Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tom Wolfe & Michael Gazzaniga on Status, Free Will, the Human Condition, and The Interpreter

A great discussion between a respected novelist -- Tom Wolfe -- and a leading neuroscientist -- Michael Gazzaniga. Wolfe knows enough about neurosciene to engage in a good conversation with Gazzaniga, so read the exchange and dream of actually seeing things like this on TV. Wouldn't that be great?

Oh yeah, click on the image below to watch a video clipo of their discussion.
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.


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?

Read the rest of this intriguing interview.

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