“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Searching for Aptera's Ghost - My 2015 Halloween Project

Spoiler alert: watch the above documentary before reading the essay below.

Check out the Aptera Blog for voiceover transcript

Everyone who works at Aptera has a few traits in common. If you tell one of us we have to perform some task, no matter how complicated, no matter how unfamiliar to us, we’ll immediately start breaking it down and laying out all the steps we need take, all the resources we need to procure, and all the experts we need to involve. We know intuitively that when people proclaim their ignorance or lack of expertise, it’s seldom because they’re trying to help anyone plan more diligently or set more realistic expectations; more often, it’s because they’re trying to dodge responsibility. Complex projects have multiple moving parts, and no one can be an expert in every aspect of them. So, if you’re not confident in a particular skill set, you reach out to someone who is.

Another trait nearly every Aptera employee shares, one that I saw demonstrated several times over the course of filming our documentary, is an ability to give impromptu presentations that sound perfectly clear and professional. This could be something we develop in the myriad routine meetings we participate in where we take turns filling everyone in on what projects we’re working on, how much progress we’ve made, what obstacles we’re facing, and what the plan is for overcoming them. Alternatively, it may be a skill each of us had to possess before making it through the recruitment process.

Ron "Whitey" Leeuw
Indeed, I was impressed again and again when I showed up in my coworkers’ offices pointing a camera at them to find that it wasn’t just project-related topics they could speak to with such polished cogency. You can just as easily get articulate and compelling answers by posing questions like, “What all have you heard about the history of this building?” or “Has anything strange ever happened to you when you were here after hours?”

            So nearly everyone here is process-oriented, team-minded, and impressively eloquent. None of these traits precludes belief in, or enthusiasm for, the paranormal, but it takes more than a decent ghost story or two to impress most of us. Present us with a mystery, and we start laying out a plan for a systematic investigation. Like every plan, though, the ones we Aptera people come up with almost invariably run into a snag or two—or ten. The trouble we run into stems not just from our readiness to take on unfamiliar kinds of projects, no matter how formidably complex, but also from what I’d argue is an excess of faith in the powers of technology.

            The Aptera Ghost Project began as a melding of two earlier project ideas. Back in August, Raul Perez and I discussed collaborating on a Halloween story. Raul is one of Aptera’s graphic designers, and he showed me an earlier ghost story he’d lain out as a series of photographs posted online. The plan was for us to come up with another story together; I’d provide the text and help with ideas for staging the photos, and he would do the photography and edit the images.

            Not long after agreeing to the project with Raul, I had a conversation with James Swihart, a recently hired project manager, about our favorite Twilight Zone episodes. James had formerly been a DJ for 98.9 The Bear, and he told me he’d originally become interested in radio because he loved Rod Serling’s voice. Shortly after the conversation, he stopped by my office to propose we work together on a short video homage to a classic Twilight Zone episode. I loved the idea.
Raul, James, and Howdy looking for William White's grave

            I try to write a scary story myself for Halloween every year, so now I was left wondering how I could possibly find the time to work on three separate projects. The idea I had, after a few further discussions with Raul and James, was that we’d scrap the photo series and the Twilight Zone projects, along with my annual literary ghost story, and instead collaborate on a documentary about all the ghost sightings we’d heard about in the building where we work. Just like that, we were off and running.

            Originally, we envisioned two basic parts to the video. First, we’d conduct a series of interviews with all of our coworkers who’d experienced something strange in the building. Next, we’d do some research on the building’s history to see who, if anyone, might be haunting the place. James assured me he had plenty of experience with video editing, and Raul showed me a brief documentary he’d put together for a film editing class. I figured I would help with an outline and maybe some phrasing for lines in individual scenes, but since I had no film editing experience myself—and little skill with technology in general—I was relying on my partners to make something of all the footage we ended up with.

            None of us realized what we were getting into. James had the idea of publishing trailers on social media, complete with dates for the documentary’s release—giving us a hard deadline. Our excitement kept being piqued all the while by new discoveries about the building’s history. We were getting great material, and we all looked forward to the final product of our efforts. Then, with the deadline just two weeks away, we had a series of setbacks.

            The first disappoint was the ghost hunt we set up on October 16th. We can’t really blame the team of amateur ghost hunters who volunteered their time and energy to the undertaking. But the fact is we were less than impressed with the tools the team had to work with. The cameras we already had on hand were far better than the ones they brought. They had no night vision. Instead, they relied mostly on flashlights and hand-held recording devices. Of course, Aptera is a tech company, so they would’ve had to show up with some pretty cool gear to impress us. But we also quickly grew impatient with the highly casual nature of their approach, which consisted mainly of sitting around and calling out to the dark.

            After an eventless night in the building, our enthusiasm waned significantly. Things looked even bleaker after the ghost hunters informed us that their review of the video and audio footage had turned up nothing. We still had all the history we’d learned, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in thinking at this point that we needed to come up with some ideas for rescuing the project. It was on the weekend following the ghost hunt that I came up with what would become, after a few discussions with James and Raul, the end sequence of the video which culminates in me getting scared and running out of the building.

            Our excitement returned when we started editing our own footage from that night and discovered the mysterious sounds we cover in the documentary. But we soon ran into another major issue. Originally, we wanted the video to consist of interviews and conversations, developing naturally and informally in a style harking to The Blair Witch Project. The historical material we’d amassed, however, was too complicated and too copious to convey in this manner—at least in a video less than a couple of hours long.

            We were already in our last week before the deadline when it became clear we needed to overhaul our entire outline. Instead of relying on discussions and interviews to relay all the important information, we would have to convey it all through voiceovers. When I first signed on to the project, I imagined that, given my areas of expertise, I’d play my part early on, in the research and outlining stages. At some point, I expected to turn things over to the guys who could use the editing technology.

As it turned out, though, we were all three up to our elbows right to the last—and beyond. Though we were able to show our coworkers the documentary on Friday the 30th as we’d promised, we missed our deadline for going live online. I wrote most of the voiceover copy on Wednesday and Thursday. And I was still providing lines as late as Friday morning, while we all sat in Raul’s office until 3:30 am, sleep being the main casualty of poor planning. We even had to shoot more footage Thursday night.

I don’t think I was alone in being both relieved and delighted after the company viewing in Aptera’s basement. But our struggles weren’t quite over. There were still some issues we needed to address before we broadcasted it online. And we still had to export the file so it could be uploaded to YouTube. This ended up taking until late Saturday night, by which point we were all at the end of our patience and just happy to be done with the thing.

