Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: What Do You Think Are?

When I first picked up What Do You Think You Are? by Brian Clegg, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d just finished I, Mammal by Liam Drew which documents what makes humans mammals, which meant that I was already primed for more information on that matter. However, in What Do You Think You Are? Brian Clegg takes a more philosophical approach to answering this question. Yes evolution is an important factor but Clegg also investigates cultural and societal properties, which make us all who we are. This includes such factors such as religion, relatedness to royalty (which we all are if you go back far enough in time), and other abstract ideas that ultimately answer the question. Clegg also investigates the influence of technology and poverty on shaping everyone in the world today. While all of these topics may seem a little disjunct (probably due to my poor explanation), Clegg is able to expertly weave everything together in a wonderful narrative that really does make you think.

That is one of the things I love with a popular science book, taking a somewhat simple question and exploring it from every possible avenue possible. Of course your genetics make up who you are, along with the environment that you were brought up in, but what about the microbiome in your gut? How does that influence you as a person? Just as with Drew, Clegg backs up each of his statements and points of view with research conducted by a number of scientific researchers through the years, that have been able to help shed some light on what it means to be human. There is no doubt in my mind that such a book could have easily have been ten times as long, Clegg keeps is short, accessible and entertaining. By the end, you’re pretty certain of your place in the world. At the very outset, Clegg speaks of things from a very physics orientated perspective, speaking on the origins of matter and the atoms that make us (and the rest of life on Earth). This worried me as a biologist, I do have a basic understanding of physics, but it’s not my favourite cup of tea. I shouldn’t have worried, as after this brief introduction the book shifts up a gear to to back to biology, phew! It’s important to note here, that both physics and chemistry are fundamental to our understanding of biological systems.

If you’re looking for a nice quick read (I finished this in a few days), taking a deep look inwards to what makes you you, then I would thoroughly recommend it. I love Clegg’s writing style, I am certainly going to be on the look out for more of his books when I’m out and about. It is great to see the interactions between biology, culture and society that play out in What Do You Think You Are?, providing a very accessible narrative around the whole Nature vs. Nurture debate, that has been ongoing for some time. If you do get around to reading the book yourself, let me know what you made of it in the comments below.

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