Amateur anatomists, or perhaps anyone interested in all the odd dead ends of the human body, will like Nathan Lents’s Human Errors. Human anatomy, as the American biologist points out, is a clumsy jumble of adaptations, including some useful life-saving features such as the opposable thumb — without which we would be unable to hold a paintbrush, a pen or, God forbid, a scouring pad.
But alongside the miracles of the useful thumb and the bulging brain sit a wide range of interestingly useless bits and pieces. A scientist who can tell a story, Lents takes the reader on a fantastic voyage through the human body, looking at the flaws and explaining their evolution — or lack of it.
He notes that two of the large sinus cavities, under the upper cheeks, have ducts at the top, so gravity is of no help in draining them. The ducts are in this tricky place because humans evolved from creatures with snouts, but as the primate ancestors of humanity evolved, the sense of smell became less important (as the sense of sight became more important) and the snouts shrank up and backwards, leaving the ducts at the top. Sinusitis sufferers, then, can blame their snouty ancestors.
Then there’s the recurrent laryngeal nerve that starts in the brain, heads down into the upper chest, winds around the aorta and heads back up to the larynx, where its job can begin. This roundabout journey, Lents reports, apparently has no purpose at all.
The oesophagus, on the other hand, isn’t purposeless. But it is potentially lethal. While it’s useful for eating and breathing, when the two tasks get mixed up, a person can be stuck with a lot of choking and spluttering — or, in the worst case, die.
Even the seemingly wonderful eye gets short shrift from Lents: seven in 10 Asians are shortsighted, and many other races are also myopic, because their eyeballs are simply too long. Evolution failed to take care of that one, so glasses and contact lenses are a big business worldwide. For what’s supposed to be the most highly evolved species on the planet, a lot of people can’t see very well.
Crook knees, backs, hips, internal organs and their connections, defective genes, supernumerary bones: looking through the lens of Lents, the average human seems like a jerry-built structure put together by an enthusiastic but untrained band of drunk tradies. So much for the watchmaker analogy beloved of creationists: if there is a designer up there, his (or her) designs leave a lot to be desired.
Even desire can leave a lot to be desired, says Frank Tallis in The Incurable Romantic, a book about human love and attraction. Endorsed by Ian McEwan, this book starts with the story of a middle-aged married British woman, Megan, who oddly and unreasonably falls deeply in love with her dentist, a professional she hardly knows — and, worse, a man who has had his fingers deep in her mouth.
McEwan explores this strange theme in his novel Enduring Love: unrealistic, unreasonable, indefatigable infatuation. It is, of course, a clinically defined mental illness: de Clerambault’s syndrome.
Megan exhibited all the symptoms: she repeatedly telephoned the object of her affections; she hung around outside his home (he was married, with children); and she created a small shrine to him in her bedroom. Not only did she love him deeply, she explained, she knew he loved her.
The beleaguered dentist and his family eventually moved to Dubai, apparently to get away from this slavish adoration, yet Megan’s syndrome persisted. Even while she said she still loved her long-suffering husband, she continued to adore the dentist. She was never, as far as Tallis knows, cured. The obsessive lover in McEwan’s book, too, ends up in an asylum.
If Megan’s bizarre obsession casts doubt on the nature of true love, Tallis’s dispassionate observations on romance go even further. He discusses the so-called “look of love”, which scientists apparently call the “copulatory gaze”, when eyes lock for several seconds before one party looks away. “This intense, probing stare usually signals sexual interest,” he writes. “Apes do much the same thing.”
The Incurable Romantic has a flavour of the fascinating books written by the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work explored unusual mental conditions and how they affected his patients. One of Lents’s patients, a good-looking woman named Anita, is convinced her boyfriend has been unfaithful. Her relentless paranoia is uncontrollable and, despite Tallis’s efforts, Anita can’t stop picking at her boyfriend, asking him endless questions about where he’s been and who he’s seen.
She probably has a “delusional disorder: jealous type”, Tallis concludes, but despite his best efforts, he can’t help her get past it. Eventually Anita throws a plate at her boyfriend, which smashes that romance forever.
Tallis has a detached and scholarly way of writing about fundamental human urges, including love. “All things being equal,” he writes, “we tend to pair up with an individual of a similar type to us — particularly so with respect to attractiveness.” Humans, he suggests, generally resist “trading down” in the attractiveness stakes. So love, rather than a meeting of minds, according to psychotherapists, is simply the mutual attraction to a series of so-called ‘‘fitness indicators’’, such as beauty and wealth.
In this book, Tallis, a doctor of the mind, offers a prosaic and remarkably unromantic reading of the emotion that has inspired so many poets and artists, driven the desperate to suicide and even sent armies to war. Romantic he ain’t.
Rozanna Lilley’s memories of her bohemian and less-than-romantic childhood in Sydney’s eastern suburbs have already been thoroughly discussed in the Australian media: her mother, the celebrated writer Dorothy Hewett, permitted her to appear naked in a film at the age of 13, and Lilley and her sister were sexually abused by men in their parents’ milieu.
Do Oysters Get Bored, though, offers only oblique glimpses of Lilley’s childhood. The book is more concerned with Lilley’s son, Oscar, a charming child who has high-functioning autism.
Oscar can be a handful. He can eat an entire large birthday cake by himself, leaving only a scattering of crumbs and disappointed adults. Oscar doesn’t like dogs. Or cats. He’s not good with new shoes: ongoing bribery over many days is required to even get him to try wearing a new pair.
His main interests are electronic games and comic book superheroes, and he strenuously resists attempts to divert him from a set purpose. He can ask a question at top volume and then walk away before his interlocutor has managed to answer. He lifts chunks of dialogue from cartoons and loudly and somehow endearingly inserts them into daily conversations: “Your roast beef sandwich has undergone significant improvements,” he tells his mother.
When Oscar started kindergarten in a special education school, he usually vomited from anxiety in the car on the way there; in first grade he was moved to a class for children thought to be more educable — but this also reduced him to daily despair. Finally, after much anguish, Oscar is enrolled in an ordinary school, where he unexpectedly makes friends.
An extraordinary boy, he somehow manages to overcome his limitations and become a popular figure in his primary school class, and his often outrageous comments become a source of hilarity for the other children.
In the main, then, this book is an affectionate memoir of Lilley’s life with Oscar, with her tall, dark and “reliably handsome” husband Neil, and with her cantankerous elderly father, Merv, who winds up living with her and her family in Sydney.
At 90-plus, Merv has difficulties with dementia. Occasionally incontinent, he is often frustrated by his physical handicaps and his inability to leap in a ute and take off for distant parts. By the time he is living in Lilley’s house, Merv mostly can’t remember whether his wife, Hewett, is dead or not, and Lilley has to break it to him over and over again.
These people: Lilley’s often difficult father, her often difficult son, and her remarkably equable (and handsome) husband, are her “elemental attachments”, she writes, and her life is navigated around their needs and desires.
Do Oysters Get Bored? — one of Oscar’s difficult questions and the title of the book — is a meditation on dealing with the lifelong dramas that fate can hurl at you: an autistic child, a demented father, a distant mother, a screwed-up childhood. Lilley appears endlessly patient and even serene in this gentle book, negotiating Oscar’s fears, coping with his tantrums.
She is a likeable woman, and by the last page we wish her and her unlikely menage all the best in the world.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, From Pointless Bones to Broken Genes
By Nathan Lents
W&N, 256pp, $29.99
The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations
By Frank Tallis
Little, Brown, 304pp, $32.99
Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life
By Rozanna Lilley
UWAP, 228pp, $29.99