Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Epistles from everywhere

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

I have read Daniel Keyes' moving, wonderful story "Flowers for Algernon" (basis of the film Charly) several times. It and Howard Fast's "The Trap" form the centerpiece of Space Mail, a 1980 publication edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph Olander. Space Mail is the second half of the omnibus volume Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Treasury, published in 2006. The "good doctor" has been dead a mere fifteen years, so his name still draws the gold.

I didn't re-read "Flowers" this time. I know it almost by heart. To a careful reader, it poses the question, "If you could be a genius for a year, but had to revert at the end, would it be worth it?" As someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia, its point is a bit too pointed for me these days. I expect five to seven years more of sanity, but the days of raw genius that I've enjoyed are already behind me.

I read "The Trap" with more than usual care. Of the twenty stories in Space Mail, all of them in letter/memo/diary format, "The Trap" strikes most accurately at the heart of the question every story asks at some level: What makes us human?

On the face of it, I could complain at length of the profound misunderstanding of evolutionary processes exhibited therein, and in nearly all "developing superman" stories. Quite frankly, it took 50,000 to 100,000 years for an "anatomically modern but behaviorally archaic" Homo species to develop into Homo sapeins sapiens. There is little likelihood that the development of Homo successor will be any quicker.

Indeed, such development may be delayed because humans now altruistically keep alive, and almost force into reproduction, many, many who would formerly have been weeded out of the gene pool via natural selection. Just a century ago, in spite of the discovery of ether—so more patients could survive the agonies of surgery—a minority of those born survived to reproduce. Not all who "come of age" reproduce. The last living descendant of Abe Lincoln died in 1985. Though the Lincolns had four children, it was not enough to ensure perpetuity.

But what do we have here? What if we do gather a few dozen infants with a one-in-a-million level of intelligence (however measured) and raise them in a guarded enclave. The title "The Trap" indicates the author's concern: should they develop into a new, post-human species, the ancestor species would know precisely where they are. The story does end, inconclusively, with a Secretary of Defense claiming that to kill them all is really "the only way."

But could today's genius children be raised as post-humans? We don't do a good job of raising them as humans. The late Grady Towers (d. 2000) wrote a number of essays on the subject, including "Strangers", which I read in 1985. It opened my eyes to the life I'd been living. In "Strangers" he re-evaluated the data reported by Lewis M. Terman on the development of children with IQs of 140 and greater. Grady questioned Terman's conclusion that higher IQ almost automatically led to greater success.

Grady performed analyses Terman either neglected or did now know, to show that the difficulties many higher-IQ people experienced were best correlated with the kind of society to which they were exposed while growing up. Thus, one would expect a child with an IQ of 150 to be the only such child in a village of 1,000 persons, and in a rural city of 50,000, perhaps twenty peers to such a child might exist, if they could be located.

In the usual case, such a child grows up socially isolated, with at most a sibling of similar ability (such was my case). Social development is delayed or stalled, and it takes terrific struggles to achieve success in a world where one doesn't really fit. I remember deliberately studying human behavior so I could at least emulate what seemed so natural to others. Grady Towers was told, again and again by the beleagured brilliant, that they always felt like strangers. Thus the title of his essay. A later essay titled "The Outsiders" probed the mental pathologies of the most isolated geniuses, but I've read only a summary and cannot comment.

Those with IQs greater than 160 are quite rare, only one per 35,000. If one is lucky enough to grow up in a highly able family (such as a friend of mine, who claims of his immediate relatives, only one "black sheep" uncle has not achieved a PhD), the child's social skills are much greater, and lifelong success is much less of a struggle. Of the five people I know whose IQs are greater than 180, only one is not a total jerk.

"The Trap" bases its premise on accounts of "wolf children", lost children seemingly raised by animals, and later "returned to civilization". None gained the power of speech. These become a metaphor for the highly intelligent, perhaps post-human children, raised by "ordinary" humans. They are limited to the environment in which they grow up. Whether this is what Fast believes, the protagonist of the story certainly makes a wrenchingly passionate case.

Grady Towers' analysis shows that half of people with IQ 170 and greater have psychological problems requiring therapy. My own observation is that nearly all people with such "skyscraper" IQs achieve their greatest work during surges of high energy; their creativity seems to require hypomania or mania. I know mine does.

Well, that's quite a riff on just one story. But that's why I read 'em! I enjoyed this half of the omnibus volume more than the first half...but I enjoyed that quite a bit.

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