any book that has had a bigger impact on my thinking than Consciousness Explained by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. In this popular account of the origins of consciousness, Dennett offers an explanation of how it arises from interactions between the physical and cognitive processes in the brain. He writes in an extremely persuasive way and without recourse to any woo or pseudoscientific mysticism. I remember feeling that will, for the first time, I might be able to understand what it means to be conscious plus self-aware from a reductionist, scientific perspective. This was about 30 years ago, and I know the science of consciousness studies has moved on since then. A number of critics of the book – both philosophers and neuroscientists – have argued that Dennett is denying the existence of subjective conscious states, while giving the appearance of a scientific explanation of them. But for me, at the time, it was a book that explained away one of the deepest mysteries of existence using logic and common sense. Whether right or wrong, it altered my entire worldview on the comprehensibility of reality.
Until I read this book my view was that the nature of consciousness was such an intractable problem that it wasn’t something we were anywhere near being able make sense of. While Dennett’s approach is not likely to be whole story – after all, the human brain is the most complex system in the known universe – it nevertheless blew me away that it was at least conceivable in principle in order to rationalise it.
Jim Al-Khalili is the University of Surrey’s distinguished chair in theoretical physics, a broadcaster and writer of books including The Globe According to Physics and The Joy of Science (Princeton).
No Logo by Naomi Klein didn’t just change my mind, it hurled it into a different orbit, giving me an entirely new perspective on how the particular globalised world works. This emerged, a firebrand, straight into the turn-of-the-century’s defining social movement, coming out in November 1999 during mass protests against the World Trade Organization, the so-called Battle associated with Seattle. I was in my 20s, navigating a landscape dominated by big brands, along with opaque practices and unquestioned ubiquity in an increasingly deregulated neoliberal economy. Rampant consumerism, Klein revealed, was a deliberate global movement, driven simply by large multinational corporations with disturbing political power, perpetuating poverty, global injustice, environmental degradation and resource depletion. However , we little people also have extraordinary power: activists can take down Goliath brands, she showed through detailed, extraordinary reportage from the frontlines of a burgeoning “global justice” movement.
The book is smart, wry, perceptive and absolutely of its time – its effect was electrifying. In that pre-smartphone era when more people read books, No Logo was everywhere. Ironically, the book itself became a brand, an accessory to carry on dates, signifying that its possessor was socially conscious and eco aware. It was one of a handful of important books that spurred a mental transition from seeing myself as an inhabitant of the fully formed world, to understanding that I was an interactive participant in a world that is constantly being created.
Gaia Vince is an author, journalist plus broadcaster and an honorary senior research fellow at UCL’s Anthropocene Institute. The girl latest book is Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time (Penguin).
Soon after I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! ”, my interest in a career in the sciences died. This was not Richard Feynman’s fault. I was, at the time, immersed in a typical Indian high-school curriculum of physics, chemistry and mathematics: dense lessons that urged rote memorisation or brute practice. You solved problems for homework with the sole purpose of solving them in examinations. There was no better way to fall out of love with physics.
In those years, any interest that I retained in the subject was thanks to Feynman’s patchwork memoir. It is not, I should mention right away, a flawless book; Feynman is forever burnishing his eccentric genius, and his self-perceived rakishness borders on misogyny. But his inquisitiveness and his joy in pure thought shine through, and they captivated me at a time when my teachers were scrubbing all the charm out of science.
Here’s an example. Feynman was never short of big, important problems to work on, but he was equally absorbed by small, seemingly inconsequential questions. Once, while at Princeton University, he watched an S-shaped water sprinkler turn on a pivot plus wondered: Would the sprinkler turn clockwise or counter-clockwise if it was set up to take water in instead of spit it out? He could argue it either way, he found, so he prepared an experiment in the cyclotron to find out. It proved nothing, and a glass carboy exploded in the process. Feynman mentions the incident fleetingly, but there are so many more like it: little excursions of curiosity, reminders that science is, above all, lit by the pure delight of human inquiry. Feynman made sure I actually remained interested in science long after I left any academic dreams behind.
Samanth Subramanian is a journalist and author whose most recent book is A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane (Atlantic).