Being Me: what it means to be human by Pete Moore

Nature, nurture and our sense of self
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The Independent Culture

Who is Pete Moore? Read Being Me and you won't be much the wiser. But you will get a whirlwind tour through the sheer variety of human preoccupations. To illustrate our multifaceted natures, Moore, a medical journalist, engagingly recounts "real-life" stories. If not quite biting the hand that feeds him, his mission is to demonstrate that science alone cannot explain what it is to be human.

In the first chapter, Moore interviews three people chosen to represent our status as "embodied beings": Arthur, a power-lifter whose life was wrecked by steroid addiction, and David and Eileen, who have both bravely coped with facial disfigurement. Anna, who woke from a coma to find she was conscious but unable to let anybody know, knows better than most the importance of qualifying as a "conscious being". Judy and Ann, two identical twins raised separately in a Welsh village, represent our "genetic being". Tellingly, they have grown up to be similar yet different. Finally, Moore tells of Christine, who was shocked to learn she was conceived via donated sperm and has waged a campaign for the right to know the identity of her biological father; she's a "related being".

Later chapters veer away from this successful formula, and differ markedly in tone. Two are enthusiastic profiles of the scientists David Barker and James Lovelock. Barker, who thinks our propensity to heart disease is largely determined in our mother's (or even grandmother's) womb, is the history man of this collection. Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, stands for humanity as "a material being".

By the time Moore gets to spirituality he has changed tack again, and opts for a potpourri based on conversations with Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Lebanese psychiatrist Majid Katme and the philosopher Mary Warnock. His chapter on "a sexual being" is a frankly pedestrian stroll through classic studies in orientation, mate choice and gender role.

Throughout, Moore's key point is that it is a mistake to think that science alone can explain what gives each of us a sense of identity. Yet this is hardly news to social scientists in particular, who continue to see their work largely ignored by doctors and scientists - and popular science writers, too.

While Moore tries to show life beyond the tunnel-vision of a reductionist stance, he overlooks new and insidious threats from inside the tunnel. Consider the prospect of genetic tests for "racial" affiliation, poised to fuel socially divisive identities. Any such categorisation would be arbitrary; people classed by appearance as "Caucasian" or "Afro-Caribbean" do not possess a unique or definable collection of genes. Yet the dangerous fantasy of "blood lines" and "lineages" could acquire a new respectability under the guise of cutting-edge molecular science.

Brain scans and DNA diagnoses will fail to capture the reality of being human, but that doesn't strip them of their power to support potentially oppressive categorisations. In that light, Pete Moore's concluding celebration of "the freedom to be me" ends up sounding a mite naive and complacent. Sooner than he imagines, it may become difficult to contest identities stamped with the imprimatur of biomedical authority.