Skip to content

"Beelzebub's SAT Scores"

from The Trouble with Testosterone

By Robert Sapolsky

If this piece were to be published in a magazine like Cosmo or GQ, I'd bet that very few readers would have a glimmer of what I will be talking about. And because of the sort of book this is and the readers it attracts, I think my subject is going to strike an uncomfortable, responsive note among far more of you than you'd like to admit.

You don't have to be brilliant to be interested in science, but it does require certain values. Facts are deemed more important than intuition or rhetoric or sound bites when it comes to making certain types of decisions, as are statistics over a good but singular anecdote. Solving a sustained, complex problem, one even stretching on for years, can be more satisfying than the viscera of whatever phenomenon is having its fifteen minutes of fame. And the products of the mind can not only be vital to master for some utilitarian reason, but can also be valued because they bring an elegant, beautiful joy.

Nothing comes for nothing. A fondness for thinking often carries a cost. Sure, everyone had their adolescent miseries, but there is a characteristic type for the ones who were eggheads. This is the adolescent world of being picked last for sports teams or, worse, being picked first when some displacement aggression was in order. A world of always being a suitable source of answers to homework questions but never a suitable date. The ludicrous array of deflective personality twitches meant to cover up the fact that you were smart and into school or really obsessed with hermit crabs or topology or plate tectonics. And even decades later, even among those who metamorphed into happy, fulfilled, secure adults, there is often still a necrotic core of anger somewhere down there at how bad it was back when. These are the stigmata of geekdom.

As with any culture, geekdom comes with its deities. There was the old reliable pantheon, Einstein occupying the chair of Zeus, the worship of my parents' generation of Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson for being smart as well as compassionate in an arena that rarely rewarded either. Before he fell from the heavens by making serious movies and serious moves on his nineteen-year-old pseudodaughter, there was the incomparable pleasure of Woody Allen. He epitomized every trait for which we were all once punished, yet in the movie world that he created, it didn't matter; it even worked to his advantage--he always got the goil. And, more wonderfully, he did so in real life. For a while, there was the ascendancy of Michael Dukakis, a ripple of recognition and admiration felt for him. He hit all those themes with a vengeance--the smart geek and, by dint of his first-generation ethnicity, even more the perpetually awkward outsider. Stiff, ungraceful, humorless, excelling in a world of privileged style through sheer smarts and discipline and sincerity. And for an instant, he might even have become president. And, to complete the Greek tragedy that we all identified with, he was brought low by the fact that ultimately, all he had going for him was smarts and discipline and sincerity, done in by a man who, with the self-satisfied calm of a ruling-class Brahmin, played dirty with a Willie Horton up his sleeve. That was most certainly a case where we felt his pain.

For every yin there is a yang, and the gods on high must have their counterparts from the Dark Side. For a community of intellectuals, these have traditionally been the outsiders who attack the values we cherish, the yahoos knownothings who would vote for guns over books, who value ideologues rather than thought. That we are accustomed to. What is difficult for us (and for any community) is when the menace comes from within, because of the special challenge it presents. And that is what has happened.

In recent months, plying the Internet, talking to friends and colleagues, gauging the reactions of students to throwaway lines in lectures, it has become apparent to me that there is a furtive, guilty, confused excitement in the community of learned individuals, a fascination that no one knows quite what to do with: the intelligentsia have found their Antichrist, and he is Ted.

There seems to be an overlapping array of facets that people are focusing on. Certainly, some are responding to Kaczynski because of his obsessional grudges, feel a resonance with the political and social undertones of his antitechnology mania (and I've noted a lot of right-wing media picking up on this theme, as if somehow Berkeley in the sixties were responsible). But most don't seem to care about Kaczynski's Luddism. Instead, it's easy to indulge in some cheap psychoanalyzing, deciding that he wouldn't have cared as much about technology and society if he had gotten laid more often.

Some seem to be most fascinated with his chosen route of (required by law: alleged) murderousness. With the sickening regularity of drive-by shootings or someone going postal, or even with the rarity of a rental van crammed with tons of explosive fertilizer, this time, tiny, handcrafted objects were placed inside an envelope and, sometime later across a continent, someone was shredded. It's as if the link between cause and effect were weakened. Something about the detachment and precision fascinates. We are accustomed to the discover-the-spouse-in-bed with-the-best-friend and-out-comes-the-gun crime of passion: it seems like the consequence of an inflamed limbic system, the part of the brain involved in emotion. Instead, with Kaczynski, we feel as if we are seeing the consequences of an inflamed cortex.

