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Speech Made Us Human


Recently, we explored a bit of the explosion in commercial businesses offering genetic testing, with the conclusion, “let the buyer beware.” Here, we hear from some famed figures with a similar message about neuroscience, or, as an increasing number of observers warn, “neurohype."

New books on “the brain” are being published every week, it seems, with many of them purporting to explain virtually everything about human behavior, health, follies, and the future. But increasingly, some very informed observers are expressing some reservations about such speculation, especially where profit motives are involved.

One example among many: Sherwin Nuland, MD, is one of the most renowned medical authors of our time. A longtime Yale professor of surgery, he was already a noted historian of medicine when his book “How We Die” won the National Book Award in 1994. His dozen books and numerous articles range widely over his professional and personal interests, and I've been lucky enough to interview him a couple of times through the years. A few years ago, I asked him, “From the perspective of medical history, what do you think about the explosion of recent knowledge and speculation about neuroscience?” Nuland's response: “It’s actually pretty straightforward for me — the more we have understood the structure of the brain and its biomechanics, the more we have sought causes for behavior based on organic factors... and I’m very much afraid that this might be a wild-goose chase in the long run. I can’t buy a lot of this, and I think we are going through a phase that we will have to step back from within the next 15 to 20 years.”

Another famed writer I've interviewed, albeit a less scientifically trained one, is Tom Wolfe. In 1996, he wrote about emerging controversies in neuroscience for Forbes. That essay, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” (reprinted in his 2001 collection “Hooking Up"), remains fascinating reading. As one of the most widely read authors of our time, Wolfe is renowned for being an inventor of the “new journalism” and his best-selling books “The Right Stuff,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and, of course, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The late, great Kurt Vonnegut called Wolfe a genius, although the late great Christopher Hitchens observed “much of Tom Wolfe's celebrated 'style' was part of a revival of right-wing politics based on the defensive class-consciousness of the well-off.” Both were probably right, but in any event, Wolfe's insights — often scathing, humorous or both — into popular trends and thought have made him one of our leading chroniclers of modern culture.

A few years back I spoke with him about trendy neuroscience for the San Francisco Chronicle and a medical journal; here are some excerpts.

In your 1996 essay, you wrote that if you were in college today, you would probably go into neuroscience instead of getting a PhD in American studies at Yale and becoming a writer. If that is still true, why?

Wolfe: I'd certainly still be drawn to it because it's the field that contains the greatest mysteries in all of science. The findings could fundamentally change the way people think about themselves. But we don't know that yet.

What are the questions that fascinate you the most? You wrote then about neuroscience, genetic theories of behavior and sociobiology, for example.

Well, first I should say that I made a crucial mistake in that essay, by somewhat conflating genetic theory with neuroscience. The most famous brain physiologist — what we now call a neuroscientist — was Jose M.R. Delgado, MD, a Spaniard, who achieved fame for his stereotaxic needle implants in the brains of animals, through which he discovered some of the areas of the brain that controlled certain functions. He became famous when he stood in a bullring with nothing but a radio transmitter in his hand and allowed himself to be charged by a raging bull in whose brain he had implanted those tiny needles. When the bull came into a range where it would have been impossible for Delgado to get out of the way, he pressed a button and the bull came to a shuddering stop. That was the acid test of a man who knew his brain physiology!

His son, Jose Maria Delgado, also a brain physiologist, made what to me is a fascinating statement in 2004. He said, “We know very little” about the brain. The problem, he said, is not that the brain has billions of neurons but that it has distinct types of neurons and we have no idea what they do. “All the rest,” he said, “is literature, not science.” And by literature he was talking about all the speculation by people such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and the like, who today have all sorts of theories about the nature of the human brain, but all of whom know practically nothing about the human brain. Wilson knows all about insects and is wonderful to read about that; Dawkins is a former ethologist, studying the social life of animals, who is now the official high priest of Darwinism at Oxford.

There's probably not a second-year neuropsychology graduate student or neurology intern who doesn't know more about the human brain than the whole lot of such people put together. They are writing literature, which doesn't mean they are wrong, but they still don't have a scientific leg to stand on. They literally don't know what they are talking about. Their theories are sometimes called by philosophers “materialism,” but the theories are not really complex enough to rate an “ism"!

It sounds as if you think they are dressing up old deterministic thinking into pseudoscientific garb.

Yes. All of their writing boils down to this: In order to have a “mind,” all we have is the brain and parts of the central nervous system. It is a mechanism with no “ghost in the machine,” or “soul” — the brain runs on the molecular and genetic levels, which means that like any machine, the brain has no choice but to act in the way it is programmed. In their minds, it is programmed wholly by genes. Wilson once said the brain is born not as a tabula rasa to be filled in by experience but as a film to be slipped into developing fluid: It can be developed well or poorly, but either way you're only going to get what was on the film to start. So while you may think you're making decisions, you're actually not, and you will react in a certain way in any given situation.

Some of the younger genetic theorists believe that if they had sophisticated enough technology they could predict what you're going to do five seconds from now, or even out to one month. Thus, we all have no choice in what we are saying and doing. But they run into a problem of reflexivity, which is to say that if any given brain has no choice or free will, then even the genetic theorist or neuroscientist himself has no choice in what he says. So why should anybody else accept it as “truth”?

You are speaking on this with great skepticism, but you're not a scientist. What is your own theory?

