November 13, 2007

EVOLUTION FOR THEE, BUT NOT FOR ME:

The Human Beast (Tom Wolfe, 2006 Jefferson Lecture)

Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.

I take that term, the human beast, from my idol, Emile Zola, who published a novel entitled The Human Beast in 1888, just 29 years after Darwin's The Origin of Species broke the stunning news that Homo sapiens--or Homo loquax, as I call him--was not created by God in his own image but was precisely that, a beast, not different in any essential way from snakes with fangs or orangutangs . . . or kangaroos. . . or the fang-proof mongoose. Darwin's doctrine, Evolution, leapt from the pages of a scientific monograph into every level of society in Europe and America with sensational suddenness. It created a sheerly dividing line between the God-fearing bourgeoisie who were appalled, and those people of sweetness and light whose business it was to look down at the bourgeosie from a great height. Today, of course, we call these superior people intellectuals, but intellectual didn't exist as a noun until Clemenceau applied it to Zola and Anatole France in 1896 during the Dreyfus Case. Zola's intellect was as sweetly enlightened as they made them. He was in with the in-crowd. Evenings he spent where the in-crowd went, namely, the Café Guerbois, along with Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Nadar, and le tout Paris boheme. He took his cues from the in-crowd's views, namely, Academic art was bad, Impressionism was good, and Homo sapiens had descended from the monkeys in the trees. Human beasts? I'll give you human beasts! Zola's aforementioned novel of that name, La Bete Humaine in French, is a story of four murderers, a woman and three men, who work down at track level on the Paris-Le Havre railroad line, each closing in on a different victim, each with a different motive, including the case of a handsome young passenger train engineer with a compulsion . . . to make love to women and then kill them. With that, Zola crowned himself as the first scientific novelist, a "naturalist," to use his term, studying the human fauna.

I love my man Zola. He's my idol. But the whole business exudes irony so rich, you can taste it. It tastes like marzipan. Here we have Darwin and his doctrine that in 1859 rocks Western man's very conception of himself . . . We have the most popular writer in the world in 1888, Zola, who can't wait to bring the doctrine alive on the page . . . We have the next five generations of educated people who have believed and believe to this day that, at bottom, evolution's primal animal urges rule our lives . . . to the point where the fourth greatest pop music hit of 2001, "You and Me, Baby" by the Bloodhound Gang, proclaims, "You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals. / So let's do it like they do on the Dis-cov-ery Channel"--it's rich! rich! rich beyond belief!

O. I love you, Emile, but by the time you and Darwin got hold of it, evolution had been irrelevant for 11,000 years. Why couldn't you two see it? Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," but Homo loquax, "man talking"! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends--we're very sentimental about predators these days, aren't we--the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars--they're "endangered," meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast's sufferance. The beast has dealt crippling blows even to the unseen empire of the microbes. Stunted adults from Third World countries with abysmal sanitation come to the United States and their offspring grow six or more inches taller, thanks to the wonders of hygiene. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys would be extinct by now had not the human beasts hit upon the idea of animal husbandry. So far the human beast enjoys the luxury of crying sentimental tears over the deer because she's so pretty. But the day the human beast discovers deer in his cellar, fawns in his bedroom closet, bucks tangling horns in the attic at night above his very bedroom . . . those filthy oversized vermin, the deer, will be added to that big long list above. We're sentimental about the dolphins, because they're so smart. What about the tuna? It's okay to kill tunas by the ton because they're dimwits? It would take an evolutionary mystic (and there are such) to believe these animals will ever evolve their way out of the hole they're in thanks to man's power of speech.


If you're looking for some good Pod fodder, the lecture is also available as an Mp3

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2007 8:57 AM
Comments

Great stuff - made my day

Wolfe is the best essayist living, best essayist of his generation, perhaps of the last 50 years - bar none

Posted by: Shelton at November 13, 2007 12:40 PM

Found the lecture today, independently. Wolfe quotes John 1:1 to greater effect than I have experienced in years.

In regard to Darwin, he pulls off a difficult trick -- damning someone with great praise.

All in all, a marvelous lecture.

Posted by: Ed Bush at November 13, 2007 9:30 PM
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