But most people are not responding to his content or method. Instead, it is the persona, the smarts coupled with the social disconnection, the crazy hermit life in that cabin filled with Shakespeare and foreign literature and bomb manuals.

On the more benign side, that persona pulls among the intelligentsia because of its surprising familiarity I did my schooling at the proud institution that produced Ted K. Following his arrest, I played a game with my fellow alums--how many people from your dorm could have turned out to be the Unabomber? Maybe because we were all the insecure, driven ethnics with something to prove, instead of the umpteenth-generation Harvardians drinking at their club and gliding through with gentlemen's C's, we seem to have no shortage of suspects: the fifteen-year-old physicist who never said a word and who paced his room at night, pulling out his hair. The political science major with the foul rotting breath who drove everyone from the dinner table with her trembling, tearful rantings about her latest obsession. The mathematician with no friends who, as part of some odd social experiment, would go live on the streets, subsisting off garbage Dumpsters, emerging for brief periods after longer and longer stretches. The smarts and the' disconnection and the simmering obscure anger--but for the grace of God plus some fine-motor control when it came to handling small tools, any of them could have been him.

So part of it is the recognition, the unexpected familiarity. There is a slight class snootiness to this, explaining one facet of the odd fascination I'm detecting. It reminds me of the quip that the McCarthy era consisted of a bunch of Fordham law school graduates trying to get the goods on a bunch of Harvard law school graduates. Typically, whenever some violent criminal of reptilian coldness emerges into the nighttime news, there is the predictable alienness for this intellectual community--the childhood trailer park mired in poverty and tornadoes, the drunken abandoning father, the reform schools, the bad teeth and bad grammar and swear rings around the armpits, the trail of bodies hacked up and dumped from a rusty pickup truck the bayou. How declasse. At last there is a serial murderer we can call our own.

But there is an even more disturbing component, the one that seems hardest for people to admit to but which I am detecting again and again in offhanded, self-conscious quips: rather than mere recognition, there is a frightening hint of identification, of there but for the grace of God go I. We all have our dark sides, a world of humid, spittle-flecked, unrestrained impulse that goes on in our heads. While it is obligatory to trash Freud as being a repressive dead white male, it is useful on occasion to instead remember him as a great liberator, the man who tried to break the back of centuries of authoritarian, religious judgment about those internal worlds, the man who discovered the unconscious and thus taught us that thought is no crime. We all do indeed have our dark sides. One evening, that great horned toad of an awkward intellectual, Karl Marx, came home from fulminating in the British Museum. "At any rare," he wrote to Engels that night, "I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles all the rest of their lives." As well they did. Few of us can ever hope for that level of retributive pissiness. We merely fantasize about returning someday to our childhood neighborhoods, encountering the ex-bullies or the catty girls who were in the in-group when we were not, and beating them into contused, bloodied contrition with our thick stack of diplomas. Actually, our dark fantasies of anger and revenge would rarely run in the Rambo action direction. Instead, we all have our little lists of enemies to be vanquished with the force of our minds, in clever, cerebral, elegant bits of mayhem. And then Kaczynski goes and does something with some queasy, identificative elements of exactly that. And worst of all, our pulses quicken ever so slightly, as if, sickeningly, we are almost proud: take thousands of big strapping guys who no doubt all once got to go to the prom with homecoming queens, give 'em guns and badges and FBI good looks, and it still takes them eighteen years to catch weird smart Ted with his crazy hair. Ted Kaczynski, the id from Mensa.

Thus, this fascination arising from the reflexive respect we have for intelligence, from the detachment of his methods, from his resemblance to the loner down the freshman hallways, his resemblance to the It inside us. There is the danger of a certain empathy creep, the transition from recognition to understanding and then to something resembling forgiveness. And thus, the remainder of this piece must be about the reassertion of our superegos.

There is another arena in which the issue of understanding makes it hard for thoughtful, educated individuals in the criminal justice system to mere out judgment. Epileptics who in the course of a seizure flail their arms and strike someone are, of course, not assaultive. Their arms may swing violently, but they are not violent people. "It's not him, it's his disease." We are coming to recognize a shocking number of ways in which biology can impact and distort the essence of who a person is--certain hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances, tumors in parts of the limbic system, damage to the frontal cortex--producing someone who is uncontrollably destructive. In this arena, I don't think one has to steel oneself to avoid the transition from understanding to forgiveness, because "forgiveness" becomes as irrelevant as branding as 'evil" a car whose brakes are cut and careens destructively. You fix the car, if possible, but you mostly find ways to protect society from such cars. Medicalizing people into being broken cars is dehumanizing, but still a hell of a lot more humane than moralizing them into being sinners.

