Tom Wolfe Seed interview

I’ve copied the complete Tom Wolfe interview in Seed magazine below. See the 10 minute video here

The Seed Salon – The Transcript: Tom Wolfe + Michael Gazzaniga

The father of cognitive neuroscience and the original New Journalist discuss status, free will, the human condition, and The Interpreter.

by Edit Staff • Posted July 1, 2008 06:09 PM

Wolfe, who calls himself “the social secretary of neuroscience,” often turns to current research to inform his stories and cultural commentary. His 1996 essay, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” raised questions about personal responsibility in the age of genetic predeterminism. Similar concerns led Gazzaniga to found the Law and Neuroscience Project. When Gazzaniga, who just published Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, was last in New York, Seed incited a discussion: on status, free will, and the human condition.

17Salon368.jpg Click on the image to watch highlights from the Salon.

Tom Wolfe: Mike, I don’t want you to think I’m giving up my right to disagree with you down the line — I may not have to — but you’re one of the very few evolutionary thinkers and neuroscientists that I pay attention to, and I’ll tell you why. In the ’90s, when the subject of neuroscience and also genetics started becoming hot, there was a tendency to conflate genetic theory and evolutionary theory with neuroscience, as if the two were locked, which just isn’t true. Remember Jose Delgado, the wave brain physiologist who was at Yale at one time?

Michael Gazzaniga: Oh yeah. Sure.

TW: The guy stood in a smock in a bullring and put stereotaxic needles in the brain of a bull and just let himself be charged. He had a radio transmitter. The bull is as far away as that wall is from me, and he presses the thing and the bull goes dadadada and comes to a stop.

MG: Right.

TW: He’s still with us; he’s in his 90s. Anyway, his son, also Jose Delgado, and also a neuroscientist, was interviewed recently and he said, “The human brain is complex beyond anybody’s imagining, let alone comprehension.” He said, “We are not a few miles down a long road; we are a few inches down the long road.” Then he said, “All the rest is literature.”

Many of today’s leading theorists, such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Dan Dennett, probably know about as much on the human brain as a second-year graduate student in neuropsychology. That isn’t their field. Wilson is a great zoologist and a brilliant writer. Dawkins, I’m afraid, is now just a PR man for evolution. He’s kind of like John the Baptist — he goes around announcing the imminent arrival. Dennett, of course, is a philosopher and doesn’t pretend to know anything about the brain. I think it has distorted the whole discussion.

MG: Well, let me roll the cameras back to the ’80s and ’90s, when neuroscience was taking off. There were new techniques available to understand the chemical, physiological, and anatomical processes in the brain. Imaging was starting up and the inrush of data was enormous and exciting. So there was a hunger for the big picture: What does it mean? How do we put it together into a story? Ultimately, everything’s got to have a narrative in science, as in life. And there was a need for people who didn’t spend their time looking down a microscope to tell a story of what this could mean. I would say that some of the people who’ve made attempts at that did a very good job. But I will hold out for the fact that if you haven’t slaved away looking at the nervous system with the tools of neuroscience — if you’re only talking about it — you don’t quite have the same respect for it. Because it is an extraordinarily complex machine. If Jose Delgado says we’re 2 inches down the road to this long journey, I would say it’s more like 2 microns.

TW: Right.

MG: It’s a very daunting task. When I was at Dartmouth College in the late ’50s studying biology, they were just beginning to tell us about DNA. It was a dream. Linus Pauling said, “Someday there’s going to be molecular medicine.” And the response was: “What are you talking about?”
In the past 55 years, there’s been this explosion of work and incredible, intricate knowledge about how genes work. My youngest daughter is now a graduate student in genetics, I’m happy to report. So this past Christmas, I said, “I’m going to buy a genetics textbook and read the sucker, and I’m going to be able to converse with my daughter.” I got to page two, and I said, “I’m going to talk to her about other things.”

TW: Ha ha.

MG: It’s far too complicated. But it’s at a point where there’s an explosion of information all over the world. And you feel it — the next new idea is waiting to happen.

