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The Bloomsbury Group


The origin of individuals: Gerald Edelman and Darwin
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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And not only the origin of species, but the origin of individuals, and this is where [Gerald] Edelman came in and why I felt that meeting him and really absorbing his ideas must’ve been... was like... was as it might have been, reading The Origin and meeting Darwin in 1859. And, of course, Edelman’s book was called Neural Darwinism. And... and there’s a whole vast theory with much experimental and clinical support about how individuals are formed in a Darwinian way. Of course, there are all sorts of travesties of Darwinism, social Darwinism and so forth which Darwin was deeply embarrassed by in his lifetime. When Karl Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, Darwin with great courtesy but... but extreme firmness said 'No, no thank you'. I also love to read of Darwin’s life and especially recently in 2009, there was a double anniversary, this was the bicentenary of his death and the sesquicentenary of The Origin. So there’s a lovely sentence at the end of The Origin when... The Origin itself is so tightly organised. Sometimes Darwin says it’s... it's one long argument, really an unanswerable argument, because of the implacable richness of data and evidence behind it. But it also has some very beautiful lyrical passages and at the end he... he speaks of the planets and the stars and the inorganic world in its orbits and its cycles, and of life as... as assuming ever, ever new forms and entering ever, ever new niches in the world and the grandeur of this vision, and for me a mystical, an almost mystical feeling of at-oneness in the world. Really, it takes a sort of, Darwinian rather than a supernaturalist perspective. I... I feel deeply at peace with the Darwinian notion of the world. And it’s... and if it humbles one, one should be humbled.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: The Origin of the Species, Neural Darwinism, Das Kapital, Gerald Edelman, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012