The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
Written by: Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence
Narrated by: Simon Vance
Anthropomorphizing non-humans is a slippery slope. The brain is an amazing organ that compels humans to understand things beyond understanding. Whether it is belief in a Supreme Being or belief that wild animals think, human brains create stories of belief based on consciousness; i.e. something beyond instinct and conditioning.
Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist, notes his experience with a herd of wild elephants. This herd of elephants will be killed if he is unwilling to accept them at his conservation area in South Africa. The elephant herd has been found unmanageable by other conservationists. The problem has been the herd will not stay within a confined conservation area. The elephants break through whatever barriers are placed in their way.
Anthony tells a story of Africa that reflects on his perception of reality. As is widely reported, native animal species in Africa are becoming extinct. Partly because of the advance of civilization; i.e. because of native customs, the desire of souvenir hunters. and the greed of ivory and horn hunters. Anthony exposes some of these causes in “The Elephant Whisperer”. However, Anthony takes a step too far by suggesting wild animals have cognitive recognition; i.e. a near-human understanding of what is happening in their world.
Though Anthony’s perception of animals is askew, his story brings Africa alive. Anthony’s effort to preserve Africa’s wild life is exemplary. His methods make sense. He scrambles to create an electrical barrier around his conservation area that will contain the largest land based animal in the world. The herd he is given custody of instinctually resists containment even though it offers a haven from human interference with nature.
Anthony overcomes that instinctual resistance by making himself and his employees familiar to the herd. He insists on spending his personal and the staff’s time with the herd so they recognize his and their smell and presence. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the elephants begin to accept his presence and their sanctuary. Anthony interprets this instinctual response as a cognitive rather than operantly conditioned response.
An irony of Anthony’s conclusion of wild animal consciousness is in his white man’s communication with factions of the South African community. Anthony notes his area of South Africa has had no elephants for years. Elephants have been systematically poached and driven out of South Africa by their instinct for survival. Many of the natives in his area have never even seen an elephant. The irony is that Anthony is challenged by African natives for his role in reintroducing elephants to South Africa. The use of land for conservation interferes with tribal interests in raising cattle and goats. Others question conservation’s interference in harvesting animals for food and ivory.
To combat the challenge, Anthony pleads his case for conservation that will enrich the natives without farming or harvesting elephants for their meat and ivory. Anthony uses an interpreter to communicate his message to the natives because he is not fluent in their language. Anthony chooses an interpreter that bridges the myths of Africa with logical reasoning to convince the natives that he is on their side.
Anthony’s pitch is based on human reasoning. That reasoning contrasts with the instinctual way he approaches his adopted elephant herd. As a human speaking to other humans, cognition is logically taken for granted. Humans speaking to non-humans are deluding themselves by believing elephants or other species have equal or superior cognitive abilities.
Evolution fools us all. Maybe the future will change some member of the animal kingdom to create a “Planet of the Apes” but a “Planet of the Elephants” seems a step too far.
Nevertheless, “The Elephant Whisperer” is a fascinating glimpse of Africa. We love our dogs, cats, and other pets. Anthony, and many humans, believe animals think like humans. Many think animals communicate among themselves. However, today, it is evolutionary instinct and conditioning; not cognition, that rules the non-human community.
In 1970, “QB VII” is acclaimed as a page turning best seller. It is the story of a libel trial against an author for naming a knighted Lord as a Nazi collaborator. Among other things, it is a parable about morality and redemption. The books fame is enhanced by a mini-series aired on ABC in 1974. The author, Leon Uris, had been sued for a similar libel accusation in his first best seller, “Exodus” (see Dering v. Uris). The title, “QB VII”, is an allusion to Queens Bench VII.
The story is about the trial of a Polish surgeon who runs a surgical department in a Polish concentration camp in 1943. The story begins after the war with Dr. Adam Kelno being held in a British prison while Poland is requesting extradition of Kelno for medical experimentation and abuse of concentration camp prisoners.
