A BUG'S LIFE: A Conversation with Tom Wolfe

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Noted Author Tom Wolfe discusses the latest findings in the field of neuroscience, which Wolfe believes"... is on the threshold of a unified theory that will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism a hundred years ago." Over the past several decades, neuroscientists have been putting together a model of the human brain that suggests that a great deal of our behavior and motivations are hardwired in our brains. In exploring the question of what human nature is, Tom Wolfe makes the connection between this cutting edge and religion, philosophy, and psychology.

Recorded on Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Joining us today is one of the nation's leading authors, Tom Wolfe, whose many works include the Right Stuff, Bonfire with the Vanities and most recently, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe and I will be talking about, well, we'll be talking about ants. Evidently ants have quite a lot in common with us. Studying an ant colony. Here we have an ant farms and a complete ant village and you'll notice a number of distinct occupations. There are soldier ants, policeman ants, hunter ants, gatherer ants, and on and on and on.

Now each ant may think that it has freely chosen its role in life, but of course we know better. And so, genetically pre-determined. What has this got to do with us? As Tom Wolfe will explain, in recent years, neuroscience has been putting together a model of the human brain that chose of what a great deal of what we think and feel and do is, so to speak, hard-wired within us. Like ants, we're genetically predetermined. Tom Wolfe finds all of this fascinating. As a journalist and novelist, it's his job constantly to be asking what it means to be human. So prepare yourself for a wide range in discussion. From the cutting edge of science to religion, philosophy, psychology and ants.

From an essay by Tom Wolfe… Neuroscience, science of the brain and the central nervous system will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism 100 years ago. What is neuroscience and how can you make such an outlandish claim?

Tom Wolfe: I'm a hobbyist in this area, you have to understand. Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the central nervous system. But it's currently used, it ties in very closely with genetics and all the theories of genetics and in brief, my contention is that this is very rapidly changing the way that human beings look at themselves.

Peter Robinson: Who is E.L. Wilson?

Tom Wolfe: He's the new Darwin. He believes totally in Darwin 1 and Charles Darwin. He's Darwin 2 but he's equipped with all the latest findings and genetics, plus his own studies of ants. And his theory can be summed up in a sense, because he was kind enough to do that in an interview. Not with me, but in an interview. He said, "Every human brain is born not as a blank slate waiting to be filled in by experience, but as a negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid." And of course the implication is you can develop that negative well, or you can develop it poorly. But all you're going to get ever after is what's printed on that negative at birth.

Peter Robinson: So in the age-old debate between nurture and nature, he is tilting things way in the direction of nature.

Tom Wolfe: Right. And this is what I think changing people's own opinion of themselves so rapidly. The two great theories which have affected, I probably out of the most people in the world in the past 100 years, even people didn't believe in them consciously, Marxism and Freudism. Both of those are in fact environmental theories.

Marx says that your life, your destiny is your position in the class struggle. In effect he thinks that you're a blank slate waiting to be filled in by the class struggle.

Freud narrows the environment of it, but he says our destiny is created by the edible drama in the family that we're born into. Who's jealous of whom, whether the father or the son is getting the attention of the mother, and so on. It's also environmental. But now this new theory or this updated Darwinism updated to take advantage of studies of genes and the brain says that we're essentially mechanisms that are programmed from birth. And that belief that we have all this free will and we choose our careers is really a small part of a delusion. The lesson came to this point by studying ants. If you look closely at ants, they have a tremendous differentiation in employment. There are soldier ants and policeman ants. They probably think that they each do something different, when in fact it's all built into their genetic code.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So if genetics really does determine so much of our behavior, what happens to free will? We have all the great religions of the world. Or all the great moral systems, religious or secular, are predicated upon the notice of free will. Not a lot of free will necessarily. You don't get to choose the moment of your birth, you don't get to choose your parents, and you don't get to choose your gender. But enough free will to choose between good and evil at various times in one's life. And E.L. Wilson says….?

Tom Wolfe: He says that a lot of the moral choices that we think we're making freely are programmed genetically. For example, the tendency of most adults to go out of their way even at the risk of their own life and limb to protect small children, even if they're not their own children. There's something in us that makes us want to protect those small creatures. He maintains that this is the product of evolution. He's a mature man and savvy. He doesn't go as far as the young neuroscientists do.

Peter Robinson: And there's a new generation coming up.

Tom Wolfe: New generation coming up believe completely in the idea that we are machinery. We are strands of molecules with DNA's inside of you, which lead up to the best machine of all, which is the chemical analog computer called the human brain. And we believe, and I for one find it impossible not to believe, but we believe that there's inside of skull somewhere is ourselves. That, in my mind, there's always been a little brass crucible. I mean, and you can get anything you want to mean physically, but you never get to that little brass crucible.

