With one best seller (Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sensuality Shaped Human Evolution) behind him, Dr. Leonard Shlain is eager to talk about what he’s writing now. “The title is Leonardo’s Brain: The Left and Right Roots of Creativity,” he says. “It deals with where we are going as a species, and Leonardo da Vinci is a fascinating character to use as a template because the more I read about him, the more I’m utterly amazed at how much he accomplished.” Shlain’s achievements are also impressive. Born in Detroit in 1937, he graduated from high school at 16, from college at 19, and from medical school by the time he was 23. “At first, I wanted to be a psychiatrist,” he says. “I’ve always been intrigued by how the mind works.” Instead, he started a surgical residency at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and retired 50 years later as associate professor of surgery at UCSF and as chair of laparoscopic surgery at California Pacific Medical Center. Shlain was actually a nationally recognized pioneer of the laparoscopy procedure itself, which employs a tiny inserted telescope to perform many kinds of surgical explorations and repairs. In the 1980s, he developed several patents on microscopic medical devices.
As he scaled back his medical involvements, his desire to write grew. In 1991 came his first published book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, an exploration of how art has presaged physics over the centuries. Eight years later he wrote The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, summarized by one reviewer as “how literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the recent history of the West.”
“And in 2004, I hit my ‘home run,’” Shlain jokingly says, referring to Sex, Time and Power, which details how differences between men and women enabled humans to evolve beyond all other mammals.
Shlain considers his family his greatest accomplishment and is clearly proud of their achievements. He has been married to Ina Gyemant, a retired Superior Court judge, for 11 years and is a father of five (three biological, two stepchildren). Gyemant was recently recognized by the American Institute for Public Service for her work with at-risk teenagers. “Daughter Tiffany lives in Mill Valley and is an award-winning filmmaker who created the Webbies, those annual prizes for outstanding websites,” Shlain says. Son Jordan, who lives in San Anselmo, started the Doctors On Call service, whose physicians make house calls. Eldest daughter Kimberly, married to the actor/director Albert Brooks, is a mother of two, an accomplished writer and artist, and the founder of the new-media design firm lightray.com. Stepdaughter Anne, a lawyer, recently moved to Brussels, where her husband is conducting clinical trials of a revolutionary new heart device; and stepson Rob has been living in Costa Rica while writing a book on Latin American music.
Shlain, 71, came to Marin 42 years ago and his admiration for the county has never waned. “After all these years, I’m still love with the place,” he says. “I’m convinced this is the best place in the world to be and I’m never leaving.” Laughing, he explains his plan to make that literally the case: “It’s written into my will that my ashes will be placed inside my waterbed. Seriously, the kids can add some chlorine occasionally—but I’m staying right here.”
Regarding life and death, many believe mankind is currently destroying itself. Do you agree? If so, is there hope? One reason I’m writing about Leonardo is I want to understand if his creativity was a matter of degree—or, as with few humans, something else. Were his left and right brain equally balanced, which is something the rest of us could aspire to bring about? I’m fascinated by the left brain/right brain dichotomy. Basically, the left hemisphere is for language and linear reasoning; the right side is for holistic reasoning, sensuality, et cetera.
No other mammals have this arrangement—not even chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest relatives. It worked for us when we were on the Serengeti—we’re not the largest, strongest or the fastest, yet we somehow prospered.
So how did we pull this off? We accomplished this because we “split” our brains. And now, have our virtues become vices? Over centuries, we’ve become the planet’s most dangerous predator—a trait that currently seems to be destroying us. Also, for eons, evolution was controlled by mutations and genes and mankind only spoke and listened. Then we developed languages and writing and reading skills, which allowed us to learn about many things without even seeing them in their natural state. This allowed us to objectify nature, to think we’re not part of nature. Thus we’ve evolved to think we could use it up, and destroy it, primarily because we don’t feel we’re part of nature. But we are part of it.
And now we’re in the midst of this massive destruction of resources and, possessing a capacity to be very cruel, we are destroying each other. The problem is our desire for action is in the brain’s left hemisphere and most emotions are right-brain traits. Our brains are out of balance; we’ve become markedly left brained. Our only hope is that we can reconfigure our brains to a more central position, one where we see nature as part of us and we stop being so warlike.
How do we reconfigure our brains? Humans are reconfiguring their brains through technology. After tools, the first technology we had was writing, which is dramatically different from speaking. That was 5,000 years ago and it took several centuries for humans to master the skills so that many could read and write. People are programmed to speak, but not read and write—which has to be taught. And over those centuries, all that reading and writing transformed us as a species. It led to what I call the text-based society. Then, fairly recently, came the invention of photography; next were motion pictures, with everyone gathering in front of one screen; then television, for which each person had his/her own screen. Now think about all the different handheld devices and technological advances that allow us to get information from images on screens rather than from language. And whereas languages are a function of the left brain, images are perceived by the right brain. As a result, our culture is shifting from the left hemisphere to our right because of our technologies. That shift is very subtle and, from everything I can see, will continue and intensify far into the future. Given time, it could lead to a balancing of the hemispheres of our brains.
