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How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence [Hardcover]

Christopher Potter
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

27 Mar 2014

A startling investigation of what it means to be human.

Human beings know how to make machines. But what kind of machine is a human being? And could we ever make one?

In order to answer these questions, other questions get in the way:

What is it like to be a human being?
What is it like to be some other kind of animal?
What is reality?
What is consciousness?
Is there a God?
What is love?
Why live?

The questions proliferate.

But all these questions can be viewed as facets of a single question:

What is science?

In ‘How To Make a Human Being’ Christopher Potter shows how, at every scale of description, human beings escape the net of scientific reductionism. What it is to be human can be glimpsed in the details: in the opening of a window, in a shared joke. But cannot be caught by any reductive scientific description.

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How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence + You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (27 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007447795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007447794
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 15.6 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 270,398 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


‘A sort of commonplace book full of paradox and conflicting ideas, shocking facts and redemptive anecdotes, turbulent with two or three millennia of human thought … The source material is wonderfully diverse … [‘How To Make A Human Being’] has great fun bringing the work of canonical writers together with a loose philosophical examination of some of the big existential questions … Very enjoyable.’ Gavin Francis, Guardian

‘Well-travelled imaginations will enjoy a jaunt with fiery polymath Christopher Potter; “How to Make a Human Being” is a quirky investigation into our deepest nature, and calls on evidence from PG Wodehouse and Marcel Proust, Christopher Robin and Francis Crick, the Book of Revelation and the Worm Breeder's Gazette.’ Hilary Mantel, Guardian

‘Potter now focuses inward, turning from physics to neuroscience, biology and philosophy. He asks not “where are we?”, but “who are we?” — and finds that science does not have half the answers it thinks. Still, science’s best efforts, as gathered here, feel pretty rich and wonderful … A clever, subtle, enjoyable book. If we are a parliament of selves, this book is a parliament of explanations — and a deeply English one, at that, full of idiosyncrasy and resistance to easy answers.’ James McConnachie, Sunday Times

‘A quirky and effective way of managing material that has engaged and baffled the greatest minds since antiquity’ New Statesman

‘Potter illuminates the human in all its manifestations from single cell to creator of culture … The scattershot narrative somehow coalesces into a brilliant whole and compelling case for anti-reductionism’ Nature Magazine

Praise for ‘You Are Here’:

‘One of the most entertaining and thoughtful pop-science books to be published for years’ Sunday Times

‘A wonderful, miraculous book …The whole universe bottled for your delight’ Stephen Fry

‘One of the best popular science books I have ever read’ Guardian

About the Author

Christopher Potter spent almost a quarter of a century in publishing, over 17 of those years at the independent publishing house Fourth Estate, where he became publisher and managing director. His first book was the much-praised ‘You Are Here, A Portable History of the Universe’. ‘How To Make a Human Being’ is his second.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is an intriguing, exciting and challenging book that circles around Q's of negative capability in the face of the inevitable existential uncertainty of being human. To live with and through uncertainty demands challenging solutions from the engaged reader as well as the author, who provides us with those moments in his own pharmakon of sometimes idiosyncratic knowledge when the pendulum has swung between hope and despair,knowledge and admiration that man is often his own worst enemy. The title of the book suggests that readers will find out something specific but its text teases out the irony of any such claim as this 'body' of evidence is at the mightiest level invisible to scientists as well as spiritualists. The body is always disappearing. This is a book reminiscent of the poet/philosopher Pessoa that requires pause, reflection and digestion of its sometimes uncomfortable and sophisticated inventory that not only are we fallen creatures, fallen from grace - how little 'grace' do we see on the 10 o'clock News - but that also we blindly move between one hour and the next, never knowing when, or whether our bodies will surprise or terrify us. The author shares his own fears and pleasures generously with his readers.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars eccentric and thought provoking 29 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This attractively produced book is hard to categorise as it blends philosophy and literature with evolutionary theory, quantum physics and biology, in a witty speculation by a writer as much at ease with the world of science as he is with the arts. Divided into sections, each laced with quotes and epigrams from a wide variety of sources, makes for a stimulating read which one can take up and put down without losing any threads. Potter's unusual outlook on the meaning of life is conveyed with grace and flair.
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When, four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon made the case for experiment and measurement, thus inaugurating modern scientific method, his poet friend George Herbert asked: how do you measure love? This brilliant new book takes that dialogue further and wider perhaps than ever before, bringing together the wisdoms of scientists, philosophers, religions and artists to illuminating what our universe might be, and what it might mean to be human in it.
Christopher Potter’s deep and wide-ranging empathy for all these perspectives ensures that the experience of reading it is constantly to be surprised, moved, or delighted into new perceptions, and no side is stereotyped or reduced. While describing with wonder the recent astonishing progress in physics, biochemistry and neuroscience, he deploys the voices of eminent scientists to reveal how well they understand the limitations of their field of enquiry (things measurable “by a clock and a ruler”). New scientific advances can typically flow not from dry observation but acts of imagination as inspired as art. Like great artists, they destroy or constrict what were previously certainties. What our universe is, and what it means to be human, are always unravelling. We are an unstable field, and in this a microcosm of our cosmic surroundings, but one capable, at our best, of astonishing and unmeasurable perception, each holding, as Potter reveals, in a human brain, the most complex thing so far discovered in creation.
Meaning may belong more in metaphor, where poets and religious thinkers have often dwelt, questioning those who, from any side of the argument, have propounded narrow certainties.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I think this is a wonderful book. It really does go into all those questions about life and existence, but in a way that so unernest, and draws on the wisdom of so many people, and in such a digestible way, that I wonder it has not been done before. I think the format is perfect, with subjects, quotations and the author's observations (though not judgements) blending into a thought provoking, and often very funny, journey through..... well, everything really. I had always fancied myself as a bit of a philosophy/theology student, but this book made me realise I had not really thought about much about anything.

It is perfect for anyone who does not want to plough through pages of dense text, but who likes to be challenged, amused, informed, entertained, and possibly shown the Way - without having to work hard at it. It can be read on levels to suit anybody - and that is quite an achievement.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great Pseuds of Today 10 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I thought it might be about evolution, biology, history and stuff. In fact it's a self regarding and lazy conflation of quotes from physicists, philosophers, writers and the author himself, roughly arranged in the style of a renaissance commonplace book. There is no overarching argument which I could detect, so readers should perhaps regard it as a dictionary of the most embarrassing quotations.
Here's two:
If less is more, is nothing too much?
Human beings like to make things, but when the universe makes things, what are they? Being in the universe calls the thingness of things into doubt.
And so forth. Some but not most of the quotes or the author's aperçus are too long to fit in a fortune cookie.

Nearly all the great pretentious dead people appear: the Dalai Lama (well, OK he's not dead but not likely to sue for copyright infringement) Virginia Woolf, Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Freud, Jacques Derrida, Victor Hugo, D H Lawrence, J P Sartre... add a couple more and a few Guardian or NYRoB columnists and you'd have a few sets for happy families.
Of course scientists say stupid things from time to time. We all do, shame on us. It seems to be a bit harsh to quote them out of context, but in context of this tripe.
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