Explaining Humans: A Christmas list ‘must’.
Explaining Humans is a book written by Dr. Camilla Pang. It is a book written by the niece of a friend and former colleague of mine, which is what drew my attention to it. To the unscientific, like me, it would have been low on any Christmas list because it is about science. That said, I am fascinated by people, what they do and why they do it. This offers a perspective on the people around oneself, that has definitely gone under-appreciated until now. It needs no plug from me because it has just won the Royal Society Science Book Prize
However, I have bought it, read it, and in a modest way would like to ‘plug it’. Buy this for yourself first, and then buy copies for other members of your family and for several of your friends. You will be warmly thanked. The author has Autism Spectrum Disorder. I nearly wrote ‘suffers’, which would have been patronising and unsuitable. Indeed, she talks about her superpower, and refers to those with Asperger’s as ‘Aspies’ like it is an elite or exclusive St. James club. She has also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and with ADHD.
Finding people complex and preferring the consistency of scientific theory, she wanted a ‘manual’ to help her understand the mysteries of the people around her as she grew up. Her mother explained that such a thing did not exist. In the end, she created her own. This is it, and it is extraordinarily uplifting as well as insightful. It is a unique book born out of unique approach. Some elements are written memoir-style. The self-deprecating humour is quite charming, especially when one senses the mockery she often came up against. Above all, though, it is a celebration of science and a gentle re-introduction to the layman, like me, who found it demanding, or downright impenetrable at school.
To my joy at the time, and to my disappointment subsequently, I gave up Chemistry and Biology as soon as my school permitted. I only studied for my Physics ‘O’ level because “you have to have at least one science”. Camilla Pang is a biochemist! She specialises in, amongst other things, bioinformatics. Not my usual chosen reading matter. However, her unique perspective(s) on humanity and her articulation of how science held her hand as she engaged with humanity, which she found demanding or downright impenetrable, made me want to learn.
In eleven chatty chapters she introduces us to how we might behave, think and operate better, so that we inspire more mutual confidence and satisfaction and we pick our way through the various social minefields. Chapters like “how to feel the fear”, and “how not to follow the crowd” and “how to have empathy” read like a trite ‘self-help’ book, but this is so different as she lays out the way she came to understand “how to” because she applied something that she had discerned from her science research to the human model.
A fortnight after putting down the book I found it easy to recall many of the lessons she gently teaches. Why we are like proteins was the amusing starting point. The ‘supercomputer’ in our heads. The lessons of how light refracts for dealing with fear, has already helped me when giving advice to someone who was overwhelmed with their current circumstances. I was a little blown away by wave theory and Stephen Hawking, to say nothing of how incredulous I was to be reading something sub-titled “quantum physics, network theory and goal setting”. There is a lovely, and very unexpected segue from Game Theory to politeness and etiquette, but the non-chemist in me will long recall “how to connect with others” being understood by appreciating chemical bonds. And after all, we are all matter, so it kind of makes sense.
This is what I took away. It fails to convey the richness of the learning or the detail of the science, but hopefully will convey the joy I got from reading and understanding, and that buying a copy would be a great investment. Millie, as we learn to call her, starts by demystifying artificial intelligence within the first ten pages. She explains how relevant classification is, and that we all (need to) do it. However, algorithmic thinking, which is what it begets, is not necessarily a good thing. Her own brain is an ardent classifier, but the processing is literal. There is a lovely anecdote about her mother giving her a shopping request — “can you get five apples, and if they have eggs, get a dozen”. Outcome, the shop did stock eggs, so she brought home a dozen apples.
She describes her epiphany, when she thought she could understand the people around her. She was watching a football match and seeing it not as “twenty-two men kicking a ball around a field”, but as a “human behaviour experiment”. She thought that the players were like proteins. “Just like people, there is no one protein type”. She explains the many different kinds and “a dizzying array of functions that keep the body moving and protect us from danger”. She talks about form and structure in the way that human beings “perform contrasting social functions in group settings”. This was right up the alley of the psychologist and psychoanalyst in me.
