Carl Sagan | Critical Essay by Cynthia Thomiszer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Carl Sagan.
This section contains 3,186 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Cynthia Thomiszer

SOURCE: "Brain Theory and Literary Criticism: Sagan on Art," in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XI, September, 1982, pp. 87-95.

In the following essay, Thomiszer considers Sagan's application of scientific discovery to explain the origin and significance of art in The Dragons of Eden. According to Thomiszer, "to confuse aesthetics with empiricism, as Sagan does, is to further confuse an already clouded issue."

Science and art, so long perceived as mighty opposites, are enjoying a new recognition of kinship. The "two cultures," a model based on the disparate results of science and art, has been discarded. In its place has arisen a unified approach to both activities that focuses on their shared point of departure: both art and science represent man's attempt to know himself and his world. That the pursuit and expression of knowledge is the basis of science and art is hardly a new idea. However, what has changed in the last few years is our understanding of the processes which science and art employ to establish and express their particular truths. According to the traditional argument, science taught through repeatable experiment, art through reconstructed experience. These processes were seen as complementary, but not identical, and their results were said to be equally valuable, though in a technological society, science always seemed to be a little "more equal."

In these post-Einsteinian days of relativity and circularity, the old arguments for "separate but equal" are dying out. Though science and art may have separate fields to explore, and not necessarily even that, there is a growing recognition that both use the same tool: the brain. Further, there is an increasing awareness that the brain works by making models, both scientific and artistic, by which we comprehend reality. A scientific model, such as the Newtonian world machine, shares with the humblest lyric poem a uniquely human exercise in metaphor: our brain translates our knowledge into symbols, ranks and orders it within a recognizable model, or, in the case of genius, creates a new model. In her probing essay "Is Art All There Is?," Annie Dillard names this process the "creating of contexts"; Thomas Kuhn speaks of "models," Northrop Frye of "metaphors," but all three are describing the essential activity of the brain, whether that brain is creating physics or the Prince of Elsinore. There is only one culture, and that culture is the one generated by the human brain.

All of this good fellow feeling between science and art grew out of epistemological questions that began with Descartes. Inevitably the problems of knowing would force us to the source of knowledge itself, the brain. And thus, the brain is becoming the central icon in contemporary man's study of himself, replacing the Medieval interest in the soul and the Renaissance attention to the self. We think, therefore we are. But the only way to study how we think is to use the source of our thinking, the brain, and there is nowhere to stand in order to see our brain objectively. Despite this epistemological circularity, scientists are deducing what they can about the way our brain works. Can their research tell us anything about art? And since this research is written almost exclusively by scientists, does it reflect any bias against art, a vestige of the "separate, but not so equal" doctrine of the past? These are the questions I will briefly pursue.

One place to begin our study is to look at the gross physical configuration of the brain and speculate on its mechanisms. Of course, this approach forces a reification between brain and mind and between mind and idea, but it is precisely this blend of fact and fancy that Carl Sagan offers in The Dragons of Eden. Though there are many books with a more scholarly focus, Sagan is an enormously successful popularizer of scientific research—Dragons was a best seller for many months—and thus, his book has been most influential on the general public's conception of the human brain. More to the point, he tells us much, both directly and indirectly, about the place of art in brain research.

The first thing a humanist would probably note in reading Dragons of Eden is the ease with which Sagan moves between science and art. For example, the scientific research he cites in the opening chapters offers a physical basis for many familiar and ancient literary truths, including the myths of Cassandra, Phaedrus, and Prometheus. More to the point, the various myths provide a vehicle for expressing scientific fact. Thus, science is used to confirm art and art is used to express science as if Sagan perceives no incompatibility between the methods or products of the two.

