Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Reviewed by Rod McLary

With a nod to Frederich Nietszche, Rowan Hooper’s book is – in his own words – ‘a book about what it feels like to be exceptional and what it takes to get there’.

Structured in three parts – Thinking, Doing and Being – the book explores the diversity of humans and attempts to come to an understanding of how people at the highest levels of achievement got there and why.  It also examines the continuing debate about the relative

importance of nature and nurture – or in other words genetics and environment – drawing on latest developments in the studies of DNA.

The book challenges – and perhaps even debunks – the widely-held belief that 10,000 hours of practice or study in any field will make a person an expert in that field.

To explore high achievement, Rowan Hooper has selected people at the very pinnacle of achievement in characteristics which are generally considered to be highly valued.  These eleven characteristics include intelligence, memory, language, singing, running, longevity, resilience and four others.  Each characteristic is given its own chapter in which persons considered to be the best in that characteristic are interviewed by the author.  Alongside the interviews is a discussion about the most recent scientific thinking regarding that characteristic with a particular focus on the genes which may contribute to the high level of achievement.

The author is clearly a skilled interviewer and has been able to draw out from the interviewees remarkable stories of their childhoods and upbringing.  Many recognised from early childhood that they were ‘different’ from their peers.  Some are able to identify what set them apart from the other children such as – a high level of curiosity, the capacity to spend time alone without the need to socialise with other children, and a precocious level of understanding of the characteristic in which they excelled as adults.  For example, Hilary Mantel – a two-time Man Booker Prize winner – says of herself as a child ‘it was as if there was a much older person sitting inside me’ [23].  Mantel believes her linguistic fluency is an innate characteristic.  When young, she listened closely to her grandmother and great-aunt talking and soaked up their patterns of language and at the same time acquired ‘an enormous vocabulary’.

In a study cited in the book, it was established that 60% of the differences in high intelligence are genetic.  However, there is no one ‘intelligence gene’ – instead there are thousands of them each with a tiny but significant effect on intelligence [25].

It is not quite so clear cut with other characteristics.  Memory – a characteristic of vital importance to all of us and one which we miss more than most when it begins to fade – is also examined by Hooper.  There are people amongst us who have what can be called ‘super memories’ – that is, they have completed phenomenal feats of memory.  Hooper writes of Rajveer Meena of Rajasthan India who can recite pi [the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter] to 70,000 decimal places.  It took him 9 hours 7 minutes [39].

Surprisingly perhaps, there are national competitions for so-called memory athletes – the world champion is a young man who memorised in fewer than twenty seconds the order of a shuffled pack of cards [45].

Some studies have demonstrated that there seems to be an association between super memory and an enlarged hippocampus – the area of the brain which is involved in long- and short-term memory – but it is unclear what role genetics has played in this enlargement [65].

One rather terrifying chapter considers people who have ‘locked-in’ syndrome.  This is a condition where because of severe illness a person is almost totally paralysed but whose brain is still active.  Communication is almost impossible but can be done as shown by Hooper in his interview with Shirley Parsons.  One day in 2003, Shirley woke up with a very bad headache and vertigo.  She managed to work through to the afternoon but collapsed and woke up two weeks later in intensive care.  A simple mutation in a gene gave her thrombophilia which is a tendency for her blood to clot more than it should.  She can now communicate only with her eyes – looking up for ‘yes’ and side-to-side for ‘no’.  However, Shirley is able to use a keyboard with a cheek switch and specialist software.  Even more heart-warming is the fact that Shirley has completed a BA in Social Sciences and graduated in 2010.

These conundrums are played out through the book.  Hooper describes persons with an enhanced skill in a specific characteristic, meets with the persons to explore his/her life and what in his/her family and cultural environment may have contributed to this skill, and concludes by examining the most recent genetic studies.

Returning to the 10,000 hours of practice theory made popular by Anders Ericsson – a Swedish professor in psychology at Florida State University – the opposing view is awkwardly called multifactorial gene-environment interaction model [MGIM].  This view claims that high achievement cannot be explained by practice which accounts for only 30% of the variance in performance [153].  In other words, 70% of the variance is accounted for by other factors.  The general consensus is that you need the right genes to achieve at a high level in any field.

Rowan Hooper has written a very intelligent and enjoyable book about super achievers.  While there is science on every page, it is balanced by the intensely human experience of Hooper speaking with a number of persons about their performances.  Most of the interviewees speak articulately about their achievements and what they believe helped while at the same time expressing humility and a deep appreciation for their talents and skills.

Hooper is the managing editor of New Scientist magazine and has been for ten years.  In his Acknowledgements, he thanks his mother for showing him that he could be a writer – and the subtext perhaps is thanking her for the genes she passed on as she too is a writer.



by Rowan Hooper

Little, Brown

ISBN 978 1 4087 0947 4

344pp; $32.99

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