The imperative to `know thyself' is both fundamental and profoundly elusive - for how can we ever truly comprehend the drama and complexity of the human experience?
In `Why Us?' James Le Fanu offers a fascinating exploration of the power and limits of science to penetrate the deep mysteries of our existence, challenging the certainty that has persisted since Charles Darwin's `Origin of Species' that we are no more than the fortuitous consequence of a materialist evolutionary process.
That challenge arises, unexpectedly, from the two major projects that promised to provide definitive proof for this most influential of scientific theories. The first is the astonishing achievement of the Human Genome Project, which, it was anticipated, would identify the genetic basis of those characteristics that distinguish humans from their primate cousins. The second is the phenomenal advance in brain imaging that now permits neuroscientists to observe the brain `in action' and thus account for the remarkable properties of the human mind.
But that is not how it has turned out. It is simply not possible to get from the monotonous sequence of genes along the double helix to the near infinite diversity of the living world, nor to translate the electrical firing of the brain into the creativity of the human mind. This is not a matter of not knowing all the facts. Rather, science has inadvertently discovered that its theories are insufficient to conjure the wonder of the human experience from the bare bones of our genes and brains.
We stand on the brink of a tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves that will witness the rediscovery of the central premise of Western philosophy that there is 'more than we can know'. Lucid, compelling and utterly engaging, `Why Us?' offers a convincing and provocative vision of the new science of being human.
James Le Fanu is a medical doctor and regular columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph. He graduated from Cambridge University and the Royal London Hospital in 1974. He has published research articles in the `British Medical Journal', `Lancet' and the `Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine'.