The Nerd’s Dilemma
by Richard Powers
Published October 2021
On the Origin of Species concludes with a famous passage in which Darwin invites us to picture an embankment teeming with animals and plants, the abundance of complex forms existing in a state of interdependence, all of them adapted to their environment, all of them engaged in an ongoing struggle for survival, every aspect of their astounding variety attributable to the blind physical processes of evolution. ‘There is grandeur in this view of life,’ he wrote.
Darwin had measured the weight of the word ‘grandeur’. In reaching for an aesthetic rather than a scientific term, he was anticipating the way his ideas would be attacked and caricatured. He knew that he was inaugurating a Copernican shift in understanding, one that came with a humbling corollary – left implicit in his book, but unavoidable – that humans are not exempt. We are the products of the same generative principles of variation and attrition that gave rise to every other living thing. Darwin, in his understated manner, was preemptively repudiating those who would distort the meaning of evolution for reasons of religion or ideology. He was directing our attention to the big picture, away from a pitiless view of nature red in tooth and claw, and towards the revelation that the life we see all around us is deeply interconnected and autotelic.
The unscientific word ‘grandeur’ marks the point where knowledge meets imagination. It humanises an impersonal truth, reinstates an anthropocentric view, draws the factual back into the subjective realms of perception, emotion and value. In doing so, it raises the philosophical question of how we should conduct ourselves in the face of such knowledge. Darwin’s carefully chosen word implies, not unreasonably, that a little humility and respect might be in order. The unprecedented environmental catastrophe our species has created in the century and a half since the publication of his landmark work can be taken as a measure of our collective failure to uphold those values. It represents the distance between our remarkable cognitive abilities and our abysmal selfishness. As Richard Powers has a character reflect in his novel The Echo Maker (2006), humans could ‘rise to their station: conscious and godlike, nature’s one shot at knowing and preserving itself. Instead, the one aware animal in creation had torched the place.’
Perhaps more than any other contemporary American writer, Powers is troubled by the disjunction. His novels have explored the frontiers of scientific knowledge, roaming with nerdish enthusiasm across the fields of biochemistry, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, physics, astronomy and ecology. They often feature characters whose investigations into the nature of reality reveal astounding truths, which are described in aesthetic terms – music, in particular, is a recurring analogy. The prominence of environmental themes in Powers’ recent work has given this fascination with cutting-edge science an increasingly politicised edge. His protagonists are apt to express their frustration and dismay at the human compulsion to centre ourselves, cut reality down to the size of our immediate interests, plunder and destroy the natural world while remaining wilfully blind to the scale and the urgency of the current crisis. One of the key lines in his latest novel Bewilderment is given to an environmental activist who has devoted herself to the Sisyphean task of lobbying for political change: ‘Why is it so hard for people to see what is happening?’
Powers does not consider this a rhetorical question. His novels are interested in the evolutionary origins and neurological foundations of consciousness; more specifically, they consider the kinds of cognitive predispositions that tend to narrow or distort our perceptions. Running through Bewilderment’s widely admired predecessor The Overstory (2018) – a panoramic novel that follows the lives of nine characters who arrive independently at an advanced state of ecological awareness – is an explicit concern with the fact that the human brain, for all its complexity and adaptability, is a repository of ‘legacy behaviours and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution’. The novel pursues the idea that the same instincts for validation, rationalisation and mutual reinforcement that have allowed us to proliferate as a species, to the detriment of countless others, have become impediments to achieving the kind of enlightened posthumanist understanding that might pull the world back from the brink of disaster.
In this sense, environmental politics in The Overstory is a question of vision. At the heart of the novel is a perceptual divide. There are the seers who discern the underlying patterns of reality, appreciate the grandeur of it all, grasp the significance of what is happening. And then there is the less enlightened mass of humankind, still trapped in its anthropocentric bubble, unable or unwilling to see the bigger ecological picture. The Overstory is very much a novel with an agenda – it is a novel about trees that is unambiguously pro-tree – but unusual as piece of literary agitprop, in that it is an exhortation to decentre ourselves, rise to a higher plane of consciousness, comprehend the natural world in a more expansive way. It is a plea to pay attention. ‘You can’t see what you don’t understand,’ counsels one of the novel’s more enlightened characters. ‘But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to look at.’
There are a number of paradoxes in all this, and some rather awkward political implications. On one level, of course, there can be no dispute. The evidence is in. We are in deep shit and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The argument in The Overstory and Bewilderment – which takes the ecological agenda of The Overstory and gives it a cosmic twist – is ultimately not between a rapacious capitalism that would exploit natural resources to exhaustion with no regard for long-term consequences and an environmentalism that believes in conservation and sustainability. Both novels assume that the former is indefensible. By identifying the overarching problem as one of awareness, they look beyond ideological and systemic obstacles, with a view to opening up the question of how to change minds. ‘We’re living at a time,’ Powers has a professor explain in The Overstory, ‘when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.’
