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An Awesome Romp Through the Pluriverse.
on July 27, 2006
"Anthropologist on Mars" begins with a quote by geneticist J.B.S. Haldane - a quote that so beautifullly sums up the book's aim as to bear repeating:
"The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine."
Oliver Sacks's seven paradoxical tales aim at showing us just that. We are offered a mere glimpse of the neurological pluriverse and, in so witnessing, become able to appreciate just how 'queer' human nature can be.
Other reviewers have gone into great detail about the outline of each story, so I will leave that to them. What I wish to point out to prospective readers is Sack's ability, through his tales, to make the ordinary things about our brains that we take for granted, appear unique, fragile, and more special than we might have thought.
For instance, we witness two stories dealing with sight. First, we explore the case of a painter who loses ALL sense of color late in life. We also see its opposite - a blind man given sight late in life.
In the first case, we get a real sense of how integral the sense of color is for life. We watch this man describe how the world becomes infinitely duller and less interesting when all one can see is shades of gray. He is driven almost to suicide! In the next tale, we see how astonishingly hard it is to 'learn to see' and all the things the brain must do to achieve this (which becomes all the harder the older one is).
We also meet some folks who are autistic and, as such, lack the social instincts and abstraction that we who have them take for granted. Imagine, if you can, having to learn social rules (such things as body language, vocal inflection, and sense of humor) like one would learn algebra - not instinctually, but intellectually. And imagine being mystified by ideas like romantic love and the beauty of music. Temple Grandin - in the final of Sacks tales - shows us what this is like.
Through all of this, Sacks takes on the role not only of a neurologist and story teller, but of a philosopher. The philosopher takes the ordinary and puts it under a microscope to show us how breath-taking it really is. Just because most of us - the impaired call us neurotypicals - have brains that smoothly operate thus and so, does not mean that we all do. Some, like Virgil, have to work hard at seeing such basic things as 2D represntations of 3D objects. Others, like Temple Grandin, have to work at understanding the idea of sociality.
All in all, this is a stunning book that will make you think and marvel. Dare I say, if you are like me, you will never look at the human brain with quite the same lens as you did before.