Kelno’s principal accuser is Dr. Mark Tessler, a Jewish prisoner and fellow surgeon in the prison camp. Tessler testifies that Dr. Kelno victimized concentration camp prisoners, particularly Jewish prisoners that are experimented on at the direction of SS leaders. Kelno argues that Tessler is a liar. No corroborating evidence (neither witnesses or records) is found to support Tessler’s accusations.
Uris prepares the reader/listener for the ending of the story by having one of the British interrogators suggest Dr. Kelno is hiding something. However, after two years of imprisonment, the English courts deny Poland’s extradition request, and the doctor is released.
Kelno fears for his life because of Poland’s aggressive extradition attempt, and Tessler’s damning testimony. Kelno secretively flees with his family to Borneo to begin a practice treating local natives and colonial British overseers. The natives resist his help because of their belief in witch doctor’ traditions of health care and medical treatment. Over time, Dr. Kelno and his wife gain the confidence and appreciation of the natives. Kelno reputation rises in the colonial medical administration of the region.
Kelno’s stature grows to the point of being knighted by England for selfless service in the colony. Kelno raises a son with his wife who becomes a favorite of local natives. As Kelno’s reputation rises, he eventually returns to England to begin a practice in a small community near London.
Uris then introduces a new character, an unorthodox Jewish author who is a young successful writer and becomes a sought-after playwright for the movies. However, this writer longs to return to writing and become a noted author of Jewish history. After milking the movie industry with a work of pulp fiction, Abraham Cady dedicates time to researching and writing what becomes an acclaimed best seller titled “The Holocaust”. This event sets the table for a libel case because it reveals Kelno’s role in a Polish concentration camp. What makes Uris’s story revelatory is the complexity of guilt and redemption for unpunished crimes, and the tenuous nature of morality.
Half of Uris’s story builds Dr. Kelno into a legend. Kelno provides selfless duty to his patients and the medical profession after the war. He seeks no fame, none of the accouterments of wealth, raises one son and inspires his son’s best friend to become a doctor for the natives of Borneo; while later settling into a life of obscurity in a small English community. In contrast, Abraham Cady uses his youth to perfect his writing skill, join the military as a WWII pilot, and marry a nurse who cares for him after a disastrous plane crash. After recovery, Cady chooses to live the life of a profligate, cheating on his wife, and prostituting his skill as a playwright.
However, the writer in Cady reaches a point of self-awareness that compels him to author something important. This point leads to the publication of “The Holocaust”. From Cady’s research, the accusatory testimony of Dr. Mark Tessler is found and the book references Dr. Kelno and his role as the Polish concentration camp’s medical director. Dr. Kelno’s son’s best friend convinces Kelno that he should sue for libel. Kelno had been found not guilty of any misdeeds when Poland tried to extradite him from England after the war. It seems he had been unfairly imprisoned for two years, investigated, and found innocent because of lack of corroborating evidence.
The suit is drawn. Cady insists his research is accurate and refuses to retract his findings. The case goes to the Queen’s Bench VII for trial. This is thirty or more years after the war. Cady is defended by one of the best lawyers in England with payment for services made by an English aristocrat (one of Cady’s lovers), and an obscurely identified Jewish interest group.
The trial reveals Dr. Kelno’s guilt. The complexity of the guilt is in Kelno’s penance by being a better person after the war. It does not absolve his quilt but it makes him something less than a monster. One is confronted with what he/she would do in a similar circumstance of war. Would you say no to a supervisor that tells you to castrate someone if you believed you would be killed? Stanley Milgram’s experiments show that normal human beings can be driven to kill other human beings for no other reason than their acceptance of someone else’s authority.
Kelno may have been an anti-Semite. Poland is noted for anti-Semitism just as America is noted for Black discrimination. Is Kelno less human because of his acculturation? In a perfect world, yes, but who lives in a perfect world? Kelno is despicable. The Ku Klux Klan is despicable. However, when any person is classified as something other than human, classifiers condemn themselves to inhumanity.