If, in Sagan's book, scientific research enjoys "borrowed interest" from literary myth, the book itself plunders freely from the world of art. The Dragons of Eden supports Morris Kline's assertion that "science is rationalized fiction." Part of this fictitious effect derives from Sagan's style, which incorporates metaphors, irony, puns, and well-chosen allusions. But the artifice of the book runs deeper. The information about the evolution of the brain is selected and arranged for maximum effect, taking on the configurations of a plot. There is even a flashback "dream sequence." The central character is, of course, the brain, whose random evolutionary fortunes produce a hero at once picaresque and epic. But the brain is not alone. Also peopling its little world is an array of secondary characters, among them scientists and a collection of so-called lesser animals, both mythical and real. Sagan himself acts as a semi-omniscient narrator who contemplates his character but cannot penetrate its ultimate mystery.

W. P. Ker has defined the plot of an epic as "the defense of a small place against odds," in which the "small place" represents some civilized outpost or relatively advanced hero. The history of the brain subscribes to this formula, for it is the story of a small place which grew to control the world against incredible natural odds. Our brain evolved through accretion, new areas simply emerging over the old without replacing them. Therefore, the "deep and ancient parts" of our pre-mammalian heritage continue to function even today. Our first brain, the R-complex, is reptilian; we are, as Sagan's title suggests, the dragons of Eden. The second stage to emerge (the limbic system) parallels the structure of birds and non-primate mammals (a fact that gives new resonance to the insult "birdbrain"). The final area to evolve was the neocortex or primate brain. Thus, it is not "a heavy bear" that goes with us, but a chimp, a lizard, and a sparrow. The "animal within," long noted by artists and observers of human behavior, is more like a zoo.

Our epic hero is the neocortex with its metaphorical geography, the two "hemispheres" and four major lobes. This civilized and civilizing brain alienates us from non-primates, producing those mental activities we suspect are peculiarly "human": language, imagination, rational analysis. As Odysseus placed certain limits on the witch Circe in order to defend himself, the neocortex dominates but does not destroy the other brains within us. They continue their own functions, the R-complex busying itself with matters of "hierarchy, ritual, and aggression" while the gentler limbic system provides strong emotions, altruism, and religion. Physically, man internalizes his own psychomachia, incorporating both the good and bad angels in his own brain.

Although the brain's accommodation of these competing parts is, in many ways, a model of cooperation, Sagan does suggest that the various brains are sometimes uneasy "headfellows." The neocortex consistently wins, as heroes must, through superior resources and intellect. However, the more primitive brains make their own compelling demands, including a demand for art. Art serves, it seems, as a clarifying experience against genuine internal confusion and struggle.

In other words, Sagan's model of and speculations on the brain do not present an alien figure. Rather, our brain subscribes to familiar models created by and perpetuated in literature and art. Previously the interchange between science and literature has been approached as if it were a one-sided exchange: Newton's impact on Pope, Darwin's influence on Dickens, Einstein's effect on the structure of the modern novel. In Sagan's book, the balance is righted somewhat. Now we see the impact of literature on science: Art provides a model to explain scientific findings. One might even note that art and culture seem to predispose a scientist to see phenomena in a certain way—an attack on scientific "objectivity" which, while hardly original, deserves to be remembered periodically. Sagan gracefully weaves together literary myth and scientific research, establishing in the process a hard scientific reason for careful study of myth and art. For Sagan at least, scientific and literary models seem to have merged.

Sagan's ideas about art are not always given so indirectly. In the book he cites two theories about the physical origin of art: art originates in the genetic memory, and art originates in the brain itself, especially the R-complex and the right hemisphere.

Sagan's speculation that some art arises from a biological memory reposited in the genetic code produces a theory of art similar (at least in results) to Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. The only biological memory Sagan discusses at length is the speculation that our DNA holds within it some memory of a time when mammals and reptiles fought a guerilla war for control of the earth, warmblooded mammals waking at night to forage for reptile eggs, coldblooded reptiles rising at day to stalk sleeping mammals. Such a memory may explain the story of the garden of Eden and the nearly universal human antipathy for snakes, as well as the human habit of eating eggs for breakfast. All readers of western literature can cite examples of anti-reptile bias in our written culture. Shakespeare, for example, reserves his reptile imagery for his most treacherous villains, who are variously described as lizards and snakes, and, ironically, for his tragic protagonists. Othello "had rather be a toad" than a cuckold; Lear knows himself well enough to warn Kent "Come not between the dragon and his wrath."

