Throughout history, we have always been fascinated by the superhumans among us; those individuals who exhibit skills or qualities so exceptional that we as ‘mere mortals’ simply couldn’t even comprehend matching them.
Take Kim Peek, an American Savant who was able to memorise an entire book in under an hour, and who could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books… Scott Flansburg, who can perform complex mathematics in his head faster than a person could with a calculator… Michael Lotito, who ate an entire Cessna 150 light aircraft or Dean Karnazes who ran for 350 miles, non stop, without sleep.
Evolutionary Biologist Dr. Rowan Hooper (@RowHoop) is Managing Editor of New Scientist, and in his recent book Superhuman, he scoured the world, aiming to answer those key questions: Why can some people achieve greatness when others can’t, no matter how hard they try? What are the secrets of long life and happiness? Just how much potential does our species have?
Rowan met ultrarunners, those who have rebounded from near-death, those who have exhibited exceptional bravery, found incredible happiness, and who have minds, voices and abilities that seemingly the rest of us could never match. I caught up with Rowan to understand what he learned from meeting our world’s superhumans.
Q: Are humans special?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: As a science journalist, I’ve spent my career writing stories that knock down this idea that we’re special; I’ve looked at things that chimps can do, but also crows, octopus and dolphins- one by one, it seemed the things we thought were unique to humans kept falling away. I have to admit, I liked that – it removed us from that old fashioned Victorian idea that we’re a God-determined species apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
I remember one day though, conversing with a primatologist and saying, ‘oh, animals are just like us… we’re not that special…’ and he said, ‘well, when did chimps build their own large hadron collider?’ – I was gob smacked. That one comment made me realise how absurd it is to claim we aren’t that different from other animals because, clearly, we’re amazingly different.
Q: What does it take to be superhuman?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: Humans have a spectrum of abilities; there’s not a line you suddenly cross to become superhuman- it’s a term I use to describe people who dedicate themselves to improving an aspect, an ability, or trait about themselves – something that explains a lot about how they’ve got to where they are.
Understanding superhumans is to understand human potential. We have this immense potential which isn’t always fulfilled individually, or as a species. I wanted to grab that by the scruff of the neck and write something positive about the best we can be. There’s so much negativity in our world, and perhaps I wanted to counter that- but whatever it is, I wanted to write something positive about humanity at its very best.
Q: What did you learn from individuals at the extreme of thinking?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: To understand thought, I picked three people who covered a wide-range of different types of intelligence. Hilary Mantel, one of the world’s greatest authors. Nobel Prize Winning scientist, Paul Nurse and Chess Grand Master, John Nunn. From talking to all of these individuals, I realized their special ability- that intelligence- was something apparent very early on in their lives. It wasn’t taught, it was innate. When I spoke to geneticists who work on intelligence, that’s something they find too; a large component of extreme intellectual ability is genetic. That doesn’t mean there is a gene for intelligence- quite the opposite; there are thousands of genes that contribute to intelligence, and each one contributes a tiny amount. Some people are just lucky enough to have a large amount of those genes, and they get this amazing leg-up in life from an early point.
All of us have the potential to build our skills, but for many traits, about 50% of our ability is genetic and 50% is environmental. You can’t just roll out of bed and be the best in the world at something, you need to have great genes and put in the hard-work, get the breaks, and really have that balance of nature and nurture.
Q: What did you learn about individuals at the extreme of bravery?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: When thinking about people experiencing life I chose to look at individuals who showed extremes of bravery, and abilities in singing and running.
Let me tell you about one of the most fascinating, bravery. I met a soldier who served in Afghanistan and joined a bomb disposal unit. He wanted to do good and help clear mines so that local farmers and people could go back to their homes and land. He did this job knowing that there was a 1 in 6 chance he would get killed or severely injured, but he did it anyway. Sure enough, he got blown up and lost both his legs. He denies that he’s brave, even though he went out clearing mines every day. He told me, ‘look, if what I do is brave? It’s a collective bravery…’ I spoke with evolutionary biologists who corroborated this and said the military have always done a great job of creating this band of brothers – groups who are so close-knit they very literally behave like family, and from an evolutionary perspective- we’re wired to do anything to protect our family. We’re sometimes incredibly brave for a family member, and the military exploit this by mimicking the conditions we grow-up in, families, in military structure. You end up doing things that are incredibly brave because your body is tricked into thinking its your family. One extraordinary example of this is a US Marine who got a purple heart for running under machine gun fire in Iraq to rescue a fallen comrade. What was astounding was that the comrade was a robot that had fallen over, a robot that lived with them in their armoured vehicle and helped them clear mines. A robot that had become a part of a band of brothers. This soldier was risking his life to rescue a robot because he felt a bond of family with it.
