Skip to main content

Upgrade Me: our amazing journey to Human 2.0 – Brian Clegg ****

I’ve read a lot of books about evolution – but Brian Clegg’s book takes a startling look at the way we have gone beyond evolution. Far beyond. Upgrade Me is about the way that human beings have used our brains to exceed our basic capabilities. Tellingly, it’s not all about the high tech stuff that springs to mind when we think about enhanced humans. Clegg points out that part of the inspiration for the book was going on a long walk on a hot day. For an animal to evolve the capability to survive in a very dry environment with no water around for days, would take millions of years of evolution. We just go out and buy a water bottle.
Clegg’s thesis is that our urge to upgrade was inspired by the development of the ability to see beyond the present. It was the first time our ancestors could think about the future, and wonder ‘what if?’ From that came our awareness of what could go wrong and the inspiration to go much further than evolution, which biologists will tell you effectively stopped over 100,000 years ago, made possible. The main part of the book is divided into five sections, five applications of this urge. These are extending our life – once we realized we were going to die, cosmetic improvements to make us better at attracting a mate and to give social standing, improvements in our (very feeble) natural strength, enhancements to the brain that enabled us to upgrade ourselves in the first place, and repairs to failings in our body.
Generally the mood is very upbeat, and Clegg takes on those who see enhancement as being unnatural, making us something unhuman and undesirable, in a way that puts them firmly in their place. He also casts doubts on the ‘Singularity’ concept (see Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near) that implies that fairly soon in the future we will merge with electronics to become Human 2.0. That doubt arises from the fact that we are already far beyond version 1 – and though the enhancements described here do sometimes involve incorporating technology in the body, the extrapolation used to suggest the Singularity will soon be on us appears to be flawed.
If I have a negative comment it’s that once or twice there are just too many examples thrown at us of the different ways we have modified ourselves through history – I wasn’t too interested in the part on clothing, for example – but it serves to make the point.
Sometimes the best part is finding an unexpected application that takes you by surprise – seeing how dogs, one of our earliest technologies that is still in use, have become a significant human upgrade, for example. Or discovering the amazing possibilities from combining high technology with our bodies, whether in enhancing our senses or producing living, moving tattoos. All in all, a thought provoking and thoughtful read. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …