A book, written by Jared Diamond
I rank this as one of the most interesting books I've ever
read. It's concerned with the factors that made the world into what it is today; the reasons why people in different parts of the world have ended up with unequally large pieces of the cake.
A basic assumption is that those differences are not motivated by actual biological differencs between peoples. It is not strictly necessary for the book, but it is probably what motivated it. The author states his own inability to find any basic characteristics (such as "intelligence" or "industriousness") which differ noticeably between peoples during his travels and therefore wants to explore other explanations.
Reasoning from many different scientific disciplines is employed in order to explain the mechanisms behind human (pre)history; geography (the layout of continents play a huge role), biology (what kinds of domesticable plants and animals were available?), climatology (climate playing a large role in the spreading of plants, etc), linguistics (what can be said about a civilisation based on knowledge of their language?) and of course archeology (which builds the foundation of facts ready to be interpreted using other disciplines) to name a few.
The author takes you on a tour through the whole development of human civilisation, describing the most important factors that determine what society will look like. Continuously you're presented with examples from different parts of the world and history, demonstrating the principles at work. Often the author makes generalisations and assumptions, but they are always very carefully pointed out and generally seem well grounded (of course, dealing with history is a difficult subject when it comes to establishing hard facts; what can really be known about what has happened?).
The message of the book, in my mind, is this; the world looks like this (at large) because it couldn't have been different. When humans started spreading out across the globe, it wasn't like the most intelligent ones ended up in the parts that are most "successful" today, bringing success with them. It was more like the other way around. Diamond identifies, for example, a large number of reasons why Europeans once conquered the new world and none of them are concerned with the europeans themselves. In fact, most of them are purely geographical when they are boiled down. Those who happened to live there just got an advantage in technology (among other things) for free.
I suppose I shared most of this world view already before reading this book, but mostly for lack of evidence to the contrary, and I had never actually thought that you could show it this convincingly. It was a pretty mindblowing experience for me, besides of igniting a whole new interest in history.