Peter Robinson: Invaluable self.

Tom Wolfe: Invaluable. And I have one center of consciousness. Somewhere in there is this one thing that makes me conscious. These true believers believe that we are so much a piece of machinery that it will be possible to predict the activities of a human being. Me. Presumably you. Moment by moment. They don't pretend that they can really do that now, but they think that since there's no, but in theory, it's graspable. It's like predicting the weather. There are a large number of variables and we can at least control them over a short period of time. It's based on a single proposition, which is that we are entirely physical.

Peter Robinson: No soul?

Tom Wolfe: No soul.

Peter Robinson: No free will?

Tom Wolfe: No free will.

Peter Robinson: No moral capacity? No difference except the degree of elaboration of our physical structures between us and the ants.

Tom Wolfe: Right. And they put mind in quotes and put self in quotes. Of course soul they put in quotes for years.

Peter Robinson: And they sign their names in quotes? [laughter] Is Tom Wolfe as skeptical of the findings of neuroscience as he sounds?

Tom Wolfe: I'm not meaning to—I sound like I'm knocking these people, but I'm not. It's a very exciting field. They're learning things about the mind. Certain quotes unfortunately that no one would have ever dreamed. Let me just give you a couple of examples of studies that have—that are changing already the way people look at themselves.

Already this theory has bubbled out into politics, along both liberals and conservatives. Among liberals, let's say the Gay Rights Movement. There is the tremendous interest in the discovery of the so-called gay gene by [Dean Hamer] of the National Institute of Health. He's a very respected researcher. If in fact homosexuality is caused by a genetic hard-wiring, that's another phrase that's often used, hard-wiring, then to have any sanctions against it, social or political or legal, would be a violation of nature.

At the same time, conservatives have seized upon studies that indicate that men and women are wired quite differently due to evolution over several hundred thousand years. So not nearly are their bodies different, their strengths different, but their emotional wiring is different and that there are certain occupations that women really should not be involved in because that is a violation of nature.

In fact, Wilson himself got into a very deep trouble—

Peter Robinson: Darwin the 2nd.

Tom Wolfe: Darwin the 2nd got into deep trouble. He's very much personally, as far as I can tell, I haven't met him. I'd love to meet him. As far as I can tell, he's very much a liberal. He's on the Harvard faculty, I mean, what do you want. And he's very strong in environmental issues and so on. And in one occasion he happened to say in an interview, "I agree with the goals of the feminists, they are absolutely right with what they seek. All they seek is justice in the kind of world that we live in now." He says, "Unfortunately, the last 300,000 years of evolution militates against their achieving the goals that they seek…" Well, you may not think that was inflammatory, but—

Peter Robinson: At Harvard it's probably not allowed to say that sort of thing.

Tom Wolfe: The next time he was at a neuroscientific conference, a platoon of feminists broke in and one of them had a pitcher full of ice water and dumped it over his head, you know, cubes and everything were bouncing off, and then they started pointing to him and chanting, "You're all wet….you're all wet… you're all wet…" and then they picketed his course at Harvard in Socio-Biology, a term that he has coined. Not just once but for a year. So for—

Peter Robinson: He wouldn't back down. He didn't exactly recant.

Tom Wolfe: No he wasn't backing down. I mean, he had said the truth is inside. But the students who went to that class had to cross a picket line for a year. So that's how hot it is.

Peter Robinson: The IQ cap.

Tom Wolfe: The theory is that we are hard wired for all sorts of things and there are many neuroscientists who believe we are hard wired for intelligence. And you all remember the great furor over the book the [Bell Curve] by [Charles Murray and Richard Hurnastein], a couple of neuroscientists invited the IQ cap. You can put it on someone's scalp without even cutting the hair. It musses it up a little bit, but you can put these 20 electrodes on. The person stares at a spot. And the experimenter who was telling me about it showed me the cap. He uses a red thumbtack that pushes into a plastic board and the subject stares, with the cap on, stares at this red thumbtack for 20 seconds. That's all it takes, 20 seconds. And the experimenter using the hardware and the software can give you an IQ reading that is within five points of the reading you would get if you sat down with a number 2 soft lead pencil and filled in all those bubbles.

Peter Robinson: No muss, no fuss, no three hours to take a multiple-choice exam.

Tom Wolfe: The inventors thought that they would make a fortune. Because think of untold hours of salaries and time labor for everybody. In fact, nobody wants it. I don't want it. I was scared too death he was going to say, "Put it on I'll show you." I don't want to know that my IQ is hard wired. I want to be able to say, "I didn't get much sleep last night," or you know I'm never good in the morning. I want an excuse. Everybody wants an excuse. So that great invention is a remarkable—

Peter Robinson: But you are persuaded by the science?

