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.