Here's an area of which I do know a great deal: the properties of words. Our “genetic literati” know only the meanings of words, not the properties. I submit that evolution explains the animals, plants and man — or rather, the caveman — up until about 11,000 years ago. Paleontologists agree that farming began about 9,000 BC, and that means speech evolved at least that long ago, since you cannot have agriculture without speech. Think about it: You cannot even count to ten inside your head without using words! Speech is an artifact, or something taken from its natural state and turned into something else. Speech is the taking of raw sounds and turning them not only into a means of communication but also of memorization. Of the two, memorization is probably the more important, especially in the form of print, film or video, or, for that matter, blueprints, diagrams and all forms of mathematics and formulas.

Once you have speech, you don't have to wait for natural selection! If you want more strength, you build a stealth bomber; if you don't like bacteria, you invent penicillin; if you want to communicate faster, you invent the Internet. Once speech evolved, all of human life changed. The first verse in the Gospel according to St. John has three sentences that say it all, even if he didn't quite know what he was saying: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.” And “word” then also meant wisdom, but if we took it literally, we'd just about have the history of man. It's impossible to have a God without words. I'm guessing that one of the first questions humans asked once they had speech was, “Hey, why are we here, and who made all this?” And they came up with a very large version, or versions, of themselves, but it started with the words, and without those words there would not have been any religion. “Why” is a question no animal can ask, because both the question and answers require speech. Have you ever seen an animal shrug?

I think so, but that's probably projection. So culture and communication are now much more important than genes?

Exactly. Culture, communication, memorization and history. I'm willing to say OK, we may have no free will, but speech creates so many variables that it doesn't really matter. No machines will ever truly fully figure the brain out, because the brain's performance is constantly altered or else constrained by this inanimate, rogue artifact you can't control, namely, speech. Laws you obey, scientific findings you assume to be correct, creeds you believe in, existing plans you go by, history as you understand it — these artifacts, once accepted, will affect your thoughts and behavior and use you more than you use them.

Culture is just too big a variable to explain away with genetics. The genetic theorists know they have a problem here, and so have invented two terms to explain it away. Dawkins posits a kind of cultural gene called a “meme,” which are words or combinations of words that stick in the mind and spread like a virus. Wilson calls this same phantom a “culturegen.” They say Islam is a meme or culturegen, for example. You'll notice that they never proceed to study these memes, however important they might be. They're like military pilots in training, who I learned about while writing “The Right Stuff.” A pilot gets in over his head or skill level and drops out, saying, “There's something wrong with my vision,” something medical like that. Doctors will find nothing wrong and note that the pilot never asks how long the affliction will last. The genetic theorists know in their hearts that their reasoning is bogus.

Why do you think that so many people, from all sides of ideological debates, seize upon genes as a reason for modern life, whether it be about race and intelligence, sexual orientation or whatever?

Well, as Nietzsche predicted, among educated people, religion has become weaker and weaker, and they are left with a choice of believing in science or some irrational substitute for religion. I think it makes people feel better to believe in something that seems scientific. If some personal flaw is encoded in your genes, it's not your fault. There's no use in arguing about the way things are. So we get people expressing ideas such as the notion that women have evolved genetically to have less proficiency in science and mathematics, a notion Harvard's president once commented on- to his regret, I'd guess.

You once wrote of humans trying to fully understand ourselves, “as if a group of dogs were to call a conference to try to understand The Dog.” But people are still going to try. So are we machines, or something else?

There's no question that our brains are machines, but I must keep stressing that speech and the property of words is what really matters.

Somebody else must have already given you the rejoinder that you believe this because you are a writer.

It's fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed. I don't know of any political leader today with status on the level of say, Elvis Presley's and Albert Einstein's — two men who couldn't have led a soup kitchen line.

Psychologist and LSD guru Timothy Leary, of all people, said that intelligence is the ultimate aphrodisiac now.

I don't know if it's the ultimate one, but a kind of power that has nothing to do with physical strength is way up there. I think Bill Clinton certainly demonstrated that.

The determinists have posited that IQ is also set at birth. What do you think?

That subject is dynamite. If you speak privately to genetic theorists, they will all say intelligence is inherited, but they won't say it publicly, as it will only get them into trouble. Real neuroscientists are more circumspect and admit we just don't know enough to put out half-cocked theories of intelligence, gender and so on.

As a renowned observer of intellectual fashion and trends, where do you think neuroscience will take us?

There have been a series of revolutions in thought about human beings. Darwin didn't even have a university attachment when he developed his theories, but with the sheer power of his words, he changed the way most educated humans regard themselves and their lives. As Nietzsche observed, most people regard themselves as smarter versions of other beasts. And then there was Marx, sitting alone in a library, apparently not a very pleasant man, whose premises, even when proven absolutely wrong, have implanted ideas that are still very hard to get rid of. And Freud has now been proven to be a complete quack with regard to how the brain works, but, for example, his notion of the need for sexual release no doubt accounts for millions of extra orgasms a day, even now.

It remains to be seen where the next literary theory of life, the genetic one, will lead us. Nietzsche predicted — in the 1880s — that in this century, the 21st, would come the total eclipse of all values, a development more painful than man can possibly imagine beforehand. As I wrote in 1996, genetic theory certainly tilts in that direction.

Wolfe told me that he was then working on books on both genetics and on immigration — neither of which has appeared. I emailed him recently to update this interview if he wanted and to ask him about that status of those works; and also if he felt that the decline in use of the English language might trigger some sort of evolutionary reversal. No reply. 

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