Even whole Shakespearean plays seem constructed around a mammal-reptile battle. Anthony and Cleopatra centers on three characters who embody the characteristics Sagan outlines. Octavius, a coldblooded and rigidly hierarchical reptile, is a daytime character, markedly uneasy in his one nighttime scene when he observes the drunken celebration of the spontaneous, warmblooded mammals. Antony leads the mammals; a creature of the night, he is a lover, poet, dreamer, and drinker, comfortable with his peers and subordinates. Cleopatra is the serpent of the Nile, who recognizes her affinity with the reptiles in her dying description of the asp that kills her: "Dost thou not see my baby at my breast That sucks the nurse asleep?" But Cleopatra is ambivalent. Her relationship with Antony shows a capacity for love, and Sagan tells us that mammals invented that particular emotion. When Enobarbus speaks of Antony as a "bellows," he describes quite accurately Antony's warmblooded effect on Cleopatra.

Sagan's theory of a genetically-based origin for art raises other issues as well. If we have a biologically-induced perception of the reptile as "the enemy," and yet have the working vestigial brain of a reptile within us, is all our aggression ultimately self-directed? Are we fighting the beast without or the animal within? Again Shakespeare's tragic heroes come to mind. Inevitably, Shakespeare's heroes recognize some affinity between themselves and the enemy they sought to destroy. Lear sees Goneril as "a disease within my flesh which I must needs call mine." The complex interchange between Othello and Iago provides a more developed example of the same bonding. Even Prospero offers an ambiguous recognition of Caliban: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." Shakespeare's protagonists do follow the circular pattern Sagan's theory would suggest, each pursuing an enemy only to discover that he pursues a darkness within his own soul.

After noting these points of similarity between Sagan's model and Shakespeare's, what conclusions can we draw? Probably not many. Given sufficiently large categories, it takes no special ingenuity to make everything fit or to see what has been left out in the process. Does Shakespeare resort to reptile imagery because it is in his DNA or because it is a traditional image he inherited from Genesis, or both? For that matter, does Sagan's theory on reptiles reflect a bias in his own education which, presumably, included readings in Genesis and Shakespeare? Obviously these questions strike at the foundation of scientific observation and expression. Thus, I note similarities with interest, but not conviction.

Genes, however, are not the only source of art that Sagan postulates. As the Greeks had two gods for art, so too the brain itself has two possible generators of art. The first of these is the R-complex, whose "elementary needs" force us to face our personal dragons in a therapeutic process similar to catharsis. From this source derives our ritualistic and hierarchical art, the art the Greeks called Apollonian.

The second source of art is the right hemisphere of the neocortex, the place of intuition, sexuality, dreams, and creativity itself, a veritable cornucopia of Dionysian delight. Sagan devotes most of his discussion to dreams, which serve, he suggests, as entertainment and problem solvers. There is a marked similarity between the function of dreams, then, and the traditional function of art: to teach and to delight. Certainly the link between art and dreams is a literary commonplace extending from the medieval dream vision to Strindberg's A Dream Play. With Sagan's theory in hand, we can offer a scientific theory about why this link exists.

Further, the recognition of the right hemisphere as the source of creativity provides a particular physical point at which we may link science and art. Physics is created in the right hemisphere as surely as Hamlet, a point eloquently argued some years ago by Jacob Bronowski and supported by Sagan himself. Not only do art and science share a physical point of origin, but they undergo a similar process of "logical editing" in the left hemisphere to achieve the form, language, and line of reasoning that make them comprehensible. No longer separate but equal, science and art are now united by the confirmation of science itself.

