Rank #1: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan was so influential that, to understand how Europe began to shake off its medieval provincialism, how the Islamic world lost much of its momentum, and how China's unparalleled technology trickled beyond its borders and reshaped the fortunes of the West, it's well worth studying the legacy of this single Mongolian man.
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Aug 06 2018
Rank #2: The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization
Today, I’m speaking with Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization.
It has become fashionable to argue that Roman civilization never collapsed, but was merely transformed by Germanic culture. Although this counter-narrative can illuminate intellectual developments of Late Antiquity, it verges on cultural relativism that threatens to obscure real differences in how people flourish or suffer. Ward-Perkins' book is a welcome reality check of how dark the post-Roman age really was.
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Dec 12 2018
Rank #3: Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by Margaret Jacob
Margaret Jacob’s book helps us understand how scientific knowledge became integrated into the culture of Europe through the 1600s and 1700s, and how the different social and political conditions of different European countries influenced the application of science to material prosperity. Jacob enhances our understanding of the role of science in the Industrial Revolution, and provides insight on why Britain’s distinctive approach to the utility of science enabled it to industrialize generations earlier than any other country.
Jul 10 2018
Rank #4: Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris
Is there a logic to history?
Many scholars balk at the idea of searching for such logic, insisting that each culture may only be understood on its own terms. In Why the West Rules - For Now, Ian Morris counters that if we look beyond the facade of culture to how human biology, sociology, and geography interact, it is possible to discover a fundamental pattern in history to help us answer the biggest historical questions, from why the West rules for now, to what will happen next.
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Jan 09 2019
Rank #5: Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill
The history of disease demonstrates both the accidental nature of history and the triumph of human reason that can enable us to gain some control over our fate; most of us no longer suffer the death of half our children, among other nightmares. William McNeill’s book, Plagues and Peoples, was the first comprehensive history to capture this balance, and after more than 40 years it remains one of the most insightful narratives on how disease has both shaped and been shaped by civilization.
Sep 05 2018
Rank #6: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a classic in the history of science, and one of the most cited books of the twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn insightfully challenged our assumptions about how science works, but his opaque style ignited a cultural movement energized around the misinterpretations that objective truth was an illusion and that scientific progress was just a conceit of western civilization. These ideas became pillars of postmodernism, and no one was more frustrated by the folly of their development than Thomas Kuhn himself.
Jul 24 2018
Rank #7: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann
In 1493, Charles Mann shows us how Europeans emerged at the center of a modern, globalized world by establishing the Columbian Exchange; a system they created but could not control, and with consequences none of them could imagine.
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Aug 20 2018
Rank #8: Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, by Peter Atkins
If civilization collapsed, and our descendants could rediscover a single work to get humanity back on track scientifically and technologically, Peter Atkins’ Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, would be a contender.
If there are miracles, Atkins would argue that they are not found in the surreal conjectures of things unexplained, but in the tangible power of our otherwise small minds to achieve cosmic insights through experiment and mathematics. Here, he distills his choices for the most profound of those insights.
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Oct 08 2018
Rank #9: The Square and the Tower, by Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson, perhaps the most famous historian of our generation, offers yet another breakthrough in his latest work, The Square and the Tower. Through groundbreaking research, Ferguson reveals how social networks, from the Freemasons of the middle ages to Facebook in the 21st century, disrupt established hierarchies to divert the course of history, both for better and for worse.
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Feb 07 2019
Rank #10: Evolution's Other Narrative
In this episode, we're shifting gears and I'll read an article that I published in 2013 in the journal American Scientist called "Evolution's Other Narrative." Here is a link to the article: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/evolutions-other-narrative
Given our conversation last time about the importance of disease in the history of civilization, I thought this article would be an interesting supplement to our understanding of humanity's co-evolution with microorganisms.
Sep 17 2018