To borrow the title of one of Tom Wolfe’s books, it takes the right stuff to splash a drink in the face of the opinions that you are expected to hold in light of your social and professional position. Wolfe, dazzling journalist and novelist, had that stuff in great quantities, as he demonstrated again and again throughout his career.
The news of his death at age 88 comes today as a source of sadness and regret. But not entirely a surprise. Just yesterday in a meeting a colleague shared the results of efforts to invite Wolfe to join Michael Medved for an interview on our podcast Great Minds with Michael Medved. We were told, “Mr. Wolfe is no longer giving interviews.” That sounded ominously permanent.
He built up to his final act of treason against politically correct expectations with his last book, The Kingdom of Speech, a repudiation of Darwinism. The book came out in 2016 but his interest in the subject was telegraphed when he showed up in 2013 at Socrates in the City for a conversation between Eric Metaxas and Stephen Meyer about Darwin’s Doubt. Metaxas pointed Wolfe out to the crowd at the Union League Club. “When you become an icon,” said Eric, “people will embarrass you. There’s just nothing you can do about it. It’s tough.”
On evolution and more, Wolfe was not embarrassed by his own iconoclasm. He could not have put the point about Darwinian theory more plainly than in an interview with CBS News.
I came to the conclusion that Darwinism, the theory of evolution, is another myth. And it’s no use saying that human beings “evolved” from animals, because they’re creatures with totally different powers. If you have the power of speech, that’s also the power of memory.
To this the youthful interviewer replied with a look of disapproval and a brief lecture: “It is bold and some would say very dangerous to say that Darwinism and evolution is a myth.”
Yes, it is “very dangerous,” as a lot of scientists with doubts about Darwinism and inclinations toward intelligent design would tell you. That is, if they dared to do so on the record. Wolfe understood the way that open expression on evolution is thwarted by intimidation. And he wasn’t afraid to say so. He commented in a 2015 interview with The New Yorker that the situation reminded him of a notorious movement in history to silence unwelcome viewpoints. Wolfe “invokes the Spanish Inquisition when discussing how academics have cast out proponents of intelligent design for ‘not believing in evolution the right way.’”
The comparison was no idle exaggeration, as you’ll see from a glance at the website Free Science. Not “believing in evolution the right way” is a career killer. I could give plenty of illustrations — scientists threatened or falsely besmirched as “creationists” for giving the offense of expressing preferences for a more adequate theory than Darwinian evolution. This is one very effective way the scientific “consensus” on Darwinism is maintained.
The other way is through veiled appeals to social prestige, as Wolfe thoroughly acknowledged in The Kingdom of Speech. It’s been true going back all the way to Darwin himself and his “flycatcher” rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. (See “Evolution and the Insensitive Sandwich.”) Yesterday, in another foreshadowing of today’s news, a colleague teased me for what he called my “cynical” opinion that males are driven to an extraordinary degree in the views they espouse by “status anxiety”: that is, considerations of how these will be perceived socially, by others and by themselves.
This understanding is not cynical so much as it is Wolfean. I have been thinking this way about men since I read Wolfe’s first novel (completed at age 57!), The Bonfire of the Vanities. It appeared in 1987 and I was just out of college. Dissecting vanity was one of Wolfe’s consistent themes. And vanity, not science, is arguably the leading factor behind resistance to considering fresh ideas about evolution.
If more writers had Wolfe’s independence of mind, the public conversation about science and many other things would be a lot livelier and more informative. Instead, the mass are driven by a fear of being rendered unclean by association with the peasants. This is particularly clear when the peasants revolt, as in the struggle over political correctness. The typical journalist is more comfortable defending the lords in their castles. Wolfe mentions in the CBS interview that his next book was supposed to be about the phenomenon of PC — I wonder how far he got on that project.
The elegant white suits aside, shooting arrows at peasants was not Mr. Wolfe’s style. Can anyone take his place? Not that I’m able to see. Farewell.
Photo: Tom Wolfe at Socrates in the City in 2013 (screen shot), via YouTube.