Superhuman: Life At The Extremes Of Mental And Physical Ability by Rowan Hooper (book review).

‘Superhuman: Life At The Extremes Of Mental And Physical Ability’ is a popular science book looking into the science behind performance at extreme levels. Ranging from seemingly subjective qualities, such as bravery and musical ability to more quantifiable traits like memory and endurance, this book covers a wide range of topics. Bringing together science and real life examples of ‘superhumans’, Hooper will take you on a journey that explores the great potential humanity has to go beyond what many believe is possible and achieve extraordinary feats.

I regularly read popular science books and think they are difficult things to get right. It’s very easy to go too deep into the science aspects, losing readers in a maze of complex jargon, but equally easy to play to the lowest common denominator and include so little science that a book becomes merely a collection of anecdotes about interesting things. For me, ‘Superhuman’ unfortunately falls into the latter category. Hooper clearly understands the science and tries to mix it into each chapter, but there are just too many long sections of true stories to make it feel like a science book.

I also thought that some of the traits considered weren’t particularly suited to this kind of analysis. For example, singing is a really odd choice. Music is such a subjective thing and to consider a professional singer as ‘superhuman’ is not something that sits well with me. I’ll grant that it is interesting to learn about how genetics might influence something like musical ability and admire the skill of many great singers but, when considering it alongside much more quantifiable traits like intelligence, endurance and longevity, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Similarly, some of the anecdotes within the different sections felt forced and out of place, like a brief chat with Hilary Mantel in a section about intelligence, where the anecdotes never really came back to any of the genetics or quantifiable traits discussed. I don’t doubt that she is an intelligent woman but, in this book, in this section, it just didn’t fit.

When I finished ‘Superhuman’, I was frustrated and frankly glad to be done with it. I found it quite a slog to get through and if it hadn’t been a review copy, I wouldn’t have continued reading past the first couple of chapters. The minimal science and bizarre choices of both traits to explore and the stories used to demonstrate them meant that what should have been an interesting book came across as a confused mishmash of anecdotes. I think that cutting out a few of the stories and less quantifiable traits, spending more time exploring the others in greater detail, would have made this much more interesting and fulfilling as a scientific exploration of human potential.

Vinca Russell

January 2020

(pub: Little, Brown, 2018. 352 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-40870-946-7)

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