It turns out that proteins “are surprisingly similar to people in their behaviour and evolutionary development”. Suddenly I am reading and largely understanding gene sequencing and DNA. She describes proteins having different personalities like us humans, and that how those come together is about protein teamwork. She compares bee colonies and modern human workplaces. “There is no gathering of people, animals or molecules whose behaviour cannot be explained by some form of hierarchy and set of relationships”
This jumps to Jungian notions of personality which are the foundations of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. That introduces us to receptor and adaptor proteins and to kinase proteins (enzymes). One of the modules I studied for my Business Psychology degree was on Motivation. Millie elegantly introduces kinase proteins as the ‘motivators’ of biochemistry. She also refers to them as the ‘attention seekers’. Suddenly I could see my adult life relationships in terms of proteins. From there we learn about nuclear proteins, “the captain”. I loved this, “a ‘nuclear’ person won’t always, or often be the centre of attention. But everyone acknowledges them as the boss. And their word is usually final.”
It gets better and better. The chapter on light and fear made quite an impact on me. Fear is something we all have, and we all need, but we know it can be debilitating and paralysing. She explains synaesthesia — when unconnected senses come together, such as ‘seeing a sound’ or ‘tasting a smell’. For Millie, it was the ability to ‘feel’ colours. I recall prisms and light refraction from my early Physics classes. It was much less well explained than in this book.
When light passes from one substance to another it changes speed. White light is too painful to look at directly but slowed by water or glass it refracts into the familiar primary colours of the rainbow. For her, this was the revelation needed to thinking about seeing fears as colours and not one dazzling, overwhelming thing. She explains how light waves, like radio waves, sound and microwaves are all around us but are the only ones we can see because its waves “oscillate and undulate dependent on their energetic differences”. The higher the frequency of light the more it will bend when contacting something of higher density (air, glass, water). Red is the longest and bends least and violet the shortest, bending most; hence the consistent ‘decking’ of colours in a rainbow. She explains how being one’s own prism is how to cope with fear(s), and how she manages ADHD panics. The recommendation: Make yourself the densest possible prism.
If anyone had ever told me I would enjoy reading about quantum mechanics, I would still be pouring scorn at them now. However, one of the best chapters in the book is how quantum mechanics — and I had to be reminded that it is the study of subatomic particles — is relevant to life planning and goal setting. As she writes “should our emphasis be on the present or on the future?” I think of all the psychology experiments of eating a sweet now, or being rewarded with two later if one can defer the pleasure and exhibit control. This chapter introduces Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (and she still hadn’t lost me!). Studying how waves move through space and time (quantum mechanics) presents, we learn, the “classic Heisenberg problem”. Either pinpoint the way the wave is moving, or its position at a certain moment in time. Both simultaneously cannot be done.
To conclude this and to illustrate how beautifully written this book is I have to quote the end of this chapter. She takes us there via ‘network effects’ and Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”. I think it is both profound, and wonderful. It ought to help a great many people. “So, if you worry that you haven’t made enough progress in your life, or don’t know what comes next, allow science to reassure you. Those fears are natural. And the anxiety is helpful, acting as a lens through which to stimulate any number of differential paths. I have always seen it as my supercomputer, allowing me to make links and see possibilities that others cannot. People have told me not to be silly, or that I’m off my trolley, but I wouldn’t want to live without my anxiety and the ability it provides to scan the landscape, as well as the momentum it creates to learn more”
Reading the book will provide the reader with loads more incremental learning. He/she will, like me, suddenly be more conversant with thermodynamics, harmonic motion, molecular dynamics, probability, game theory, deep learning, memory and chemical bonds. I will not have done it justice here. However, let’s celebrate intellect. Let’s celebrate neurodiversity. Let’s celebrate differences between people. Let’s not see our uniqueness as humans to be a reason to divide us into groups. And, in Dr.Pang’s case, let’s celebrate ‘’experts’. I, for one, have not had enough of them.