In Human, noted cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga tackles a big subject: What makes human beings biologically, psychologically, and even spiritually unique among animals?

To answer that question, Gazzaniga’s book ranges from the chemical make-up of our brain cells to the evolutionary roots of morality to the latest frontiers in artificial intelligence. It’s an ambitious, encyclopedic approach that contains many potential pitfalls, some of which Gazzaniga stumbles into. As a result of its breadth, for example, Human is too long by half; the book would have benefited from a more focused, concise argument. Perhaps more critically, it doesn’t entirely deliver on the promise of its subtitle. Even Gazzaniga, in the afterword, admits that science isn’t yet sure if, or why, humans are unique.

“Maybe those people who see humans as only slightly different from other animals are right,” he concludes. “But the ability to wish or imagine that we can be better is notable. No other species aspires to be more than it is. Perhaps we can be.” This is mildly inspiring and it’s probably true, but it’s also disappointingly slight after 400 pages of data followed by 60 pages of end notes.

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Still, I recommend this book to patient lay readers who are interested in learning more about cutting-edge evolutionary psychology and neuroscience research, filtered through Gazzaniga’s scientifically grounded optimism. Even if human beings are fundamentally the same as other animals, Human reveals us as first among equals when it comes to qualities like hope and compassion.

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