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edge staff writer


To the extreme – ‘Superhuman’

September 5, 2018
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Just what are we capable of?

That’s the question asked by biologists, psychologists, anthropologists – just about any “-ist” you can think of … what are the limits to human endeavor? It’s a question whose complicated answers evolutionary biologist Rowan Hooper hopes to unravel.

Hooper’s new book is “Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity” (Simon & Schuster, $27) introduces us to a vast and varied collection of outliers, individuals whose abilities in certain arenas far outstrip the capacity of the average person. Whether we’re looking at intelligence or physical endurance or courage or empathy, there are people out there who are more disposed to the extreme end of the spectrum.

Hooper also explores the foundation beneath such performance. How much of a factor is a person’s genetic makeup? How about their developmental environment? What other factors might go into pushing a person to the outer limits of human capability?

The collection of conversations that Hooper has assembled is remarkable. He breaks these interviews down and gathers them into three sections – Part I is “Thinking,” Part II is “Doing” and Part III is “Being.”

In Part I, he talks with a chess master and a best-selling author, finding the parallels between the source of their respective excellence. We learn about the youngest Oxford undergraduate in five centuries. The relative value of IQ tests is considered, as well as the nature/nurture argument regarding intellectual development. Memory and the different ways that one can display outsized ability – the rote style of memory champions or the near-total personal recall of hyperthymesia – are investigated. People who memorize pi to 100,000 digits or can offer detailed descriptions of almost any day of their lives. In addition, we meet gifted polyglots, capable of learning dozens of languages fluently, and are introduced to people with preternatural personal focus.

Part II introduces us to some physical marvels, such as endurance athletes who are capable of running hundreds of miles. For instance, take the guy who ran 188 miles – in just 24 hours. Those sorts of feats – wilderness ultramarathons or timed track-based distance events – point toward what our physical ceilings might be. It’s not just running, either. Hooper meets up with a pair of renowned opera singers, where we learn about the tremendous physicality necessary to reach operatic greatness. He also spends time with a former bomb disposal officer to explore the possibility of a genetic basis for bravery.

Finally, Part III looks at what it means to be human and the impact of unusual aptitude in our general existence. For instance, Hopper spends some time dealing with longevity, likely the most coveted of all of these high-performance categories. How does one live as long as possible? What makes a centenarian? That’s not all, however. There’s an in-depth look at sleep and how some people are better at it, whether that means longer duration or lucid dreaming or polyphasic cycling. We also get a chance to explore the idea of there being a genetic predisposition toward happiness – a valuable ability indeed – as well as toward one’s predisposition toward bouncing back from adversity.

“Superhuman” is Hooper’s first book, but it certainly doesn’t read that way. He approaches his subject matter from a very intellectual perspective and is unafraid to use jargon and other very specific language to advance the proceedings how he sees fit, yet he also manages to make the book extremely readable even as he challenges the reader. His prose is engaging and he has a fine sense of narrative; the individual stories flow nicely as he relates them.

The genetic basis for these superior achievements is rarely simple; there’s no single intelligence gene or endurance gene or longevity gene. It’s not one big switch to flip, but rather the final product of slight, subtle alterations across an unknown number of genes. Some clues have been discovered, but the big picture is far from clear when it comes to any of this stuff.

That uncertainty is part of what makes “Superhuman” such a fun read. Meeting these people, these pinnacle-type examples of what humans can be, is interesting. And learning about some of what makes them this way is as well. But the mystery, the knowledge that, as of right now, we can’t say for sure WHY the outliers are the way they are … that’s the coolest part of all.

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