There are so many questions raised by Uris’s story. How brave are you? Would you risk your life to save someone else’s life? Would you kill someone if you were told by the government it is your duty to kill another? Is their redemption in good works? A judge can sit in a chair and think what his/her answer should be, but any human in a circumstance of life or death can only answer the question with his/her action in the now. There are few winners in Uris’s story. There are many losers.
Though Noah Hawley’s novel’s ending is anti-climactic, it captures 21st century public angst. The author’s clever plot reminds reader/listeners of the recent American Presidential election.
Hawley’s story alludes to American government agency ineptitude, a newspaper’s closure for indiscriminate phone taps, and American television’s news bias. Hawley handily skewers the free-press, television news, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in “Before the Fall”.
Though the action of the story takes place in America, it seems equally applicable to the Brexit decision and public discontent in the United Kingdom.
The essence of the story is about a private plane crash that kills all but two passengers, a 4-year-old boy and a 47-year-old artist. The artist is a recently recovered alcoholic who manages to rescue the boy and save himself by swimming several hours after a crash in the Atlantic. The artist is initially recognized as a hero. The boy becomes the sole heir to a 300-million-dollar fortune which becomes a news reporter’s rationale for questioning the artist’s honesty, motive, and miraculous survival. By gathering illegally tapped phone information, the reporter’s rationale is reinforced by a FBI investigator’s phone calls. It is determined that the crash is deliberate. The mystery is who did it and why.
The illegal wiretapping reminds one of Murdoch’s employee in a British tabloid that had to be closed. The attack by a TV news reporter of a hero reminds one of Fox and CNN News reporting that drives for sensational stories rather than truth.
A FBI investigation of the motive of a victim is testament to government ineptitude. The Illegal wiretapping of private phone calls is testament to mistrust of reporters. News conservative and liberal bias is testament to mistrust of the general media.
The victims in Hawley’s story are two wealthy families, the artist, a body-guard, and the flight crew. One of the business leaders is a media mogul and the other is a deal maker. Both moguls are tainted by questionable ethics. The deal maker is a criminal for laundering money for countries forbidden to be traded with by the American government. The media mogul is aware of illegal wiretapping being done by one of his newscasters to boost television ratings. Hawley shows the media owner directs his TV news manager to stop the newscaster’s illegal wire-tapping but does not suggest the reporter is to be fired. There is an inference that the TV mogul is going to sweep the wire-tapping under the rug in the hope it is not discovered. In any case, the death of the mogul allows the reporter to continue wiretapping to create a sensational and false “news” story.
What creates the mystery are possible motives for the plane crash when no mechanical failure is found. The money-launderer is working with criminals that have heard he may be indicted. The media-mogul has a body-guard that is not found in the plane wreckage. There are bullet holes in the fuselage of the plane. A co-pilot has a sketchy reputation.
Because the money-launderer works with criminals, maybe a contract for murder is executed. The media-mogul’s body-guard has a reputation for surviving horrendous circumstances. Could he have been hired as a contract killer? The co-pilot is a last-minute addition to the crew. Did he have an unknown motive that accidentally leads to his own death? Is the hero somehow guilty? Who is the murderer?
Hawley’s story is a take-down of news media, and government by revealing the nature of human beings. The media’s drive for sensation provided the American President a forum for his own self-interest, at the expense of the common good. The FBI Director chose actions unbecoming a government agency that is intended to serve and protect the American public.
The United Kingdom chose Brexit to escape the European Union’s open borders. To many, the Brexit escape is at the expense of the general public’s economic well-being. As Daniel Kahneman (an Israeli-American psychologist) notes, “We’re blind to our blindness.” The coda of the story is — who can you trust to tell the truth; and maybe, what is the truth?