Q: What did you learn about individuals at the extremes of being?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: Alongside people who are great at athletics, memory and all the ‘traditional’ superhero traits, I wanted to speak to people who are exceptional at things that really matter to us, and that will be important to our lives, our health….
Longevity for example. I met a couple of centenarians including one guy who was 100, and who had been captured twice by the Germans during WW2, escaping prison and PoW camps. He just had this incredible drive and never say die attitude which he’s carried through him. This was something common to all the centenarians I met- incredible positivity that they will always just get-up and carry on with life. Speaking to geneticists who work with centenarians and super-centenarians (those who are over 110 years old) I was surprised to learn that these people don’t have particularly pure genomes, they still have the genes for Alzheimer’s, cancer, and all those things- but they just have other genes that protect them. If we want to live and become 100 years old, we need to have parents and grandparents that have lived that long- that’s it. There’s not much we can do in terms of environmental influence, eating well, and living well – those things help of course but to get to great age, you need the genes.
I also met people at the extremes of happiness, of life satisfaction. I met a woman who’d gone through one of the most appalling attacks, almost dying, and who was in a coma for three months. Her surgeon told me she had the worst injuries he’d ever seen on someone who had survived. Here’s the thing, she didn’t just survive, she bounced back and became- in her own words- stronger, happier and more powerful. I also met a woman with locked-in syndrome. She’d experienced a stroke, and became completely paralysed though her mind was intact. For most people in this condition, their doctors and nurses often say- very frankly- that they’d be better off dead… Rather shockingly, nobody had ever thought to ask the patients how they felt… When you communicate with people with locked-in syndrome (which is often done by converting their blinks and eye movements into letters) and ask them how they are feeling, it turns out a lot of them are actually quite happy with their lives; they see being alive as better than being dead- and the body and mind are far more adaptive than we realise, quickly getting used to this awful thing that’s happened. The amazing woman I met had taken two degrees through the Open University whilst being locked-in. I had to talk to her through her blinking out words on a special computer, while she was paralysed- she was incredibly dynamic and full of life.
I found that meeting people who have been through so much and maintain such positivity and character was not only counter-intuitive, but changed my thinking on what it means to be happy.
Q: What did you learn about people who were at the top of their field in sports?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: One of the most extraordinary things I learned during my journey was research into Olympic gold medallists. A group of scientists looked at athletes who had gone to the Olympics- they divided them into two groups- those who had won medals, and everyone else. They looked into their backgrounds and it turned out that the ones who had won medals had specialised in their sport much later in life, and also had more diverse lives outside sports. The message from this was simple; that we have to encourage people to try different things, to find what their best fit is.
We have to try different things until we find what we’re most suited for, what we love.
Q: How will technology play a role in our future ability?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: There are many positives that technology can bring to us, and our abilities. One example is Google Deepmind (founded by Demis Hassabis). They made an artificial intelligence that became expert at a game called Go– typically thought of as one of the ultimate games requiring the unique facets of human intelligence. Their AI beat the world’s best players, it trashed them- and now they have a successor to AlphaGo called AlphaZero which is even better. Here’s the thing, humans have learned to take on the style of play that this AI has discovered and are now improving themselves too. This is how I see humans and AI working together to improve our potential. It’s not augmentation, but an exciting aspect of our futures.
Q: What did you learn about yourself from meeting people at the extremes of human ability?
[Dr. Rowan Hooper]: When I started writing my book, I didn’t realise how deeply touched I would be by the stories of the people I met. Every person I met had an incredible story and a spark about them- they made me want to reach further in my own life. I didn’t think, ‘….oh look at all these people who are so much better than me…’ it made me try that little bit harder.
The chapter on happiness in particular made me rethink my life, and realise that we all fret about happiness but get it wrong. It made me realise that we can make changes in our life to get rid of those things that aren’t making us happy- it’s as simple as that.
Now, more than ever, we need to be the best we can, to fulfil our potential. The world is full of problems, but we are full of incredible ideas and adaptability and we can do this; but we need to fulfil our potential to change the world, and the time is now.
Rowan Hooper is Managing Editor of New Scientist magazine, where he has spent more than ten years writing about all aspects of science. He has a PhD in evolutionary biology, and worked as a biologist in Japan for five years, before joining the Japan Times newspaper in Tokyo, and later taking up a fellowship in a physics lab at Trinity College Dublin. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, Wired and the Washington Post. His book Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability, is out now.