            Personally, I think we overestimated what the technology could do. I’d watched James whip together one of the trailers in about half an hour—and it looked really good. That was using iMovie. With a wizard like Raul sitting at the helm of Premier, I was sure we could turn what at first looked like boring footage into a fascinating documentary. Don’t get me wrong—the technology is amazing. We couldn’t have done much of anything without it. But, at least for now, technology can’t tell much of a story.

            By far the most difficult part of the project was arranging all the facts and information into a logical sequence, one that didn’t just get the historical details across but also told a story. That’s why even though I had no idea how to use the software I still needed to be in the room with the other guys, all of us pitching and evaluating each other’s ideas, right up till the end.

            Raul, James, and I were definitely getting on each other’s nerves by the time we were finished. But, looking back, it’s amazing to realize that there’s very little in the finished product that any of us can attribute to any one person involved. It was a true collaboration—every member of the team was indispensable. However worn out, and however loath we are to ever do anything like this again, I bet three days or three weeks from now, we’re going to look back on this project with pride and chuckle at our own hubris.

            I for one, though I’m painfully aware of every tripping line and every jagged transition, think the damn thing turned out pretty good. Was it worth all the late nights, frustration, tedium, and stress? Ask me again sometime next week. 

Halloween stories from earlier years:

The Fire Hoarder 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

(5,086 words, link to printable version.)

Robert Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It is the source book participants on a particular side of the debate over Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado would like everyone to read, even more than Tierney’s book itself. To anyone on the opposing side, however—and, one should hope, to those who have yet to take a side—there’s an unmissable element of farce running throughout Borofsky’s book, which ultimately amounts to little more than a transparent attempt at salvaging the campaign against anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. That campaign had initially received quite a boost from the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, but then support began to crumble as various researchers went about exposing Tierney as a fraud. With The Fierce Controversy, Borofsky and some of the key members of the anti-Chagnon campaign are doing their best to dissociate themselves and their agenda from Tierney, while at the same time taking advantage of the publicity he brought to their favorite talking points. 

The book is billed as an evenhanded back-and-forth between anthropologists on both sides of the debate. But, despite Borofsky’s pretentions to impartiality, The Fierce Controversy is about as fair and balanced as Fox News’s political coverage—there’s even a chapter titled “You Decide.” By giving the second half of the book over to an exchange of essays and responses by what he refers to as “partisans” for both sides, Borofsky makes himself out to be a disinterested mediator, and he wants us to see the book as an authoritative representation of some quasi-democratic collection of voices—think Occupy Wall Street’s human microphones, with all the repetition, incoherence, and implicit signaling of a lack of seriousness. “Objectivity does not lie in the assertions of authorities,” Borofsky insists in italics. “It lies in the open, public analysis of divergent perspectives” (18). In the first half of the book, however, Borofsky gives himself the opportunity to convey his own impressions of the controversy under the guise of providing necessary background. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as subtle in pushing his ideology as he’d like to be.
Robert Borofsky

Borofsky claims early on that his “book seeks, in empowering readers, to develop a new political constituency for transforming the discipline.” But is Borofsky empowering readers, or is he trying to foment a revolution? The only way the two goals could be aligned would be if readers already felt the need for the type of change Borofsky hopes to instigate. What does that change entail? He writes,

It is understandable that many anthropologists have had trouble addressing the controversy’s central issues because they are invested in the present system. These anthropologists worked their way through the discipline’s existing structures as they progressed from being graduate students to employed professionals. While they may acknowledge the limitations of the discipline, these structures represent the world they know, the world they feel comfortable with. One would not expect most of them to lead the charge for change. But introductory and advanced students are less invested in this system. If anything, they have a stake in changing it so as to create new spaces for themselves. (21)

In other words, Borofsky simultaneously wants his book to be open-ended—the outcome of the debate in the second half reflecting the merits of each side’s case, with the ultimate position taken by readers left to their own powers of critical thought—while at the same time inspiring those same readers to work for the goals he himself believes are important. He utterly neglects the possibility that anthropology students won’t share his markedly Marxist views. From this goal statement, you may expect the book to focus on the distribution of power and the channels for promotion in anthropology departments, but that’s not at all what Borofsky and his coauthors end up discussing. Even more problematically, though, Borofsky is taking for granted here the seriousness of “the controversy’s central issues,” the same issues whose validity is the very thing that’s supposed to be under debate in the second half of the book.  
Chagnon with Yanomamö man
The most serious charges in Tierney’s book were shown to be false almost as soon as it was published, and Tierney himself was thoroughly discredited when it was discovered that countless of his copious citations bore little or no relation to the claims they were supposed to support. A taskforce commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, for instance, found that Tierney spliced together parts of different recorded conversations to mislead his readers about the actions and intentions of James V. Neel, a geneticist he accuses of unethical conduct. Reasonably enough, many supporters of Chagnon, who Tierney likewise accuses of grave ethical breaches, found such deliberately misleading tactics sufficient cause to dismiss any other claims by the author. But Borofsky treats this argument as an effort on the part of anthropologists to dodge inconvenient questions:

Instead of confronting the breadth of issues raised by Tierney and the media, many anthropologists focused on Tierney’s accusations regarding Neel… As previously noted, focusing on Neel had a particular advantage for those who wanted to continue sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this. Neel was a geneticist, and soon after the book’s publication most experts realized that the accusation that Neel helped facilitate the spread of measles was false. Focusing on Neel allowed anthropologists to downplay the role of the discipline in the whole affair. (46)

When Borofsky accuses some commenters of “sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this,” we’re left wondering, all what? The Fierce Controversy is supposed to be about assessing the charges Tierney made in his book, but again the book’s editor and main contributor is assuming that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It’s also important to note that the nature of the charges against Chagnon make them much more difficult to prove or disprove. A call to a couple of epidemiologists and vaccination experts established that what Tierney accused Neel of was simply impossible. It’s hardly sidestepping the issue to ask why anyone would trust Tierney’s reporting on more complicated matters.

