Tom Wolfe is among our best contemporary writers. The founder of the New Journalism, which uses novelistic techniques for the purpose of non-fiction, and a novelist who employs real-world research like a journalist, Wolfe is also an iconoclast of contemporary culture. (See, for example, his send-up of wealthy leftists in Radical Chic, and his mockery of the trendy art world in The Painted Word.)
Now Wolfe takes on the biggest icon of modern thought, the one thinker who must not be questioned and the one sacrosanct idea: Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Wolfe’s book, The Kingdom of Speech, is a lively history of Darwin’s theory and its continually demonstrated inability to account for human language. It also gives us a portrait of Charles Darwin and his nemesis Alfred Russel Wallace, who beat him to the theory of natural selection. Wolfe also takes on Noam Chomsky, the leading linguist of our day and a leftwing activist, and his nemesis, Dan Everett, a former missionary who disproves his theory on the innateness of language.
Though Wolfe is neither, from what I can tell, a creationist nor an Intelligent Design advocate, he shows how science is made–by human beings, with ambition, politics, and social pressures all playing their part. The book is informative, funny, and stimulating. And it is ultimately a tribute to the transcendent Word that underlies all things.
In 2014, eight biologists and leading linguists–including the dominant scholar in the field Noam Chomsky–neo-Darwinists all, published a paper entitled “The Mystery of Language Evolution.” (Read it here.) It stated that despite decades of attempts to explain the evolution of language, all of those attempts have failed. Arguments that language evolved by humanoids imitating bird sounds or attempts to extrapolate language development from animal communications just do not work, failing to come to terms with the intrinsic complexity of language, with its grammars, syntax, and morphology. The article admits that scientists have made no progress in determining how language could have evolved through natural selection.
Now this is an astounding admission. Language is what defines a human being as opposed to all of the other animals. Language is what makes possible thought, consciousness, communities, technology, civilizations, and just about every other human achievement. If evolution can’t account for language, in what sense can it be said that human beings have evolved?
From this admission, Wolfe dives in the origin of the Origin of Species. Darwin had sailed the Galapagos as a young man and conceived of his major theories, but he didn’t publish them until over 20 years later, when a young biologist out in the field, a lowly “flycatcher” named Alfred Russel Wallace read about natural selection from the Anglican priest and over-population theorist Thomas Malthus. Wallace thought Malthus’s idea that the best in a population win out might be a mechanism for evolution, an idea that had been around for decades. He sent Darwin a copy of his article, which spurred the more distinguished gentleman into action. There is much more to the story that Wolfe goes into, but eventually Wallace wrote that natural selection could not explain certain human traits, including language.
Then Wolfe jumps forward to the work of linguist Noam Chomsky, who dominated American academia and dominates it still with his magisterial theories of linguistics and his hard-left politics. Chomsky developed the idea that language is hard-wired in the human mind, an innate ability that generates a universal grammar that all of the world’s languages adhere to. But then comes Dan Everett, a graduate of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (where Wycliffe and Lutheran Bible Translators learn their trade). Everett was a missionary to the Piraha tribe of the Brazilian rain forest. He discovered that the Piraha language lacked the “universal” elements that Chomsky insisted had to be common to all languages. Which meant that Chomsky’s universal grammar isn’t universal after all, and his whole edifice collapsed.
Wolfe develops Everett’s argument that language is an “artifact,” something that didn’t evolve but was rather made by human beings, which, in turn makes all of our other human powers possible. To me, though, Wolfe’s attempt at an explanation of the origin of language holds no more water than that of the Darwinists. If language is based on “mnemonics,” as Wolfe maintains, where did human beings get the mental power to make such associations? Wouldn’t that mental power be essentially linguistic, a capacity for similes and metaphors?
What I get out of his book is the way language transcends our very attempts to understand it and the way it underlies not only the human mind but also thought itself, including scientific thought. There is a language that underlies and orders and gives meaning to all things:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . .And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son[d] from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14).
One more point about Wolfe’s book: He contrasts Darwin theorizing in his study with Wallace out in the malarial jungles getting evidence. He also contrasts Chomsky who hardly ever leaves his air-conditioned office to Everett, who works out in the field under incredibly arduous and dangerous conditions studying actual languages. This is similar to Wolfe’s own approach to writing: He is critical of contemporary introspective novelists who cannot get beyond their own inner lives. This, despite the tumultuous, fascinating, wild realities of the objective world. Wolfe champions the novels that explore the societies of their time–those of Dickens, Hugo, and Tolstoy–and tries to keep that literary tradition alive in his own work, which he bases on first hand research, interviews, and reporting. For that alone, Wolfe’s novels and non-fiction are always refreshing reading.