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Rewriting Wolfe

The popular author’s eulogists strike his disdain for Darwin from the record

Tom Wolfe in 2005 Associated Press/Photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis/The Roanoke Times

Rewriting Wolfe

The U.S. news media remembered author Tom Wolfe, who died Monday, as a groundbreaker, a magician of words, and a one-of-a-kind genius who revived American fiction. But most of the obituaries that applauded him for his iconoclasm ignored his most savage blow to elitism—his denunciation of Darwinian evolution.

Wolfe, a journalist turned popular author in the late 20th century, dissected American life in nonfiction works such as The Right Stuff, a profile of the early U.S. space program. In fiction—including the best-selling Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—he satirized the American ego. His neologisms, disregard for grammar, and fixation on minutia irritated some of his contemporaries and editors but enthralled readers.

Wolfe took a tabula rasa approach to reporting and research, something rare in today’s fast-paced, click-driven journalism. In 1987, he told NPR’s Tom Vitale he researched Bonfire of the Vanities by looking at the whole city of New York, “high and low. I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and also some of the life on Park Avenue. And at the low end, there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. Once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters.”

A similar curiosity drove Wolfe to research the theory of evolution. In his last book that was published, The Kingdom of Speech, he described stumbling on a 2014 article in Frontiers of Psychology in which a group of linguists announced their failure to understand the origin of human language. “What is the problem?” he asked. “What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech?”

Part of the problem, he discovered, was that the scientific establishment persisted in clinging to Darwinian evolution, which cannot explain the existence of human language.

“And this, the power of one person to control millions of his fellow humans—for centuries—is a power the Theory of Evolution cannot begin to account for … or abide,” he wrote. (The ellipsis was his. His uninhibited use of them marked the rhythm of his prose.)

Wolfe dug deeper and developed a lengthy history of evolutionary and linguistic theories that highlighted the slipshod work, dishonesty, and, above all, egotism that crowned Charles Darwin the king of science. He ended the book proclaiming, “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

Not that Wolfe was religious. He was an atheist who praised the “freedom from religion” that the modern era offered. He doesn’t mention intelligent design once in The Kingdom of Speech, but he also rejects Darwinian evolution as anything more than a myth.

In their remembrances of Wolfe this past week, American journalists refused to acknowledge his swan song. The staff of The Washington Post, where Wolfe worked from 1959 to 1962, wrote a spread of articles and blog posts—including one focused just on the white suits Wolfe wore—but the only acknowledgment of The Kingdom of Speech came in a photo caption. The New York Times and NPR didn’t mention the book. USA Today gave a vague description, and the Associated Press said only that it was not well-received.

The last is a bit of an understatement. Some reviewers dismissed the book as a mean-spirited attack based on half-truths. Others patronized Wolfe for his contributions to literature in general but urged readers not to take this book seriously. In the end, the writers who outlived Wolfe practically erased the The Kingdom of Speech from the narrative of his life. It’s a blow to Wolfe’s legacy … pow!—as he would say, right in the solar plexus.

A scene from Alive Inside

A scene from Alive Inside YouTube

The power of music

Doctors have long puzzled over why Alzheimer’s patients seem to awaken, at least temporarily, from their dementia when they hear familiar music. The 2014 documentary Alive Inside gave examples of the phenomenon.

Researchers at the University of Utah scanned the brains of Alzheimer’s patients to see which areas lit up when the patients listened to 20-second clips of familiar music versus silence.

The scientists found that music activates a collection of brain regions known as the salience network, causing vastly improved communication among whole areas of the brain. The salience network selects which stimuli deserve attention and coordinates the brain’s responses to those stimuli. It is spared from the early ravages of Alzheimer’s, which particularly affects language and visual memory connections.

“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” Norman Foster, senior author of the paper, said in a statement.

It remains unclear whether the effects of music persist beyond a brief period of exposure. Previous work demonstrated the effect of music on mood for patients with dementia. The researchers hope also to explore the use of music to treat anxiety for these patients. —Julie Borg

A scene from Alive Inside

A scene from Alive Inside YouTube


Get ready, Trekkies, the fictional holodeck made famous by the sci-fi series Star Trek might soon become reality, at least in a scaled-down form. Researchers at Canada’s Queen’s University have developed the first life-size, 3D holographic videoconferencing system.

The technology, TeleHuman 2, projects a light field with an image for every degree of angle, producing live video images of people that multiple users can view simultaneously from all sides. The system does not require headsets or 3D glasses.

Roel Vertegaal, one of the researchers, noted that a vast amount of nonverbal information gets lost in typical multiparty online conversations. “Users miss the proxemics, gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact that bring nuance, emotional connotation, and ultimately empathy to a conversation,” he said in a statement. “TeleHuman 2 injects these elements into long-distance conversations with a realism that cannot be achieved with a Skype or FaceTime video chat.”

The technology could allow organizations to conduct more engaging meetings remotely and may offer many applications in entertainment. —J.B.

Public health crisis

Doctors are sounding the alarm on HTLV-1, an HIV-like virus spreading through Australia’s indigenous population. The virus only causes severe symptoms in about 10 percent of patients, but one of those symptoms is an aggressive form of leukemia. The other 90 percent of patients can spread the disease without even knowing they have it. —L.L.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is WORLD’s executive editor for news. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the Missouri School of Journalism, and the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Lynde resides with her family in Wichita, Kan.


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