Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tendentious Tom Wolfe   posted by Razib @ 5/08/2008 10:44:00 PM

Over at The Corner they are discussing an interview series with Tom Wolfe. Wolfe claimed that Charles Darwin was a plagiarist. Derb pushed back. Since they keep talking about the interview, I decided to watch. A few notes....

Wolfe says that Darwin was an obscure man who had a famous grandfather (Erasmus I'm assuming, not Josiah Wedgewood). I don't think this is really right. Unfortunately, we can't run an experiment which deletes Charles Darwin's contribution to science, but before he became the great evolutionary thinker he was a prominent travel writer. The Voyage of the Beagle went through several editions; I'm not sure we would remember Charles Darwin today (how many popular Victorian authors do we remember now?), but he was not an obscure figure in mid-19th century England.

Then he notes that E. O. Wilson believes everything is genetically predetermined. That we have no free will; we can't change our decisions. Wilson, especially during the Sociobiology years offered up a few naive quotes; but as anyone who has wrestled with heritability knows a simple affirmation of genetic determinism is so banal as to be trivial. Wolfe is either overreading, or not communicating the nuance of his genuine thinking.

After this Wolfe goes on to make the distinction between genetic theory and neuroscience whereby the former is literature and the latter is science. He also suggests that the three leading lights of genetic theory are totally unversed in the workings of the brain. Who are these leading lights? E. O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Wolfe correctly notes that by training Dennett is a philosopher and Dawkins is an ethologist; so it is peculiar that he considers them leading lights. Wilson is more properly a field ecologist who generally leaves theoretical work to a collaborator (Robert MacArthur or Charles Lumsden for example). Since Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts I assume he stumbles onto neuropsychological material now and then. Obviously Wolfe has fallen into the all too common trap of conflating popularizers with eminent researchers; easy if you don't do your homework. John Maynard Smith, W. D. Hamilton and Richard Lewontin are evolutionary genetic scientists of note; much of Dawkins's thinking is derivative from the first two, while Wilson was influenced by Hamilton, and finally Dennett seems clearly to have had evolution predigested for him by Dawkins. An emphasis on the evolutionary part is critical; from what I know it seems that molecular genetics along the biophysical margins does bleed into neuroscience quite a bit. One of the founding fathers of modern molecular genetics, Francis Crick, spent his last years focused on neuroscience. Wolfe knows this so he really didn't mean to dismiss all genetics as literature; just evolutionary biology. I won't object too strenuously to this characterization, but I will submit that neuroscience today is too young a discipline to be taking on airs. There are many facts strewn about, but it seems that even the skeleton of a theoretical superstructure does not exist to scaffold them into a coherent whole.

Finally, you can check out the second to last interview segment (the last has not been put up yet), Wolfe here is claiming that the emergence of language resulted in a post-evolutionary age for our species. This is false of course; since dismissing genetic theory as literature he hasn't been keeping up on the literature obviously! The whole line of thinking struck me as incoherent, so perhaps I'm missing something. Wolfe also makes a host of extremely disputable assertions about unique human tool use, the rationality of humans and the lack of relation of modern status games with evolutionary genetics.

In any case, I only checked it out because of the gushing in The Corner. I'm a dilettante myself so I wasn't going into it looking to pick out errors, but these seemed to be worthy of correction since obviously many people look to Tom Wolfe as an Authority and keen observer of the world. I'll probably check out his novels; I'm sure he makes up for his sloppy characterization of science with a sharp eye toward fluid prose....

Update: Derb weighs in again.