Oliver Sacks on Charles Darwin

Oliver Sacks is a psychiatrist and neurologist best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer's disease.

In 1966, Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter and the Oscar-nominated feature film called Awakenings.

In July of 2007, Sacks was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university's first Columbia University Artist.  Sacks Latest book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), was has been Revised and Expanded in a new edition that was released in September of 2008.

  • Transcript


Question: What is your current fascination with Charles Darwin?

Oliver Sacks: A transformed Darwin appeared in 1860, a Darwin who is a beautiful experimentalist and who turned his garden and his conservatories really into an incredible botanical research station. 

And he wrote marvelous papers and six marvelous books. One on orchids, one on climbing plants, on insectivorous plants. And these are enchanting books, and also they have a special function and he himself mentioned this because he speaks of his botanical movements as “a flank movement on the enemy.” And what did he mean by this? It was very clear in, you know, when The Origin [of Species] came out, that there was outrage because human ancestry and human status was being brought into question. There was a huge upset.

But, with plants, maybe it’s okay. Plants are on a different kingdom. If they want to evolve, if natural selection occurs.

And so, in a fascinating way, really Darwinian ideas were introduced through plants and through the botanical books and through botany and evolutionary botany was the first evolution in science.

Recorded on: Sep 4, 2008