Book Review: Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang

Explaining Humans - a book by Dr Camilla PangAs a young girl growing up with autism, Camilla Pang asked her mother if there was such a thing as an instruction manual on the human race. Of course, the answer was no. Years later, now a qualified scientist, she has written her version of such a manual. This is an intriguing book, written from the perspective of someone who has had to self-consciously learn much of what most of us take for granted. It is amusing and thought-provoking in more ways than one.

The chapter headings read a bit like a how-to manual and, in some ways, that is what this book is. Topics include ‘how to (actually) think outside the box’, ‘how to embrace your weird’ and ‘how to find harmony’. Each chapter takes a specific social problem and analyses it using scientific metaphors, from machine learning to proteins, refraction to ergodic theory. And I have to admit that much of the scientific detail went straight over my head.

However, I did enjoy reading about how such metaphors have helped the author to understand the world around her more clearly. We see how comparing human behaviour to scientific theory can shed light on why we do what we do. And Pang’s writing is full of humour, as the metaphors become more and more far-fetched.

page in book - explaining humans

The book is full of diagrams, though I found it difficult to make sense of some of them.

I had no idea what to expect with this book, but having read it in a series of short bursts I’d say that it definitely opens the mind to other ways of thinking. It also helps you laugh at your own imperfections and mistakes. But there is a serious side to such musings. Pang writes honestly and openly about her autistic perspective on the world, and the book is aimed at everyone, intended to provoke thought, and to challenge preconceived ideas. In the chapter ‘How not to follow the crowd: molecular dynamics, conformity and individuality’ she writes:

Learning about ergodicity helped me to see that the human obsession with stereotypes is one of our most harmful traits. We rush to categorize people into distinct boxes to which we assign particular assumptions and expectations, often negative. And we then use those artificial categories to demonize people, emphasizing difference as a social and cultural weapon. Ergodic theory reminds us that there is a category, and we’re all in it: the human race. It’s within that capacious box that our similarities and differences should be considered – respecting the delicate balance of consensus and individuality which is the essence of being human.

Explaining Humans is funny, interesting and one-of-a-kind. It will make you see yourself and the society in which you live from a different perspective, and perhaps it will help us all to celebrate our differences and laugh at our weirdness in new ways.

Buy Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang

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