Friday, July 18, 2014

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind

Ben Shephard's latest book is as masterly competent as his previous ones (on medical psychiatry in the twentieth century, on the aftermath of the relief of Belsen and on the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe after the end of the Second World War).

It traces the intellectual journeys of four Englishmen at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in their search for a deeper understanding of the human mind, its relation to the brain, its evolution and what makes for its healthy, adapted functioning. It was a journey that took W.H. Rivers, Grafton Elliott Smith, Charles Myers and William McDoughal - through multiple disciplines and diverse experiences - and, like his previous books, Shephard gives both a vivid account of how learning actually takes place and of the personalities, major and minor, involved.

Learning is never linear. If political history is written, as Churchill wrote, by the winners, this is equally true of the history of science written as a Whiggish progress from triumphant discovery to triumphant discovery usually achieved by a solitary hero (the occasional heroines, as with the discovery of DNA, tend to get airbrushed out). Shephard shows brilliantly that this is not so - science advances, if it does, hesitantly, messily and with much blundering into blind alleys and laying of false trails. Though these too are seen to both inevitable and, over time, potentially productive. Nor is science free of overweening egos convinced of the rightness of their theory in search of evidence to 'prove' it and blind to evidence that does not. Nor, on the other hand, from the cementing of key relationships, and friendships, that too serve to delineate where people will look and how they will look and how ideas will build one upon another.

Nor is it free of being conditioned by the wider society in which it sits. All four of our scientists were men of their age, and shared assumptions about the importance of race and the superiority of theirs. It deeply conditioned their research - especially in anthropology - and led more than one into eugenic speculation about improvement of the race(s) that, too their credit, they were teased away from partly because their research showed no evidence of inherent difference and later because the eugenic cause was taken up by powers, most notably Hitler, that revolted their inherent liberalism (and, in the case of Myers, his Jewishness).

Shephard, also, shows how that though at one time all of them were lauded by their peers for their contributions to science, it is difficult now to exactly delineate what that was. Their contributions were diffuse and were disassembled and radically reassembled by those that came after them (as they had no followers as such). It was as much about who they influenced as to the what - many scientists owed them a debt of encouragement rather than of content.

In a compelling aside on McDougall, it is apparent that part of this diffuseness was their fundamental empiricism (with the exception of Elliott Smith) and their unwillingness to promote overarching theories (as too simplifying). Bolder souls had more immediate success - Watson and behaviourism for example or Freud.

Thus, Rivers played a key role in fostering the development of psychoanalysis in the United Kingdom yet was critical of Freud and stayed outside the (admittedly) very narrow fold. Elliott Smith's diffusionist theory of the origins of civilization - all from Egypt spread by Phoenicians - dissolved with carbon dating - though the core intuition proved more durable - populations were diffused from an African core, in several waves, and so cultural exchange was a real feature of the development of apparently diverse cultures. And so on...

Perhaps their greatest collective contribution was building a body of knowledge around the care and treatment of what Myers unfortunately called, coining the phrase for the first time, 'shell shock' - a body of knowledge forged in the bitter conflict of WW1 and rediscovered and reshaped in World War 2 and finally coalescing in the Vietnam War. Here again they were not themselves the originators - much work had been done by French psychiatrists - but they codified, shaped and handed on in a way that was, eventually, potentially deeply helpful.

The book is a beautiful slice of cultural and scientific history, a penetrating view of how science is done and how it is influenced by its wider society; and, a compelling biographical portrait of four differently appealing men in all their messiness as human beings.

One slighting error, however, deserves a comment -in a passing remark at the end of a chapter, trying to capture the inherent racism of the age, Shephard says, to the effect, that after all it was the age of Rider Haggard. This is unfortunate, not because Rider Haggard did not share his ages racial presumption but he was one of the first authors to imaginatively contradict it (whatever his opinions might be) by creating characters from other races, in his case usually Africans, who were precisely that 'characters' in their own right seen beyond any superficial stereotyping. (Of his friend, Kipling, one could say the same). We are, thank God, not always of our own opinions, and imagination can find its way to places well before cultures catch up (if they do).

No comments:

Post a Comment

The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandf...