Best Book Of 2009 (so far)

Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things by Laurence Gonzales is a book about life. It's a book about the origins of life, about how (and why) life on earth developed, about how humans got to where we are today and our purpose in the world, about mindfulness and mental models and behavioural scripts.

As such is it one of the most woefully misbilled books I have ever read. I figured I was in for a discussion about how humans' evolutionary history causes us to make mistakes in the modern world. And yea, that is what I got. In the first six chapters. The next ten follow Gonzales in his search for the origins of life, for answers about why we are here. Along the way I learned about energy and entropy, about fractals and self-organizing systems, organic chemistry, vortices, tornadoes, the fact that life thrives in every nook on earth, even in the cores of nuclear reactors, about giant caves, Murray Gell-mann's theory of life ("The earth is rotting, and life is the waste."), and about why humans have such expressive faces. And a hundred other things, all of which Gonzales manages to pull together in a sensible (if not necessarily linear) way to make his point.

Which point, by the way, is that climate change is the stupidest thing of all, and that it is well within our capabilities to stop it, if only we can manage to get out of the behavioural script, the vacation state of mind, that we are living in now, the script which says everything has been going fine until now, so I will keep doing what I have been doing. Gonzales doesn't beat the climate change drum very often, but it's a theme that reoccurs at key points throughout the book.

If I were to nominate a book to be an Atheist Bible, this might be it. Gonzales describes the origins of life (as far as we know about them) and the origins of humankind, and explains why life came about and what our place is in the universe. He even takes a stab at explaining how we can fulfill our potential as human beings. It is at times an intensely spiritual, moving book, whilst always being completely rational.

Lawrence Gonzales is a genius. The way he digs deep and deeper into a problem and synthesizes dozens of different areas of knowledge is breathtaking. I had to read this book with a notebook by my side to keep track of all the new facts and ideas, and try and join them up like Gonzales did. But he's such a good writer that it all goes down as effortlessly as ice cream. Anyone who is interested in thinking, who likes a good idea, who loves a eureka moment, or who wants to know what our place is in the universe should read this book. Everyone should read this book.


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