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The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”

In a spat between the notoriously conservative novelist Tom Wolfe and Noam Chomsky – resolute opponent of US imperialism – I know whose side I am on. But you can serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.

Although some people find Wolfe’s style infuriating, I found The Kingdom of Speech beautifully written. Linguistics is famously boring, but Tom Wolfe is fun.

He begins by telling us of the Eureka! moment when, while surfing the net, he ‘moused upon a web node’. He was dumbfounded to have found an article by Chomsky and seven other boffins holding up a white flag to signal their surrender. After decades of research, these scientists – all assumed by Wolfe to be ‘heavyweight evolutionists’ – had given up trying to figure out how language in our species had evolved.[1] Humanity’s unprecedented gift of speech seemed to them to have come from nowhere.

I am pleased about this. I have spent much of my life trying to wake people up to the sad truth that Darwinians have failed utterly to explain the origin of language. Blissfully unaware of this fact, most of my friends – who include both left-wing activists and academics – take for granted that Darwin probably had a good explanation based on natural selection. Our capacities for speech surely evolved from the vocal capacities of our ape-like ancestors. Over time, grunts, screams, roars and squeaks somehow turned into words and grammar. How else can language have evolved?

I am delighted that Tom Wolfe has discovered that such confidence is misplaced. Being one of the most celebrated writers alive, there is a good chance he has at last opened up this whole question for proper debate. Although his book is awash with screaming errors, he is basically right on one main point: where language is concerned, evolutionary science still lacks an agreed or authoritative theory. Despite an avalanche of ideas, there is no consensus whatsoever as to how language could possibly have evolved.

Unfortunately, Wolfe is so busy writing fluid prose that he gets intoxicated, knightchomskymaking things up as he goes along. Referring to Chomsky’s controversial notion of an innate digital language module installed in every child’s brain, he elaborates: ‘The power of the language organ sent the universal grammar coursing through the deep structure’s lingual ducts to provide nutrition for the LAD….’

The idea that Universal Grammar might be a liquid coursing through ‘lingual ducts’ to provide ‘nutrition’ for a Language Acquisition Device is so fanciful as to make any linguist laugh out loud. But rather than poke fun at Wolfe for this, I would rather admit that the academics involved are to blame for not explaining ourselves in ways that anyone on the street might understand.

Where Wolfe completely falls down is in his grasp of who adopts which side of each key debate and why. Quite incorrectly, he views Chomsky as a ‘heavyweight evolutionary theorist’. He seems not to know that throughout his career, Chomsky has been consistently hostile to Darwin’s view that language gradually evolved. Chomsky has always insisted that for scientists to ask how language arose from the cries of apes ‘is a complete waste of time, because language is based on an entirely different principle than any animal communication system.’[2] Chomsky’s well-known view is that language must somehow have emerged in a single step as a consequence of just one chance mutation, perhaps when a human ancestor was hit by ‘a strange cosmic ray shower’. [3]

Wolfe’s book is about two establishment scientists – Darwin and Chomsky – and two supposed rebels, Alfred Russell Wallace and Daniel Everett. Wallace was the ‘flycatcher’ who discovered natural selection simultaneously with Darwin. Everett is the former Chomskyan linguist and anthropologist who turned against his teacher when he found a tribe in Amazonia whose language allegedly lacked ‘recursion’ – a mechanism claimed by Chomsky to lie at the core of all languages.

Unfortunately, Wolfe mixes up his players completely. He thinks that by supporting Wallace against Darwin on the evolution of humanity’s rational mind, he is somehow taking sides against Chomsky in the debate with Everett. In fact, Chomsky has always agreed with Wallace on this key issue, joining with him in denying that natural selection could possibly explain language, morality or rational thought. The irony is that whereas Wolfe thinks he is fighting Chomsky by defending Wallace, he is actually supporting him. After all, Chomsky regards his own theory of a sudden leap to language as a modern refinement of Wallace’s notion of an unbridgeable gap between animal and human nature.[4]

Now to the main point. Wolfe’s book centres around his personal discovery that speech makes the human species different. Here it is in his own words:

‘Bango! One bright night it dawned on me – not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. Contrary to Darwin, there is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.’

