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About the Author

Leonard Shlain was a best-selling author and San Francisco surgeon. Admired among artists, scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and educators, Shlain authored three best-selling books: Art Physics, Alphabet vs. The Goddess, and Sex, Time, and Power. He delivered multimedia presentations based show more upon his books in venues around the world including Harvard, the New York Museum of Modern Art, CERN, Los Alamos, the Florence Academy of Art, and the European Council of Ministers. His fans include Al Gore, Norman Lear, and singer Bjrk. Dr. Shlain was a surgeon for thirty-eight years at California Pacific Medical Center where he headed the Laparoscopic Surgery Department and was an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF. He died in May 2009 at the age of seventy-one after a battle with brain cancer. show less

Includes the names: Leonard Shlain, Schlain Leonald

Works by Leonard Shlain


(19) alphabet (18) anthropology (67) art (149) art history (15) biology (21) cultural studies (14) culture (29) evolution (44) feminism (40) gender (26) gender studies (27) goddess (33) history (139) language (75) language and culture (10) linguistics (38) literacy (38) misogyny (12) non-fiction (164) own (9) paganism (10) patriarchy (19) philosophy (42) physics (89) prehistory (11) psychology (42) read (11) religion (52) science (123) sex (18) sexuality (30) sociology (25) spirituality (10) time (10) to-read (126) unread (10) women (33) women's studies (43) writing (16)

Common Knowledge



Its refreshing to see a book open to the idea that science and art can live together in our minds.
mykl-s | 6 other reviews | Aug 10, 2023 |
Part biography of da Vinci, part neuroscience and, part speculation, this is the last offering of the late doctor who passed away in 2009. The profile of the quintessential Renaissance man, his many accomplishments and some shortcomings, are fascinating. The neuroscience, about the two hemispheres of the brain and the Corpus Callosum which bridges them, are well and truly interesting and, presented in a way that the layman can understand. But the ideas which posit that Leonardo was able to bend/blend time & space, was the first cubist, first scientist, and so on... are just a couple of the many truly incredible claims that the author makes and which ruin the book by relegating it as the work of a crackpot.… (more)
Tanya-dogearedcopy | 3 other reviews | Jan 14, 2023 |
Originally written June 10th, 2002:
The book's thesis is that literacy, and especially alphabetic literacy, hypertrophies the left brain's masculine hunter-killer traits and values of abstract serial linear thought at the expense of the right brain's gatherer-nurturer traits and values of concrete holistic gestalt thought. As alphabetic literacy enters a culture, the society is rocked with violence, religious intolerance, destruction of images, suppression of women, and the overthrow of concrete polytheist goddesses with abstract monotheistic gods. This is seen in the Hebrews, Greeks at the time of Aristotle, Orthodox vs. Gnostic Christianity, the Reformation, the Marxist revolutions of Russia, China, and Southeast Asia, Sunni vs. Shi'ite Islam, and modern Islamic fundamentalism like the Taliban. On the flip side, in the agrarian period before the appearance of writing, most cultures' central deity was a powerful Earth mother, represented by copious images, whose lesser consort/child died and was reborn every year. Men and women both worshiped goddesses, and society was fairly egalitarian (this remains the case in many hunter/gatherer cultures today). Major thinkers who spoke rather than wrote (Laozi, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed) tended to have fairly tolerant and pro-female attitudes. And these values as well as images tended to appear in cultures where alphabetic literacy was not widespread (including those cultures who passed from literacy to illiteracy, those near to violent literate cultures, and those who have yet to attain literacy). Furthermore, as photography and electromagnetism (with all its feminine metaphors) appeared in the forms of photography, movies, television, and computers, the West's laws, attitudes, and culture has shifted from excessive yang to a fairly balanced state. In a nutshell, a culture's communication media, perhaps more so than its content, determines the values, actions, and trends of society. For some more data, see my CWA post (about two thirds of the way down).

The book is written for the general public, so it lacks the flurry of citations found in scholarly works. It is far from New Age pseudo science, though; Shlain's bibliography spans 9 pages and ranges from Augustine and Virgil to Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. His data is the "generally accepted" story; exploration of various views of, say, ancient archaeological data is not in his scope. The events Shlain describes are large-scale and very complex, and doubtless arise from many factors and can be explained in many ways (which he acknowledges); his goal is to provide a unifying theory linking the counterpunctual rise and fall of the written word, masculine values, images, and feminine values. As a brain surgeon, Shlain's division of traits, values, and modes of thought rests on sound neurological data (and he acknowledges that the hemispheric split is more metaphorically accurate than physically accurate).

The book is excellently written, using both left hemispheric literalism and right hemispheric metaphor. Shlain doesn't claim to have proved anything, but rather to have demonstrated a correlation, from which the reader is to draw conclusions. His argument is cogent and well-documented, unlike many writers on male/female cultural interplay. He only once "falls" into "rhetorical" "damning" "quotation" marks. His language flows well and is graced by many words he has selected in the hopes that they don't fall out of the lexicon. The paradigmatic and specific ideas expressed in the book lead me to recommend it to almost everyone, from literalistic Protestants to open-minded Pagans to feminists who rail against cultural images. I can't think of many of my friends who wouldn't enjoy the book, and even fewer who would not benefit from reading it. I have found its modern perspective on yin/yang quite helpful in examining my own tendencies, beliefs, and development. (In the past, I've been big on literal interpretation, against photography and GUIs, and down on lots of right-hemispheric modes of perception. In recent years, I haven't read as much, I've watched more movies, and have adopted a more benign view of many Christians.)

Edit February 15, 2009: In the intervening years, I've become less enamored with Leonard Shlain's work. He tries a little too hard to cram the entirety of human history into some simple ideas of the brain. His books and presentations are very enjoyable and informative, but they need a heavy dose of salt. He points out a lot of connections between elements of the zeitgeist that are worth chewing on, but I think the story he tells about their unification is a little simplistic. I still think The Alphabet vs. the Goddess is a book worth reading, but readers interested in the subject should read widely; there are a lot of cognitive scientists with interesting theories who also write well "at the Scientific American level" as Prof. Paulson would say.
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1 vote
flwyd | 23 other reviews | Nov 13, 2022 |


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