John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece is about surfaces of society and an irony of depression, among other things. The first chapters of “A Confederacy of Dunces” defeats some readers’ interest. The comically described anti-hero of the story is so unappealing that some will become uninterested. However, the audible version of “A Confederacy of Dunces” changes one’s mind. Toole’s skillful writing and Barrett Whitener’s professional narration nearly guarantee completion of this tragi-comic tale.
The anti-hero’s name is Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, self-absorbed, weirdly dressed boy-man. Ignatius J Reilly reminds one of a friend who is quite intelligent. but so overwhelmed by the contradictions of life that he can neither go forward nor backward. Reilly cannot achieve adult independence or return to childhood. He becomes a perennial college student that graduates with a master’s degree and goes no further because of his family’s poverty. Reilly sees the absurdities of life and recoils from the idea of employment or constructive social contact.
Whitener, the narrator, adds an accented baritone voice to Reilly’s often skewed, but frequently prescient observations of life. Reilly observes American lives of police, prostitutes, professors, blacks, LBGTQ’ communities, and capitalist haves and have-nots. The narrator brings Toole’s characters to life in New Orleans.
As an adult virgin, Reilly is attracted to women rather than men. Reasons for his attraction are clouded by physical inertia and a complicated relationship with his alcoholic mother. His closest female relationship is with a woman he went to college with, Myrna Minkoff. Though Ms. Minkoff does not appear in person until near the end of Toole’s story, her peccadilloes and bizarre political beliefs are frequently explained in letters and telegrams to Reilly. Ms. Minkoff believes much of Reilly’s social difficulty is related to sexual frustration, his shrewish alcoholic mother, and ubiquitous animadversions (critical comments). Minkoff suffers from similar maladies but is, in contrast to Reilly, financially supported by a more affluent family.
Reilly is compelled to find work at the Levy pants company. The manager of the facility is non-confrontational and afraid of his employer and employees. The owner of the business is Mr. Levy. He chooses to hire an inept, non-confrontational manager because he hates the business and chooses a manager that will not challenge his management; all the while he squanders the business’s past financial success.
None of the characters in Toole’s book are pleasant people. His mother is a poor, uneducated alcoholic. His girlfriend lives in New York while he lives in New Orleans; and most of her thoughts are generally irrational. The aunt of an inept cop encourages Reilly’s mother to commit Reilly to an insane asylum. Lana Lee, a pornographic model who runs a strip joint and sells dirty pictures, is one of many Reilly’ antagonists. Miss Trixie is Reilly’s only local friend and she has dementia. Mrs. Levy is the wife of the pants manufacturer who attacks her husband’s inept handling of the family business. Ms. Levy rationalizes the irrationality of everyone, including herself.
The underlying story is comic, depending on one’s sense of humor. Reilly is compelled to find a job because of his alcoholic mother’s traffic accident that requires $1,000 in repairs. Reilly finds a job at the pants manufacturer and goes to work as a filing clerk. The wage is minimal but the business manager allows Reilly to do what he wants without supervision. He does what he wants without doing what he is hired to do. His filing system consists of file information thrown into a trash can.
In Reilly’s unsupervised position, he writes a vituperative forged letter to a major buyer of Levy Pants’ product; seemingly signed by the company owner. The buyer sues Mr. Levy for defamation. Mr. Levy is compelled to defend his company from a liable suit that could bankrupt him. Levy investigates the origin of the forgery. Levy tracks Reilly down.
Earlier, Reilly had been fired by Levy in one of his infrequent visits to the Levy pants business. The reason for the firing is for Reilly’s incitement of the work force to revolt against management for low wages; primarily paid to black laborers. The laborers ineffectively revolt but are left by Reilly to fend for themselves. The misled and underpaid laborers are victimized by both the company and Reilly who effectually abandons them
Levy finds Reilly’s mother is an alcoholic who berates her son for not having found a decent job based on a college education for which she paid. Levy reflects on the similarity of Reilly’s relationship with his mother and Levy’s relationship with his father. They both fail to capitalize on what is given to them. Reilly fails with an education he received at the expense of his mother, and Levy fails with a company inherited from his father.
