Thomas Wolfe is one of my favorite American authors (see here), though most cognoscenti of literature find him tiresome because of his tendency to overwrite. In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Wolfe an epistolary admonishment about this tendency, saying, among other things:
Hasn’t it occurred to you that such qualities as pleasantness or grief, exuberance or cynicism can become a plague in others? That often people who live at a high pitch often don’t get their way emotionally at the important moment because it doesn’t stand out in relief? . . .
To a talent like mine of narrow scope there is not that problem. I must put everything in to have enough + even then I often havn’t [sic; Fitz couldn't spell] got enough.
That in brief is my case against you, if it can be called that when I admire you so much and think your talent is unmatchable in this or any other country.
Ever your friend,
Wolfe was having none of this, and responded in a letter that started like this (read the whole correspondence here):
The unexpected loquaciousness of your letter struck me all of a heap. I was surprised to hear from you but I don’t know that I can say I was delighted. Your bouquet arrived smelling sweetly of roses but cunningly concealing several large-sized brickbats.
I recalled this exchange when reading a new piece by Michael Ruse on his Brainstorm site at the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Armageddon time for Jerry Coyne.” He starts off with a lot of praise for my prowess as an evolutionary geneticist and my trenchant criticisms of religion on this website. But those are the roses—the brickbats come quickly. I have a “tin ear for philosophy” and, especially, I am fond of criticizing one Michael Ruse: I “sneer at him frequently.” Re my philosophical blindness, Ruse says this:
Although I have little time for most religion, qua philosophy I still argue that science does not have all of the answers and it is at least legitimate for believers to try to offer their answers. I don’t think the answers are necessarily beyond criticism, but at the same time I do not think that because they are not scientific answers this thereby makes them wrong or pernicious.
Yes, believers can try to offer their answers, and I will criticize them. I criticize them not because they’re not all inherently unscientific (after all, we could get evidence for a God, prayers could work, and so on), but because some of them are untestable and on those grounds unscientific, others are empirical propositions lacking any evidence, while still other “questions” have answers that are contested by members of different faiths, and so there is no way to resolve them.
Really, Michael, if you think the answer to “What is our purpose?” is “To accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior,” is that a good answer? And it is pernicious, because that belief has led Christians to unbelievable lengths of cruelty over history. What about “Who is the true prophet of God: Jesus or Mohamed?” Is that a good question. What about “God answers prayers.” That statement is probably wrong, or at least has failed every test.
Yes, it’s legitimate for the faithful to offer questions. But I challenge Michael to tell me one question raised by the faithful that has ever been truly answered by religion to everyone’s satisfaction. Just one, Michael. Let’s start with this one: does God exist? The faithful say “yes,” but Ruse says “no” (he’s an atheist). The reason I criticize religious “ways of knowing” is because they are not “ways of knowing” at all, but “ways of making things up”; and because the answers, which the faithful often see as absolute truths, lead them to impose those “truths” on society in pernicious ways. If people kept their silly religious answers to themselves, then we wouldn’t have a problem. But it’s in the nature of faith that many believers can’t keep their “answers” to themselves. Ergo the kerfuffles about abortion this month.
But what really bothers Ruse, apparently, is my penchant for cats and cowboy boots, which he goes on about at unseemly length:
However Coyne does have (let us say) some quirks, that are nigh obsessions. One is a passion for cowboy boots. Rick Perry and Roy Rogers have nothing on him. Frankly, I am rather reminded of a French movie I once saw, starring Jeanne Moreau, about a chap with a foot obsession. As I remember, things did not work out well for him.
And then there are cats. Jerry, if I might now presume to call him – after all, he is an employee – is nuts about cats. Day after day, there are hymns of praise and love for cats. Day after day there are pictures of white cats, black cats, happy cats, sad cats, naked cats, clothed cats – cats, cats, cats, cats, cats. Dogs don’t cut the mustard. Ferrets (my favorites) are nowhere. Horses are, well, horses. But cats! If ever there were a proof of the existence of a good god, it is cats. Indeed, I suspect that Jerry’s non-existent deity has whiskers.
LOL! This is sort of funny except that there are no whiskers on a nonexistent deity. (Perhaps he’s thinking of the Catological Argument proving the existence of a feline deity since the greatest possible being of which we can conceive has whiskers.)
I know they say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I don’t give a rat’s patootie about this column. It’s embarrassing for Ruse, for he goes on and on about me with no apparent point. What, exactly, is my “Armageddon”? That’s the battle between good and evil accompanying the End Times, but how is it relevant to his piece? He winds up claiming that perhaps my brain has been addled by toxoplasmosis, which, as I wrote about previously, can be transmitted to humans via their cats, and might affect our behavior. He claims it’s affected mine.
In typical Ruse-ian fashion, he gets it all wrong.
First his characterization of the effect of the parasite on human behavior:
You do all sorts of daft things because it is in the interests of the parasite that you do them. You think you are being clever and rational but it is the bug that is driving you.
Nope, for we are not the primary hosts of the protozoan parasite, which are cats and rodents. The parasite makes the rodent behave in strange ways (like being attracted to cat urine, and showing less fear of cats) as a way of getting to the next host, a cat. The effects of the parasite on human behavior are not effects that have evolved by selection to facilitate the parasite’s transmission, but only side effects of being infected. Our “daft behavior” when infected is not in the interests of the parasite, because living in humans is not part of the parasite’s life cycle. It’s a dead end, for we’re not eaten by cats (well, maybe Ben Goren is).
Ruse’s second mistake:
In a way, Jerry should find all of this rather satisfying. One of his big bugaboos about philosophy is our belief in free will. He will have none of it. We are all robots. This cat finding is grist for his mill. When we think we are acting freely, it is the parasite that is in charge.
But in another sense, even if he does not find it depressing – and the article rather suggests that the parasite is pretty good at keeping us happy as clams – I confess I rather do. It suggests that Jerry’s most outlandish behavior, namely criticizing me, is not based on sound logic and evidence but on his being too much in feline company. There I thought I had attracted the attention of one of the best minds of our generation, and it is all a matter of infrequently changed litter boxes.
Oh, dear Michael, let me falsify that hypothesis right off the bat: I do not own a cat. I just like them.
And really, what’s the point of this piece?