Science Book a Day Interviews Christopher Potter


Special thanks to Christopher Potter for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence

Christopher Potter is the author of two books: How to Make a Human Being:  A body of evidence (2014) and You Are Here: A portable history of the universe (2009). He is the former publisher and managing director ofFourth Estate, now an imprint of Harper Collins. As an editor, he worked with many writers, including Carol Shields, Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, Dava Sobel, Hilary Mantel, Matt Ridley, Simon Singh and Marcus Du Sautoy.  He has written for The Sunday Times, Independent, and New York Post. – From Chris’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for How to make a human being?

I write because I want to find out stuff. My first book, You Are Here, I wrote because I wanted to try and answer the question: What is it that science does when it does what it does? If that seems like a rarified question, perhaps to some a trivial one, my two books are attempts to show otherwise. The first book used the universe as a hook to write about (mainly) physical descriptions of reality at all scales. The new book is the first book turned on its head. The hook this time is human perspective, and how we try to lose that perspective in order to find the universal perspective of scientific laws. Sounds earnest, but I’ve tried to find a tone that is playful and I hope engaging. The ideal reader I have in mind as I write is someone who thinks that science books are not for him or her; who wants to read about science but who finds what’s out there to be too bloke-ish, too isolated from the humanities.

#2 – You explore the level of being human at different levels. What made you choose the levels of human that you have?

I came up with the idea of a pretend ‘how to’ manual as a way of writing about the problem of human perspective. I start by exploring what kind of universe might evolve complexity of the kind we find in the human brain. When that exploration throws up a number of seemingly insurmountable problems I move to the human brain itself, and ask how we might make a machine as complex and as conscious as we are. The problem of consciousness is at the core of the book. What I hope to show is that no matter what scale of scientific explanation we adopt in relation to being human there is always something missing. I hope to throw light on the scientific method itself: that it is an exploration of the co-evolution of observer-scientist and the universe: that there is no escape from our human perspective. What science (as physics) ultimately tries to answer is the question: If the world is made out of things that move, what are those things that are in the world (indeed what stuff is it that reality itself is woven out of), and what is motion? It is perhaps the single most brilliant question humans have ever asked. The scientific method orders what we find out from that investigation (we call it progress), and almost certainly is an exploration that has no end. I think the initial ‘if’ is the crucial part of the question. Professor Brian Cox on his Twitter feed describes himself, with refreshing honesty, as ‘naïve ultra positivist-ish’. Positivism (and most scientists are positivists) is the belief that there is an external world that exists separate from ourselves, and that can be measured with clocks and rulers. There clearly is a real world, I just don’t believe that we are separate from it. In that sense I’m with Kant, what science explores is the inseparable entwining of everything. Scientists have to assume that there is an ego separate in some way from what is being described. But the ego is a ghost in the machine and has not yet been accounted for by reductive methodologies. Indeed the machine appears to be haunted by ghosts at all levels.

 #3 – You have turned to an array of knowledgeable people for your book. They include scientists, authors and philosophers. What did each branch of thinking have to offer you in your book?

I was inspired by Reality Hunger: A manifesto by David Shields. It argues, if I read the book correctly, that old forms of the novel are dead. Don’t describe just tell us, is kind of the motto. He constructs his argument as numbered paragraphs, many or even most of them chunks taken from other writers. He wanted to use the material unattributed, but his publishers insisted he list the sources at the end. Shields says that his ideal reader will first tear out this last section. I realized that a number of books that I was drawn to were constructed out of numbered sequential paragraphs: Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations among them. I could see that Shields’ philosophy might serve me well. Instead of saying: on this hand, on the other hand, furthermore and so on, I could just present an argument in one paragraph, a counter-argument in the next paragraph, perhaps a third possibility in the next, and then move on. Two effects of writing the book in this way were unforeseen by me. First, the reader is left with a lot of space to insert her- or himself. Secondly, or perhaps the second point is just a consequence of the first, rather than speed the book up, this gobbet approach has the curious effect of slowing the reader down. One reader said, I found myself reading a paragraph or two, then putting the book down in order to look out of the window and think. Perfect.