TW: I think all this excitement has spawned a replacement for Freudian psychologists. They’ve been replaced by the evolutionary psychologists, whose main interest seems to be to retrofit the theory of evolution on whatever ended up happening. I read an example in your new book of a woman who’s come up with an elaborate theory that music has a survival benefit in the evolutionary sense because it increases the social cohesiveness of populations. I would love for her to read a piece that appeared recently in the New Yorker about a tribe, the Pirahã in the Maici River, a little tributary of the Amazon. This tribe, it turns out, has a language with eight consonants and three vowels. I think they have a sum total of 52 words or something like that. As a result, they have little art, they have no music, no dance, and no religion. They’re usually cited because they seem to be a terrible exception to Noam Chomsky’s rule that all people are born with a structure that enables them to put words in a grammatical form. Not the Pirahã! And they’re not stupid or retarded in any sense. They just had never increased their language abilities — and they don’t want to.

MG: Yeah. Well, exceptions are historic. Look, the good evolutionary psychologists are good. They’re telling us not to fall into the trap of thinking that everything’s fixable via simple learning mechanisms or social engineering. They’re saying, “Look, there are basic aspects to human nature that are common to all members of our species and have been there a long time.” What’s exciting is that we’ve developed this cognitive mechanism to free us from the things that determine so much of our behavior. And by doing so, we’ve sort of cut the rope from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can do things and we can cultivate certain behavior, even though there are obviously a lot of tendencies that are part of our biology. For example, here’s an idea that comes from evolutionary psychology, an observation that I think is rather shrewd: Why are members of our species drawn to the fictional experience? Here you are, someone who’s spent your life with fiction —

TW: — I was at one time a journalist. We don’t deal with fiction. Not intentionally.

MG: Ha ha — right. But it’s a fascinating thing to think of the role that fiction and make-believe play. Do you feel, when you create a body of fiction, that you’re opening up possibilities for people to think about problems in a different way? To confront things they don’t yet know about?

TW: Well, I do take issue with the idea that all stories have a bearing on evolutionary benefits or survival benefits. In my opinion all stories have to do with status. When people say, “I just want some good escape literature,” what they’re looking for are dramatizations of people facing status problems. Harry Potter is like every child who feels overwhelmed by this adult world around him, and he overcomes it in ways that don’t interest me in particular — he can pull things out of the air. But, like Anna Karenina, it’s a story about status problems. Tolstoy and Flaubert would be paupers today, writing these novels, which are all based on the idea that a woman must remain chaste. They’d be laughed out of town. The story of Anna Kerenina and Vronsky would be a Page Six item and then that would be the end of it. But if we successfully put ourselves in the mindset of the 19th century, we can really enjoy the status problems that they have.

MG: Do you think all art is about status?

TW: Well, certainly not music. Dance, maybe yes, maybe no. But literature and movies, yes. To me the crucial point is something, which I don’t think even Chomsky understands, about speech and language. Chomsky and many other people are wonderful at telling us how language works, and about differences in languages and the historical progression of languages across the face of the Earth. But I seem to be the one person who realizes the properties of speech. Speech is an artifact. It’s not a natural progression of intelligence, in my opinion — we have to look only at the Pirahã for that. It’s a code. You’re inventing a code for all the objects in the world and then establishing relationships between those objects. And speech has fundamentally transformed human beings.

MG: By speech I assume you mean language and not the actual act of speaking?

TW: To me, it’s the same, speech and talking.

MG: Okay, so what do you think language and speech are for? I mean, it’s probably an adaptation. We’re big animals, and that’s one of the goodies that we got.

TW: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, “Why?”

MG: Right.

TW: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I’ve never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you’re trying to say, “I don’t know why.” And they also can’t ask how.

MG: Yeah.

TW: With language you can ask that question. I think it’s at that point where religion starts.

MG: Right.

TW: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, “Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?” And my assumption is that they said, “There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you’d better not get on the wrong side of him.” I think that’s the way it started.


