The wonders and mysteries of the human psyche

12 February 2013 - 02:27 By Andrew Donaldson

Short, sharp guidance and observations from a journalist with attitude. All books available from Exclusives


The People of Forever are not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth) R240

THE widely celebrated debut of a precocious talent, The People is a compelling, dream-like account of three young women from a town in northern Israel before, during and after national service. Boianjiu's narrative is at times annoyingly disjointed, but she is on the button in conveying the ennui and frustration that come with a conscript's life in a brutal, hardline society. A writer to watch.


Why are supposedly intelligent people so unreasonable? The thought occurred to journalist Will Storr on a fossil excavation with a celebrity creationist, and he began wondering why "facts" no longer worked with an educated man who sincerely believed in Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and an Earth only 6000 years old.

So began a journey of discovery to understand the "beliefs" of the "non-believers". The engaging book that emerged, The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science (Picador), not only concerns itself with the outlandish and extreme, but all belief systems - including those based on secular and science - and attempts to explain how the narratives we create to shape our lives so easily lead to self-deception and denial.

Some of the "heretics" Storr spends time with are comic. A woman leading a UFO-spotting session, for example, tells him: "If a UFO lands, you must wait until it's stopped completely before approaching. Only invite the ETs to come closer if it is absolutely safe to do so. If anyone gets zapped, the first-aid kit is in the back of my tent." But others are repugnant. Along with a bunch of racists and Hitler apologists, Storr takes a tour of Nazi death camps with disgraced historian David Irving, the Holocaust denier. "It is," as the London Sunday Times put it, "an extraordinary experience in the company of a vile man."


So, it's Valentine's Day on Thursday and fingers crossed - we may even fall in love. Which, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is really quite a strange thing to happen to a person. True, it makes us uniquely human, but what happens to our brains? Why do we kiss? Why do we try to be monogamous? Why do we fail?

Dunbar's acclaimed study, The Science of Love and Betrayal (Faber), has just been re-issued in paperback, and it's a fascinating account of how our evolutionary programme still controls our behaviour - even when our hearts are breaking.


"The question is whether people prefer to be marginal in a mainstream world or mainstream in a marginal world and many people quite understandably prefer the latter." - Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love, by Andrew Solomon (Chatto)