“Descent of Species” — David Eagleman

“The Founding Mothers” — David Eagleman’s Mother’s Day Thought Experiment

Very cool thought experiment at Slate by David Eagleman, author of Biblioklept fave Sum. He begins: “In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m going to spend five seconds thinking about each woman in the proud line of matriarchs who brought me here.” Here’s an excerpt from near the end:

Eleven months into the project I’ve reached my great5,797,443 grandmother, who in her youth breaks her hipbone when lightning strikes her from a boulder. This leaves her with a scarred hide and a strange gait, but she grows to be unusually large and is able to bark with such ferocity that her pack is saved by her on several occasions. Consumed with maternal passion, she nudges her progeny under sheltering branches whenever the skies darken.

Sum — David Eagleman


In his new book Sum, neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes forty visions of what an afterlife might be. Each of the tales is a short thought-experiment written in the second-person, a rhetorical device that literally engages the reader — the “you” — in the text. Eagleman’s background as a scientist is evident in many of these short tales. In “Giantess,” for example, he asks us to ponder the whole of the universe as a woman with whom we cannot communicate because of our infinitesimal scale in relation to her. In “Conservation,” Eagleman imagines all of time and space and what we know of it as the traces of a single little quark. Elsewhere, technology informs Eagleman’s depictions of the afterlife, as in “Impulse,” where the minutest of human interactions are compared to a massive computer program; in “Great Expectations” a company offers customers the experience of uploading their digitized souls to their own pre-programmed heavens–the customers are devastated when the upload fails and all that they get is regular old heaven. A bummed-out God wrings his hands, saying, “Your fantasies have cursed your realities…The Company offered you no evidence that it would work; why did you believe them?” Still, in this tale, God goes “to bed at night” knowing that “one of His best gifts — the ability to have faith in an unseen hereafter — has backfired.”

Many of Eagleman’s little stories evoke these moods of sad dissatisfaction and disappointment, repeatedly asking the reader to question their own values. And, as the god of “Great Expectations” shows, it’s not just the everyday folk who get their expectations crushed, but often the deities themselves. Take the god of “Mary,” for example. His favorite book is Frankenstein–he loves the end, where Victor Frankenstein flees his own creation. This is a god who can’t help his creation and chooses to run away from it. Particularly sad is “Descent of Species,” wherein the dead get to choose whatever they like to be. The “you” in this tale unfortunately chooses a horse, believing you’ll enjoy freedom–however, as “you” morph into a horse, so does your consciousness, and you realize that “you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives.”

Not all of the stories in Sum are bummers (and even the downers are thought-provoking)–many play out like jokes or riddles. In the afterlife of “Quantum,” “everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive.” When simultaneously “bowling and not bowling” becomes too much for “you,” an angel helps you out by letting you spend some time “in a closed room, one-on-one with your lover.” You find yourself “simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else; she both gives herself to you and does not giver herself to you; you find her objectionable and you deeply love her; she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else.” Finally, you thank the angel, saying, “This I’m used to.”

As “Quantum” shows, most of the tales in Sum are ultimately not so much about a metaphysical afterlife as they are about what we value in this world–what are our expectations, desires, hopes, and dreams–and why do we expect, desire, hope, and dream these things? Eagleman is an astute observer of the human condition with a keen insight into our strange animal psychologies. I found his tales about identity to be the most affecting of the lot, like in “Mirrors,” where Eagleman points out that we are “much better at seeing the truth about others than” we are at “seeing ourselves,” and we therefore rely on others to hold up “mirrors” of our selves in order to know our selves. In “Prism,” Eagleman imagines an afterlife where you exist at every age in your life, only to find out that “you” at seventeen really is not “you” at seventy–your “compound identity” was hardly as unified as you’d imagined; rather, it “was like a bundle of sticks from different trees.” If these lines evoke a whiff of the postmodern philosopher, don’t be surprised. While Pantheon lists the book as “Fiction” it seems it would be just as at home in the Philosophy section.

I enjoyed Sum very much, blowing through its 110 pages in just two sittings, and then re-reading several of the tales again–they’re meant to be re-read, I believe. The cover boasts a glowing bit of praise from Philp Pullman, author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (a Biblioklept favorite). Fans of Pullman’s trilogy will find many of the same ideas played with in Sum, only handled in quite a different (but no less inventive) manner. This is the kind of science fiction we love. Highly recommended.

Sum is available 2.10.09 from Pantheon Books.