Leo Szilard, who once held the patent for nuclear fission, wrote a short story, "Calling All Stars," in 1949. Computer minds from the planet Cybernetica attempted to explain the perplexing developments they witnessed on a remote planet called Earth. Observing flashes on Earth identified as uranium explosions, the computer minds concluded that "if there exist organisms on Earth engaged in co-operative enterprises which are not subject to the laws of reason, our society is in danger."
Thirty-two years after Szilard wrote the prophetic tales in "Voice of the Dolphins," his friend Norman Cousins explores the dangers society has created for itself on earth. As individuals we function under clearly defined rules of conduct, but as nations, corporations, or other "co-operative enterprises," we recognize no such constraints. Privately, we all know the awesome truth, that "something is very wrong." Our air, our water, even our food is tainted with toxic chemicals. Radioactive wastes pile up to poison future generations in our name. Cancer and birth defects are accepted by an anesthetized public as the price of progress. Foster homes and institutions overflow with thousands of children, the debris of a media culture.
Flaunting weapons of universal annihilation, inaccessible governments bicker over resources and ideologies. Unemployment, inflation, violence and corruption are commonplace realities. Something is very wrong, indeed. In despair, we abdicate responsibility to flickering shadows on the evening news.
An antidote to that despair is "Human Options," a new book by Cousins, professor of medicine, law and human values at UCLA's School of Medicine. Cousins, veteran of rescue missions in Hiroshima, post-Nazi Germany, Biafra, Laos and Vietnam, bravely embarks on another "mission impossible."
Documenting the complex interaction of brain and survival mechanisms in his last book ("Anatomy of an Illness"), Cousins argued convincingly that a person must assume some measure of responsibility for his own recovery from illness. "Human Options" extends the individual's responsibility beyond his own body to the world community. "The public," Cousins writes, "is essentially the magnification of the individual." The individual therefore shares responsibility for the actions of society as well as for defending it against threats to its collective life.
Cousins defines society as all humanity. Only through choosing to identify with a world community can individuals transcend narrower interests and truly share in command of their own fate.
Witness to the unimaginable suffering humans have inflicted on each other in this trigger-happy century, Cousins concludes that the ultimate tragedy is not human suffering, but the collective atrophy of the spirit that permits such horrors as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dachau or Vietnam to be committed. Like Szilard's extra-terrestrial computer minds, Cousins views the human species in broad perspective. The grouping of individuals into a nation, he says, is no more than "a concentration of collective effort with a minimum of restraint and a maximum of fury." From the battered survivors of that fury he brings a message of hope: that individuals can transcend the Lord-of-the-Flies tendency of nations and participate in a world society.
Cousins renews a vision of world unity championed by writers from Milton to Tennyson to E.B. White, a vision embodied in the ideals of the United Nations and scorned ever since as impractical and naive. In "Human Options," he warns that the human species is careening toward a self-destructive end. Cousins supports his vision with more than 40 years of observations on learning, teaching, survival, and the healing powers of the human mind. In vignettes of public personalities such as Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Szilard, John Steinbeck and Pablo Casals, Cousins honors acquaintances whose lives have touched him deeply and also left a profound impact on world affairs.
In "Anatomy of an Illness," Cousins proposed the theory that disease is not so much caused by germs as by what he calls "a breakdown in the body's self-regulatory mechanism" (or its immunological system). Brain secretions, "stimulated or diminished by thought and behavior and environmemt," have largely unexplored power to control the body's self-regulatory mechanism.
Encouraging the patient's brain to participate in curing illness is a primary task of the physician. Further scientific support for Cousins' theory comes in recent research on natural killer (NK) cells which are responsible for the body's ability to combat disease. Apparently, brain secretions and NK cells function in a close relationship.
In these untapped powers of the brain, Cousins finds the key to survival of the human species. On both an individual and a national scale, the species has placed itself in jeopardy through its failure of control or self-regulation. Failure of control is linked inextricably with despair and helplessness, dooming the sick individual to further decline and dooming the sick society to the whims of its factions. The human options of the title are the capabilities of the human brain to control both personal and societal destiny.
This is not a book to skim and forget. Cousins has compiled "personal jottings" recorded during an extraordinary career both as editor of Saturday Review and as a devoted missionary for humanity in a troubled world. Like the book of Psalms or Proverbs, every page offers much to ponder.
"The way I see it," Linus once told Charlie Brown, "as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo." So lively an instrument of hope and cheer is a far saner birthright than an armory of MX missiles. "Human Options" is also an instrument of hope, a ballast against despair in a confusing, frightening world.
"There are national anthems, but no anthems for humanity," Cousins laments. "Human Options" is his anthem for humanity. If a copy of this book could only be issued with each banjo . . .