MG: As you may know, I came across this phenomenon that I call the Interpreter. It’s something that’s in the left hemisphere of the human; it tries to put a story together as to why something occurred. So, we found this in patients who’ve had their brains divided. What we could do is sort of tiptoe into their nonspeaking right hemisphere and get them to do something like walk out of the room or lift their hand up. Then we would ask the left hemisphere, “Why did you do that?” And they would cook up a story to make sense out of what their disconnected right hemisphere just did. The left brain didn’t know that we’d pulled a trick on them, so they concoct an explanation for why they walked out of the room. And it’s because this left hemisphere can ask, “Why? What’s that all about?” But one of the things we’ve never been able to unpack is whether this Interpreter is completely overlapping with the language system and is therefore a sort of press agent for its own mechanism. What we do know is that there are separate systems for different types of cognition. And the Interpreter seems to be located in the parts of the brain where language is located. So many people do think that interpretive capacity comes with language; that this is the deal with language — it comes along for the ride. Others believe that there are actually all kinds of different cognitive mechanisms happening, and language reports them out. So the function of language is to talk about it, talk about what you know and communicate, “Hey! Look here, I know how to cook a fish. Here, let me show you how.”

TW: I’ve always been interested in your theory of the Interpreter. When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to this concept of social status in the work of Max Weber, the German sociologist. And the more I thought about it, the more I could see that status was not simply something that was appearances and houses and automobiles, or even ranks in a corporation or that sort of thing. It invaded every single part of life. I remember when I was in graduate school, there was a setup wherein a common bathroom was shared by two rooms. And there was a student from India — a brilliant scientist — who had apparently come from way out in the countryside, with no natural social standing and not many amenities. Now, you’d think the things you do in absolute private would not be driven by status concerns. But he heard three of his American friends joking about the fact that when they went into the bathroom, they found footprints on the toilet seat. Well, this fellow had never seen a porcelain toilet before. He was crushed. He felt absolutely humiliated, and here was something that goes on in private.

Anyway, this was something before I’d ever heard of neuroscience, and I said, “There must be something in the brain that registers this, your status in every kind of situation.” And I kept looking for it. Freud had been such a powerful figure that everyone seemed to think, “Freud’s got the bottom line, why should we go through all these complicated neurons and everything to see how he got there. He’s got it.” I hoped to find the answer in Delgado’s book, but it wasn’t really there. It wasn’t until I ran across your concept of the Interpreter that I thought, “Hey, maybe we’ve got it.”

MG: Well, the key concept in understanding status has to do with the idea of social comparison. The Interpreter fires up and almost reflexively starts to compare the new person with one’s self and others. Multiple factors seep into this narrative being built by the Interpreter and the importance of status is one of the products of that process.

Still, I think the essential question that neuroscience has to answer is why, when I interact with someone, I don’t think it’s my brain talking to their brain. I’m talking to Tom Wolfe, and you’re listening to Mike Gazzaniga, right? We instantly convert to that: I give you an essence right off the bat. I put you at the level of a person with mental states and all the rest of it. That mechanism, it makes us all dualists in a way. Absolute dualists. That mechanism is the deep mystery of neuroscience, and no one has touched it yet. No one knows how that works. That’s the goal.

For my part, what I’ve come to realize is that the neuroscience of the next 20 years will be studying social processes of humans. In order to get to the biology of anything, you need technology that allows you to study the human mind. It’s only really in the past 10 or 15 years that we’ve had the new methods of imaging. And they keep getting better and better and better. The ability to think about other people is probably the impetus behind all these marvelous things the human brain can do.

TW: Every time we go into a room with other people, it’s as if we have a teleprompter in front of us and it’s telling us the history of ourselves versus these people. We can’t even think of thinking without this huge library of good information and bad information.

MG: That’s why the great psycholinguist George Miller, whom we shared a dinner with once, called us the “informavores.” That’s how he wanted to cast us.

When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years.

You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers. You’re thinking about your spouse, about your kids, about your boss. Ninety-nine percent of your time is spent thinking about other people’s thoughts about you, their intentions, and all this kind of stuff. So sorting all that out, how we navigate this complex social world, there’s going to be a neuroscience to it, and I think it’s going to be very powerful.


MG: I’m involved in a new project called “Neuroscience and the Law,” which I think you’re familiar with. It brings up the idea that there are these causal forces that make us do the things we do, that by the time you’re consciously aware of something, your brain’s already done it. How else could it be? Because the brain is what’s producing these mental events that we’re sorting through. So these ideas — what I call the ooze of neuroscience — are going out everywhere, and people are willing to accept that: “My brain did it. Officer, it wasn’t me.” These defenses are popping up all over the judicial system. But if we adopt that, then it’s hard to see why we have a retributive response to a wrongdoing. It would seem to me to be morally wrong to blame someone for something that was going to happen anyway because of forces beyond their control. So people get into this loop, and they get very concerned about the nature of our retributive response. This puts you right smack in the middle of the question: Are we free to do what we think we’re doing?