Reilly’s life is a downward spiral heading for crises. When he is fired from Levy Pants, he goes to work for a Hot Dog’ cart-vendor. He eventually is fired from that job. Along the way, Reilly inadvertently instigates a police raid on a house of prostitution. One of Reilly’s nemesis, Officer Mancuso, has his career saved over the fiasco.
Reilly’s mother notifies an asylum of her son’s bizarre actions and asks that he be committed for treatment. Just as the asylum van approaches Reilly’s home, he is rescued by his girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, and they set off for New York. The last paragraphs express Myrna’s reservation that Reilly’s life will change.
What makes this story poignant is that Toole manages to make one feel sorry for this strange and troubled anti-hero. Reilly’s keen observation of society is never turned on himself. In the course of Reilly’s adventures many of the maladies of American society are exposed but there is never a glimmer of self-understanding.
The author of “A Confederacy of Dunces”, John Kennedy Toole, kills himself at the age of 31; like David Foster Wallace at 46. Both gain great fame from their books. However, unlike the privileged Wallace, Toole comes from a poor family. Toole only gains fame after death; while Wallace is lauded while still alive. One wonders how such keen observers of society have so little understanding of themselves. Depression seems an indiscriminate killer of rich and poor.
A woman’s rights have been a moving target since the beginning of time; or at least since the beginning of recorded “history”. Jack Holland tracks “The World’s Oldest Prejudice”, misogyny (a human prejudice against women). Holland’s conflation of the horrors of Nazism with societal misogyny is hyperbolic. However, the truth of women’s domination, abuse, and murder by men is solid when Holland recounts the evidence of government practices, religious doctrines, philosophical treatises, science errors, and corroborated historical events.
As far back as the oldest laws of government written by a Sumerian King in 2,050 BC, women have been singled out with human rights’ violations. An example is the King’s law that particularly applies to women who speak insolently. They are to have their mouths scoured with salt; i.e. a law applying only to women slaves. Of course the law begs the question of why women are slaves.
All major religions are patriarchal. Each has a history of misogyny that lives through to today. Beginning with the book of Genesis in the Christian Bible, women come from man; not as a singular human being but as an adjunct of man, a mere rib. In Genesis 3:16, women are burdened and subservient to men from the beginning. “Unto the woman He said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”. In the Ten Commandments, wives are property to men.
Holland cites Apostle Paul as a harbinger of doom for women. His doctrinal preaching perpetuates misogyny. Apostle Paul implies women are seductresses because of men’s earthly desires. Men are advised to focus on the spiritual to avoid sin and assure their passage to heaven. By separating humanity and spirituality, Holland argues Apostle Paul implies women and bodily pleasure are a principal source of sin. Female genital mutilation is condoned in view of this misbegotten human bodily sin.
In the Torah (Jewish doctrine), women are unclean twice as long for birthing daughters rather than sons. Further, the Torah explains that women who are raped in the city should be stoned to death, and if raped in the country, required to marry their rapist. The fault for being raped is assigned to women rather than men. Some conservative Jewish sects pray to God that they are not given daughters; additionally, they thank God for not being born a woman.
In the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book), women are less valuable and inferior to men. In paragraph 4:34 “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.”
In Islam’s Sharia law, women are generally guilty of their own rape and are to be stoned to death or whipped. There are exceptions but proof is an onerous exercise in futility. As witnesses to rape, Holland notes a victim must find 4 men to corroborate a woman’s testimony or she is considered untruthful, guilty, and subject to punishment or death.
Sharia law denies women the right to an education. Just as the American south feared education of slaves, the Islamic religion fears the education of women. With education, women are bound to seek a better life with more freedom and less domination.