Anyone familiar with the debates over postmodernism taking place among anthropologists over the past three decades will see at a glance that The Fierce Controversy is disingenuous in its very conception. Borofsky and the other postmodernist contributors desperately want to have a conversation about how Napoleon Chagnon’s approach to fieldwork, and even his conception of anthropology as a discipline are no longer aligned with how most anthropologists conceive of and go about their work. Borofsky is explicit about this, writing in one of the chapters that’s supposed to merely provide background for readers new to the debate,

Chagnon writes against the grain of accepted ethical practice in the discipline. What he describes in detail to millions of readers are just the sorts of practices anthropologists claim they do not practice. (39)   

This comes in a section titled “A Painful Contradiction,” which consists of Borofsky straightforwardly arguing that Chagnon, whose first book on the Yanomamö is perhaps the most widely read ethnography in history, disregarded the principles of the American Anthropological Association by actively harming the people he studied and by violating their privacy (though most of Chagnon’s time in the field predated the AAA’s statements of the principles in question). In Borofsky’s opinion, these ethical breaches are attested to in Chagnon’s own works and hence beyond dispute. In reality, though, whether Chagnon’s techniques amount to ethical violations (by any day’s standards) is very much in dispute, as we see clearly in the second half of the book. (Yanomamö was Chagnon’s original spelling, but his detractors can’t bring themselves to spell it the same way—hence Yanomami.)

Borofsky is of course free to write about his issues with Chagnon’s methods, but inserting his own argument into a book he’s promoting as an open and fair exchange between experts on both sides of the debate, especially when he’s responding to the others’ contributions after the fact, is a dubious sort of bait and switch. The second half of the book is already lopsided, with Bruce Albert, Leda Martins, and Terence Turner attacking Neel’s and Chagnon’s reputations, while Raymond Hames and Kim Hill argue for the defense. (The sixth contributor, John Peters, doesn’t come down clearly on either side.) When you factor in Borofsky’s own arguments, you’ve got four against two—and if you go by page count the imbalance is quite a bit worse; indeed, the inclusion of the two Chagnon defenders in the forum starts to look more like a ploy to gain a modicum of credibility for what’s best characterized as just another anti-Chagnon screed by a few of his most outspoken detractors.

Notably absent from the list of contributors is Chagnon himself, who probably reasoned that lending his name to the title page would give the book an undeserved air of legitimacy. Given the unmasked contempt that Albert, Martins, and Turner evince toward him in their essays, Chagnon was wise not to go anywhere near the project. It’s also far from irrelevant—though it goes unmentioned by Borofsky—that Martins and Tierney were friends at the time he was writing his book; on his acknowledgements page, Tierney writes,

I am especially indebted to Leda Martins, who is finishing her Ph.D. at Cornell University, for her support throughout this long project and for her and her family’s hospitality in Boa Vista, Brazil. Leda’s dossier on Napoleon Chagnon was an important resource for my research. (XVII)

(Martins later denied, in an interview given to ethicist and science historian Alice Dreger, that she was the source of the dossier Tierney mentions.) Equally relevant is that one of the professors at Cornell where Martins was finishing her Ph.D. was none other than Terence Turner, whom Tierney also thanks in his acknowledgements. To be fair, Hames is a former student of Chagnon’s, and Hill also knows Chagnon well. But the earlier collaboration with Tierney of at least two contributors to Borofsky’s book is suspicious to say the least.   

Confronted with the book’s inquisitorial layout and tone, I believe undecided readers are going to wonder whether it’s fair to focus a whole book on the charges laid out in another book that’s been so thoroughly discredited. Borofsky does provide an answer of sorts to this objection: The Fierce Controversy is not about Tierney’s book; it’s about anthropology as a discipline. He writes that
beyond the accusations surrounding Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, there are critical—indeed, from my perspective, far more critical—issues that need to be addressed in the controversy: those involving relations with informants as well as professional integrity and competence. Given how central these issues are to anthropology, readers can understand, perhaps, why many in the discipline have sought to sidestep the controversy. (17)

With that rhetorical flourish, Borofsky makes any concern about Tierney’s credibility, along with any concern for treating the accused fairly, seem like an unwillingness to answer difficult questions. But, in reality, the stated goals of the book raise yet another important ethical question: is it right for a group of scholars to savage their colleagues’ reputations in furtherance of their reform agenda for the discipline? How do they justify their complete disregard for the principle of presumed innocence?   
Terence Turner
What’s going on here is that Borofsky and his fellow postmodernists really needed The Fierce Controversy to be about the dramatis personae featured in Tierney’s book, because Tierney’s book is what got the whole discipline’s attention, along with the attention of countless people outside of anthropology. The postmodernists, in other words, are riding the scandal’s coattails. Turner had been making many of the allegations that later ended up in Tierney’s book for years, but he couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. Now that headlines about anthropologists colluding in eugenic experiments were showing up in newspapers around the world, Turner and the other members of the anti-Chagnon campaign finally got their chance to be heard. Naturally enough, even after Tierney’s book was exposed as mostly a work of fiction, they still really wanted to discuss how terribly Chagnon and other anthropologists of his ilk behaved in the field so they could take control of the larger debate over what anthropology is and what anthropological fieldwork should consist of. This is why even as Borofsky insists the debate isn’t about the people at the center of the controversy, he has no qualms about arranging his book as a trial:

We can address this problem within the discipline by applying the model of a jury trial. In such a trial, jury members—like many readers—do not know all the ins and outs of a case. But by listening to people who do know these details argue back and forth, they are able to form a reasonable judgment regarding the case. (73)

But, if the book isn’t about Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, then who exactly is being tried? Borofsky is essentially saying, we’re going to try these men in abstentia (Neel died before Darkness in El Dorado was published) with no regard whatsoever for the effect repeating the likely bogus charges against them ad nauseam will have on their reputations, because it’s politically convenient for us to do so, since we hope it will help us achieve our agenda of discipline-wide reform, for which there’s currently either too little interest or too much resistance.

As misbegotten, duplicitous, and morally dubious as its goals and premises are, there’s a still more fatal shortcoming to The Fierce Controversy, and that’s the stance its editor, moderator, and chief contributor takes toward the role of evidence. Here again, it’s important to bear in mind the context out of which the scandal surrounding Darkness in El Dorado erupted. The reason so many of Chagnon’s colleagues responded somewhat gleefully to the lurid and appalling charges leveled against him by Tierney is that Chagnon stands as a prominent figure in the debate over whether anthropology should rightly be conceived of and conducted as a science. The rival view is that science is an arbitrary label used to give the appearance of authority. As Borofsky argues,

the issue is not whether a particular anthropologist’s work is scientific. It is whether that anthropologist’s work is credible. Calling particular research scientific in anthropology is often an attempt to establish credibility by name-dropping. (96)

What he’s referring to here as name-dropping the scientific anthropologists would probably describe as attempts at tying their observations to existing theories, as when Chagnon interprets aspects of Yanomamö culture in light of inclusive fitness theory, with reference to works by evolutionary biologists like W.D. Hamilton and G.C. Williams. But Borofsky’s characterization of how an anthropologist might collect and present data is even more cynical than his attitude toward citations of other scientists’ work. He writes of Chagnon’s descriptions of his field methods,  

To make sure readers understand that he was seriously at work during this time—because he could conceivably have spent much of his time lounging around taking in the sights—he reinforces his expertise with personal anecdotes, statistics, and photos. In Studying the Yanomamö, Chagnon presents interviews, detailed genealogies, computer printouts, photographs, and tables. All these data convey an important message: Chagnon knows what he’s talking about. (57-8)

Borofsky is either confused about or skeptical of the role evidence plays in science—or, more likely, a little of both. Anthropologists in the field could relay any number of vague impressions in their writings, as most of them do. Or those same anthropologists could measure and record details uncovered through systematic investigation. Analyzing the data collected in all those tables and graphs of demographic information could lead to the discovery of facts, trends, and correlations no amount of casual observation would reveal. Borofsky himself drops the names of some postmodern theorists in support of his cynical stance toward science—but it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps his dismissal of even the possibility of data leading to new discoveries has as much to do with him simply not liking the discoveries Chagnon actually made.

