Sunday, June 28, 2015

Considering 'Obsolete' Matters

I always pay attention when my mind returns repeatedly to certain themes. On reading Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, On the Move, I was struck by his observation that many smart, technically-trained people seem to care little about history -- even the history of thought and discovery within their own professional fields. Sacks takes the opposite view – along with other highly productive investigators such as the late Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind – who found insightful and useful observations in relatively early literature.

“At UCLA,” says Sacks, “we residents had a weekly ‘Journal Club’; we would read the latest papers in neurology and discuss them. I sometimes annoyed the group, I think, by saying that we should also discuss the writings of our nineteenth-century forebears, relating what we were seeing in patients to their observations and thoughts. This was seen by the others as archaism; we were short of time, and we had better things to do than consider such ‘obsolete’ matters. This attitude was reflected, implicitly, in many of the journal articles we read; they made little reference to anything more that five years old. It was as if neurology had no history.”

“I found this dismaying,” says Sacks, “for I think in narrative and historical terms. As a chemistry-mad boy, I devoured books on the history of chemistry, the evolution of its ideas, and the lives of my favorite chemists. . . . It was similar when my interests moved from chemistry to biology. Here, of course, my central passion was for Darwin. . . . I loved his autobiography most of all.” (Page 102.)

So much of my own research for In the Mind’s Eye was based on the historical perspectives elaborated by Norman Geschwind and his student Albert Galaburda in Cerebral Lateralization and elsewhere. It also happens that the dyslexic molecular biologist at Caltech, the late William J. Dreyer, no lover of long books, contacted me, became a close friend and gave me just two books – a history of molecular biology that explains his heretical discovery of deep fundamentals in this new field – and his own favorite book, the autobiography of Charles Darwin. 

It is as if the longer view of history helps the truly creative and innovative thinker to move beyond the clutter and fashion of their own time to make genuine contributions to expanding human understandings. Those with the short view, however brilliant (their heads full of current data), seem blinded and locked into the belief structure of their own narrow time – whatever its flaws, limitations and wrong-headed approaches.

My own current favorite is Darwin’s Armada in which Australian author Iain McCalman tells the story of how four long sea voyages (by Darwin, Hooker, Wallace and Huxley) provided a radical new heretical perspective on the natural world – and how the four fought and eventually joined to “Battle for the Theory of Evolution.”