Skip to main content

Being Me – Pete Moore *****

Doing something really different with a popular science book is both difficult and risky. Pete Moore has largely pulled this off in this unusual and personal exploration of what it means to be human.
The book is divided into sections, each addressing a different aspect of our human nature – embodied, conscious, genetic, historic, related, material, spiritual and so on. In each, Moore gives us a view of a different part of the complex mix that is a human being. If the content had just been Moore’s thoughts, the book would not have been particularly inspiring (not a criticism of the author’s ability to think, just the limitation of one person’s view), but what makes it so successful is that each of the sections is developed around one or more interviews with people who Moore sees as embodying the particular component (though, of course, like all of us, they have the other components as well).
Mostly this works remarkably effectively. Moore gives us a mix of scientific and philosophical theory, the interviews, and his personal view, including enough detail from his viewpoint of the interviews to make them more than a sterile set of quotes. The section that works least well, emphasizing the importance of the real people featured in the book, is the one on “the conscious being” which piles in too many pages of theory and isn’t so strongly based around the interviews.
This is a very personal book. The chances are you won’t agree with everything. But that’s not a bad thing with a topic like this. The section that most raised my eyebrows in this respect was the “social being” one, where a lot of focus is put on how modern society is lacking the social thread that is part of human nature, and that this isn’t good for us. Moore contrasts this with the African concept of ubuntu, which describes an intertwining of a human being with his fellow men and the environment, which Moore suggests leads to a much better support mechanism. This may be true, but makes a doubtful example. Moore does point out the paradox of the sometimes endemic violence in the same communities, but brushes this aside. I’m not sure this is wise. If part of the requirement for ubuntu is tribalism (which seems highly likely – it’s much easier to have strong social loyalty when it’s “us versus them”), then it comes at too high a price, as Rwanda and many other strife-torn nations can testify. This isn’t an ideal contrast to the isolation of the Western individual.
Inevitably – and Moore notes this – the book can’t be comprehensive. There are plenty of defining characteristics (Moore mentions language; I would think of creativity) that aren’t covered. That doesn’t really matter, though. The fact is that Moore has managed to paint a superb picture of the human being, using a scientific perspective, but admitting that science alone isn’t enough. If you thought you had seen it all when it comes to popular science, think again.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…