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7 September 2016

Has Tom Wolfe discovered the real origin of human language?

The Kingdom of Speech takes on Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin in its theories about the evolution of language.

By Adam Kirsch

The resentment of elites is an ineradicable American trait; whether it is a virtuous or a vicious one depends on which part of the historical record you are looking at. A certain democratic orneriness is what allowed the Founding Fathers to throw off the yoke of King George, and in turn allowed the Jacksonian democrats to throw off the yoke of the New England federalists and Virginia planters. Each ruling clique must be made to answer the great American question: who are they to tell us what to do? Yet when that same question is posed against experts who demand that Americans reduce their carbon emissions, or give up their assault rifles, the consequences are not so pretty. Resentment of privilege shades into resentment of knowledge; the American who won’t be bossed around often ends up refusing to listen even to good counsel.

Tom Wolfe will be for ever associated with the New Journalism, the vivid, first-person style of reportage he helped to pioneer in the 1960s. Yet what is new in Wolfe’s work is perhaps less important than what is old. He stands in the grand American tradition of mockers and scoffers, cracker-barrel sages who laugh at the professors in their ivory towers and the dudes wearing the latest fashions. In the past, he has targeted the art world (in The Painted Word), limousine liberals (in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers) and experimental novelists (in his 1989 essay-manifesto “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”, which served to clear the ground for his own hard-headed fiction). To Wolfe, each of these small worlds is cut off from the sanity of the people by arrogance and fashion. And as intellectuals and artists are always prone to self-admiration, his strafing of their complacencies has been amusing and even useful.

In his new book, however, he takes on better-defended targets, and comes off the loser. The Kingdom of Speech, though brief, is a hard book to describe, but at its heart it is yet another fusillade against experts, this time two of the very biggest: Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. What ties them together, in Wolfe’s account, is that both were responsible for advancing false views of the origin of human language. Naturally, to know that their views are false, one would have to be in possession of the truth about one of the greatest scientific mysteries – how human language began, and what it is about our minds that allows us to use it so productively.

A more modest writer than Tom Wolfe might hesitate to make such a claim. But by the end of this book, he is certain that, despite knowing basically nothing about ­biology or linguistics, he has figured out the problem that defeated the masters of these fields. Common sense triumphs over expertise. Anyone who has read an Oxfordian happily demolishing the claims of the Man from Stratford will be familiar with the tone and the technique.

The Kingdom of Speech opens by recasting a scientific problem as a scientific scandal. “One hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced”, Wolfe writes, “and they had learned . . . nothing” about the origins of language. “What is the story? What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech?” Of course, the modern period has been anything but baffled when it comes to linguistic knowledge. But it suits Wolfe to treat it that way, and so you will find no reference in the book to Saussure or semiotics, Sir William Jones or Proto-Indo-European, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or any of the other landmarks of modern linguistic research.

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Indeed, Wolfe goes so far as to say that the 77-year period between Darwin and Chomsky was “a dark age” for linguistics “comparable in the annals of science to the Dark Ages that descended upon Europe after the invasion of the Huns”.

This is absurd as a historical claim, but it is a good description of the organisation of Wolfe’s own book, which treats of only two episodes. Significantly, each is structured as a David-and-Goliath story, in which a spunky outsider manages to outwit and shame a mandarin insider.

The first of these is the extremely well-known rivalry between Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, which calls into play some of Wolfe’s favourite themes – class and expertise, male rivalry and humiliation. In Wolfe’s account, the rich and well-connected Darwin straightforwardly stole the credit for the theory of evolution from the poor, self-educated Wallace: “It was said that a British Gentleman could steal your underwear, your smalls and skivvies and knickers, and leave you staring straight at him asking if he didn’t think it had turned rather chilly all of a sudden.”

And yet, at the same time, Wolfe does not seem to think that the theory of evolution was any great thing to have discovered, because he compares it mockingly with Navajo and Apache cosmogonies. The agent of cosmic development which the Navajos called Locust, he argues, Darwin merely “renamed Evolution”.

Above all, evolution is suspect because, to Wolfe, it does not account satisfactorily for the origins of human language. He derides Darwin’s attempts in The Descent of Man to explain language as a descendant of bird-calls. He has no more use for the attempt by Chomsky, the great linguist (and political activist) of the 20th century, to elucidate the rules of universal grammar as the product of a “language organ” in the brain. When it comes to Chomsky, Wolfe once again finds an admirable antagonist: Daniel L Everett, whose research on the language of a particular Amazonian tribe was said to disprove Chomsky’s thesis about recursion as a basic feature of human language.

The scientific matters at stake are well beyond the competence of either Wolfe or most readers, and they are presented in caricatured form. What energises Wolfe is the contrast, once again, between Chomsky, the tenured insider who works with his brain, and Everett, the outsider who actually gets out into the field and contends with the elements. Virtue triumphs over highbrow smugness, in Wolfe’s pages if not in the ­history books or the textbooks. Read this way, as a kind of populist fable, The Kingdom of Speech has some value. Scientifically it has none, and anyone really interested in either evolution or linguistics has many better places to turn.

Adam Kirsch’s “Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas” is published by W W Norton

This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war