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How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence Hardcover – 27 Mar 2014

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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: 15.9 x 3.4 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 230,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

‘A clever, subtle, enjoyable book — and a deeply English one, full of idiosyncrasy and resistance to easy answers’ Sunday Times

‘Sparky and fun… Auperb. Potter investigates what it is to be human, and his method is to investigate the history of human thought’ Evening Standard

‘Beautiful and profound … Not only unlike any work of literature I’ve read, it comes closer than any new work I’ve read to doing full justice to the impossible complexity of living a life … It concerns matters of mortality, and of grocery shopping. It is – I’ll just say it – a significant book’ Michael Cunningham, author of ‘The Hours’

‘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 … Very enjoyable’ 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’ Hilary Mantel, Guardian

‘Rich and wonderful … A clever, subtle, enjoyable book. If we are a parliament of selves, this book is a parliament of explanations’ Sunday Times

‘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

‘Potter always has something interesting to say, even if you disagree … this is a wonderful and unique book.’ Lisa Randall, Professor of Physics at Harvard University

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

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By T J Hughes on 3 July 2014
Format: Hardcover
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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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By MJM on 3 April 2014
Format: Hardcover
I read this in a night, and it was one of the most exhilarating reading experiences I've had. Though it's non-fiction, it reminds me of some of my favourite novels - 'The Waves', 'War and Peace' - in breadth and ambition. Potter is uniquely positioned to study life simultaneously from materialist and aesthetic perspectives - what comes through, progressively, is his rapt fascination with the nothing-simpler and nothing-more-mysterious fact of existence. It's unlikely that you'll read a book from which you will learn quite so much. I found myself scrawling note after note with the enthusiasm of a teenager. The bibliography alone is a treasure (surely the only book to feature both Lyn Margulis and John Cheever!). The format is reminiscent of David Shields's 'Realty Hunger', though this is much further reaching. It might also be compared to John Gray, whose own work is similarly a blend of essay, autobiography, science, philosophy and tribute to loved writers, though Potter's is a much more affable, positive, and lyrical voice, and he's much more more comfortable on the hard science. It's an incredibly generous book - an example in how to live without illusion and with gratitude and wonder. I really believe this is a necessary and timely addition to the contemporary debate on post-Darwinian 'meaning'; as well as being essential and challenging reading for anyone interested in Dennett, Dawkins, etc, it also starkly illuminates quantum physics, evolutionary biology and other disciplines for those who may not be so familiar with them. Potter is unique: he is neither trying to denigrate belief nor hide from the physical realities of transient matter; neither reducing the felt expansiveness of consciousness nor ignoring the humbling and spectacular advances of neuroscience and molecular biology.Read more ›
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By James-philip Harries on 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.
Avoid.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By The Sethmas of Pybama on 15 April 2014
Format: Hardcover
A delightful and engaging book. I find it less eccentric than wry, which, to me at least, seems a welcome sign of respect for the intelligence of the reader. (I'm afraid I tend to fall for that sort of thing, particularly in these days of hyper-excited, flashy science-related media.) I find it unusually perceptive and thought-provoking, pursuing ideas traditional and less so with equal articulation and a fair amount of charm...I'm at a bit of a loss as to how exactly he maintains such a clear center in a book with such a range of topics.

I'm in full agreement with previous reviewers on two points. One, I can also imagine this staying on my Kindle somewhat permanently, to be taken out at any moment of pause in one's day -- which is in fact what I've done with it since finishing it. Though I find its physical version much more pleasing for this purpose. Like a tiny handful of rare works which have gone before it, it doesn't seem "done" when one's finished reading it, I keep wanting to go back, bounce around to different spots and explore. It's almost a generative work that way.

Two, it feels very much to me like a fresh approach to science writing in general; being written from a perspective that, at least to my mind, abandons the (imagined) security of setting forth an explication of Things As They Are (with its attendant pomposities large and small) and somehow manages to place a realistically human point of view, perhaps it's more accurate to say *manner* of perceiving, at the center of these various arrays of facts -- the wildly imperfect, frequently imaginary, occasionally brilliant, bias-driven set of contradictions which is our actual human perspective, as one experiences it.
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