Tom Wolfe: I'm afraid it's true.

Peter Robinson: Afraid it's true.

Tom Wolfe: Yeah, I'm afraid it's true. Just as—not to compare myself to Nietzsche—but Nietzsche was afraid Darwin was right.

Peter Robinson: Nietzsche—how does Nietzsche fit into this? [Friedric Wilhelm Nietzsche], a German philosopher born 1844 died in [Sang] in 1900 and you have written in effect that you just saw it all coming.

Tom Wolfe: He made some predictions that are really pretty hard to argue against. In1880's he predicted that the 20th Century would be a century of wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. This was in correlate of his statement that God is dead. By which he meant not that I now make an atheistic declaration, he was saying I'm bringing you the news. That's the way he put it, I'm bringing you the news of the greatest event of modern history. Those were his actual words. The fact that educated people no longer believed in God. And he said once, I said before you Atheists run up your banners of triumph, let me sketch in the history of the next centuries. He predicted the world wars, in no small part, because he said the faith that was previously put into God would now go into a barbaric nationalistic brotherhood. So he's not only predicting the world wars of the 20th Century but Communism and Facisms. And he said that since you no longer considered yourself made in the image of God, and you've considered yourself as a somewhat more highly developed form of the beast of the field, well then you're going to be eternally skeptical. Because obviously the so-called eternal varieties of beauty and truth are just weapons used by the strong to subjugate the weak. So he said 20th Century would be a century of tremendous skepticism, of self-loathing as well as loathing for others. And this has been a century of tremendous skepticism I would say. And science has progressed through skepticism.

Peter Robinson: He used the phrase total eclipse of all value?

Tom Wolfe: Well that was his prediction for the 21st Century. He said the—we would limp through the 20th Century on the remaining moral capital of the 19th Century. Pretty soon it will just be an osteoparadic skeleton. It would be nothing left. Then would come a tremendous flarity of attempts to create new religions. Which he said would all fail because without the belief in God, no moral codes means a thing. Then we'd have something that's worse than world wars, which would be the total eclipse of all values. If you're just an animal and you're just a machine, how can you say that anything is really a value that must be worshipped or believed?

Peter Robinson: And now arises E.L. Wilson, the prim scholarly gentlemanly figure at Harvard to blot out the last of the values?

Tom Wolfe: Well, not in his mind. Those who are part of this movement, this evolution of Darwinism have their own rationales for why nothing really has to change in terms of morality. But what interests me is I think the public, I think I and the public, of which I am very much a part, are getting the message. The message that is coming through is not the, well it'll all work out. The message that is coming through is that the fix is in. We are allies with terms by forces that we really have no control.

Peter Robinson: To be fair to—

Peter Robinson: Grant that the findings of the neuroscientists are shaking the foundations of our traditional moral systems. Have they come up with any new foundations?

You said a moment ago, E.L. Wilson was sympathetic, more than sympathetic. Completely identified with the goals of feminism on the grounds of justice. But said you're going to have trouble because we're hard wired to behave in a certain way. But where does he derive his notion of justice?

Tom Wolfe: I don't know. He does have—there's an explanation that—there's [Daniel Denet] who's another of the theorists in this area. And they do have—I think of them as rationalizations as to why we shouldn't be that way.

Peter Robinson: Would the notion be something like, justice helps to hold the colony of ants together? That our notions of morality are useful?

Tom Wolfe: They would be genetically determined. That would be the argument. And that a lot of the--Wilson included, thinkers in this area, now believe in memes. Memes are like genes.

Peter Robinson: Not means to an end, but memes..

Tom Wolfe: Memes, m-e-m-e-s. And that somehow the social constructs of humanity can be carried from one generation to another just the way physical, electrical, neuro-brain traits can be passed along.

Peter Robinson: Actually biologically transmitted.

Tom Wolfe: Yeah, but, no one's ever seen a meme yet. No has even pretended to see one and it's really like fairy dust. That fairies are sprinkling on genes to explain things like morality—

Peter Robinson: Isn't there a logical contradiction in the science itself? That is to say, if consciousness itself—the way I, what came to mind as you were speaking is, gargoyles we put on for virtual reality. And in fact, they suggest that when we take the gargoyles off it's still virtual reality. Nothing but machines watching a kind of cinema in front of our eyeballs. But if that's the case, how can they know that the discoveries of neuroscience are in any way objectively true, and not just another projection of their brains.

Tom Wolfe: Well they don't take as far as someone like, the Frenchman, Foucault and [unintelligible] now do. They have all these interpretations—reality interpretations. I notice they all go to the same cardiologist for their by-pass operations, but anyway, everything—Wilson doesn't really go that far. I think if I were entering college today, I would go into neuroscience. It's exciting. This is the hottest subject in academic. And young philosophers are heading out the of Philosophy Departments into Neuroscience. It’s very exciting.

