Friday, May 10, 2013

The Strange History of Altruism: Marilynne Robinson's second Terry Lecture

The Strange History of Altusim 

Of the four fine essays given by Marilynne Robinson in this series, this one is my favorite.   One of the most enlightening passages was the one in which she talks about the famous case of Phineas Gage.  It is a demonstration of how the reductionist method practiced by those who demote the mind to chemicals and neural circuitry produces a facile, two-dimensional cartoon of real human beings, ignoring enormous parts of human life and personality, not on the basis of it being irrelevant but it being inconvenient to their purpose.  Whose imagined Phineas Gage is more convincing?  That of the alleged scientists or the novelist-essayist?

I am indebted to Daniel Dennett for the ant and the lancet fluke, a metaphor that comes to mind often as I read in his genre.  for example, consider poor Phineas Gage, the rail-road worker famous for the accident he suffered and survived more than 150 years ago, an explosion that sent a large iron rod through his skull.  Wilson, Pinker, Gazzaniga, and Antionio Damasio all tell this tale to illustrate the point that aspects of behavior we might think of as character of personality are localized in a specific region of the brain, a fact that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature.

Very little is really known about Phineas Gage.  The lore that surrounds him in parascientific contexts is based on a few anecdotes of uncertain provenance, to the effect that he recovered without significant damage - except to his social skills.  Gazzaniga says,  "He was reported the next day by the local paper to be pain free."  Now, considering that his upper jaw was shattered and he had lost an eye, and that it was 1848, if he was indeed pain free, this should surely suggest damage to the brain.  But, together with his rational and coherent speech minutes after the accident, it is taken to suggest instead that somehow his brain escaped injury, except to those parts of the cerebral cortex that had, till then, kept him from being "'fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.'"  He was twenty-five at the time of the accident.  Did he have dependents?  Did he have hopes?  these questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered.

How oddly stereotyped this anecdote is through any number of tellings.  It is as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge sputtering expletives if our frontal lobes weren't there to restrain him. If any kind of language is human and cultural, it is surely gross profanity, and, after that, irreverence, which must have reverence as a foil; to mean anything at all.  If to Victorians this behavior seemed like this emergence of the inner savage, this is understandable enough.  But from our vantage, the fact that Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered a prolonged infection of the brain, and that "it took much longer to recover his stamina,"  according to Gazzaniga, might account for some of the profanity, which, after all, culture and language have prepared for such occasions.  But the part of Gage's brain where damage was assumed by modern writers to have been localized is believed to be the seat of the emotions.  Therefore  - the logic here is unclear to me - his swearing and reviling the heavens could not mean what it means when the rest of us do it.  Damasio gives extensive attention to Gage,  offering the standard interpretation of the reported change in his character.  He cites at some length the case of a "modern Phineas Gage,"  a patient who, while intellectually undamaged, lost "his ability to choose the most advantageous course of action."  Gage himself behaved "dismally" in his compromised ability "to plan for the future, to conduct himself according to the social rules he previously had learned, and to decide on the course of action that ultimately would be most advantageous to his survival."  The same could certainly be said as well of Captain Ahab.  So perhaps Melville meant to propose that the organ of veneration was located in the leg.  My point being that another proper context for the interpretation of Phineas Gage might be others who have suffered gross insult to the body, especially those who have been disfigured by it.  And in justice to Gage, the touching fact is that he was employed continually until his final illness.  No one considers what might have been the reaction of other people to him when his moving from job to job - his only sin besides cursing and irritability - attracts learned disapprobation.

I trouble the dust of poor Phineas Gage only to make the point that in these recountings of his afflictions there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.  In the absence of an acknowledgment of his subjectivity his reaction to this disaster is treated as indicating damage to the cerebral machinery, not to his prospects, or his faith, or his self-love.  It is as if in telling the tale the writers participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind And there is another point as well.  This anecdote is far too important to these statements about the mind, and about human nature.  It ought not to be the center of any argument about so important a question as the basis of human nature.  It is too remote in time, too phrenological in its initial descriptions, too likely to be contaminated by sensationalism  to have any weight as evidence.  Are we really to believe that Gage was not in pain during those thirteen years until his death"  How did that terrible exit wound in his skull resolve?  No conclusion can be draw, except that in 1848 a man reacted to severe physical trauma more or less as a man living in 2009 be expected to do.  The stereotyped appearance of this anecdote, the particulars it includes and those whose absence it passes over, and the conclusion that is drawn from it are a perfect demonstration of the difference between parascientific thinking and actual science. 

This is only one of the masterpieces of human observation and elucidation contained in Robinson's essays.   All of those reconstructions of Phineas Gage are acts of imagination,  Robinson's no more than Gazzaniga's or Damasio's,  I'll ask again, whose version of him is more credible, more mindful of what must have been left out and in consideration of the believably of  various features of the near-contemporary accounts in which the story comes down to us.  Who is more exacting in that?  What are the motives involved in the reconstructions of the real man.


  1. It is as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge sputtering expletives if our frontal lobes weren't there to restrain him.

    The power of metaphor, and literature; and even of dualism. If we are not body v. soul (because there is no "soul") we are good v. evil, because we struggle to do the good we do, and do not do the evil we do, or whatever it was Paul said. Miserable creatures that we are, who is there to free us from this prison?

    Science, of course! And a five foot iron rod through the skull. But mostly science.

    But it's the metaphor I find most powerful: of course our superego (Freud!) controls our ego and especially our id, and we're all really Jekyll's keeping Hyde in chains until circumstances break those manacles. Who could doubt it? And the oft-repeated anecdote of Mr. Gage's unfortunate event is proof! It's sciencey!

    What an excellent insight. Thank you. Now I have to look up these lectures and read them carefully.

    Like I don't have enough to do....

  2. With your post above about Gage, I re-read this one and noted Stephen Pinker's name; a fellow who I always thought spoke and wrote on things far beyond his remit.

    A small confirmation of my suspicion, then. Not enough to demolish everything Pinker has ever written; but certainly enough to call into question his popular works in linguistics and other matters he thinks himself qualified to pontificate on.

    Why am I not surprised?