            One of the central tenets of postmodernism is that any cultural artifact, including any scientific text, is less a reflection of facts about the real world than a product of, and an attempt to perpetuate, power disparities in the political environment which produces it. From the postmodern perspective, in other words, science is nothing but disguised political rhetoric—and its message is always reactionary. This is why Borofsky is so eager to open the debate to more voices; he believes scientific credentials are really just markers of hegemonic authority, and he further believes that creating a more just society would demand a commitment that no one be excluded from the debate for a lack of expertise.

As immediately apparent as the problems with this perspective are, the really scary thing is that The Fierce Controversy applies this conception of evidence not only to Chagnon’s anthropological field work, but to his and Neel’s culpability as well. And this is where it’s easiest to see how disastrous postmodern ideas would be if they were used as legal or governing principles. Borofsky writes,

in the jury trial model followed in part 2, it is not necessary to recognize (or remember) each and every citation, each and every detail, but rather to note how participants reply to one another’s criticisms [sic]. The six participants, as noted, must respond to critiques of their positions. Readers may not be able to assess—simply by reading certain statements—which assertions are closer to what we might term “the truth.” But readers can evaluate how well a particular participant responds to another’s criticisms as a way of assessing the credibility of that person’s argument. (110)

These instructions betray a frightening obliviousness of the dangers of moral panics and witch hunts. It’s all well and good to put the truth in scare quotes—until you stand falsely accused of some horrible offense and the exculpatory evidence is deemed inadmissible. Imagine if our legal system were set up this way; if you wanted to have someone convicted of a crime, all you’d have to do is stage a successful campaign against this person. Imagine if other prominent social issues were handled this way: climate change, early childhood vaccination, genetically modified foods.
Kim Hill

            By essentially coaching readers to attend only to the contributors’ rhetoric and not to worry about the evidence they cite, Borofsky could reasonably be understood as conceding that the evidence simply doesn’t support the case he’s trying to make with the book. But the members of the anti-Chagnon camp seem to believe that the “issues” they want to discuss are completely separable from the question of whether the accusations against Chagnon are true. Kim Hill does a good job of highlighting just how insane this position is, writing,

Turner further observes that some people seem to feel that “if the critical allegations against Neel and Chagnon can be refuted on scientific grounds, then the ethical questions raised…about the effects of their actions on the Yanomami can be made to go away.” In fact, those of us who have criticized Tierney have refuted his allegations on factual and scientific grounds, and those allegations refuted are specifically about the actions of the two accused and their effects. There are no ethical issues to “dismiss” when the actions presented never took place and the effects on the Yanomamö were never experienced as described. Thus, the facts of the book are indeed central to some ethical discussions, and factual findings can indeed “obviate ethical issues” by rendering the discussions moot. But the discussion of facts reported by Tierney have been placed outside this forum of debate (we are to consider only ethical issues raised by the book, not evaluate each factual claim in the book). (180)

One wonders whether Hill knew that evaluations of factual claims would be out of bounds when he agreed to participate in the exchange. Turner, it should be noted, violates this proscription in the final round of the exchange when he takes advantage of his essays’ privileged place as the last contribution by listing the accusations in Tierney’s book he feels are independently supported. Reading this final essay, it’s hard not to think the debate is ending just where it ought to have begun. 

Raymond Hames
            Hill’s and Hames’s contributions in each round are sandwiched in between those of the three anti-Chagnon campaigners, but whatever value the book has as anything other than an illustration of how paranoid and bizarre postmodern rhetoric can be is to be found in their essays. These sections are like little pockets of sanity in a maelstrom of deranged moralizing. In scoring the back-and-forth, most readers will inevitably favor the side most closely aligned with their own convictions, but two moments really stand out as particularly embarrassing for the prosecution. One of them has Hames catching Martins doing some pretty egregious cherry-picking to give a misleading impression. He explains,

Martins in her second-round contribution cites a specific example of a highly visible and allegedly unflattering image of the Yanomamö created by Chagnon. In the much-discussed Veja interview (entitled “Indians Are Also People”), she notes that “When asked in Veja to define the ‘real Indians,’ Chagnon said, ‘The real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war.’” This quote is accurate. However, in the next sentence after that quote she cites, Chagnon states: “They are normal human beings. And that is sufficient reason for them to merit care and attention.” This tactic of partial quotation mirrors a technique used by Tierney. The context of the statement and most of the interview was Chagnon’s observation that some NGOs and missionaries characterized the Yanomamö as “angelic beings without faults.” His goal was to simply state that the Yanomamö and other native peoples are human beings and deserve our support and sympathy. He was concerned that false portrayals could harm native peoples when later they were discovered to be just like us. (236)

Such deliberate misrepresentations raise the question of whether postmodern thinking justifies, and even encourages, playing fast and loose with the truth—since all writing is just political rhetoric without any basis in reality anyway. What’s clear either way is that an ideology that scants the importance of evidence simply can’t support a moral framework that recognizes individual human rights, because it makes every individual vulnerable to being falsely maligned for the sake of some political cause.   