Holland reaches back to ancient Greek philosophers to note that both Plato and Aristotle believe women are afflicted with natural defectiveness. To Plato, that defect is implied in “The Republic” when children are to be taken from their mothers to be educated by the state; independent of a mother’s influence. To Plato, women’s defect is in his concept of forms. Women have no soul or essence that allows for perfect form. Women are mere vessels for the birth of children that come from an essence provided by the sperm of men. Aristotle argues women are subject to men and are, at best, “deformed males”.
Holland notes later philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche carry misogyny forward. Schopenhauer argues that women have meagre reasoning ability. To Schopenhauer, women’s lack of reason and abundant sensuality cause chaos and disruption. Nietzsche has a similar view of women. Nietzsche views women as vixens that need to be controlled; not helpmates, independent humans, or equals to men.
Science luminaries also feed the misogynist credo. Darwin suggests women are not as fully evolved as men. Freud creates myths of penis envy and mental dysfunction from normal female physiological conditions.
Holland also addresses the misconception of the “blank slate” in science as noted by Stephen Pinker, a modern-day psychologist. Fifty percent of who we are, male or female, is determined by genetics. We are not blank slates. There are common genetic inheritances that interact with the environment as we mature. However, each human reacts to incidents in the world in their own unique way. Human beings, whether male or female, react differently to the same incidents based, in part, on their genetic inheritance.
Women and men are different but equal based on a combination of nature and nurture. A truth in science is that the energy producers of life (mitochondrial DNA) come solely from mothers, not fathers. This is quite a contrast to Aristotle’s theory of women as mere vessels of birth. It is a surprise that there are not more misandrists than misogynists.
Holland recounts several horrific misogynistic events from history and modern times. A major event in the 15th to 18th century were the witch trials. Tens of thousands of accused witches were tortured and burned at the stake in Europe. The most famous in America were the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. An estimated 80 women were tried in New England with 20 executed and 5 who die in prison.
Though witch trials and executions are in the past, modern-day Middle East and Eastern countries have trials for women that are raped, tortured, and mutilated for failing to follow religious and cultural norms established by male dominated governments.
Holland delves into the rise of Nazism and suggests the idea of the super race contributes to misogynist beliefs. To some extent that may be true but Hitler’s primary objective is to create a straw man for the ills of Germany. The straw man became the Jews; i.e. the alleged source of all that is wrong with the world. Nazism had much less to do with belief that women are the inferior of men. As Holland points out, Hitler was widely supported by German women.
Hitler’s asexual revolution had little to do with the degradation of women but more to do with the myth of the “other” that is meant to roil and consolidate the masses in defense of a new order. Sexual allure and male domination of women is the least of Hitler’s interests. Experiments on women in concentration camps is a predilection of demented Nazi doctors; not principally because of misogyny, but for belief in a final solution that will create a super race.
Hitler’s relevance to the subject of misogyny is in the creation of the “other”. To a misogynist the “other” is women; i.e. the misogynist is he who succumbs to the fiction of male superiority. To the misogynist, women become the source of men’s problems rather than helpmates or equals.
Misogyny is a cancer in the body politic. Regulated freedom and equal opportunity are its cure. The diversity of human life demands equal opportunity for all. This does not mean everyone is equal but that each should be able to achieve what they are capable of achieving. Regulated freedom is a necessity because human beings are motivated by money, power, and prestige; each of which can lead to greed, corruption, and hubris. All human beings are subject to the same vices. All men and women should have an equal right to say yes or no. Holland’s point is that women do not have the same rights as men because of centuries of cultural bias.
Neuro Tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Written by: Steve Silberman
Narration by: William Hughes
“Neuro Tribes” reminds one of the gambling phrase “the easy way and the hard way”. On a Las Vegas craps table, rolling two die with the same number and repeating it is the hard way. From Steve Silberman’s story, parents successfully raising a child with autism is like rolling the dice the hard way because the odds are stacked against them. This may not be a great analogy but Silberman shows that parents have to work harder to understand and nurture a child who suffers from any one of the many variants of autism.
