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Tom Wolfe on Nature, Nurture, Individual Responsibility and How to Write Novels

Hurrah for remainder shops. A week or two ago I found a copy of Tom Wolfe’s little book of essays entitled Hooking Up, after the first essay in it (which I thought was the least good one), for £2.99. It is crammed with interesting and very readable stuff, including a wonderful piece called “My Three Stooges”, in which the Wolfe man rips the pants (first in the American sense and then in the British) off three critically acclaimed but not much read (compared to him) novelist rivals of his (John Updike, Norman Mailer, John Irving). I do love a good literary row. Lots of hits below the belt. Lots of quasi-military calculation, on both sides. These Stooges, by the time Wolfe has finished devouring them, come across, to switch metaphors, as giant structures that occupy the spaces that ought to be occupied by real writers of real substance, but with nothing inside them, like that design to replace the Twin Towers with giant empty children’s climbing frames. By going for Wolfe in a gang the stooges hoped that they’d flatten him. By counter-attacking against all of them instead of just picking on one and ignoring the others, Wolfe comes over as Errol Flynn, as the outnumbered hero, rather than just as a rougher and tougher bully.

The piece I’ve just finished reading is the one called “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died”, which is about the collapse and replacement of Freudianism and Marxism by “Neuroscience”, as Wolfe terms it. Neuroscience is the catch-all name he gives to the fact that Neuroscience (minus inverted commas) is, he says, the new hot scientific frontier, together with the claim that it and other closely related theories (such as Evolutionary Biology) explain everything that people think and do. To me it is all very clear what is and is not true here. First, unlike Freudianism and Marxism, Neuroscience and Evolutionary Biology are genuine scientific disciplines. But as the bases for a Universal Theory of Everything to explain and predict everything that we do or will ever do, they are merely the latest version of the delusion that goes: hey we’ve got cool machines now that they didn’t use to have, and hey, we know stuff about the brain or the universe, or whatever, that all those dead guys didn’t know before, ergo, we now know (or will soon discover) everything. We are about to be Gods. Which means that we sort of are already.

No you aren’t fellas. But Wolfe loves to get out there into the real world (into “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours”) and chew the fat with guys like this, whether they are jet jocks (The Right Stuff), “Masters of the Universe” (Bonfire of the Vanities), or, as now, brain scientists (to reclaim this wild, bizarre, etc. country of ours “as a literary property”). These Gods of Neuroscience may not find out everything, but in the meantime – like earlier generations of scientists who thought they could reduce the entire universe and everything in it to bouncing billiard balls – they are finding out a hell of a lot. And Wolfe revels in and respects and is happy to memorialise such high-achieving hubris every bit as much as he despises Gentlemen of Letters who ignore all such things and write only about their own divorces and their own literary lives, or about the past.

Wolfe makes much of the big difference between Marxism and Freudianism on the one hand, and “Neuroscience” on the other, which is that the first two are environmental, while the new revelation is hereditary. Marxism and Freudianism enthrone nurture, offering two different environments scribbling on the same blank slate, while Neuroscience enthrones nature, offering us, in the words of bug-hunting sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, “an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid”, that is to say, a nature that may or may not be developed, but is in the meantime predetermined by the photography that is Darwinian Evolution.

To me what is striking is the similarity of all three Grand Theories, in that all three offer the illusion of a total explanation of human behaviour, and all three offer, to the non-initiated mob, excuses for failure and for wickedness. All three are ranged against the notion of individual responsibility for individual action. All three make moral nonsense of murder trials which yield a “guilty” verdict and then take away the “bad guy” (note all the sneer inverted commas) and either execute him or bang him up for life, or the grounds that he damn well shouldn’t have done it and should have chosen to behave differently.

But, says the new revelation, he couldn’t help himself. In the olden days, of the two old revelations, bad guys weren’t really bad, because they were born poor, or came from deranged families. Now, the bad guys are born with bad genetic wiring. But the pitch is the same. You can’t blame anyone for anything.

But, whatever the degree of truth behind the ultimately false claim that genetic inheritance explains or can ever explain absolutely everything that we all do, if you rip the criminal law to pieces and turn it over to doctors or psychologists or for that matter neuroscientists, you are going to have yourself a lot more criminals. That truth is one you can carve into the tablets and hang up there for ever.

After all, suppose that wicked people are hardwired for inevitable wickedness. So what? Lefties deduce that this makes them blameless for their wickedness. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary to lock them up, and stop them being wicked. Even punishment, in fact especially punishment, has its place in the world of the genetic determinist, because punishment, especially if speedy and predictable, is something that even very wicked people may well be genetically programmed to pay attention to. And if they don’t pay attention to punishment, then surely they should be locked up for ever, and if that’s considered too expensive and hence unfair to the people impoverished by such procedures, just killed.