TW: Oh, it’s the hottest subject in academia. Philosophy students are flocking to neuroscience because they think the answers are all there, not in our silly, cherished way of thinking. It’s called “materialism,” to some. We are computers, and a computer is programmed a certain way, and there’s nothing the computer can do to change its programming. I think materialism is too grand a word for it. It’s mechanical. I mean, here’s what happens. The scientist says, “We are machines.” There’s no ghost in the machine. There’s no little tiny “me” in the conning tower surveying the universe and figuring out a place within it. It’s a machine. Things get more and more complicated when it comes to humans, but it’s still a machine. Obviously, this machine has no free choice. It’s programmed to do certain things. It’s as if you threw a rock in the air, and in midflight you gave that rock consciousness. That rock would come up with 12 airtight, logical reasons why it’s going in that direction. This has caught on like wildfire. The flaw in that is that speech, language, creates so many variables. Speech reacts. It’s the only artifact I can think of that reacts.

MG: Well, I think using the term “free will” is just a bad way to capture the problem. Because here’s the question: Free from what? What are you trying to be free from?

TW: It’s a very simple definition: You make your own decisions.

MG: Yeah. But who is “you”? “You” is this person with this brain that has been interacting with this environment since you were born, learning about the good and the bad, the things that work and don’t work. You’ve been making decisions all the way along, and now you have a new one and you want to be free to make it. So psychologically, the Interpreter is telling you you’re making this decision. But the trick is understanding that your brain is basing the decision on past experience, on all the stuff it has learned. You want a reliable machine to make the actual act occur. You want to be responding rationally to any challenge that you get in the world, because you want that experience to be evaluated. That’s all going on in your brain second by second, moment to moment. And as a result, you make a decision about it. And phenomenologically, when the decision finally comes out, you say, “Oh, that’s me!”

TW: Speech has introduced so many variables into your machine that it becomes pointless to argue whether this is free or not free will. Obviously, it’s not free in the sense that if you don’t have this body, you can’t do anything. But it is free in the sense that because of your experiences and because of the reactions of speech constantly feeding you new material, your brain is going to operate differently from anybody else’s, and that is the free will — whether you call it mechanical or not. Everybody becomes such an individual, it becomes pointless to say, “You didn’t make that decision.” It’s an absurd idea.

MG: Well, I think we’re saying the same thing. There is a very clever little experiment that you would be amused by, run by my colleague Jonathan Schooler. He has a bunch of students read a paragraph or two from the Francis Crick book, Astonishing Hypothesis, which is very deterministic in tone and intent. And then he has another group of students reading an inspirational book about how we make our own decisions and determine our own path. He then lets each group play a videogame in which you’re free to cheat. So guess who cheats? The people who have just read that it’s all determined cheat their pants off.

I think people who try to find personal responsibility in the brain are wrongheaded. Think of it this way: If you’re the only person in the world, you live alone on an island, there’s no concept of personal responsibility. Who are you being personally responsible to? If somebody shows up on the island though —

TW: — Friday was his name.

MG: Yeah, exactly. Then you’ve got a social group. And the group starts to make rules; that’s the only way they’re going to function. Out of those rules comes responsibility. So responsibilities are to the relationships within the social groups, and when someone breaks a rule, they’re breaking a social rule. So don’t look for where in their brain something went wrong; look at the fact that they broke a rule, which they could have followed. I’m actually kind of hard-nosed about this. I think people should be held accountable for lots of stuff.

TW: No, I would certainly agree with that. In fact, my theory of status is that all of us live by a set of values that, if written in stone, would make not me but my group superior in some way. I think there are just so many kinds of status layers due solely to likeness. You can always find a group that seems to justify whatever you’re doing.

MG: Our species seems brilliant at forming groups — indeed support groups — for almost anything. And no matter what the group is about, no matter what its character, it becomes advocatory.

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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