Author and San Francisco surgeon Leonard Michael Shlain died last week on Monday, May 11. He was 71 years old. It is one of those quirks of fate, like Beethoven's deafness and Galileo's blindness, that Leonard Shlain died of brain cancer.
The first time I met Shlain was about 10 years ago when he spoke at Southern Oregon University. His book, "Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light," had already won the admiration of artists, scientists and philosophers. In it, according to his web site, Shlain proposed that the visionary artist is the first member of a culture to see the world in a new way. Then, nearly simultaneously, a revolutionary physicist discovers a new way to think about the world.
At that time he had just released another book, "The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" that would win even more accolades. In that work, Shlain proposed that the process of learning alphabetic literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.
When Shlain spoke at the university, SOU president Steve Reno and I had just launched Horizon Institute and we were inviting guest lecturers to speak. The institute was established to explore the interface between science, spirituality and the arts. Shlain was a natural choice to be one of the speakers.
When I saw Shlain again it was at the Science of Consciousness Conference in Albuquerque. He was there with many of the scientists Horizon had hosted in Ashland: physicists Brian Swimme, Peter Russell and Amit Goswami; biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris; and Yale professor of ecology and religion, Mary Evelyn Tucker.
As I was walking through the atrium of the hotel where many of the conference attendees were staying, someone called my name. It was Shlain. I was pleasantly surprised that he remembered me. He invited me to lunch and then, like an excited little boy, proceeded to tell me about the ideas he had for his next book. That was the Shlain I'll always remember — excited about ideas.
He has been called a visionary thinker, and I would second that. Reading his books or listening to him speak, you realize that you are in the presence of the transformative power of the imagination. His insights truly offer you a view inside. You can't just accept or reject his thoughts. They take hold of you and require your attention. They have been deemed "paradigm shattering" because they upend your old notions of art, science, religion history and the way you thought things worked.
The world Shlain sees is connected — not disparate. One thing leads to another, alters it, sets it in motion. In Shlain's world, everything happens for a reason: coincidence and serendipity are relegated to the sidelines.
Shlain took his ideas on the road, speaking to audiences at the Smithsonian, Harvard University, Salk Institute, New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Florence Academy of Art, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA's Johnson Space Center and the European Union's ministers of culture. In 1999, he was a contributor to Academic Press' "Encyclopedia of Creativity," edited by Steven Runco and Mark Pritzker.
He won literary awards for his visionary work and holds several patents for his innovative surgical instruments. A surgeon for 38 years at California Pacific Medical Center, Shlain specialized in gallbladder and hernia operations. He was head of the laparascopic surgery department and served as associate clinical professor of medicine at UCSF.
His last published work was "Sex, Time & Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution." In it, Shlain pondered why big-brained Homo sapiens suddenly emerged some 150,000 years ago. His answer is that, due to the narrowness of her bipedal pelvis and the increasing size of her infants' heads, the human female began to experience high childbirth death rates. To avert a crisis for the species, the female's hormonal reproductive cycle underwent a major reconfiguration. And that change brought about profound sexual and cultural consequences.
It is classic Shlain.
His fourth book, "Leonardo's Brain," about Leonardo Da Vinci, is scheduled to be published next spring by Viking. I'm already excited about reading it — and I'm sure that is just what Shlain had in mind.
Richard Moeschl is executive director of Horizon Institute, an educational and cultural nonprofit organization