Isabel Allende: "I have lived the horror of drugs"

The Books Interview.

The narrator of your new novel is a 19- year-old American who knows next to nothing about her grandmother’s past in Chile. What do your grandchildren know of your Chilean past?
I have taken them to Chile but they don’t speak Spanish. I don’t think they know very much about Chile. They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it. It’s hard to explain this. I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.

They’re growing up as Americans. Do you talk to them about the role the US played in overthrowing the government of Salvador Allende?
Yes, all the time. And not only to my grandchildren. I live in the US and I think it is my duty, every time I speak in public, to tell Americans what their foreign policy has been, the awful things that have been done in the name of democracy.

We get a glimpse of Chile’s past in this book. Was this a way of reaching back to a pre-Pinochet Chile?
I’ve always been interested not so much in the pre-Pinochet period as in the time during which we had the dictatorship – 17 years in which the country changed completely. It became very polarised and divided.

Even today, nearly 25 years after the dictatorship ended, there are people who deny the atrocities that were committed during the time the military was in power; or else they will justify them – they will say, “It was either that or become a communist dictatorship.” And there are other people who suffered during that time, who were in prison or tortured or had to leave and live in exile – such people can see nothing positive in the years of dictatorship.

In the novel, there is a secret in the narrator Maya’s family, which she discovers at the very end of the book. There’s a secret in the family and there’s a secret in the country. So, in a way, the micro-melodrama of that family is amplified by the macro-melodrama of the country.

Maya flees to the island of Chiloé, where she listens to the islanders’ stories. Have the stories of Chile’s indigenous peoples influenced you as a writer?
I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a great storyteller. At that time, there was no television in Chile and the radio was forbidden at home – my grandfather considered it an instrument of vulgar ideas. So we would listen to his stories. There was a mythological, epic quality to even the most banal story.

Maya has been brought up in Berkeley, California, which occupies a special place in the American imagination, doesn’t it?
Yes. It’s known as the “Independent Popular Republic of Berkeley”! It’s very liberal. The last remaining old hippies all live in Berkeley. You see them with their Birkenstock sandals. I love it. I go there all the time, although I live on the other side of the bay.

One of the themes of the book is the deranging effects of grief. We learn from Maya’s journal that she went off the rails after her grandfather died.
She adores her grandfather and when he dies she feels abandoned. So she gets in with the wrong people and ends up running away from home and becoming homeless, on drugs. But it’s the memory of the grandfather that saves her. I have lived through the tragedy of my husband’s children. They’re all addicts. The daughter has died. The elder son has spent half his life in prison. And in March, the younger son died of an overdose. So the family is in a very dark place right now.

I have lived the horror of drugs, how they destroy not only the person who takes them but the people around that person. It’s very hard to survive addiction.

The book is also about the redeeming power of writing, isn’t it? Writing is a way for Maya to process her grief.
I’ve lived that, too. Writing a memoir about the death of my daughter saved me from going crazy. It allowed me to understand and accept what happened. I will always carry sadness with me but it has not destroyed my life. I was able to process it, as you say – it was very cathartic.

Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook” is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99)

Isabel Allende at the Rome Literature Festival in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times