Skip to main content

What Do You Think You Are? - Brian Clegg *****

I very much enjoyed Brian Clegg's book, The Universe Inside You, to which this new book forms a kind of inverted sequel. Where the earlier title used aspects of the human body to explore the universe around us, this one focuses inwards, looking at what makes the individual human the person they are.

Clegg starts with genealogy, noting that because of the way that family trees double in size with each generation, it soon fails as a way to show what we are as individuals, (the numbers involved spiral out of control and the neat tree becomes tangled), meaning only a tiny part of the tree is ever examined. After showing how we're all related to royalty, we are taken on a tour of the atoms that make us up (I love the various ways to work out how much they're worth, including getting the equivalent weight of potassium from bananas), the food that powers our bodies, the paeleological evidence for the origins of humanity as a species and the nature of life.

Perhaps the most interesting part of all is when the book goes into what consciousness is (or, rather, highlights how little we know about what consciousness is, but still shows how much more there is to 'us' than the conscious part) and pulls apart the old nature versus nurture debate with some remarkable material on genetics, environment and how the influence of our environment is mathematically chaotic.

Sometimes it's the little details here that jump out. It was notable how inaccurate GDP changes are, yet they are always scrutinised by the media as if they tell us great truths about the economy. And there's a brilliant example of the misuse of statistics where some genuine figures on immigration are used to make a totally misleading statement before explaining why they can be easily phrased to deceive.

What's great about the book overall is both Clegg's gift as a storyteller - it's just an excellent, pageturning read - and the way he threads together so many revelations about us as humans, the  sort of thing that you want to share with someone else. Oh, and it's a really attractive hardback too. A worthy successor to The Universe Inside You

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.


Popular posts from this blog

Human-Centered AI - Ben Shneiderman ****

Reading some popular science books is like biting into a luscious peach. Others are more like being presented with an almond - you have to do a lot of work to get through a difficult shell to get to the bit you want. This is very much an almond of a book, but it's worth the effort. At the time of writing, two popular science topics have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to find anything new to say about them - neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Almost all the (many) AI books I've read have either been paeans to its wonders or dire warnings of how AI will take over the world or make opaque and biassed decisions that destroy lives. What is really refreshing about Ben Shneiderman's book is that it does neither of these - instead it provides an approach to benefit from AI without suffering the negative consequences. That's why it's an important piece of work. To do this, Shneiderman takes us right back to the philosophical contrast between rationalism and e

Bewilderment (SF) - Richard Powers ****

Generally speaking, I avoid anything listed for the Booker Prize as being too worthy and pretentious to be bothered with, but I'd heard good things about Bewilderment , and I have found in the past that genre books that manage to get past the literati ( Wolf Hall , for example) are far better than the average entry. The publisher would probably disagree, but the reality is that Bewilderment is science fiction. I wondered to start with if Richard Powers was dealing more in Lab Lit - fiction with a scientific context but where the science isn't the driver in how people's lives are changed - but this is pretty solid SF. Clearly the book is strongly influenced by that SF classic Flowers for Algernon - in fact, Powers does a couple of open hat tips in its direction. Although Bewilderment isn't as ground-breaking as Flowers , it follows the model of a person's brain being changed by science to deal with an issue, but here it's an emotional problem rather than an in

A Natural History of the Future - Rob Dunn *****

Many books with an ecological theme are depressingly doom-laden. The authors delight in pointing out that from a biologist's viewpoint humans are just one of a vast number of species - nothing exceptional - and that we mess with nature at our peril. To be honest, I find such books hard going. So I was surprised that, despite Rob Dunn's take on the future of nature under human influence being fairly pessimistic, I got a lot out of  A Natural History of the Future . After some initial bombardment with Rutherfordian stamp collecting, Dunn captures the imagination by telling us genuinely interesting stories both about individual studies and about the more general relationships between species populations and their environment. That sounds rather dry, but it really isn't. There are many examples, but to pick one out, I was fascinated by the idea that attempts to stop species crossing borders will result in greater evolution of new species in those regions where access is restric