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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Human Errors A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

Popular Science
By: Nathan H Lents(Author)
233 pages, b/w illustrations
An amusing, easy read that shows how our parade of quirks and foibles reveals much about our evolution.
Human Errors
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  • Human Errors ISBN: 9781474608350 Paperback mass-market paperback May 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Human Errors ISBN: 9781474608343 Paperback trade paperback May 2018 Out of Print #248611
  • Human Errors ISBN: 9781474608336 Hardback May 2018 Out of Print #239838
Selected version: £9.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

An illuminating, entertaining tour of the physical imperfections – from faulty knees to junk DNA – that make us human

We humans like to think of ourselves as highly evolved creatures. But if we are supposedly evolution's greatest creation, why do we have such bad knees? Why do we catch head colds so often – two hundred times more often than a dog? How come our wrists have so many useless bones? Why is the vast majority of our genetic code pointless? And are we really supposed to swallow and breathe through the same narrow tube? Surely there's been some kind of mistake.

As professor of biology Nathan H. Lents explains in Human Errors, our evolutionary history is nothing if not a litany of mistakes, each more entertaining and enlightening than the last. The human body, perhaps evolution's greatest creation, is one big pile of compromises. But that is also a testament to our greatness: as Lents shows, humans have so many design flaws precisely because we are very, very good at getting around them.

A rollicking, deeply informative tour of humans' four-billion-year-long evolutionary saga, Human Errors both celebrates our imperfections and offers an unconventional accounting of the cost of our success.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An amusing parade of our quirks and foibles
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 26 Nov 2018 Written for Paperback

    If there is one thing that infuriates me about the way the human body works, it is the fact that our throat is a passage for both food and air. I am sure that anyone who has gone down in a fit of coughing can attest to this. As Nathan Lents shows in his amusing book Human Errors, that is just the tip of the faulty iceberg.

    Anatomical quirks such as the above are probably the ones we are all most familiar with. As mentioned in my recent review of Eyes to See, eyes have independently evolved multiple times and nature offers different solutions for capturing light. Why, then, do the photoreceptors in our eyes face backwards, with the big bundle of nerves exiting the eyeball creating a blind spot? Cephalopods seem to have their eyes wired in a more logical way. You might also have heard of the recurrent laryngeal nerve that innervates our larynx. Rather than running from the brain straight to our voicebox, this nerve takes a circuitous route, looping around our aorta. In long-necked species such as giraffes this means metres of unnecessary nerve!

    The answer, as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, is that these faults reveal much about how we evolved from our distant ancestors. Neil Shubin also discussed this in his marvellous book Your Inner Fish. That nerve I mentioned? When we were still fish it innervated the gills, the evolutionary precursor of our larynx. With no neck to speak of, the brain, heart, and gills in a fish lie on a more or less straight line and there was no problem with the route this nerve ended up taking. However, once fish evolved into creatures with necks, it started to look a bit dumb. But alas, evolution cannot throw everything out and start from scratch, it has to work with whatever (faulty) material is at hand.

    And these kinds of bugs and quirks abound. Next to anatomy, Lents covers our dietary needs and our inability to synthesize vitamins that many other organisms make themselves. Our DNA is a veritable junkyard of broken genes, ancient viral DNA (see also Discovering Retroviruses), and stretches of self-copying DNA (or transposable elements). Together, these make up an estimated 97% of our genome and were initially designated “junk DNA”, though there has been a bit of a push-back against the idea that this material is completely useless (see e.g. Junk DNA or The Deeper Genome).

    And then there is our reproduction, marred by poor fertility and high mortality during childbirth. Autoimmune diseases, allergies, optical illusions, false memories, cognitive biases… True to the promise of the book’s subtitle, Lents offers a panorama of our glitches, and there is something here for everyone to enjoy.

    I found the chapter on our brain and its quick-and-dirty heuristics (i.e. problem-solving routines) particularly fascinating. Our cognitive biases and weaknesses regularly drive us to make poor choices, and this knowledge is ruthlessly exploited by advertisers, casinos, or astrologers, to name a few. I also find them particularly interesting as they lead to much irrational behaviour and persistent belief in pseudoscience (for more on that, see amongst others Thinking, Fast and Slow or Suspicious Minds).

    Do not let its focus on our many flaws fool you. Human Errors is an excellent piece of popular science, that, far from being a downer, is more a laugh-out-loud romp that will give you reason to marvel at our ability to be successful despite all our imperfections. Some of these are truly pointless, others result from trade-offs, others still have been turned from bugs into features, and not infrequently things that used to serve us well in our evolutionary past no longer do so now (see e.g. The Hungry Brain, Mismatch, or Mismatch). But with all of them, Lents explains plainly and clearly how evolution works and is shaped by what has come before.

    As a final aside, you will notice that I have carefully steered clear of using the word “design” in this review, tainted as it has become by creationist appropriation. But if I must: yes, humans seem poorly designed on many fronts compared to other organisms. If you were an engineer tasked with designing a human, you would make many changes. In this context, Adam Rutherford said that this book shows that: “if there is an intelligent designer, he is comically hopeless”. Quite.
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Nathan H. Lents is a popular professor of biology at John Jay College at CUNY, and is the author of Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals. He has appeared as a scientific expert in national media, including The Today Show, National Public Radio, Access Hollywood, 48 Hours, Al-Jazeera America, Chinese Central Television, and Primer Impacto (Univision).

Popular Science
By: Nathan H Lents(Author)
233 pages, b/w illustrations
An amusing, easy read that shows how our parade of quirks and foibles reveals much about our evolution.
Media reviews

"Human Errors is outstanding, scholarly yet entertaining. Perhaps inadvertently, this funny book argues that if there is an intelligent designer, he is comically hopeless"
– Adam Rutherford

"An entertaining and enlightening guide to human imperfections"
– Clive Cookson, Financial Times

"Spry, plausible, free from jargon and much better than the usual run of popular science and medical books, which are destined to be shelved in the den of geek, Human Errors is the most enjoyable anatomical study since Jonathan Miller's The Body in Question."
– Roger Lewis, The Times

"Chatty and humorous [...] After reading Human Errors, nobody will see their body in the same way again"
– William Hartston, Daily Express

"Like any theme park horror house, it's a thoroughly entertaining ride, crammed full of the bizarre and enlightening and ripe with facts with which to wow dinner party guests."
– Katie Burton, Geographical

"In Human Errors, Nathan Lents explores our biological imperfections with style, wit and life-affirming insight. You'll finish it with new appreciation for those human failings that, in so many surprising ways, helped shape our remarkable species"
– Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook

"Anybody with a slipped disk knows humans are not very intelligently designed, but most of us are unaware of the extent of our imperfections. Nathan Lents fills in the gaps in Human Errors, an insightful and entertaining romp through the myriad ways in which the human body falls short of an engineering ideal – and the often surprising reasons why."
– Ian Tattersall, author of Masters of the Planet and The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution

"Anyone who has aged without perfect grace can attest to the laundry list of imperfections so thoroughly and engagingly considered by Nathan Lents in Human Errors. This is the best book I've read on how poorly designed our bodies are. I learned something new on every page."
– Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and New York Times best-selling author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain


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