Silberman tends to name drop famous people who have never been diagnosed as autistic, but exhibit some of the characteristics of autism. Silberman offers brief biographies of Henry Cavendish, Nikola Tesla, Paul Dirac, and others.
Not every autistic person is a genius but Silberman’s point is that a person who may have social communication difficulties, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, or attention issues have become incredibly valuable to society. These three men are characterized to have all of those symptoms. To suggest autism implies worthlessness is a slippery slope toward abandonment, psychiatric incarceration, concentration camps, medical castration, and threatened individual or collective extermination.
Silberman recounts the history of people who do not fit within social conventions. In some well-known instances societal non-conformists are isolated, sterilized, and/or murdered. They are classified as developmentally or intellectually inferior human beings to be eliminated by society for their aberrant physical abilities or mental faculties. One may think this is a description of Hitler’s Germany but Silberman recounts the story of the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell.
In 1927, no less than a giant of the U. S. Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., writes the majority opinion that says compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled is not a violation of the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment. Common sense, if not history, shows that intellectual ability, by any measure, is a small part of what a human being is or can be. The very idea that there is a criterion that objectively measures intellectual capability is repugnant. Mrs. Buck is involuntarily incarcerated and Mrs. Buck’s daughter is sterilized based on a 1924 Virginia law. The United States reportedly sterilized 60,000 American men and women through the 1970 s (See January 2016 Newsweek report).
Silberman offers a short history of the growth of Eugenics. The idea is that, like a patch of peas, human beings can be bred to eliminate any undesirable characteristics. No civilizations’ hands seem clean. Silberman reminds reader/listeners of the child euthanasia program in Germany and how a German family’s support of Hitler leads to a request that their child be euthanized because of physical deformity. It is estimated that “…5,000 children were victims of this program” (see Wikipedia “Child euthanasia in Nazi Germany).
Silberman reports on the diagnostic discovery of autism by Hans Asperger in the 1940 s. Asperger’s storied career includes association with the Nazi Party that is both reprehensible and insightful. In defining autism, Asperger suggests children with autism are of little social value. This categorization of human beings feeds Hitler’s extermination of handicapped and mentally challenged children and adults. Despite this horrendous consequence, Asperger’s careful examination of autistic behavior provides insight to its symptoms and potential treatments.
Silberman notes Asperger’s prescient understanding of autistic children’s needs. Autistic children need to be listened to and their behaviors analyzed to provide treatment that ameliorates social dysfunction. Though Silberman does not mention the Montessori school of education, Asperger suggests that autistic children should be educated in ways that reinforce their natural interests. Asperger, according to Silberman, had an uncanny knack of understanding what his patients were interested in and followed that lead to integrate them into society.
A part of Silberman’s story is about unscrupulous medical professionals that offer cures for autism that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with financial exploitation of parents that are overwhelmed by their child’s autism. These “doctors” provide bogus treatments like blood chelation to remove impurities that are alleged to cause autism. Silberman suggests there is no cure for autism. There is only the promise of amelioration with the hard work and understanding of parents and caregivers who appreciate the value of human life.
For parents, the hard way involves toleration of symptoms of autism while reinforcing those behaviors that comport with the innate abilities of their children. In the process of careful listening and observation, parents can reinforce socially acceptable behavior and diminish anti-social activity.
Silberman implies autistic human beings exist in every society. Symptoms of hyperactivity, singular focus on particular subjects, poor communication skills, antisocial behavior, lack of interest in mutual achievements or interests, and a lack of empathy are symptoms that exist in most human beings, at some level. Silberman implies it is a hard roll of the dice for parents with autistic children. Their rewards can be monumentally greater but the odds are against autism’s cure. Not every autistic child will be a Cavendish, Tesla, or Dirac but one can choose to believe every child is a gift to be treasured for whatever they become.