But this is not the problem with Kaczynski; the inflammation of his cortex just a metaphor. There appears, at this date, to be no evidence of irresistible voices in his ears, of a childhood head injury that damaged components of his nervous system that inhibit impulsivity or aggressiveness. There is no evidence of a biological imperative that cut his brakes. The reasons are different why we have to stand fast in the face of our fascination with him.

The issue of his methods is easily disposed of, especially for those of us who once protested the detachment of a button being pressed in a highaltitude bomber and, as a result, a Vietnamese village being obliterated. Our era is dominated by violence that involves pushing a button or giving an order or looking the other way, rather than by hands with barely opposing thumbs gripping cudgels. In that context, mailing a certain kind of letter is just another twentieth-century act of violence. But if technology has lengthened the reach of violence, it has also lengthened the range of acts we can be sickened by and must act against.

The next reason why we have to stand firm is related m why we jailed Ezra Pound, the problem of what to do when good poets do bad things. The Kaczynski conundrum is actually more watered-down than that. Kaczynski did not savage people while, nonetheless, producing great works (just check our his Manifesto in the john tonight if you don't believe me). There is simply his ability to appreciate great works. Its equivalence is one that haunts me--the certainty that there was at least one murderous Nazi who, at the end of a difficult day, could sit and be moved to tears by the same instant of Beethoven that undoes me. It is thoroughly obvious that we can feel no softening toward Kaczynski simply because he is smart or learned and we respect the world of intellect. This is a hard one, part of what has made him the Antichrist to our community and values. Standing fast on this issue requires a heartbreaking rejection of a tenet of liberal education that so many of us treasure. It is the notion that being exposed to the Great Books and the Great Thoughts must lead to Great Morals; unfortunately, we should probably be satisfied if it leads to a decent vocabulary now and then.

But we are most challenged by his being the misfit from down the hall, from down inside of us. While the danger of empathy creep there is considerable, there is one overriding fact, so easy to forget in our fascination, that must destroy it. No matter how familiar Kaczynski is, no matter how often we have had fleeting thoughts like that, no matter how much we think we understand where he came from, there is an infinitely yawning chasm, something that makes him as unfamiliar as a silicon-based life-form, something that makes it clear that we actually understand nothing whatsoever about him or what went on in his head--he actually did these things. Thought is no crime, but crime is, and bombs have exploded not as abstractions in someone's mind, but in the faces of innocent people.

There is a wonderful Russian story that takes place at the gates of heaven, where the newly arrived are judged. A dead murderer is on trial, fresh from earth where he was shot by the police after his umpteenth murder, the strangling of an elderly woman for her money. A panel of deceased judges sirs in session. And where does God fit on the scene? Not as a judge, but as a required character witness. At some point in the proceedings, he shambles in, sits in a magisterial decrepitude born of the weight of infinite knowledge, and in a meandering, avuncular way, does his best to defend and explain the man--"He was always kind to animals. He was very upset when he lost his favorite top when he was a small boy." ("My red top, you know about my red top!?!" The murderer leaps up, suddenly awash in a torrent memory. "Of course I do. It rolled down the storm drain on Zlotny Street. It's still down there," God answers with complete, affectless knowing.) Finally, the judges tire of God, who is in fact tiresome in his knowledge and forgiveness, and coax him off the stand.

When science brings us something new and startling, when there is a breakthrough that opens new vistas, there is often talk about us acquiring godlike knowledge, and the tacit assumption is that this is a good thing. But the God of this parable is useless, has been shunted aside by the indiscriminateness of his knowledge. Knowledge, familiarity, understanding, must not ever lead us to a detached indiscriminateness. The danger of Olympian knowledge is that you then look down upon things from an Olympian height, and from that telescoped distance, things seem equivalent--like a lost red top and a strangled woman, or perhaps an awkward adolescence that produces an awkward adult and an awkward adolescence that produces a murderous one.

But there is a difference.

Comments (0)


  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.

Rating

Your Rating
Average Rating

Actions

Tags

Be the first one to tag this!