Today's Reading


A few years ago, I found myself at a conference of primatologists. At the drinks reception I enthused—I thought to a sympathetic scientist—about how like us chimps were, and how the differences between us were just a matter of degree. I was very pro-chimp; perhaps I was trying to ingratiate myself among the primatologists. But my stance also reflected the stories I'd been writing, about animals with traits once thought to be uniquely human. There were wild chimps seen using sticks as dolls, chimps using spears to hunt other vertebrates, chimps using their own sign language, chimps waging a war, and even what appeared to be chimps practicing a proto-religion. My view on these findings, as an evolutionary biologist, was that it is self-evident that we share traits and even behaviors with other animals: we're all related; we share many genes; genes influence behavior. There's no surprise there. Everything, even what we call "good" and "evil," has a basis in evolution, so it's only to be expected that we would find echoes of ourselves in other animals. As a journalist I liked the fact that there was, as I saw it, a lack of uniqueness in humans, as I felt it brought out the similarity between us and other animals, and could even increase empathy between us and them.

Wineglass in hand, I blithely asserted that there was nothing unique about us humans. And look at the genetics, too, I said. We're practically identical. The primatologist I'd been chatting with smiled an assassin's smile, and said: "Can chimps build their own LHC, then?"

That single remark brought down years of my thinking that we and chimps were so alike. It was just after the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland had been used to discover the Higgs boson. The scales fell from my eyes. It's not that I had been overstating what animals were capable of: I had been underestimating humans. It seems ridiculous now, absurd even. The primatologist might as well have asked when a chimp last walked on the moon, or painted Guernica. Sure, chimps are wonderful, intelligent animals, but the remarkable thing is not how smart they are, but how utterly amazing we are. As a biologist, I studied animal behavior in the field. I marveled at the solutions that natural selection finds to the problems of making a living and finding a mate. I still do. What I sometimes forgot to appreciate were the marvels of human behavior and ability.

In some ways this book is an attempt to put myself right on that point. I've set out to meet people at the top end of human potential, across a range of traits. People who are the best in the world at the things we revere, such as intelligence, musical ability, bravery, and endurance. We'll also encounter the people who are at the extremes of the things that matter most to us, such as happiness and longevity. It's a celebration of the very best we can be. In meeting them, we'll marvel at the diversity and potential of the human species, we'll try to understand how they personally got to where they are—and we'll deconstruct them. Such people might be superhuman, but they're not supernatural. I want to understand how these superpeople do what they do in order to bring them closer to the rest of us. Some of the stardust might rub off on us, and it might give us a glimpse of humans in the future. Understanding what lies beneath extreme ability in no way destroys the magic; if anything, it deepens our appreciation and teaches us about our everyday lives. Moreover, we might not be superhuman ourselves, but we do have a greater capacity than we realize. We have hidden depths. These traits are the things that humans yearn to be better at and strive to improve.

For most of the characteristics we'll look at, it's fairly easy to decide who is the best in the world, even if my technique is nonscientific. I'm defining the best singers in the world as the ones who can earn a living from their trade; the people with the greatest endurance as those who can run the farthest; the longest-lived people in the world—well, they are self-defined. For other traits, such as bravery and intelligence, it's more subjective, but I hope to convince you that I've chosen worthy candidates.

The book is in three parts. Part One, "Thinking," looks at traits driven by cognitive ability. It takes case studies representing intelligence, memory, language ability, and focus—the ability to concentrate the mind. In Part Two, "Doing," I've picked out bravery, singing, and endurance as abilities that humans have taken further than any other animal. Finally, in Part Three, "Being," I've selected longevity, resilience, sleeping, and happiness as traits that at first glance just seem to be part of us, but which some people manage to do at a much higher level. For each characteristic I look at the scientific understanding of how people get to the peak of potential, and the relative importance of nature and nurture—genetics and environment—in each case. There are many clues as to how my superhumans became so good, and lots to learn for the rest of us. The eleven traits and abilities certainly don't capture everything that makes us human, but I think they cast a wide net. The haul has reminded me of the sheer richness of the human species and filled me with fire for our extraordinary potential.

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