So where is mankind headed? I’m optimistic. I think we’re in a state of profound transition. If you made a graph of creativity it would go like this: Four and a half million years ago, hominids, the precursors of humans, appeared; the Stone Age, when some tools were made, was two and a half million years ago and we varied our tools very little for a million years; then Homo erectus appeared and we made slightly better tools; 800,000 years later Homo sapiens appeared and we morphed from a two-pound brain to a three-pound brain. Although we made slightly better tools at the onset, it was 40,000 years ago that humans first put art on cave walls and consistently buried their dead; 30,000 years ago the fishhook and sewing needle were invented; 15,000 years ago came the bow and arrow; 8,000 years ago agriculture was developed; and 5,000 years ago we first started reading and writing. Just 200 years ago the industrial revolution began and a mere 50 years ago the technological revolution started.
So we’re on a graph that’s making a sharp upward curve that is unsustainable. Therefore, one of two things is going to happen: the graph collapses and we become extinct, or we go through a phase change and become something totally different. I think we will become something unrecognizable from what we are now, but I don’t think we’ll change our form. But no one can predict where humankind is headed. Right now we are on a rocket ship and we don’t know our destination. This thing has blasted off and you can condemn these changes—or you can ask what’s going on here.
Getting back to human evolution, what has happened with the concept of race? The concept of race disappeared with the fairly recent discovery of genetics. No one talks scientifically about race anymore because, thanks to genetics, we now know we’re not different. The reason we know we began as a species 150,000 years ago is that it can be traced back on molecular clocks, and we discover we all came from one individual woman, Mitochondrial Eve; the variation in genetic makeup between one individual and the next in the human species is less than one tenth of 1 percent. So a tall, thin Masai warrior in Africa varies from a blue-eyed blonde in Latvia by less than one tenth of 1 percent. When you look at that you wonder how much of race is cultural as opposed to genetics; that there’s so little variation in the genome has sort of destroyed the notion of race.
Are we becoming one race? It certainly looks that way: consider one of our current presidential candidates. Sixty years ago, if a black man had sex with a white woman he’d be lynched. Now we have a presidential candidate that’s the product of such a union. Look how far we’ve come in such a short time. Again, who can predict what the future holds? Who can tell?
For example, think about the year 1390 when the Hundred Years’ War was under way and the bubonic plague had killed hundreds of thousands of people. Plus, there was famine; it was the very worst of times—and if Mr. Gallup was conducting a poll regarding thoughts about the future, who would’ve said that the Renaissance was about to begin? The future can’t be predicted.
What is the evolutionary impact of artificial body parts and performance-enhancing drugs and steroids? Well, that’s our brave new world. Frankly, I think it’s been a long time coming. Back in medical school, I thought the major revolution in the human species would be a pharmacological one. That we’d take a pill and think clearer, be nicer, and so on. But it didn’t happen.
Now, 38 years later, when I ask, “What medications are you taking?” I can’t believe the answers. Patients are taking Prozac, Paxil, all kinds of mood elevators. But the real revolution is the replacement of body parts with silicon transisttors. People now come in with morphine pumps, diabetes pumps and pacemakers. Evolution used to be controlled by mutations in genes; now it’s impacted by advances in technology. Humans are becoming cyborgs.
As for drugs as a problem, I believe that its existence is a result of television. Over recent decades, the world has become divided into the economic and social haves and have-nots. Then the have-nots received television and said, “I want to live like they do, meaning ‘the haves.” So they either brought themselves up by their bootstraps—or they altered their consciousness with drugs. And, by the way, conscious altering is not necessarily negative. Was Timothy Leary on to something when advocating taking LSD in controlled environments? Absolutely. It was amazing the way the government became so terrified of people accessing their altered states of consciousness. After all, there are altered states and they’re not all drug induced. There are autistic children who can’t tie their shoelaces, yet at age 5 they can draw horses galloping with the fineness of a Leonardo. Now where did that come from? They didn’t learn it. You have chess masters that can play 15 games of chess blindfolded, at the same time, and win them all. And when they’re asked how they did it, they’ll say, “I envisioned the board and.…”
In other words, they can’t explain it. No one can. They’re now giving LSD to people who are dying in order to enhance their final days. What I find intriguing is every day we take pills that are 250 or 500 milligrams. Meanwhile, LSD comes in micrograms, or one thousandth of a milligram. Think about it—something that is 25 micrograms, which is barely anything, could have a physiological effect as profound as LSD does. You’ve got to ask yourself what’s that all about?
Another question I ask in my book, unrelated to drugs of any kind, is this: Did Leonardo have a different kind of consciousness? Or did he reach a level where he was not thinking the way we do? There are three vectors of space—height, length and depth—and there are three dimensions of time: past, present and future. And that’s how we live our lives, organize our reality. In the last century Einstein and the physicists have told us that is an illusion.There is actually another, higher dimension called spacetime. And my question is what is in it? I want to know about these things.