X-Men mark the spot where superhumans strut their stuff

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X-Men mark the spot where superhumans strut their stuff

Book review: ‘Superhuman’ by Rowan Hooper

Thulani Angoma-Mzini


The tagline of Superhuman is “Life at the extremes of mental and physical ability”. Rowan Hooper, the author, is an evolutionary biologist.
Everything about this book said “X-Men” to me. In fact, one of the first things I did when I started reading was to google “Are there X-Men in real life?” Google instantly spat out a video titled “10 Real Life X-Men” which showed a ragtag group of wonderfully weird individuals, including a super strong baby, a man immune to electric shock and a man who hasn’t slept in over 43 years.
It even had Ozzy Osbourne in there as someone with a gene mutation that helps him process alcohol like no other human. I don’t know how. But it’s pretty cool.
Superhuman is pretty cold though. Hooper introduces his book with the notion that while human genetics are practically similar to those of other primates such as chimps, humans have achieved some incredible feats that chimps haven’t yet come around to. He then goes on to explore some of these traits and their origins. It’s the classic battle of nature (the influence of genetic makeup) and nurture (environmental factors). What we’ve come to know as Malcolm Gladwell’s infamous 10,000 hour rule (which turns out to be a misquoted idea from the work of Anders Ericsson of the Florida State University’s department of psychology in Sweden) makes a cameo, pulling for the nurture team. For the most part Hooper finds, in an excruciatingly roundabout way, that genetics win the game. At least that’s what I think he finds. It’s hard to wade through the genetic acronyms and jargon.
Take intelligence for example. The book opens with an examination of three individuals supposedly at the height of intelligence – a master chess player, a Man Booker Prize winning author and a Nobel Prize winning scientist. The novelty in this list comes second only to its lack of interest and intrigue. And the main subject matter – IQ – betrays that lack. Not very Professor X.
Qualitative and self-help aspects are explored as sources of brilliance in these individuals. Such platitudinous observations as “… something that seems to be key to the way intelligent, or at least successful people function – ambition or drive” signal the scarcity of excitement in this investigation.
Besides leaving you with scary stats such as “… fluid intelligence, which relies on working out abstract problems, and speed of mental processing, both decline in efficiency after about the age of 30”, you end the chapter still unsure if it’s your genes or your drive that makes you super intelligent (or not).
To his credit Hooper has tried to make the notion of superhumans accessible. He’s chosen elements of human nature that are relatively quotidian but has highlighted instances where their concentration exceeds expectation. He’s set out to identify things that bring us closer to the superhumans he’s put together, so we too can feel that we have it in us. It feels like an exercise in inclusion rather than in awe and amazement.
The topics explored are relatively uninspiring. “Bravery” (looking at a bomb detonator’s courage, and a woman with a genetic disorder that means she feels no fear); “Longevity” (wherein he establishes that there’s no direct line between healthy eating and exercise and a long life – rather an alphabet soup of genomes and DNA strands interacting together); and “Singing” (a stretch by any means, Ozzy Osbourne notwithstanding).
The problem is that this approach reduces to a sort of Dadaism of the extraordinary. If everyone is super, then no one is super. The book slumbers further along the basic in its final two chapters, which explore “Sleep” and “Happiness”. Hooper seems to struggle with where he’s taken the book. It’s not clear, at first glance, what it means to be a good, let alone a superhuman, sleeper.
Hooper explores polyphasic sleep. This is opposite to our eight-hours-a-night norm which is called monophasic sleep. Polyphasic involves breaking sleep up into smaller “power nap” intervals. The chapter cites the Uberman system (a name with an etymology linked to Hitler, as described in Hooper’s colourful inserts), which involves breaking up sleep into six 20 minute naps, one every four hours, with a total of two hours’ sleep in a 24-hour cycle – “… a superhuman 22 hours’ waking time altogether”.
Superhuman is reduced to a “human beings are awesome and you can be awesome too” book. Well-meaning as it may be, it fails to inspire. If you watch that video of the real-life X-Men, though, you’ll see some real superhumans. The one guy reads two pages at the same time – one page with each eye – and remembers everything. Now that’s super. • Superhuman by Rowan Hooper (Little Brown), R295.

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