Open Letter to Tom Wolfe

Author and journalist Tom Wolfe died On May 14 of pneumonia, at the age of 88.  He was a wonderful writer, of fiction as well as non-fiction, and a penetrating popper of rhetorical bubbles. I corresponded with a him a few times about various neuroscience topics.

In 2016 in his book on language, The Kingdom of Speech, Mr. Wolfe wrote about two eminent scientific figures, one from the nineteenth century one from the twentieth. His take on Noam Chomsky, that the great linguist is somewhat arrogant and immune to empirical evidence, is very plausible, But, his view of Charles Darwin, as class-privileged and ambitious for personal fame, does not at all fit with my knowledge of him.  I wrote to Mr. Wolfe to make my argument, but he did not respond.  Here is the letter:

Dear Tom Wolfe:

You are much too tough on poor old Charlie Darwin who, from everything I have read by him and about him, was a very decent man.

In 1992 or so I made notes for a review of a tendentious and inflated book on Darwin by Desmond and Moore, a book much admired by the propagandist Stephen Jay Gould (I could give you much chapter and verse on Gould’s mendacious treatment of the Bell Curve book and the IQ/heritability controversy in general, for example).  D & M interpreted much of Darwin’s science in social/political terms.  Like you, they think he cheated Wallace.  D & M also favor the reader with many magical intrusions into Darwin’s private thoughts.  I never wrote the review, but most of my notes could do as well for your class-conscious attack on Darwin.

I have read much Darwin and never saw any evidence of snobbery.  (And I can claim first-hand knowledge of British snobbery, having a left-school-at-14 cockney father and Anglo-Indian mother and being a grammar-school boy myself! And Darwin married into “trade” – his cousin Emma Wedgewood) Yes, Darwin was hooked in to the establishment, but it was an intellectual establishment not one based on wealth or class.  Darwin and Wallace met and corresponded all amiably.  As far as I can tell, they got along just fine.  Wallace was deferential, but Darwin was the older man and better established.

D & M’s main thesis, like yours, is that Darwin cheated Wallace.  But that is not correct because they, and you, make an implicit assumption that is completely wrong. The wrong assumption is that being first to publish an idea is, and should be, the only basis for assigning scientific credit.  Not true.  The weight of evidence behind a theory – which takes time to collect – is just as important as the theory itself.  Darwin hesitated to publish for some 20 years because he was building his case.  Unlike many modern scientists he did not look for the LPU – “least publishable unit” – as a way to puff up his CV.  He did the right thing by holding back from publication until he had an overwhelming case.  He should not be punished for acting responsibly. And he did think of natural selection first!

That is why Lyell and his other friends wanted him to share credit – not because they were of the same social class.  They knew he had been working for years to find evidence in support of his theory.  Or contrary to it: Darwin was very good about considering contradictory evidence – just read the Origin.

What is more, Wallace agreed he had been treated fairly.  He never held anything against Darwin, calling one of his books Darwinism, as you point out.  So what right have we, knowing less and living in a different time, what right have we to blame Darwin if Wallace did not? (And do you really want to appear to parrot Desmond and Moore?)

Finally, natural selection and language: I agree with you and others that the evolution of language, and human intelligence generally, is still a problem.  But I think Darwin was also well aware of the difficulties.  Unlike Noam C, he was a cautious and thoughtful scientist.  Darwin did make a mistake, though.  He believed that variation – the raw material on which selection must act – is always, or almost always, random and small in extent (he did know about large variants called “sports”, though: he just thought them too rare to have much evolutionary effect). He was wrong on both counts: variation is sometimes large and not random.  He also believed in some Lamarckian effects, inheritance of acquired characters, for which he has been much criticized.  But of course recent work on epigenetics shows he was to some extent right about that.

Incidentally, Darwin also well knew about what he called “correlated variation” the fact that selection for one characteristic often brings other irrelevant ones along with it – tameness and floppy ears (dogs, Russian foxes), large beak and large feet (pigeons) large hands and large…(Donald Trump) and so on.  Sickle-cell anemia is the classic example: if you have one sickle gene you have limited immunity to malaria, if you have two, you are sick.

I think you and others are correct in doubting that the evolution of language and human intelligence depends much on natural or even sexual selection.  It seems obvious to me that it depends much, much more on the very neglected topic of variation: what are the kinds of changes in cognitive repertoire offered up from generation to generation by genetic and epigenetic variation?  More generally, is variation small from one generation to the next (as Darwin implies) or is it sometimes large?  Is it directional? Does it tend to move in a preferred direction (recurrent mutations are one case where there is clearly a built-in trend)? And so forth..

With that sole correction – that the humans’ apparent leap in language and cognitive development depends much more on the (largely unknown) properties of genotypic and phenotypic variation than on natural selection – human beings and their  evolution may be safely reunited with rest of the animal kingdom.  Darwin was wrong about variation, but not wrong about natural selection.  His problem is that natural selection may indeed be almost irrelevant to the evolution of whatever it is that makes people smarter than chimps.

And finally, are language and culture simply a manifestation of human cognitive abilities in general – nothing special to see here, move on!  That simply re-labels the problem.  Neither a chimp nor even a border collie can spontaneously construct tools or sentences in the way that a human child can.  What does the kid have that the ape does not?  That is still a problem, whether you call the evolution of language the evolution of intelligence or the evolution of culture.


John Staddon

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