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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
On Serendip

Review of An Anthropologist in Mars

Anne-Marie Schmid

An Anthropologist on Mars is split into seven sections, each section dealing with patients and colleagues of the author's with different types of neurological conditions that the author believes to have resulted in them living in a different "world". In the "Case of the Colorblind Painter", an artist looses his ability to perceive color after an accident. After detailing the painter's case, the author uses it as a way to give the history of our current understanding of how vision works, and what can be learned from the artist's inability, not just to see color, but to remember it. Similarly, in "The Last Hippie", after telling the reader how the patient the author is describing came to be in his present state, a small history of knowledge about the functions of the frontal lobes of the brain, as well as some of the problems that come from damage to these lobes, is given. From there, the author looks at different types of memory and how they interact with one another.

"A Surgeon's Life" switches gears somewhat, dealing with a colleague who has Tourette's syndrome. Again a history of the condition is provided, along with similar syndromes, and tics. Unlike the previous chapters, the author dwells much more on how his colleague, and those around him, has adjusted to the tics caused by Tourette's syndrome. Relatively little information is given about what can be learned from the condition. It is almost as though the author is giving his colleague a different level of respect and discretion than the one that he gives his patients. This is strengthened by the way that the author treats the professor in "An Anthropologist on Mars". In "To See and Not See" the author describes a case where sight has been restored to a man who has been mostly blind for over forty years. Again, a history of the few cases where this has been possible is provided, along with the known reactions of the people who had their sight restored. The high incidence of depression among those with their sight restored is used as a jumping point to discuss certain mental illnesses, and the body's response to them.

"The Landscape of His Dreams" deals with obsession as a result of temporal lobe epilepsy. The case described in detail is that of a painter who has superbly detailed visions of his childhood town, and must deal with the changes that have come to the town. Very little history and discussion of the causes of temporal lobe epilepsy is given. "Prodigies" focuses on autism, and provides a slight history of its discovery. The author describes some of the different abilities that some of the people with autism may develop. A few of the possible causes of autism are detailed, along with some of the (at the time) recent discoveries. The author spends the majority of this chapter dealing with an internal struggle about how he should think about his autistic travel companion. The final chapter, "An Anthropologist on Mars" also deals with autism, this time focusing on Asperger's syndrome. Again, the history of autism is provided. The differences between the two types are compared. Again the author has problems determining how he should think of those with Asperger's syndrome, describing the temptation to characterize them as flat, and not completely "human".

An Anthropologist on Mars provides an interesting approach to neurobiology. Rather than just focusing on the various conditions that the people described in each chapter, the author attempts, sometimes more successfully than others, to discuss the individual as a whole, rather than just the various parts making him up. The author, Oliver Sacks, seems to show disdain for that line of thought, even though he still manages to slip into it from time to time (most notably in "Prodigies"; for the majority of the chapter, he seems unable to think of the autistic child not as a set of "plusses and minuses", but as a whole, if different, person). While the author seems to reject this line of thinking, and it can be inferred that he prefers a more holistic approach, he never clarifies his opinion on the various topics presented in the book, only detailing the various ideas that have been popular over time. While this may work well in some formats, when the author is spending a large portion of the book narrating for the readers, knowing clearly where he stands would be useful. Possibly due to the chapters being released individually at first, the book seems to jump around a bit, with some of the chapters covering mostly the same ground as previous ones. At times, the author seems to contradict himself, particularly with his encouraging of the treatment of all of the people described within the book as individuals, rather than just subjects. This, then, may be why the subtitle of the book is Seven Paradoxical Tales.


Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. Alfred A Knopf, Inc.: New York. 1995.

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