In this, the novels hold to an old liberal-humanist article of faith – namely, that the cause of bad behaviour is ignorance, which can be cured by education. This a well-intentioned and, in many instances, plausible view, but it also contains an indigestible kernel of presumption. If the political convulsions of recent years might be said to have taught us anything, it is that it can be a fraught business telling people that they are not as smart and well-informed and perceptive and far-sighted as you are. It is the sort of thing that some are inclined to take the wrong way, no matter how delicately you break the news. There are reasons why nerds tend to get beaten up that run deeper than the pudding bowl haircuts and thick-rimmed glasses. More to the point, if your political stance comes to rest predominantly on a distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened, ahead of more tangible distinctions (the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited), then it is almost inevitable that the obtuseness of the benighted will lead to the aristocratic conclusion that, as the great philosopher-poet Erick Purkhiser once versified, ‘people ain’t no good / they never do what I think they should’.
The enlightened posthumanism that Powers posits as our best hope can thus be seen, at times, to spill over into sentiments that are frankly embittered and even misanthropic. The framing of the issue makes our failure to ‘rise to our station’ and accept the responsibilities of our ‘godlike’ consciousness appear an inexcusable moral abrogation, a display of turpitude so appalling that it warrants nothing less than universal condemnation. ‘It’s so simple,’ a character declares in The Overstory. ‘So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.’ Emphasis in original. ‘Humankind is deeply ill,’ muses another character. ‘The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment.’
These opinions are echoed by the central character in Bewilderment, a precocious boy named Robin Byrne, who becomes so attuned to the wonders of nature and so dismayed at its ongoing devastation that he feels ‘hatred for his own kind’. ‘There’s something wrong with us,’ Robbie shouts at one point, and the novel’s narrator, his doting father Theo, can only hasten to agree, stepping in to explain, lest there be any doubt, that the final pronoun should be taken as a reference to our entire wretched species.
My intention is not to tar Powers with his characters’ more extreme pronouncements, but to note that they represent one rhetorical outpost in a multifaceted philosophical argument that runs through his work. His novels have long pursued a syncretic vision that seeks to transcend the conventional humanist distinction between nature and culture, overturn the assumption that these categories represent distinct realms of knowledge. Myth, religion, language, art, politics, music – we can understand these things intimately, understand them from within, the reasoning goes, because they are created by people for people. Our epistemological relation to them is different to those things that constitute reality as we find it, which we can know only through observation and deduction: other animals and plants, mountains and rivers, stars and planets.
To the extent that this elementary distinction has encouraged our species to set itself apart from or even above nature, Powers understands this as a problem for art. The evident tendency in his novels to describe scientific insights in aesthetic terms is part of a wider imaginative project that is striving for a conceptual synthesis, as distinct from mere analogy. When the migrating cranes in The Echo Maker are said to ‘dance’ in time with the planet’s rhythms, obeying instincts embedded in their brains by hundreds of millions of years of evolution, or when the protagonist of Orfeo (2014) – an elderly avant-garde composer with an amateur interest in biochemistry who is mistaken for a terrorist (yes, really) – thinks of chemical formulas in musical terms as ‘intricate and divine compositions’, there is a sense in which Powers wants us to take such characterisations literally, open ourselves to the vision of a world where ‘everything dances’. The implication is that we are responsive to the underlying patterns of nature because, on a fundamental level, we are embedded in and constituted by the same physical processes. In a sense, Powers suggests, we can understand them from within too.
The pursuit of a visionary posthumanism within the quintessentially humanistic form of the novel is an ambitious project, not least because it is so paradoxical that it is more or less destined to be unrealisable. Language and narrative sit squarely on the ‘culture’ side of the ledger; their humanised perspective is inalienable. The intrinsic duality of metaphor, which is simultaneously conflation and analogy, will always resist the kind of literalisation Powers hints at.
As a result, his novels are often wildly unstable on a rhetorical level. His characters are apt to veer from scientific information into an aestheticised sense of wonder and beyond to expressions of the oneness of the universe couched in terms that are mystical or even religious. It is not incidental that the environmentalist character from The Echo Maker cited above – the one who laments humankind’s inability to ‘rise to its station’ – is subsequently described as ‘faith incarnate’ and a ‘mystical person’ who ‘worshipped nature’. Bewilderment opens with its two principal characters communing with nature and stargazing, then reciting a ‘secular prayer’. Narrative itself is viewed with ambivalence, as the chief means by which humans justify and deceive themselves, but also as a potential path to awakening. ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,’ a psychologist argues in The Overstory. ‘The only thing that can do that is a good story.’ This optimistic assessment appears only a few pages after a character has hurled a novel across the room in disgust at its ‘human self-regard’.
Bewilderment, a succinct novel by Powers’ standards, distills many of these longstanding themes into a relatively straightforward narrative. Its plot is loosely based on Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (1966), the story of simpleton who participates in a scientific experiment that temporarily triples his IQ, which Powers reconceives as a tale about empathy rather than intelligence, as such. The narrator, Theo Byrne, is a widower. His beloved wife Aly, an environmental activist, was killed in a car accident when she swerved to avoid hitting an animal crossing the road, leaving Theo to care for their nine-year-old son Robbie, who is bright enough but has a neurological condition that remains unspecified – Theo being reluctant to give his son’s unusual personality a clinical definition. When a paediatrician suggests that young Robin might be ‘on the spectrum’, Theo thinks scornfully that ‘everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is … life itself is a spectrum disorder.’