Leda Martins
            The other supremely embarrassing moment for the anti-Chagnon crowd comes in an exchange between Hill and Turner. Hill insists in his first essay that Tierney’s book and the ensuing controversy were borne of ideological opposition to sociobiology, the theoretical framework Chagnon uses to interpret his data on the Yanomamö. On first encountering phrases like “ideological terrorism” (127) and “holy war of ideology” (135), you can’t help thinking that Hill has succumbed to hyperbole, but Turner’s response lends a great deal of credence to Hill’s characterization. Turner’s defense is the logical equivalent of a dangerously underweight teenager saying, “I’m not anorexic—I just need to lose about fifteen pounds.” He first claims his campaign against Chagnon has nothing to do with sociobiology, but then he tries to explain sociobiology as an outgrowth of eugenics, even going so far as to suggest that the theoretical framework somehow inspires adherents to undermine indigenous activists. Even Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomamö as warlike, which the activists trying to paint a less unsavory picture of them take such issue with, is, according to Turner, more a requirement of sociobiological thinking than an observed reality. He writes,

“Fierceness” and the high level of violent conflict with which it is putatively associated are for Chagnon and like-minded sociobiologists the primary indexes of the evolutionary priority of the Yanomami as an earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society. Most of the critics of Chagnon’s fixation on “fierceness” have had little idea of this integral connection of “fierceness” as a Yanomami trait and the deep structure of sociobiological-selectionist theory. (202)
Turner isn’t by any stretch making a good faith effort to explain the theory and its origins according to how it’s explicitly discussed in the relevant literature. He’s reading between the lines in precisely the way prescribed by his postmodernism, treating the theory as a covert effort at justifying the lower status of indigenous peoples. But his analysis is so far off-base that it not only casts doubt on his credibility on the topic of sociobiology; it calls into question his credibility as a scholarly researcher in general. As Hames points out,

Anyone who has basic knowledge of the origins of sociobiology in anthropology will quickly realize that Turner’s attempt to show a connection between Neel’s allegedly eugenic ideas and Chagnon’s analysis of the Yanomamö to be far-fetched. (238)

            Turner’s method of uncovering secret threads supposedly connecting scientific theories to abhorrent political philosophies is closer to the practices of internet conspiracy theorists than to those of academic researchers. He constructs a scary story with some prominent villains, and then he retrofits the facts to support it. The only problem is that anyone familiar with the theories and the people in the story he tells will recognize it as pure fantasy. As Hames attests,

I don’t know of any “sociobiologists” who regard the Yanomamö as any more or less representative of an “earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society” than any other relatively isolated indigenous society. Some sociobiologists are interested in indigenous populations because they live under social and technological conditions that more closely resemble humanity for most of its history as a species than conditions found in urban population centers. (238)

And Hill, after pointing out how Turner rejects the claim that his campaign against Chagnon is motivated by his paranoid opposition to sociobiology only to turn around and try to explain why attacking the reputations of sociobiologists is justified, takes on the charge that sociobiology somehow prohibits working with indigenous activists, writing,

Indeed he concludes by suggesting that sociobiological theory leads its adherents to reject legitimate modern indigenous leaders. This suggestion is malicious slander that has no basis in reality (where most sociobiologists not only accept modern indigenous leaders but work together with them to help solve modern indigenous problems). (250)

These are people Hill happens to work with and know personally. Unfortunately, Turner himself has yet to be put on trial for these arrant misrepresentations the way he and Borofsky put Chagnon on trial for the charges they’ve so clearly played a role in trumping up.

Alice Dreger
            In explaining why a book like The Fierce Controversy is necessary, Borofsky repeatedly accuses the American Anthropological Association of using a few examples of sloppy reporting on Tierney’s part as an excuse to “sidestep” the ethical issues raised by Darkness in El Dorado. As we’ve seen, however, Tierney’s misrepresentations are far too extensive, and far too conveniently selective, to have resulted from anything but an intentional effort to deceive readers. In Borofsky’s telling, the issues Tierney raises were so important that pressure from several AAA members, along with hundreds of students who commented on the organization’s website, forced the leadership to commission the El Dorado Task Force to investigate. It turns out, though, that on this critical element of the story too Borofsky is completely mistaken. The Task Force wasn’t responding to pressure from inside its own ranks; its members were instead concerned about the reputation of American anthropologists, whose ability to do future work in Latin American was threatened by the scandal. In a 2002 email uncovered by Alice Dreger, the Chair of the Task Force, former AAA President Jane Hill, wrote of Darkness in El Dorado,

Burn this message. The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America—with a high potential to do good—was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.

Far from the overdue examination of anthropological ethics he wants his book to be seen as, all Borofsky has offered us with The Fierce Controversy is another piece of sleaze, a sequel of sorts meant to rescue the original from its fatal, and highly unethical, distortions and wholesale fabrications. What Borofsky’s book is more than anything else, though, is a portrait of postmodernism’s powers of moral perversion. As such, and only as such, it is of some historical value.

            In a debate over teaching intelligent design in public schools, Richard Dawkins once called attention to what should have been an obvious truth. “When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity,” he said, “the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.” This line came to mind again and again as I read The Fierce Controversy. If we take presumption of innocence at all seriously, we can’t avoid concluding that the case brought by the anti-Chagnon crowd is simply wrong. The entire scandal began with a campaign of character assassination, which then blew up into a media frenzy, which subsequently induced a moral panic. It seems even some of Chagnon’s old enemies were taken aback by the mushrooming scale of the allegations. And yet many of the participants whose unscrupulous or outright dishonest scholarship and reporting originally caused the hysteria saw fit years later to continue stoking the controversy. Since they don’t appear to feel any shame, all we can do is agree that they’ve forfeited any right to be heard on the topic of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamö. 

            Still, the inquisitorial zealotry of the anti-Chagnon contributors notwithstanding, the most repugnant thing about Borofsky’s book is how the proclamations of concern first and foremost for the Yanomamö begin to seem pro forma through repetition, as each side tries to paint itself as more focused on the well-being of indigenous peoples than the other. You know a book that’s supposed to address ethical issues has gone terribly awry when references to an endangered people start to seem like mere rhetorical maneuvers. 

Other popular posts like this:

The Idiocy of Outrage: Sam Harris's Run-ins with Ben Affleck and Noam Chomsky

You can also watch "Secrets of the Tribe," Jose Padiha's documentary about the controversy, online. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks’s Graphophilia and Other Compensations for a Life Lived “On the Move”

(4,762 words, link to printable version)

            Near the midway point of his recently published autobiography, On the Move: a Life, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks recounts a time in 2000 when he was busy writing an earlier book, a memoir about his childhood love of chemistry called Uncle Tungsten. In his late 60s at the time, Sacks was working on a chapter about spectroscopy and found himself roaming the streets of New York with a miniature spectroscope, an instrument that allows you to see the unique spectral light patterns emitted by each of the elements. Peering in through the window of a gay bar, he was dazzled by the display of light, but then he realized that the people inside were disturbed by the apparition of this eccentric old man looking at them through a strange device. Instead of withdrawing, though, Sacks went to the door and “strode in boldly,” shouting, “Stop talking about sex, everyone! Have a look at something interesting.” As it turned out, some of the patrons did stop to take a look. Sacks writes that after a span of “dumbfounded silence,”

my childish, ingenuous enthusiasm won the day, and everyone started passing the spectroscope from hand to hand, making comments like, “Wow—cool!” After everyone had had a turn with the spectroscope, it was handed back, with thanks. Then they all resumed talking about sex again. (238)

This episode encapsulates in microcosm the poignancy that pervades Sacks’s entire autobiography, standing out even amid the multitude of likewise humorous and quietly touching scenes. Sacks has for years been telling us to stop and have a look at something interesting, whether it be the case histories of his tragically, yet fascinatingly, afflicted patients, some pivotal discovery in the history of neuroscience, or the story behind one of his own personal epiphanies. What you wouldn’t know from reading this story apart from the rest of the book, though, is that Sacks didn’t wander onto that particular scene by sheer coincidence. 