Or are they? Though Sagan himself argues for this material unity, he suffers from a priori assumptions that reflect a clear bias toward science as a "higher" work of the brain than art. Since brain research is largely written by scientists, and since their writings have a decided impact on the way we view ourselves and our world, I fear we must be alert for such a bias or succumb to a new version, this one "scientifically based," of separate and unequal. For example, though Sagan calls repeatedly for a fruitful merger of both hemispheres, he shares with most of western culture a decided bias towards the work of the left hemisphere—the work of logic and analysis. Since this is such a common bias, Sagan's expression of it becomes a problem only when he begins to associate science almost exclusively with the left hemisphere and art with the right. It is the American way for people to rise above their origins, but one may justly question the practice when engaged in by models of reality. Science and art begin in the same right hemisphere and move through the same left hemisphere "translator and editor." But Sagan appears to underestimate the formal properties of art: its discipline, structure, revision, logical development, and comprehensibility. In other words, the impact of the left hemisphere on art is largely ignored, as if art were truly created in a "fine frenzy rolling" rather than heavily edited in tranquility.

Sagan also charges that art is not susceptible to a test of validity:

I know of no significant advance in science that did not require major inputs from both cerebral hemispheres. This is not true for art, where apparently there are no experiments by which capable, dedicated, and unbiased observers can determine to their mutual satisfaction which works are great.

Sagan's conclusions not only contradict his earlier statements, but also show a rather selective memory of history. The history of science is fraught with examples of unrecognized greatness, unrecognized, we should note, by other scientists as well as politicians and priests. The ease with which a scientific theory is accepted or rejected today comes largely from the test applied to it: a scientifically constructed model of truth called empiricism. When the model for truth was constructed by theologians and not scientists, scientific theory did not fare so well. However, now that we have a firmly entrenched scientific test for truth, why does art so stubbornly resist its criteria? Why are there "no experiments by which … observers can determine … which works are great"?

First, Sagan has shifted his terms on us: "great" is now substituted for "true." If, in fact, all we asked of art was "truth," we could presumably apply the criteria of verisimilitude to any work. But we demand of art not only truth, but beauty and moral "rightness." When such tests have been applied to science, science itself has had trouble receiving a passing grade. Carlyle, for example, found Darwin's theory not false, but ugly, leading him to conclude that, though the theory might well be correct, still "the less said of it, the better." And today's renewed debate on evolution finds Darwin's theories under attack for lacking moral rightness as well as conflicting with Biblical models of truth. When we ask our science to be beautiful or right as well as true, we find few theories that are unanimously considered "great." But we ask only that our science be true within a narrowly defined sense of that word. In other words, we demand more of art than we do of science, and our tests for art are both more complex and less precise. Empiricism is a true/false test, easy to pass or fail; aesthetics is an essay exam, harder to complete and harder to grade. But to confuse aesthetics with empiricism, as Sagan does, is to further confuse an already clouded issue.

Judging from our journals and conferences, humanists have shown great and justified interest in brain research. This is not surprising since, to some degree, we teach applied brain theory every time we discuss a writer who is interested in the way men create and solve their problems. (And what writer is not, finally, dealing with that issue?) However, at the moment, scientific theory about the brain is neither subtle nor complex enough to make the aesthetic discriminations we demand of literary criticism. Brain theory cannot tell us how Oedipus knew the answer to the Sphinx' riddle and yet failed to know himself, nor why Hamlet can only think in circles. It is as far as we can go for the moment to note, to ourselves and to our students, that science seems to be confirming models of reality established by artists long ago. These points of conjunction between art and science may ultimately prove to be a recognition of identical twinship or, if a persistent anti-art bias continues to infiltrate the argument, brain research may simply provoke a new version of the old sibling rivalry.

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This section contains 3,186 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Stephen Jay Gould
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