When Robbie’s behaviour at school becomes unruly, Theo is faced with the prospect of either medicating his son or having him participate in an experiment designed to regulate his moods, so he chooses the latter. In a reversal of Powers’ early novel Galatea 2.2 (1995), in which a character named Richard Powers tries to teach a computer to appreciate the subtleties of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘The Brain is wider than the Sky’, Robbie is wired to a computer which trains him to match his brain waves to scans from other people who are known to have achieved high levels of composure. ‘He’s basically practising mindfulness,’ the scientist explains. ‘Like doing meditation, but with instant powerful cues steering him towards the desired emotional state.’
When the experiment begins to work, the conceptual ante is upped. They decide to train Robbie using a brain scan from his late mother, a gifted empath with a highly developed ecological awareness. This also works, transforming his boyish love of nature is into an acute sensitivity towards all living things. ‘I feel like I’m waking up,’ he reports. ‘Like I’m inside everything.’
The novel does register a trace of unease at the concept of reprogramming a child’s brain when Theo worries about his son’s cheerful declaration that he now has other people in his head. But for the most part Robbie’s journey to a higher plane of consciousness is treated as the acquisition of genuine wisdom. Its bittersweet tinge derives from the parallel awareness of environmental devastation; the tragic cast it acquires in the novel’s latter stages is a result of his empathetic abilities slipping away. When Robbie, in a fit of enthusiasm, has the idea of melding his brain waves with those of a dog or a cat and proposes that this could become part of the regular school curriculum, Theo can only agree. ‘Robbie was right,’ he thinks: ‘we needed universal mandatory courses of neural feedback training, like passing the Constitution test or getting a driver’s license … Anything that could make us feel what it was like not to be us.’ Of course, what could possibly go wrong? The novel, preferring to style itself as the nice version of A Clockwork Orange, remains silent on the question of what might happen if you flunk your empathy exam.
Bewilderment frames the story of Robbie’s awakening, decline and eventual demise in two important ways. The first is that Theo works as an astrobiologist, searching for life on other planets. His job is to take information about newly discovered planets and create computer models that apply the principles of evolutionary biology to their specific conditions. Brief accounts of the ‘Gaian melodies’ of these strange other worlds appear throughout the novel.
The second is that Bewilderment is set against the backdrop of an alternative history, in which an obviously Trump-like president has succeeded in overturning an election and has begun the process of entrenching his autocratic regime.
It is in the interaction of these two contextualising subplots that the novel can be seen to fall apart in an almost mechanical way. The descriptions of Theo’s amazing planets are exercises in pure science fiction, complete with bizarre life forms and allegorical overtones. They are direct appeals to the imagination, and as the novel points out, ‘brain science knew that even imagination could change our cells for real’. The wonder these stories are supposed to inspire is explicitly presented as a rebuke to ‘earthly chauvinisms’. The Trumpian regime is, of course, depicted as the epitome of earthly chauvinism. Its decision to cut the funding for Theo’s research becomes the novel’s decisive moment. It is the point at which the visionaries confront the benighted – and lose.
The reason they wanted to kill the project, Theo maintains, is that they could not tolerate the cosmic demotion the discovery of life on other planets would entail: it would undermine ‘humanity’s Special Relationship with God’. The overall stance of the novel and its political simplicities are reflected in the fact that Theo seems more exercised by the philosophical implications of his defunct research than the trashing of democracy. ‘Our side claimed the discovery of Earths would increase humanity’s collective wisdom and empathy,’ Theo observes. ‘The President’s men said that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to crash our standards of living.’ The novel does not consider the possibility that both sides could be wrong.
In a quietly melancholy way, Bewilderment is a politically defeated novel, and perhaps in a deeper sense defeatist. Empathy and secular prayers are all well and good, but they don’t really change anything in a practical way. At the height of his awareness, Robbie is inspired by a Greta Thunberg-like figure to mount his own protest, only to become disappointed when it transpires that standing outside a legislative building with a sign does not seem to have much of an effect. Near the end of the novel, the vanquished astrobiologist Theo retreats into a tepid misanthropy. ‘People, Robbie,’ he reflects. ‘They’re a questionable species.’ The fable-like simplicity of the narrative and Robbie’s at times grating combination of precocity and naivety result in much of the novel being mired in sentimentality, but its more serious flaw is that it does not countenance the idea that maybe a course of moral and spiritual improvement is not what’s needed at the present time. There are plenty of people who can see what is happening perfectly well. Culpability for the wretched state of the planet is not equally shared among individuals, societies and generations. The title, which literally means to become lost in the wilderness, appears only once in the body of the novel, as a passive response to the machinations of the sinister Trump-like President: ‘Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war.’ Under the circumstances, a little less bewilderment and a little more wildness might have been appropriate.