Read in its context, this anecdote says a lot about what has afflicted Sacks himself for almost his entire life, leaving us to wonder if perhaps some of his infectious enthusiasm for science and literature and history—or at least the solitary proclivities that support it—came about through his efforts at compensating for those afflictions. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading On the Move is learning about the origins of what would become his abiding preoccupations, the central themes that shine through in his writing, the ones that, along with his gracefully meticulous prose style and his unmistakable compassion, have earned his essays and books such widespread acclaim. But at times it’s somewhat of a shock to discover just how much Sacks himself was struggling—and continues to struggle—with impediments both physical and social. Just before going into the story about the spectroscope, for instance, he writes,

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now that my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests—volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever—then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation (though I may still fail to recognize the person I’m talking to a moment later). (236-7)

Sacks only recently began talking about his own prosopagnosia, or face blindness, the topic of an essay that gave one of his earliest books its provocative title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—though Sacks’s own condition is much milder than the man whose case he explored in the essay (or at least it was until his vision began failing). After reading On the Move, though, that title, along with the one for his next collection, An Anthropologist on Mars, which took its name from an essay about Temple Grandin and Asperger’s syndrome, both seem like they reveal as much about Sacks’s own alienation as about the unique lives of his patients.

            Sacks’s homosexuality is also something he only recently began discussing, but it comes up early in his autobiography. One of the central themes of Sacks’s writing has been that what most of us are tempted to look at as disorders or diseases are often just different ways of perceiving and living in the world. When his parents found out about his homosexuality, his mother in particular responded with unforgivable harshness: “‘You are an abomination,’ she said. ‘I wish you had never been born.’ Then she left and did not speak to me for several days” (10). Sacks, however, does forgive her, or at least comes to understand her motives:

When, in 1951, my mother learned of my homosexuality and said, “I wish you had never been born,” she was speaking, though I am not sure I realized this at the time, out of anguish as much as accusation—the anguish of a mother who, feeling she had lost one son to schizophrenia, now feared she was losing another son to homosexuality, a “condition” which was regarded then as shameful and stigmatizing and with a deep power to mark and spoil a life. (61)

Today, it’s easy for most of us to think of homosexuality as just another aspect of healthy human diversity, not as a mental condition, certainly not as anything shameful; if anything, we recognize now, it was probably that stigma, and his mother’s inability to see past it, that threatened to spoil Sacks’s life. Remarkably, though, Sacks was by then questioning whether even his brother’s schizophrenia was best understood, and best treated, as a medical condition.

Two of his three older brothers were already on their way to becoming doctors by the time Oliver and the third brother, Michael, began entering into a type of conspiracy against anyone who sought, by some crude chemical means, to cure him. Michael was an avid reader of communist pamphlets and enjoyed his job as a messenger because he saw it as serving a heroic cause. Oliver writes,

             He once told me that the seemingly humdrum messages he delivered might have hidden, secret meanings, apparent only to the designated recipient; this was why they could not be entrusted to anyone else. Though he might appear to be an ordinary messenger with ordinary messages, Michael said, this was by no means the case. He never said this to anyone else—he knew it would sound bizarre, if not mad—and he had begun to think of our parents, his older brothers, and the entire medical profession as determined to devalue or “medicalize” everything he thought and did, especially if it had any hint of mysticism, for they would see it as an intimation of psychosis. But I was still his little brother, just twelve years old, not yet a medicalizer, and able to listen sensitively and sympathetically to anything he said, even if I could not fully understand it. (60)

When Michael began taking Largactil (or Thorazine, as it’s called in the U.S.) in the early 1950s, this blending together of the real world with his fantasy life came to an end. Michael became dull and lazy. The drug is, after all, a tranquilizer.

The treatment wasn’t altogether sinister, however, as Michael’s schizophrenia was often truly debilitating, and his delusions and violent mood swings were not only dangerous at times—they were a nerve-rackingly constant source of anxiety for anyone close to him, including his little brother. As Oliver writes,           

When I left England on my twenty-seventh birthday, it was, among many other reasons, partly to get away from my tragic, hopeless, mismanaged brother. But perhaps, in another sense, it would become an attempt to explore schizophrenia and allied brain-mind disorders in my own patients and in my own way. (65)

Thus equipped with the insight that neurological patients often see their own conditions much differently from the way doctors see them—not merely as problems needing to be fixed but as rare if onerous gifts intricately tied up with their sense of who they are and what their place is in the world—while at the same time still tormented by the condemnation of his mother and forever ill-at-ease in casual social exchanges, Sacks came to America, to explore, to see where he might fit in, to stay on the move so as to outpace some ultimate reckoning the nature of which he couldn’t begin to anticipate.

            On the Move reads briskly. The chapters are broken into mostly light-hearted and often quite funny anecdotes, vignettes, and mini-essays, while the overarching structure of the autobiography builds on the themes introduced in the earliest pages. When Sacks’s father, wondering why his son never seemed to be interested in any girls, asked him if he might prefer boys, the young Oliver responded, “Yes, I do—but it’s just a feeling—I have never ‘done’ anything” (10). While he would eventually get around to doing something with a handful of lovers, all these relationships were remarkable either for their brevity or for their lack of intimacy. In London in 1973, Sacks, celebrating his 40th birthday, met a young man from Harvard and spent the following week with him. Though it’s a little heartbreaking, it’s not exactly surprising when Sacks reveals that “after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years” (203). It would have been under thirty years into this unenforced sentence of celibacy when Sacks burst into that gay bar in 2000 and shouted at the patrons to stop talking about sex so they could have a look at something interesting.  

