Tom Wolfe, founder of “the New Journalism,” wearer of white suits, and one of the greatest living writers, has written a new nonfiction book, The Kingdom of Speech, attacking two secular saints: Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.
The book is massively entertaining and informative – and a bit flawed – but full of his trademark verve: exclamation points and Bango! neologisms. Wolfe, although a perfect gentleman in every interview, loves attacking and mocking in his books. His skewering of the art world in “The Painted Word” is legendary. His long piece, “Radical Chic,” on the Black Panthers attending a wealthy New York party thrown by Leonard Bernstein, is one of the great essays written in the English language.
I read this new work in one sitting.
First, the major flaw: he muddies the water around the concept of “evolution.” Wolfe has a problem not so much with evolution, but with one of its mechanisms, natural selection, particularly as it is applied to human evolution, especially the evolution of language. He points out the most of stories around how language evolved (imitating birds), are not any better than Kipling’s “Just So” stories.
He revives the reputation of Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote up his theory of evolution before Darwin, whom Wolfe refers to as “Charlie Darwin” and portrays as an upper class, cheating, spoiled brat. Hilarious!
He spends the second half of the book attacking Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, in this portrait, starts out not only revolutionizing linguistics, but also all social sciences and the role of intellectuals in American culture. He has a meteoric rise that puts him alongside the great minds of history. The only problem is that his theory of a Universal Grammar Device is wrong.
Daniel Everett, Chomsky’s rival, has found a tribe in the Amazon with few of the features of language asserted by Chomsky. Wolfe paints Everett in a similar light to Wallace: a hardy adventurer outside the mainstream.
What was shocking, if true, are the stories about Chomsky and his acolytes shunning Everett and his supporters. One philosopher, David Papineau, has confirmed on Twitter that he was hounded by the “Chomsky thought police” after writing a positive review of Everett. Wow!
Wolfe asserts that speech and language (and grammar) are not encoded in the brain as Chomsky has built his career asserting, but are artifacts, like “a Buick or lightbulb.”
By “artifact,” he seems to mean “tool.” Language is a tool that creates memory and therefore planning, culture, and learning. Everything we have is a result of this tool.
If Wolfe exchanged the word “artifact” for “technology,” there could be room for agreement between the two old legends.
There has been a bit of formal academic work around the idea that humans coevolved with their technology. We start hunting with spears, for example, and the shoulder (and brain) evolved to optimize the skill of spear throwing. (And then we developed better spears, requiring better shoulders and bigger brains, which then improved the weapons, and on and on…)
Language is just another piece of technology, requiring increasing skill to use, and with increasing payoffs for each improvement, creating a positive feedback loop.
A tantalizing piece of evidence supports this theory: the evolution of handedness. We seem to have become (mostly) right-handed (more precise, more accurate, more skilled) at around the same time we developed speech (and big-game hunting and art).
Perhaps there is not a Universal “Grammar” Device, but something broader, something to help master all human technology. Perhaps a Universal Skill Device, with “skill” defined as the ability to effectively use technology. This skill device would encompass more than just the linguistic, including also the athletic and artistic.
Wolfe's "Kingdom of Speech" lies within a broader "Empire of Skill."
It is interesting to note that the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who thought it essential that all their pupils learn athletics, art, and languages, would agree.
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