November 18, 2008


A Critic in Full: A Conversation with Tom Wolfe (Carol Iannone, 8/11/08, , Academic Questions

Iannone: About neuroscience, though, I thought I was getting from I Am Charlotte Simmons the idea that we’re resisting that, resisting that we are just impulses and synapses and so on?

Wolfe: There’s neuroscience the science and there’s genetic theory. They are two entirely different things. José Delgado, the Spanish neuroscientist, son of the Copernicus, the Galileo of neuroscience, José M.R. Delgado, puts it very clearly: “The human brain is enormously complicated. We have made only a few small steps in finding out how it works. All the rest is literature.” Delgado mentions no names, but if he has noticed them at all, “all the rest” probably includes some of the best known genetic theorists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, a zoologist and a philosopher. They are not neurologists. They know precious little about the human brain. They seem to have captivated a big following, especially Dawkins, but not with anything that could be called neuroscience. They’re writing speculative literature. Their theory is that the human brain is nothing but a machine, after all, a form of computer, and therefore it has no free will. In any situation we find ourselves we can only do what our evolutionary software—they love computer talk like “software,” meaning genetic makeup—has programmed us to do.
So at a recent conference on the implications of genetic theory for the legal system—five distinguished genetic theorists are up on stage—I stood up in the audience and asked, “If there is no free will, why should we believe anything you’ve said so far? You only say it because you’re programmed to say it.” You’ve never heard such stuttering and blathering in response to anything in your life. But I have to confess that I made the mistake of conflating science and genetic theory in the first piece I wrote about neuroscience, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died”…

Iannone: I think I remember that. And then when I first heard about I Am Charlotte Simmons I thought it was going to be about that, but instead I took it as more of a humanistic declaration on the part of an individual who is going to live and demand to be treated with respect and learn about life and make decisions and so on.

Wolfe: Well, I brought the subject into the novel because genetic theory is another immensely important novelty incubating in the universities. It tends to make you feel that the fix is in. You are born already programmed, and that’s that. It makes you think of Nietzsche’s prediction—in the 1880s—that the twenty-first century would see the total eclipse of all values. I wanted to show Charlotte Simmons wrestling with that subject rather than just spelling it all out.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2008 6:26 AM
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