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National Humanities Center hosts "What makes us human?" conference 

It takes more than opposable thumbs

click to enlarge Oliver Sacks - PHOTO COURTESY OF ELENA SEIBERT
  • Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert
  • Oliver Sacks

Adults wishing to relive the college experience for less than the cost of grad school can buy CDs of the Great Courses series from The Teaching Company or watch videos of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks online. Last week brought the chance to see some of the leading lights of academia live, in person, as the National Humanities Center opened its doors to the public for three stimulating days of lectures, panel discussions and debates on the theme "What makes us human?"

The Center sits snugly in a pocket of woods amid the biotech firms and R&D labs of Research Triangle Park. The central structure is a bright, airy, truncated pyramid with enormous glass walls that let in loads of sunlight. Forty scholars at a time cloister here for one-year fellowships; the Center promotes academic cross-fertilization by mixing all the humanities together in one big bucket, so that, for instance, the fellow whose project is The Banjo: A Cultural History can lunch with the author of Bathing Culture in the Ancient Greek World.

At the conference, most events were held during working hours, which skewed the audience to the ranks of the retired: Regarding the lectures, a board member emerita of a certain age groused, "Make sure you write that everything was in PowerPoint." (Done! And I will confess to sympathy with this plaint, as my college years also unfolded in the pre-PowerPoint dark ages of the early '90s.)

On Thursday, British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks delivered the keynote address, "Creativity and the Brain" at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Known for his accounts of people with peculiar neurological disorders, he discussed, among many other subjects, the fascinating case of Steven Wiltshire, an autistic man who can produce highly detailed and accurate drawings of a city after only a brief helicopter ride above it.

Sacks' talk the next morning at NHC was titled "On Deviation From the Human Mean." On the question of society's and the medical establishment's stigmatization of people who differ from the norm, he said, "A whole new vocabulary has come in, which sort of turns the tables on pathologizing; so there are autistic people, who are tired of being called 'pathological,' who refer to everyone else, the non-autistic, as 'neurotypical.'"

Another heavy hitter of academe, K. Anthony Appiah, also spoke Friday morning. He's lately made a name for himself in the popular press as one of the foremost dissectors of "trolleyology," which involves hypothetical scenarios of runaway trolleys squashing various hapless victims (the extensive trolley literature "makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes," according to his book Experiments in Ethics).

The highlight of the day was a lively debate between Raymond Tallis, from the University of Manchester, and Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford. Appearing on video, separated by eight time zones, they discussed the similarities and differences between humans and other animals.

Tallis spoke with withering disdain for the overreaching claims of reductive "biologism" and "Darwinitis," which "confuse our biological roots with our cultural leaves." Arguing for the uniqueness of humankind with a characteristically British reactionary sarcasm, he attacked physical explanations of consciousness without proposing any real alternative.

Sapolsky's talk, by contrast, was a tour de force of persuasive power, as he approached the question from both sides. Like Barack Obama at a presidential debate, he ceded his opponent's best points and went beyond them. Using colorful examples from animal behavior research, he showed how we are like and unlike other animals, making "novel use of old systems that are familiar to every other species out there."

A hearty back-and-forth ensued in the Q&A, to the delight of the audience. As time ran out, Tallis offered, "Same time, same place, next year?" Let's hope the directors of the NHC make the intellectually curious of the Triangle a similar offer.

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