Feature Life

What Makes You You?

I Sing the Body Organic

The human body is fascinating, in some ways more fascinating than that of other animals because our bodies seem to be weirdly more flawed than other animals’. In one of my favorite books about the human body, Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, Nathan H. Lents tells us that human beings have more faulty biology in the area of reproduction than any other mammal we know of. Lents writes, “Our species’ poor overall reproductive rate may be nature’s way of keeping parental attention on the helpless infant until he or she can stand on his or her own two feet. There is just one problem with this reasoning. If nature wanted humans to space out children, why achieve it through painful and energy-expensive deaths and false starts? Especially when there is a far easier way: the female body could just delay the postpartum return to fertility for a longer period. That’s what many species, including our close relatives, do.”

To take it a step further, stack the already errored build of a human body on top of today’s ever-advancing civilization that evolution has not had a chance to adapt to. This August, Adam Hart’s book Unfit for Purpose: When Human Evolution Collides with the Modern World will be published. Here, he explores the mismatch between our fundamental biology and the modern world we have created: Obesity as a side effect of evolutionary famine survival, stress as a side effect of life-saving “fight or flight” instincts, and autoimmune problems as a side effect of essential relationships with microbes built for an outdoor lifestyle. Personally, I never grow tired of hearing about the quirks of the human body. Below are some new and recent books that take a fascinating look at the human body as a whole. (Not all of them are orange.)

What Do You Think You Are?: The Science of What Makes You You by Brian Clegg

Popular science master Brian Clegg’s new book is an entertaining tour through the science of what makes you you. From the atomic level, through life and energy to genetics and personality, it explores how the billions of particles which make up you (your DNA, your skin, your memories) have come to be. Here, you’ll learn that Charlemagne is in your family tree, that the hydrogen in your body was created around 13.5 billion years ago, and that you share 60% of your genes with a banana. (NEW July 2020)

The Dance of Life: The New Science of How a Single Cell Becomes a Human Being by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Roger Highfield

Developmental and stem-cell biologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz takes us to the front lines of efforts to understand the creation of a human life. She has spent two decades unraveling the mysteries of development, as a simple fertilized egg becomes a complex human being of forty trillion cells.  Set at the intersection of science’s greatest powers and humanity’s greatest concern, The Dance of Life is a revelatory account of the future of fertility — and life itself. (February 2020)

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, bestselling author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, takes us on a head-to-toe tour of the marvel that is the human body. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. Instant New York Times bestseller. (October 2019)

The Making of You: The Incredible Journey from Cell to Human by Katharina Vestre

With a brilliant talent for thoughtful, charming science writing, Katharina Vestre takes us from cell to human and shares surprising facts along the way–such as that sperm have a sense of smell and that hiccups were likely inherited from our ancient, underwater ancestors. She also shows why gender is more complicated than we think and reveals the questions scientists still ponder about how we came to be. Illustrations by Linnea Vestre. (October 2019)

How to Be Human: The Ultimate Guide to Your Amazing Existence by New Scientist

Did you know that half your DNA isn’t human? That somebody, somewhere has exactly the same face? Or that most of your memories are fiction? What about the fact that you are as hairy as a chimpanzee, various parts of your body don’t belong to you, or that you can read other people’s minds? Do you really know why you blush, yawn and cry? Why 90% of laughter has nothing to do with humor? Or what will happen to your mind after you die? You belong to a unique, fascinating and often misunderstood species. From New Scientist magazine, How to be Human is your guide to making the most of it. (October 2019)

How to Grow a Human: Adventures in How We Are Made and Who We Are by Philip Ball


Ball makes that disconcerting question the focus of a tour through what scientists can now do in cell biology and tissue culture. He shows how these technologies could lead to tailor-made replacement organs for when ours fail, to new medical advances for repairing damage and assisting conception, and to new ways of “growing a human.” (October 2019)

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