            The multiple sections of each chapter are connected thematically, so they jump around in time to some degree, even as the overall temporal direction is forward from Sacks’s early childhood into the present. The descriptions tend to come as though from a distance, as Sacks resists the temptation to fill in details lost to the void of normal forgetfulness—though several of his quoted letters, journal entries, and unpublished narrative essays do intermittently lend some enticing texture to many of episodes he recounts. As effortlessly engaging as each section is on its own, the rapid-fire cascade of what appear at first glance like loosely connected, even somewhat shallowly rendered reminiscences could easily detract from any sense of progression, blunting any compulsion toward further reading. What saves On the Move from being submerged in tedious and chatty meandering is the general picture that incrementally emerges through the reprisal of themes harking back to Sacks’s childhood and the earliest pages of the book. Considered collectively, the individual sections come to seem like tiles comprising an intricate mosaic, a portrait of a man on a quest that’s part scientific expedition and part something much more personal, a search for a manageable form of human connection, and for a viable reconciliation of his two professional roles, each of whose objectives are frequently at odds with the other’s. 

When you consider the difficulty of arranging all the heartbreaks, triumphs, turning points, and tragedies that make up several decades of memories—along with all the scattered impressions and one-off encounters that have left their indelible marks—all into a book of under four hundred pages, you begin to appreciate the near impossibility of writing an autobiography that captures at all suitably the essence of a life. Most works in the genre rely heavily on the author’s celebrity for whatever modicum of interest they manage to pique. A man with an oeuvre as impressive as Sacks’s could also have coasted along on the promise of delivering the dish about what went on behind the scenes of his earlier works, all of which foregrounded the patients rather than the good doctor himself. With all those previous books, too, Sacks had the luxury of focusing closely in on the individuals, events, and relationships that he felt best illuminated whatever neuropsychological phenomenon he was then exploring—the memoirist’s advantage of a narrow scope. Approaching On the Move, Sacks faced the formidable challenge of composing an entire autobiography, which meant having to condense a long and extraordinarily rich life into a dozen or so chapters. The style and structure he adopted to meet this challenge, while much different from the methods on display in past books, serve as one more testament to his literary ingenuity.

On the Move does feature its fair share of celebrities, both Hollywood types like Robert De Niro and Robin Williams and scientific types like Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Crick. You also get plenty of background to the stories told in Sacks’s groundbreaking books. A vital theme recurring throughout the book, however, is Sacks’s seemingly endless struggle to find the best way to represent his experiences, and the characters at the center of them, in a prose register that does justice to the real lives, the real dignity and spirit of his subjects, while at the same time casting light on the neurological phenomena that so fascinate him. What has always made Sacks’s books so wonderfully engrossing, and what makes Sacks himself such a treasure, is his dual identity as a profoundly compassionate doctor and a consummate artist, one in constant search of the ideal form to convey his stories. His essays and books aren’t just cogent explorations of scientific mysteries; they consistently achieve the status of true literature. And now, with On the Move, Sacks has bequeathed to us a masterpiece of the autobiographical form.

            As with all artistic masterpieces, though, you don’t close this book with any unalloyed feeling of uplift. Oliver Sacks’s life and his career raise some troubling questions about the driving impulse behind scientific and literary achievement. Again and again throughout his life, Sacks has played the role of outsider, either by force or by choice. The early chapters of On the Move in which he recounts his days as a motorcycling aficionado give a sense of what it took for him to quell his fears of isolation and unworthiness. He writes,

There is a direct union of oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like a part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single, indivisible entity; it is very much like riding a horse. A car cannot become part of one in quite the same way. (96)

Sacks would usually experience this union of man and machine over the course of long journeys he embarked on by himself. He would thus spend hour after hour, alone but connected with a near-living machine that responded intimately to his bidding, and forever moving toward something, away from certain other things—this is Sacks in his element. But the motorcycling that gave him such joy wasn’t completely without a social dimension:

America, I imagined, was a classless society, a place where everyone, irrespective of birth, color, religion, education, or profession, could meet each other as fellow human beings, brother animals, a place where a professor could talk to a truck driver, without the categories coming between them.
I had had a taste, a glimpse, of such a democracy, an equality, when I roved about England on my motorcycle in the 1950s. Motorcycles seemed, even in stiff England, to bypass the barriers, to open a sort of social ease and good nature in everyone. “That’s a nice bike,” someone would say, and the conversation would go from there. Motorcyclists were a friendly lot; we waved to one another when we passed on the road, made conversation easily if we met at a café. We formed a sort of romantic classless society within society at large. (72-3)

Sacks could, in such a society, avoid being forced to answer for his difficulty recognizing faces. He could escape questions about his sexual preferences. Even within this ideal society, though, Sacks was given to withdrawing. He writes of being accepted by the Hells Angels, for instance, who were charmed by the notion of a biker with an MD, but he never actually got around to going on any rides with them.

            Another obsession that took hold of Sacks as a young man, and that takes up a significant portion of the first half of his autobiography, was weightlifting. This endeavor too brought Sacks into a community of sorts, and yet he participated in this loose-knit society in just as marginal a way as he did that of his biker comrades. Sacks’s descriptions of motorcycling suggest that for him riding was a way of settling the paradox of a fiercely guarded man quietly yearning to connect and belong, in union with a machine that could create the illusion of sentience, even acceptance. With weightlifting too, we see him engaged in solitary exercises that nonetheless take place in, and derive their significance from, a group of likeminded fellow practitioners. But Sacks reveals later in the book that what he was after with bodybuilding was much more straightforward.

I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting. My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. I became strong—very strong—with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same. And, like many excesses, weight lifting exacted a price. (122)

If motorcycling was for Sacks an attempt to square the circle of his competing needs for solitude and companionship, weightlifting seems to have been more about wanting to make himself powerful to compensate for feelings of powerlessness. Both obsessions, crucially, could be indulged in solitude, but both likewise attracted a circle of fellow enthusiasts. If there’s a single thread that ties the diverse episodes of Sacks’s autobiography together, it would be this theme of lonely intimacy, connection at a distance, roaming the far reaches in search of home.