Siddhartha Mukherjee draws a Delphic map outlining the boundaries of genetic science and Homo sapiens’ future. Predictions for Homo sapiens’ future are “Delphic” in the sense of being obscure. Ancient predictions of the Oracle of Delphi are noted to have been obscure and subject to interpretation. The predictive quality of a Delphic map of genes involves the morality and ethics of manipulating heritable characteristics of humankind.
Picture this: an average life span of 150 or more years, cure for all known diseases of mind and body, elimination of known genetic causes for debilitating mental and physical deformities. Now, picture this: loss of the ability to procreate, accidental creation of a new disease because of an unintended consequence of a manipulated gene, extinction of the human race caused by artificial enhancement of the genetic code.
Mukherjee notes that the science of genetics is rapidly reaching the point of modifying, and potentially creating, human life that has no known physical or mental handicaps. Mukherjee’s Delphic map is intimately drawn in vignettes about his family’s life, and particularly, a brother’s loss of life from mental dysfunction; i.e. a brother that takes his own life as a result of schizophrenia. Though family vignettes, and stories of children with inherited medical maladies, Mukherjee poignantly clarifies the seriousness of the subject.
The science of genetics is changing medicine and society. Though genes are not the source of everything human life becomes, the science of the subject shows that human beings originated in Africa and grew to populate the world with humans from one original mother. Apocryphally, the Oracle of Delphi is a priestess rather than a priest who foretells the future. Once again, the future is scientifically acknowledged as dependent upon women.
Though human existence is dependent upon both nature and nurture, mitochondrial DNA comes from mothers while sex determination comes from fathers. The significance of that discovery is that converting food to energy comes from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is only inherited from mothers. Without a mitochondrial Eve, there would be no human race (an ironic thought in view of the unequal treatment of women in the world.)
Mukherjee recounts discovery of DNA structure and how identifying the double helix in 1953 (by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Roslind Franklin) leads to mapping the human genome. With a map of the gene, it becomes possible to manufacture drugs that attack medical and psychological maladies at a genetic level. Mukherjee shows how the history of Watson’s and Crick’s discovery defines western culture’s search for knowledge.
During President Clinton’s term of office, competition for gene sequencing leads to a private/public race that exemplifies the difference between entrepreneurial and governmental pursuit of scientific discovery. The objective of the private sector is to win the race by any means necessary. The private sector’s goal is to produce a financial return on investment. In contrast, government focuses on methodology of discovery and accuracy of results, with societal reward as a primary objective. Mukherjee is not overtly critical of the two approaches but implies that corners are cut by the private sector in order to patent discoveries for new medicines that heal but also sometimes kill.
Mukherjee acknowledges genes are only part of what makes humans human. A most striking reveal is about LBGTQ and the genetic component of what makes humans with a particular sexual orientation; i.e. winners of the battle between inheritable XX (female) and XY (male) chromosomes show significant correlation with sexual preference. Mukherjee reflects on the terrible consequence of family members, friends, or professional counselors who insist people who are lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, transgender or questioning can be socially engineered to be heterosexual. The insistence leads to psychological dysfunction and worse, the arbitrary murder of innocents; e.g. most recently, the Orlando, Florida massacre.
Though genetics are a major determinant in what humans’ are-environment plays a role. The role is complicated because one person’s response to outside stimulation can be entirely different from another’s even though they may be near genetic duplicates. Mukherjee sites studies of twins raised in different parts of the country, with different families, having uncannily similar life preferences and mannerisms; presumable because they have the same genetic inheritance.
“The Gene” is an important book. Its importance lies in the dangers inherent in sciences’ ability to tamper with a natural selection process discovered by Charles Darwin in the 19th century. Modern humans have evolved over 200,000 years through a process of adaptive genetic changes defined by Richard Dawkins as immortal genes. The caution one must recognize is that when humans make decisions for other humans, the consequence is inevitably different from what is expected.
Humans may become extinct because of our environmental mistakes; which today are being compounded by our President. However, one is equally wary of becoming extinct because of what society decides about gene modification by humans; for humans.