Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Religion, Speech and Evolution - a triangle of irony

Tom Wolfe sees irony in the way that speech, religion and evolution trump each other as in some cosmic game of rock, paper and scissors:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.

I take that term, the human beast, from my idol, Emile Zola, who published a novel entitled The Human Beast in 1888, just 29 years after Darwin's The Origin of Species broke the stunning news that Homo sapiens--or Homo loquax, as I call him--was not created by God in his own image but was precisely that, a beast, not different in any essential way from snakes with fangs or orangutangs . . . or kangaroos. . . or the fang-proof mongoose. Darwin's doctrine, Evolution, leapt from the pages of a scientific monograph into every level of society in Europe and America with sensational suddenness. It created a sheerly dividing line between the God-fearing bourgeoisie who were appalled, and those people of sweetness and light whose business it was to look down at the bourgeosie from a great height. Today, of course, we call these superior people intellectuals, but intellectual didn't exist as a noun until Clemenceau applied it to Zola and Anatole France in 1896 during the Dreyfus Case. Zola's intellect was as sweetly enlightened as they made them. He was in with the in-crowd. Evenings he spent where the in-crowd went, namely, the Café Guerbois, along with Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Nadar, and le tout Paris boheme. He took his cues from the in-crowd's views, namely, Academic art was bad, Impressionism was good, and Homo sapiens had descended from the monkeys in the trees. Human beasts? I'll give you human beasts! Zola's aforementioned novel of that name, La Bete Humaine in French, is a story of four murderers, a woman and three men, who work down at track level on the Paris-Le Havre railroad line, each closing in on a different victim, each with a different motive, including the case of a handsome young passenger train engineer with a compulsion . . . to make love to women and then kill them. With that, Zola crowned himself as the first scientific novelist, a "naturalist," to use his term, studying the human fauna.

I love my man Zola. He's my idol. But the whole business exudes irony so rich, you can taste it. It tastes like marzipan. Here we have Darwin and his doctrine that in 1859 rocks Western man's very conception of himself . . . We have the most popular writer in the world in 1888, Zola, who can't wait to bring the doctrine alive on the page . . . We have the next five generations of educated people who have believed and believe to this day that, at bottom, evolution's primal animal urges rule our lives . . . to the point where the fourth greatest pop music hit of 2001, "You and Me, Baby" by the Bloodhound Gang, proclaims, "You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals. / So let's do it like they do on the Dis-cov-ery Channel"--it's rich! rich! rich beyond belief!

O. I love you, Emile, but by the time you and Darwin got hold of it, evolution had been irrelevant for 11,000 years. Why couldn't you two see it? Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," but Homo loquax, "man talking"! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans. Speech gave him the power to enlarge his food supply at will through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary, but also the evolution of animals! Our animal friends--we're very sentimental about predators these days, aren't we--the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the rhinoceroses, the great apes, kangaroos, leopards, cheetahs, grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars--they're "endangered," meaning hanging on for dear life. Today the so-called animal kingdom exists only at the human beast's sufferance. The beast has dealt crippling blows even to the unseen empire of the microbes. Stunted adults from Third World countries with abysmal sanitation come to the United States and their offspring grow six or more inches taller, thanks to the wonders of hygiene. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys would be extinct by now had not the human beasts hit upon the idea of animal husbandry. So far the human beast enjoys the luxury of crying sentimental tears over the deer because she's so pretty. But the day the human beast discovers deer in his cellar, fawns in his bedroom closet, bucks tangling horns in the attic at night above his very bedroom . . . those filthy oversized vermin, the deer, will be added to that big long list above. We're sentimental about the dolphins, because they're so smart. What about the tuna? It's okay to kill tunas by the ton because they're dimwits? It would take an evolutionary mystic (and there are such) to believe these animals will ever evolve their way out of the hole they're in thanks to man's power of speech.

No evolutionist has come up with even an interesting guess as to when speech began, but it was at least 11,000 years ago, which is to say, 9000 B.C. It seems to be the consensus . . . in the notoriously capricious field of evolutionary chronology . . . that 9000 B.C. was about when the human beast began farming, and the beast couldn't have farmed without speech, without being able to say to his son, "Son, this here's seeds. You best be putting 'em in the ground in rows ov'ere like I tell you if you wanna git any ears a corn this summer."

Do forgive me, Emile, but here is the tastiest of all ironies. One of Homo loquax's first creations after he learned to talk was religion. Since The Origin of Species in 1859 the doctrine of Evolution has done more than anything else to put an end to religious faith among educated people in Europe and America; for God is dead. But it was religion, more than any other weapon in Homo loquax's nuclear arsenal, that killed evolution itself 11,000 years ago. To say that evolution explains the nature of modern man is like saying that the Bessemer process of adding carbons to pig iron to make steel explains the nature of the modern skyscraper.

Now shall we begin? Shall we take a look at the actual nature of the human beast--an artificial selection, 100% man-made?

Read the whole thing. Whether you agree with Wolfe or not, and I'm not sure that I do, his thesis is certainly an original take on evolution and language.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I will not get infected, I will not get infected, I will not get . . .

Nope, doesn't work.

May 31, 2006 10:53 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

A very enjoyable read – but Wolfe’s true hero is another Charles D: Dickens.

Like him, Wolfe’s real strength is at the micro level, in the small but very astute observations about human types – like the ones which make up the bulk of this speech - rather than the Big Theory.

The ‘fiction absolute’ idea is ok, but hardly original. Zen is the art of seeing through your fiction absolute.

Also, it pains me to see such a clever man fall into the classic American trap of misunderstanding irony. Darwin writing about evolution after evolution has finished would not be marzipan-tastingly ironic. Now, if Darwin wrote that human evolution would continue to accelerate, and by the mere act of writing, of making humans self-aware of their evolution, he somehow ended it, THAT would be ironic.

(Check this out: As I was reading Wolfe’s bit about irony, I was reminded of a British comedian I once saw taking apart Alanis Morrisette’s hit song ‘Ironic’, which, ironically, lists a whole load of things that are meant to be ironic but aren’t. Eg. “it’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” The comedian pointing out that this is not ironic, just stupid. However, if you needed to do a job with a knife, found and subsequently discarded these 10,000 spoons, and then it turned out that a spoon would do just as well, THAT would be ironic.

I was struggling to remember this comedian’s name, until further down Wolfe tells a story about a cop called Eddie Byrne. And lo and behold, that was the comedian’s name: Ed Byrne!

By the way, that’s not ironic, just coincidental.)

June 01, 2006 2:40 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Count on the Brits to be the masters of irony.

Must be the weather.

As Brit noted, most people, including those who really should get it, simply don't understand irony.

Which, considering irony is the universe's driving force, shows the appalling state of our education establishment.

June 01, 2006 4:42 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

That's right, when it rains we down our croquet mallets, clap a hand on our straw boaters and make a quick dash for the drawing room, where over a Pimms and lemonade and a spot of tiffin we produce ever-finer definitions of 'irony'.

Hey, Hey Skipper, when are we going to get chapter 3 of your crime story?

June 01, 2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Be patient, I have a lot of big rocks to make into little rocks.

June 01, 2006 8:55 AM  

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