            Sacks, it becomes clear, is not only perfectly aware of the repetition of these notes throughout the book; he’s using them quite deliberately and to striking effect. The title of the book derives from a poem by Thom Gunn, one of Sacks’s many close friends living at a distance. The two routinely shared lessons learned from their lives as writers, as well as insights gleaned from their experiences with hallucinogens and other drugs. Sacks writes,

We had launched on journeys, evolutions, developments, that could not be entirely predicted or controlled; we were constantly in motion. In “On the Move,” which Thom wrote in his twenties, are the lines
            At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
            Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
            One is always nearer by not keeping still. (278)

“Reaching no absolute” captures much of the essence of Sacks’s identity. Over the course of the autobiography, the stage on which he struggles with the many nuances and contradictions of his life shifts from the road and the gym to the hospitals housing his patients and the pages containing his prose. In his professional life, his obsessions have made him just as unplaceable as he is in his personal life. He’s had all the practical difficulties of balancing his patients’ needs with his readers’ desires, his desire to maintain his scientific professionalism with his graciousness toward his audience (a comment he once received from an editor: “The book is too easy to read. This will make people suspicious—professionalize it” [151]), and his role as a doctor with his role as a writer. But his stake in each of these struggles has always been deeply personal.
Oliver Sacks with Robin Williams

            Despite the theme of never-ending motion, On the Move does offer a gratifying sense of direction as we see how Oliver Sacks became the great figure we recognize today by that name. This evolution was as much personal as it was scientific, since to write his breakthrough work Awakenings, the inspiration for a movie of that title starring Robin Williams as a stand-in for Sacks, he not only had to do experimental drug treatments with catatonic patients, but he also had to arrive at an understanding of what his role could be as a doctor and a friend to his subjects, and as a writer turning them into semi-fictional characters. He then had to figure out how to convey something of the essence of that relationship to his readers. One of his favorite responses to the finished book came from none other than Thom Gunn, one of his partners in constant motion. Comparing Awakenings to some of Sacks’s earlier writing, Gunn admits he saw those initial works as deficient and despaired of his friend’s prospects for overcoming the underlying shortcoming. In a letter, Gunn explained,

What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied…. I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three… (276).

Sacks doesn’t have any fully resolved answer to the question of what precipitated the transformation, but he suggests that both his own and Gunn’s development had much to do with “the sense of history, of predecessors” (277).

Sacks’s coming into his own with the publication and success of Awakenings does place him in an easily recognizable position among the scientists and explorers of yore, so much so that it makes you wonder if his alienation could be attributed to him having been born some hundred-odd years too late. His essays often read like dispatches from exotic regions, messages home about how much stranger, how much scarier, and how much more wonderful the world is once you step beyond the bounds of your own personal known world. This element to his writing didn’t come about through chance. He writes,  
I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific—especially Wallace’s Malay Archipelago, Bate’s Naturalist on the River Amazons, and Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist, and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Alexander von Humbolt’s Personal Narrative. It pleased me to think that Wallace, Bates, and Spruce were all crisscrossing one another’s paths, leapfrogging, on the same stretch of the Amazon during the selfsame months of 1849 and to think that all of them were good friends. (They continued to correspond throughout their lives, and Wallace was to publish Spruce’s Notes after his death.)
            They were all, in a sense, amateurs—self-educated, self-motivated, not part of an institution—and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world. (330)

All these great friends, traveling far and wide, corresponding at a distance, fueled by an insatiable wonder, and all writing unforgettable tales of their adventures—how could Oliver Sacks not love these stories? How could he not feel perfectly at home as his own career began to take on a shape resembling this lost ideal, even if the resemblances were only superficial?

            On the Move, as the autobiography of a scientist, is as much about the author’s evolution as an intellectual as it is about his personal development. The penultimate chapter is primarily focused on Gerald Edelman’s theory of neural Darwinism. The idea strikes Sacks as so compelling and far-reaching in its implications that he remembers feeling grateful when the full realization of its import sank in. “I thought, ‘Thank God I have lived to hear this theory.’ I felt as I imagined many people must have felt in 1859 when the Origin came out” (365). It’s not the least bit surprising that Sacks felt this way about a theory of neurological and mental development, especially one that could explain the quintessential uniqueness of each individual. What’s remarkable—genius really—is how the discussion of neural Darwinism ties so many of the book’s themes so neatly together.

What is the theory? The idea is that the mind emerges from the communication of a variety of distantly located regions of the brain. Sacks explains,

            Such correlation and synchronization of neuronal firing in widely separated areas of the brain is made possible by very rich connections between the brain’s maps—connections which are reciprocal and may contain millions of fibers. Stimuli from, say, touching a chair may affect one set of maps; stimuli from seeing it may affect another set. Reentrant signaling takes place between these sets of maps as part of the process of perceiving a chair. (363)

This reentrant signaling is a type of real-time updating of maps based on information coming in from various sensory inputs, as it gets channeled through and incorporated into still other maps. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to use as a metaphor for reentrance the rich correspondences of nineteenth century explorers and scientists, all collaborating to generate a more comprehensive and accurate view of the natural world. “And in its broadest sense,” Sacks writes, “neural Darwinism implies that we are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life” (369).

            Sacks’s endorsement notwithstanding, the scientific community is far from reaching a final verdict on Edelman’s theory. It may however receive quite a boost from Sacks’s treatment in his book (especially considering that Edelman’s own writing is significantly less reader-friendly). But what I was left wondering when I turned over the last page of On the Move was how much Sacks’s love of writing owed to his need to correspond at a distance, a need that very likely arose from the insecurity and rejection he experienced as a young man. You can’t be a great writer until you’ve found your great subject. For Sacks, this was neurology. But you can’t be either a great writer or a great doctor unless you’re driven by a mad passion to explore, understand, tinker, and improve. When Sacks writes about being shy and hiding out in a corner of some bar, we know he was probably busy either filling a notebook or marking up some text written any time in the last three centuries. While he’s sitting there failing to connect with his fellow humans, in other words, he’s working to produce the very pieces of writing that make him such a treasure to all of us. If he’d had a choice to begin with, would Sacks have considered this a good trade? Would any of us?

            Even if the obsession that underlies successful scientific and literary careers doesn’t originate as a compensation for some social debility, then that same obsession, once developed, is likely to become a social debility in its own right. I think about this now that Sacks is gone and any opportunity I had to write to him about how much his work has delighted, fascinated, influenced, and inspired me over the past two decades is gone with him. After his New York Times essay in February, in which he revealed that he had terminal cancer, I, along with probably thousands of other readers, felt a tiny panicked urge to write and express our gratitude before it was too late. Thinking of those thousands of others, I decided writing would be pointless. But that’s the paradox I’m left with: a man who touched countless lives but who remained unreachable, often despite himself, in his own life. The chief solace we have is that while Sacks’s personal struggles may not have ever been resolved, the scientific and literary work those struggles made way for remain for still more countless others to be touched by in the future. 

Also read: Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

The Feminist Sociobiologist: An Appreciation of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy Disguised as a Review of “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding”

Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

The Soul of the Skeptic: What Precisely Is Sam Harris Waking Up from?