It’s horribly unfair to the ones who are born bad. But something like this has to be done if civilisation is to have a chance. It’s a brutal fact – human nature or no human nature, choice or no choice, individual responsibility or no individual responsibility – that societies with semi-functioning, not completely brutish and arbitrary criminal justice systems tick over after a fashion and maybe better than that, while societies without such systems are an evil shambles.

Politically, the interesting feature of all this is that whereas Marxism-versus-Individual-Reponsibility, and Freudianism-versus-Individual-Responsibility, were both left-versus-right dramas, and accordingly everyone in politics could feel comfortable about them, even as they exchanged ferocious blows with one another. Indeed, the two dramas tended to merge into one another.

But this battle – the one with “genetic determinism”, Neuroscience, Evolutionary Biology, “Human Nature”, or whatever we call it, on one side, and Individual Responsibility on the other – is a right-versus-right political drama. That’s uncomfortable for the right, because they are liable to be torn by civil war. And it’s uncomfortable for the left, because they are liable to get left out.

However, I think that Wolfe exaggerates the degree to which it is seriously being proclaimed, by philosophically serious people, that genetics really does determine everything. Oddly enough, he is a righty lining up with the lefties in this. Wolfe says that there are all these neuroscientists muttering on the quiet that genetic determinism is where it’s at, and that’s exactly what the lefties say is happening as well. And the lefties add that this is also what all those political righties say, also on the quiet.

Most of the actual righties, on the other hand, stand ready to trash any politically and philosophically ignorant neuroscientific hotshot who tries to elevate the hubristic canteen chatter of him and his new “Masters of the Universe” mates into a serious political philosophy. In this they are aided by non-righties such as Richard (The Selfish Gene) Dawkins, who are expert geneticists but who oppose genetic determinism. Wolfe implies that Dawkins and his ilk are just ageing ex-jocks, who just don’t have enough of the Right Scientific Stuff to embrace the logical consequences of their own discoveries and theories. Dawkins, Wolfe implies, has been “left behind”, like some clapped out former fighter pilot who now drives a 747. Me, I’m totally with Dawkins and against Wolfe on all this. Being an expert geneticists absolutely does not oblige you to be a determinist, any more than being an expert Newtonian physicists did in former times. I don’t like to think of myself as a righty any more than Dawkins does (well, not much more), but as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing remotely logical about the extreme kind of determinism, except as a mathematically modelled approximation to some mere aspect of reality.

In short, we good guys can take the best from both Neuroscience and from Individual Responsibility. We can dump the philosophical hubris now apparently attached to the former, while welcoming whatever truths, old and new, that it can tell us. And we must accept the philosophical crudities and downright injustices of the latter theory, while grimly noting that if you ignore it, you get mayhem and pillage out there in that real world, and you are doing the good people of the real world (however difficult the goodness of these good people may be to explain) no favours.

There is, of course, a problem with relying on remainder shops for your intellectual nourishment. You are liable to pay attention to intellectual news only years after it has broken. Hooking Up was first published as long ago as 2000, and the pieces in it were published pretty much in their final form in various magazines and journals during the years before then. So, I rather think that some of the above matters have been somewhat gone into before, by others who get their books free to review, or who can afford to buy them as soon as they come out, or who, unlike me, were properly internet-connected in the year 2000. Nevertheless, the stories Wolfe dealt with in Hooking Up, and especially in “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died” (which is what I’ve concentrated on), are important enough to be worth thinking about even if you do it a few years later than you might have.

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3 comments to Tom Wolfe on Nature, Nurture, Individual Responsibility and How to Write Novels

  • You know, we already have people with the same DNA running around… they’re called identical twins.

    Problem is, not enough of them are seperated at birth, so to speak, to get a clear handle on nature vs nurture.

    Of course, clones could also answer the question, but I doubt anyone would allow cloning for that purpose.

    The truth is discoverable: But we aren’t willing to pay the beastly price for it.

  • David

    I suspect that evolutionary biology may actually have some serious implications for all political philosophies (including libertarianism).

    Consider private property. There is at least some evidence that institutions such as private property are truly hard-wired into people’s brains and are not just social constructs (D. Brown 1991 “Human Universals” cited by S. Pinker 1997 “How the Mind works” p. 427).

    Such findings would have some pretty major implications. If people are “hard wired” towards certain sets of values and behaviours, any set of political principles (e.g. communism) that disregards the hard wiring is literally “against nature” and any set of principles that recognises and builds upon such “hard wired” values would have a good claim to being natural in the deepest sense.


  • If Communism’s demonstrated total failure as a model for government doesn’t convince Marx’s disciples, I doubt a charge of “unnaturalness” will dissuade them.