On Saturday, November 5, at 4:00 pm, WNYC's John Schaefer will moderate a special White Light Conversation: "Our Humanity: Past, Present, and Future," exploring the commonality inherent in the human condition and examining the qualities that unite and elevate us. Through the lenses of evolution, psychology, religion, and art, this panel will provide fresh insight into the age-old question, “What makes us human?” Here are a few of the books that have been on his mind in advance of the conversation.


The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker

Pinker’s now-classic book (1995) examines how language became a defining part of what we mean when we say “human.” Language, Pinker says, is unique to humans, and stories of great apes being taught sign language are just that: stories. Even more memorably, he refers to music as “auditory cheesecake,” a wonderful but unintended byproduct of evolving language.

Read it. 

The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin

The follow-up to Levitin’s bestselling This Is Your Brain On Music finds the neuroscientist and musician casting an even wider net. Levitin argues that music—classified not by style or genre but by function (love song, religious expression, means of transmitting knowledge, for example)—“encodes” our humanity and shapes our society. In other words, all the things that define us as human.

Read it. 

If This Is a Man by Primo Levi

The Italian author and Auschwitz survivor meditates on what it means to be human by looking at the inhumane. Like the old metaphor of boiling a frog, inhumanity creeps into our society when things go wrong so slowly that we either don’t notice it or we acquiesce to it.

Read it. 

Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential by Barbara Marx Hubbard

If the other books on this list ask “how did ‘humanity’ develop?” or “what does it mean to be ‘human’ now?,” this book asks, “what comes next?” One of the leading writers on “conscious evolution,” Hubbard claims that we have now reached a stage of scientific and technological achievement that will enable humans to determine how our idea of “humanity” evolves in the future.

Read it. 

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

The futurist, musician, and inventor of the term “virtual reality” examines the ways we interact with our technology, often ceding elemental parts of our thinking and behavior to our devices and machines.

Read it.


John Schaefer is the host of WNYC’s Soundcheck and New Sounds.