My writing comes out of my reading. Rather than try always to hide that, I mean to make a virtue of my wide-ranging interests. Laurence Sterne somewhere in Tristram Shandy writes ‘Shall we ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?’ The answer is yes. I decided to be explicit and sometimes show the ingredients rather than always grind them up into my own prose. It also strikes me now that this line of Sterne’s is an excellent metaphor for what it is to be a human being. We live in the unknowable debt of everyone who has come before.

I use a great range of writers to help support my arguments, scientists, philosophers, poets, novelists, anyone; partly because I want to make the point that we humans are all in this together, and partly in an attempt to integrate science into culture generally. Too often science is seen as something separate and elevated, too scary to be approached. And that makes me think of W H Auden’s great line: ‘When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of Dukes.’

#4 – Your book ranges between scientific speculation to considerations of philosophy. Did you become an expert in these fields? How did you approach those areas where you found your knowledge lacking?

I’m not an expert in anything. I’m just curious. Each of the two books I’ve written took about 4 years to research and write. That’s quite a long time to find out things and to think. I was a publisher for 25 years before I took to writing, running a company called Fourth Estate, now part of HarperCollins. There, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to writers from all kinds of disciplines. I published science writers like Simon Singh, Marcus Du Sautoy, Henry Gee, Paul Hoffman, Dava Sobel, and Matt Ridley. But I also got to publish novelists: Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon among them. A writer like Hilary Mantel has the rigour of an historian, Matt Ridley writes as well as any novelist. I’m interested in the blurring of boundaries between different types of writing, something else that Shields writes about in Reality Hunger. After twenty-five years hoping and failing to find someone who was willing to write about science as if it were also part of the humanities, I realized I’d better try and do it myself.

As I said above, at the core of the new book is the problem of consciousness. That was the subject I needed to investigate most deeply for this project. I was lucky enough to spend some time with researchers at a new laboratory in Oxford, asking them questions about their astonishing work investigating neural networks in flies’ brains. Over the years I got to interview a number of scientists around the world about all kinds of different subjects. I’ve come to love talking to scientists and asking them questions that take them out of their comfort zones. And they seem to enjoy it too. It’s something I’d like to do more of if the opportunity arose.

#5 – A reviewer says “…whatever this book might lack in cohesion, or in the progressive development of an argument, it makes up for in enthusiasm and ambition.” Would you agree with this quote? Is this what you were going for?

Well I like the enthusiasm and ambition bit! I have to admit that I’m disappointed the reviewer didn’t see that the book is carefully constructed. I prefer the review in Nature: ‘The scattershot narrative somehow coalesces into a brilliant whole and a compelling case for anti-reductionism.’ I felt that that reviewer pretty much got what I was trying to do: that the seemingly disparate material is carefully placed. An argument sweeps through the whole book. I’m sort of amazed that some reviewers, even when writing positively about the book, haven’t noticed. I’m not sure however (going back to that line in the Nature review) that I mean to be anti-reductionist. Yes, I do show that reductionism only takes one so far, but in the end my point is that it is the hardening of reductionism as faith that is limiting, even dangerous. If we see reductionism as a methodology that points up what we don’t know even as it collects and organises what we do know, reductionism can be seen to be even more powerful than commentators like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Brian Cox would have us believe.

#6 – Are you working on any projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m working on a book currently titled The Earth Gazers. In the 1950s Fred Hoyle predicted that a photograph of the earth seen from the outside would change how we thought about our planet. I’m writing about that; about how, in particular, it changed those 24 Apollo astronauts who saw the whole earth, the only humans ever to do so (space stations are in low orbits of around 200 miles above the surface of the earth, far too close to see the entire earth in a single field of vision), and how those first photographs of the whole earth changed the rest of us. James Lovelock has said that those first images taken from Apollo 8 inspired him to come up with his Gaia theory. Photographs like the one now known as Earthrise also helped kick-start what became the Green movement.

Asked if there was anything about the Apollo 11 mission he regretted, Buzz Aldrin said, Yes, he wished that he’d looked out of the window more. They all wanted to do it: look out and stare at the Earth. They called it Earth gazing.

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