This past summer I set myself a goal to read through a curriculum that provided various answers to the question: How did we come to be?
Inspired by an audiobook I had just heard, The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, I assembled an almost arbitrary collection of books to read through, a curriculum of sorts, that revolved around genetic influence, evolution, natural selection, and the question of humanity.
Of course, my first natural selection (I italicized that so you know it’s funny) was Darwin’s Origin of Species, one of those books that everyone knows about but few have read.
Check that baby off my list! The actual experience of reading the book was difficult. There’s a lot of references to pigeons. I liken it to the time I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and he talked a lot about “micturation,” which is a fun word.
While reading the book was a test of endurance and perseverance, I felt a little thrill at actually reading THE source material that preceded everything we have come to learn about the species that populate our planet and why such wonderful diversity exists among them.
Not a recommended beach read.
Next up, The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski. Purportedly a timeline of the cultural evolution that would harp on the recurring theme of humanity’s uniqueness, this meandering book, though well regarded by Carl Sagan (who is GREAT), is an unfocused paean to white, male geniuses. And arches, for some reason.
I don’t know that this stuffy and dated book contributed in a meaningful way to my curriculum, but it serves as a reminder that we must always keep vigilant of our blind spots and respectful of the breadth of different perspectives and experiences that exist in the world.
Metaphorical representation of the experience of reading this book. (Also, the skull is a dog toy.)
Next up was another oft-quoted classic, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Aiming to explore the manifestations of our inherently self-serving biology, the book is a thoughtful, though at times defensive, contribution to our understanding of those ruthless replicators. If one had to distill the magic ingredient that differentiates humans from other species, Dawkins’ concept of the meme, a cultural version of the gene, which can be seen in everything from religion to language, isn’t a bad choice. Ultimately optimistic, Dawkins posits that we have an ability not gifted to any other species: the ability to defy our biology and make choices.
How appropriate then, to complete the journey from primordial ooze to reptile brain to Amazon drone delivery (surely the crowning achievement of our species) with a book entitled Human by Michael Gazzaniga. It directly addresses the question of what makes us able to create and communicate and fashion countless emojis like no other species has ever come close to.
Surely it has something to do with our big, expensive brains.
Human captures the quandary of the apparent similarities and dissimilarities between humans and everything else, most notably our simian cousins. It doesn’t offer an easy answer, but barrels through dozens of studies that highlight our lucky biology that led to humanity’s unique mental processes.
Corrective lenses are all that separates us from the animals.
Luck. Chance. Opposable thumbs. Bipdalism. Neocortex. Language. Art. Along the way a million tiny steps; the thought that we could have developed in any other manner is almost incomprehensible. The survival machines that shuffle our genes into the next generation are so complex, so perfectly honed, that many believe there must have been some guiding force, a higher intelligence, beings from another planet, that conferred these gifts upon us and shaped the environment in which we thrive. However, every piece of the puzzle is explainable by science, and it doesn’t make our existence any less profound.
To me, the unique experience of being a person, and all the joy and pain and creativity and intelligence that comes with it, can be summed up in this quote by Viktor Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
List of Books and links to my reviews
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga – A Review