America’s two most astute social commentators, the political philosopher Harvey Mansfield and the novelist Tom Wolfe, have weighed in on the debate over the neo-Darwinian view of evolution. They agree that the real controversy in our country is not between rationalists who preach evolutionism and fundamentalists who live in Darwin-denial, but between those who still believe that evolution can account for the whole of human behavior and those who see with their own eyes that it does not. The Darwinians, they observe, cannot properly account for the natural human quality that Mansfield calls “manliness” and that Wolfe, following the sociologists, describes as each individual’s concern for his own status or ranking. The Darwinians do not recognize what genuinely distinguishes the human individual from everything else in nature, so they cannot account for such admirable phenomena as Carson Holloway’s defense of transcendent human nobility against Darwinian reductionism.
Mansfield’s Manliness is an ambitiousand profound attempt to account for the human individual in terms of his need for— and his dramatic assertion of—singular, indispensable importance. The individual he describes is not the sovereign or utterly free (but also fearfully miserable) modern individual invented by Hobbes. Nor is he the Christian person whose dignity is graciously guaranteed by the Creator who made and loves him.
The manly individual is not the contemporary individual who understands his freedom as the replacement of social virtue by selfish calculation whom I criticize in Stuck with Virtue. Nor, finally, is he the Freudian individual who distinguishes himself by the uniqueness of his unconscious desires. The manly individual, the real human being, asserts that he is more than—essentially or qualitatively different from—his slavish fears, obsessions, and bodily desires. Wolfe shows in all his essays and novels that the truth of this assertion is still evident everywhere in our country today. In his most recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, he describes life at an elite contemporary university in terms of manly struggles for status. He focuses on a brilliant young woman (Charlotte Simmons) who enters the university convinced that she will distinguish herself through the life of the mind, and a young man (Jojo Johanssen) proud of his physical prowess as one of the country’s most talented basketball players. Both Charlotte and Jojo think of themselves, not without reason, as natural aristocrats, distinguished from almost all of humanity by their mental or physical excellence.
Charlotte and Jojo certainly do not think of themselves—as the evolutionists do— merely as members of their species, or of a kin group. And they are right not to do so. Wolfe’s and Mansfield’s observations on the singular importance of the human individual are nobly supplemented by Carson Holloway’s excellent The Right Darwin. Holloway (who writes as a real man, contemptuous of anyone who cannot see how important human beings can be) develops an Aristotelian-Tocquevillian critique of the view that Darwinian materialism could ever provide an adequate account of the goodness or greatness of the virtue alone practiced by human individuals. More insistently than Wolfe or Mansfield, Holloway defends the transcendent heights in which manliness surpasses itself in the direction of genuine human perfection.
Reflecting seriously on the individual defined by manliness can transform our understanding of who we are. And there is a great deal of empirical evidence for the truth of this view: making the case against Darwin and on behalf of human dignity need not depend on revelation or the distinctive insights of Christian psychology. This is made plain in the fine anti-Darwinianscientific observations found in Tom Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture on “The Human Beast.”
There, Wolfe claims to cover “everything you will need to know about the human beast.” The phrase “human beast” he borrows from the title of Emile Zola’s famous novel, the first literary presentation of Darwin’s alleged discovery that human beasts are not really different from all the others. The sudden and sensational popularization of that “breakthrough” in the nineteenth century divided the intellectual world into two classes. The “God-fearing bourgeoisie” were “appalled by the suggestion that they were not created in the Creator’s image.” So they have raged against the scientific denial of individual human dignity or importance. The intellectuals— “whose business it was to look down on the bourgeois from a great height”—embraced the new enlightenment that elevated each of them by reducing everyone else to beasts. In effect, they took pride in knowing that pride had no natural foundation. They incoherently believed that by seeing themselves and everyone else as beasts they had achieved a sort of divine wisdom about all things. Now the persistence of this class struggle over dignity or status—for five generations—is undeniable evidence of the distinctiveness of the human beast.
All the genuinely scientific evidence, Wolfe observes, shows that the beast with speech is a beast like no other. No sociobiologist has effectively taken on Noam Chomsky’s observation that there is no sign that human speech evolved from any animal lower than man. It also should be obvious that this singular natural acquisition cannot be understood merely as an “ingenious tool” to help the human beast flourish in his environment. It is, rather, Wolfe says, a “nuclear weapon” that brought “natural” evolution to an end.