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Tom Wolfe and the “Kudzu” of “Settled Science”

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Writing in Commentary, Andrew Ferguson offers a fantastic review of Tom Wolfe’s takedown of Darwin, The Kingdom of Speech.

On Jerry Coyne’s review in the Washington Post:

The reviewer was Jerry Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago and a volunteer border cop who patrols the perimeter where science and popular culture meet, making sure that scientists are accorded the proper deference. The Kingdom of Speech is deeply transgressive in this way. Wolfe makes sport of scientific pretensions generally and neo-Darwinian pretensions specifically, and Coyne, a neo-Darwinist to the soles of his Birkenstocks, isn’t going to let a mere journalist, or even a Grand Old Man of Letters, get away with it.

Fact-check: Coyne wears specially custom-handmade cowboy boots, not Birkenstocks. He must own closets full. We know because he spends a great deal of space on his evolution blog detailing this with accompanying photos of the boots both under construction and on his feet. Only imagined dialogues between a cat and a dog receive more attention. Even Wolfe would have a hard time spoofing Coyne. Otherwise this is spot-on.


[Coyne] charges him with ignorance and unreason and, above all, presumption. Among scientists, this is a common reaction to an uppity layman. In their better moods, even scientific fundamentalists will tell you the glory of science lies in the endless empirical testing and revision of theories, the back-and-forth of assertion and rebuttal, the stuttering, incremental advance toward truth, the openness to dissent and new ideas. And most often that’s what science is. Let an uncredentialed outsider sneak into the lab, however, asking rude questions about one theory or another, and — wham! — the back-and-forth is shut down and something called “settled science” rises in its place to keep the amateurs at bay.

In neo-Darwinism, the “settled science” has spread like kudzu, as more and more areas of human life, from morality to music, are recast as nothing more than the consequence of natural selection.

“Settled science” as kudzu infestation. A brilliant image.

On the role of human exceptionalism, and careerism, in the evolution debate:

You don’t hear much about [Alfred Russel] Wallace anymore, and you hear even less about [Max] Muller, while their contemporary Darwin became, of course, one of the most famous men who ever lived. Human exceptionalism has a lot to do with their relative reputations. Wallace embraced it and so did Muller; indeed, they thought it was self- evident. Darwin didn’t. And most scientists, especially fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, have inherited Darwin’s materialism as dogma. It’s a good deal for scientists. After all, if everything we consider uniquely human is a consequence of purely materialistic processes, then the guys who study materialistic processes for a living hold the key to every human question. It’s nice work if you can get it.

Marx had this much right: Ideas are strongly influenced by the way people choose to make a living. The practice of materialist science is self-confirming. The notion that scientists with a lifetime invested in drawing materialist conclusions would readily give fair consideration to ideas challenging the way they make their living is a joke.

Putting The Kingdom of Speech into the context of Wolfe’s earlier books:

The Kingdom of Speech is popular intellectual history of the most exhilarating kind. Its closest antecedents came along nearly 40 years ago, both of them also by Wolfe. The Painted Word laid waste the world of abstract art, and From Bauhaus to Our House attacked the absurdities of modernist architecture. In all three of these books, Wolfe lampoons the reigning orthodoxy of our intellectual elites…

In conclusion:

Wolfe joins a small and hardy band of writers and other high-brows who take joy in staring down the bullies of scientism: Marilynne Robinson, David Berlinski, Wendell Berry, Thomas Nagel, a few others.

Berlinski, Nagel, Wolfe — that is excellent company to be in. Read the rest here.

Photo: Kudzu infestation, Atlanta, Georgia, by Scott Ehardt via Wikicommons.