Anthropology Book Recommendations
Updated: Jul 24
Humans’ ability to tell stories is astonishing to me. We form complex narratives about our identities, construct elaborate civilizations, and try our very best to distill the utter chaos of history into a coherent story. This is where anthropology books come in.
Anthropology attempts to understand both humans’ evolutionary and cultural histories and a few ambitious thinkers have written books to try to capture this interplay. While anthropology books are certainly quite an intellectual feat, I think there are a few authors that have done a particularly good job of synthesizing this information and making it digestible. Alas I have assembled this list of my favourite anthropology books if you are equally perplexed about the roots and history of human behaviour and have a similar unquenchable thirst for anthropology-related information.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
While working in Papua New Guinea, a man named Yali asked Diamond a question which inspired him to write this book. The question was essentially, “why do you white people bring all your stuff here?” It is such a simple question, yet it is also acutely relevant and profound. Europeans have attempted to colonize almost every corner of planet earth, and we haven’t even stopped there. We’ve already been to the moon, we have projects attempting to colonize other planets like Mars, and send out drones travelling to distant solar systems looking for another planet like earth. Why?
Basically, humans acquired some mutations to give them big brains with language abilities and untamed imaginations, then we fertilized and propagated crops that we could domesticated with a little help from our poop; developed languages and writing to gather and share information; invented new technology to get an upper hand on other cultures; and got sick from and eventually developed immunity to various diseases from living in close quarters with a bunch of farm animals which can be spread to unexposed populations and eradicate large groups of people. If that sounds complicated to you, it’s because it is. I wouldn’t call Guns, Germs, and Steel short, but it is a markedly succinct explanation of human history and how the world we know today came to be.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Although humans really are just another animal on this planet, it seems intuitive that humans are somehow fundamentally different from all other forms of life on earth. With a genetic mutation here and a technological development there, we have somehow managed to control the world and have a monopoly on every other life form on earth.
Sapiens is one of the best books I have ever read. Harari explains how humanity’s unique biology allowed humans to develop the intelligence and technology to take over the world. Further, it explains how our biology which originally allowed us to merely survive and reproduce has run amok in our current civilization of abundance and excess.
But what I think is most amazing is how esoteric, elaborate, and fragile our civilization is. Take Walmart for example. Walmart—along with every other limited liability corporation—is a social construct. If all humans died tomorrow, Walmart stores would still exist but would be indistinct from their archrivals such as Loblaws and Amazon warehouses to invading termites, earth worms, and whatever plants will eventually colonize abandoned suburbs. There is simply no raccoon on earth who will appreciate whatever a “rollback” is (I never fully understood rollbacks, is it just a discount?) and no ostrich will ever stand in a self-checkout line. Humans have created so many rules about how the world is intended to operate which we all effortlessly understand and abide to, yet most of our world is a social construct that will disappear with us.
If this is equally marvelling to you, you should read Sapiens. After finishing the book, I feel educated, awe-struck, and remain endlessly amazed by humans and civilization.
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
While I love Sapiens, I think that Homo Deus was much more extrapolative and idiosyncratic. In essence, this book is Harari’s thoughts about robots and artificial intelligence overtaking and oppressing the human race. He explicitly states that his predictions are to generate discussion more than they are intended to be actual predictions about the future, however, while I can appreciate is attempt to generate discussion, I think that many of these statements are outlandish.
Personally, I don’t think that robots or artificial intelligence will take over the world and I can’t decide whether this opinion is pessimistic or optimistic. On one hand, I don’t think that humans are smart enough to recreate consciousness de novo, and on the other, I don’t think we’re dumb enough to create something that will subjugate us. At the very least, I would hope that whatever crazy machines people come up with will be able to be unplugged with relative ease without a science fiction-like war breaking out that will end in the utter decimation of California and/or New York City.
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
Even if we manage to control climate change, at one point or another, humans will cease to exist. We could evolve into another species, get hit by a meteor, or be oppressed, enslaved, and/or murdered by robots. Who knows. If all else fails, the earth will get swallowed up by the sun in approximately 5 trillion years. I digress.
So ultimately life is pointless, but humans are “all little fairies, sprinkling meaning dust everywhere we go.” In his book, John Green captures some of the most iconic parts about being a human and reminds me that life is about the little things and making the most of every day. People die, we lose touch with old friends, but we never forget the love we were given from other people. We have to try to make the most of games of Mario Kart with friends, yell and laugh at Canada geese taking over our suburbs, and leave enough time and money to tend to our ornamental displays of Kentucky bluegrass in our front yards.
Overall, this book is about how quirky humans are. We collect scratch n’ sniff stickers, share our secrets with strangers on the internet, and have hotdog eating contests. Humanity is so powerful, yet we are all irrecoverably broken, freakishly hairless (considering we are an offshoot of the ape family), strange, and extremely lovable. This book has made me fall in love with humanity for all of its flaws, virtues, and straight up weirdness.