Science and the Fate of the Human Soul in Tom Wolfe
Abstract: This article investigates Tom Wolfe’s assessment of the age-old debate between nature and nurture, the Cartesian mind–body problem, and the tensions between science, politics, and morality that result from the human struggle to explain what the components of a human being are. I begin with Wolfe’s own study of what evolution and neuroscience tell us about the “Human Beast.” Wolfe is not certain that evolution tells the whole story of how human beings came to be who and what they are in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Evolution got us to the point of speech but Wolfe is persuaded that at that point, evolution ended and speech took over. Speech, according to Wolfe, made the development of reason and ingenuity and the creation of culture possible. And it is culture, the shared set of human behavior, knowledge, and beliefs, manners, and mores, and, above all for Wolfe, status, which then informs human motivation and actions. Wolfe is open to the idea that neuroscience might eventually be able to explain every detail of how and why the human brain functions as it does but he is skeptical that it will be able to explain away completely the idea that each of us is an individual, striving for honor and success within our status sphere. Keywords: science, human nature, Tom Wolfe ach year, the National Endowment for the Humanities invites a prominent speaker to deliver its prestigious Jefferson lecture—“the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” In 2006, it was Tom Wolfe who delivered the Jefferson lecture, and his subject was “the Human Beast,” or as Wolfe modestly announces in his introductory remarks, “everything you will ever need to know Carol McNamara is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Utah State University.
about the human beast.”1 In perhaps his most high-status lecture, Wolfe proposes to take on nothing less than the very nature of the human, in part because it is the subject at the heart of the humanities as a whole, but also because it is the subject at the center of his own inquiries and writing. Wolfe’s questions about human life and society lead him to the questions at the very core of what constitutes human nature: What provides the motivation for human activity? What accounts for the direction human action takes? Are we freely selfgoverning or directed by biological forces? Is a human being a bˆ te humaine, a human beast, or homo sapiens, a wise man? e Wolfe’s intention in the Jefferson lecture and elsewhere in his writing is to understand what constitutes the self, or the soul, or the consciousness of a human being, and to consider what the possible answers to the questions above have to tell us about the life of the individual and his or her relationship to society. This article proposes to investigate Wolfe’s assessment of the age-old debate between nature and nurture, the Cartesian mind–body problem, and the tensions between science, politics, and morality that result from the human struggle to explain what the components of a human being are. I begin with Wolfe’s exploration of what evolution and neuroscience tell us about the “Human Beast.” Because Wolfe is both fascinated by science as well as skeptical that pure science can provide a fully comprehensive explanation of human nature and the human mind, I will also look at Wolfe’s consideration of answers, or at least questions, he ﬁnds outside science, in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and in the sociologist Max Weber’s theory of status seeking.
THE “HUMAN BEAST” It is not surprising to discover that the title of Wolfe’s Jefferson lecture, “The Human Beast,” is ironic. Wolfe does not reject entirely the theory of…