It’s hard to know why he considers this an amazing discovery, but he does.

Still more heroically, Wolfe by his own efforts has worked out how language began. ‘It comes down to a single word’, he writes, ‘mnemonics’. Our distant ancestors began mumbling strings of words to themselves so as to remember things. ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June and November….’ ‘I before E except after C’. ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning’. So that’s it. Language was invented so as to remember things. But as Wolfe himself points out, we can do so many other things with language! It is quite unclear why he thinks remembering was the single function which mattered. But he is right that you can say it in a single word. One more neat, simple, comical theory to add to all the others….

Although Wolfe is not much of a scientist, he has a novelist’s flair for psychology. His book has page after page of extraordinarily imaginative psychology. Hilarious details about Darwin’s noisy intestines. Hilarious details about Everett among the anacondas and mosquitoes. Pants-down, slapstick, Punch and Judy humour.

Because it’s slapstick, we have a world painted in black and white. Wolfe contrasts Darwin the upper class hypochondriac with the relatively uneducated middle class adventurer Wallace, and echoes the theme with the supposedly office-bound Chomsky versus Everett the tough and adventurous fieldworker. What’s missing is any socio-political analysis. For Wolfe, ‘class’ is a matter of personal upbringing, inner confidence or arrogance. If you are a toff, you will naturally be lazy and expect everything to be given to you. If you’re a regular guy, you’ll know what work means and struggle against the odds.

Wolfe’s idea of class forces and politics is limited to appearances. He makes much of Darwin’s misery as he delayed publishing his ideas, but attributes this to a character flaw in a member of the leisured classes, apparently ignorant of the real forces inhibiting the great naturalist from publishing his work. Wolfe seems unaware that Darwin’s undermining of Biblical dogma risked associating him in the 1840s with republicans, rioters and insurrectionists. Caught between his cautiously liberal politics and his science, Darwin was so anxious that he made himself ill. He kept his seditious theory under wraps out of an immense sense of guilt. He had cast doubt on God. ‘It is as if one were confessing to a murder,’ he wrote to his closest confidante, the botanist Joseph Hooker.

When it comes to Chomsky, once again Wolfe just doesn’t get the politics. He treats the linguist’s hostility to his country’s invasion of Vietnam as some kind of strategy for getting himself known, arguing that the linguistic side of his work benefitted in some way from this association. But there is little evidence for this. The constituency who lap up Chomskyan linguistics have almost always been a different bunch from those who love his politics – and Chomsky himself goes to great lengths to keep these two constituencies at arm’s length.

As when Wolfe deals with Darwin, in this context, too, the wider sociopolitical dynamics are missing. Wolfe never even mentions the crucial fact that Chomsky received most of his early funding from the very institution that he most detested on political grounds – the Pentagon. He says nothing about the paradoxical truth that the world’s most prominent critic of the US military worked on a campus – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – whose laboratories were heavily involved in developing weapons for the US military for use in brutal conflicts around the world.[5] Surely these paradoxes are more significant than Wolfe’s endless harping on about dress codes differentiating Chomskyan theoreticians from ruddy stalwarts conducting fieldwork in the Amazon.

I agree with the many reviewers who have condemned Wolfe for muddying the waters in all sorts of ways. But still, on balance, I hope his book may play a useful role. The debates he entertains us with are not trivial matters. They are absolutely central to what it means to be human. If Wolfe’s hugely readable book has brought these questions out of the academic bubble and into the mainstream, he will have done us all a favour.

Chris Knight’s book, Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics, is published by Yale University Press on September 27.

Notes.

[1] Hauser, Chomsky and others, ‘The Mystery of Language Evolution’, Frontiers in Psychology 7/5/2014.

[2] Chomsky 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge. The Managua Lectures. MIT Press, p. 183.

[3] Chomsky 2000. The Architecture of Language. Oxford University Press, p. 4.

[4] Chomsky 2006. Language and Mind. Third edn. Cambridge University Press, pp. 173-185.

[5] Given Wolfe’s politics, it is also no surprise that he says nothing about the conflicts of loyalty experienced by Chomsky when MIT was expelling students protesting the university’s role in the Vietnam war in 1969 and 1970. See chapter 4 of Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics.

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