Peter Robinson: But you are persuaded. I mean the science is compelling. It’s an exciting field. And we’ve had a few chuckles on it, but it is a little alarming because to the very extent that the science is compelling, they are really quite greatly reducing the field for moral choice, faith, a legitimate sense of self. Any notion of objective good--now why are you smiling? Isn’t this bad news?

Tom Wolfe: Well it reminds me--I was raised a Presbyterian, that’s from way even from the beginning. We believed in predestination.

Peter Robinson: Well, but see I think you don’t buy it. At some level you don’t buy because you can’t write a great novel about ants.

Tom Wolfe: Well, there was a couple good movies that came out. Actually they were pretty good, but they were human beings in the guise of ants, of course. I don’t--I find it personally impossible to believe it because I cannot believe that there is no center of consciousness and that there is no self and no mind. But I do not brush off their findings just because I find it hard to imagine it--

Peter Robinson: Despite the scientific evidence, Tom Wolfe goes right on believing in individual free will, which brings us to the question of faith.

I’m going to quote again from an essay. I had a picture of modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. This is modern man whose system of values neuroscience has destroyed. Plunging back into the primordial ooze. He’s floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze when he feels something huge and smooth swim up beneath him and boost him up like some almighty dolphin. He can’t see it, but he’s much impressed. He names it God. This time Wolfe believes in God?

Tom Wolfe: No. But this has to do really, I was thinking of Nietzsche’s final prediction. His was made in a notebook entry and not long before he went into his final illness. He said that science which has, has reigned through skepticism over man’s magical beliefs for so long will finally have only one target left, after neuroscience has developed. And that will be itself. And science will turn on itself and begin to self-destruct. And this has already beginning to happen. One of the interesting areas this has happened is challenges among scientists, not among religions, among scientists on the theory of evolution. As a biochemist, Michael Behe, who maintains that Darwinism works fine, as a theory. So long as you start with a cell, because a cell can divide in two like an [ameba]. And from the cell division you can create all kinds of--you can envision all kinds of creatures. But unfortunately for the theory, the cell itself is a very complicated little factor. And there is no way that the things you find inside of a cell could have evolved from anywhere or from one another. [So he’s attached a beginning]--

Peter Robinson: Are they gaining ground?

Tom Wolfe: They’re doing much better than they did 10 years ago. Because they are more sophisticated scientists who are entering the game. It’s American Scientists who believe most doggedly in the theory of evolution. In Europe there’s not nearly that absolute axiomatic belief.

Peter Robinson: I want to return to this almighty dolphin because it made a great deal to me when I read it in the essay. And so what you’re suggesting is that the almighty dolphin is one more construct?

Tom Wolfe: No. Here I agree.

Peter Robinson: In almighty dolphin [cross talk]

Tom Wolfe: Once again I agree with Nietzsche. Nietzsche says that we assume because we were born and we die. We know that everyone we’re aware of in our lives has gone through the cycle or is going through it. The things we eat are born and they die. All the animals are born and they die. All the crops are born and they die. We believe that everything begins and has an end. He says when in fact, that’s just our mindset. Just because everything that we see does this, that doesn’t mean that it happened to the world. And he envisions the world as just a constantly turning soup. And that probably we’ll get back to everything in eternity. Everything will repeat itself. He says, "Thank God we don’t know that we’re repeating something, and we don’t know what lies ahead," which I think is a very sophisticated theory.

Peter Robinson: I cannot quite square your agreement with Nietzsche. That the world is a constantly turning soup. That is just a despairing sense of meaninglessness with the sprightliness, the sense of fun, the social perception in Tom Wolfe novels, which begin and move to an end point. There’s a sense of direction and meaning.

Tom Wolfe: Well I’m counting on the next time I’m doing it right.

Peter Robinson: If somebody in Boswell’s life of Johnson--Boswell reports Samuel Johnson meeting a friend in Oxford and turning to Boswell and said he tried to be a philosopher but cheerfulness kept breaking in. And I said, you mean, do you believe in nature? But he just--cheerfulness keeps breaking--

Tom Wolfe: Remember I didn’t say that I swallowed the whole philosophy. I said the predictions are not bad.

Peter Robinson: To the crucible of self, Tom Wolfe, thank you very much.

Tom Wolfe: You’re welcome. I enjoyed this.

Peter Robinson: The crucible of self versus the findings of neuroscience. Personally I’m with Tom Wolfe. I just can’t believe that we’re all preprogrammed as ants. I wonder if there’s a television host in there. I’m Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.