The Kingdom of Speech

  • By Tom Wolfe
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 192 pp.
  • Reviewed by David Z. Morris
  • August 29, 2016

A flawed, often superficial treatise on the origins of human language.

The most glaring problem with Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech is its marketing materials. They promise a “paradigm-shifting argument” about the origins of human language — but while the book does champion a profoundly important revision to our understanding of human development, it won’t offer you a particularly comprehensive or insightful take on that new paradigm. Instead, Tom Wolfe gives us something very Tom Wolfe-ian: a gossipy personal history of the figures and battles behind the ideas.

Which would be fine, despite the misdirection, if there weren’t other substantial problems with The Kingdom of Speech. The biggest one is that Wolfe (now well into his 80s) is here practicing New Journalism from an armchair, trying to inject the same impressionistic verve into a library foray as he did into his travels with the Merry Pranksters or his interviews of astronauts.

What we end up with are frequent flights of fancy with unclear sourcing, one troubling and lengthy misrepresentation of the nature of scientific knowledge, and some unclearly marked borrowings. Together, they add up to an important message delivered in a deeply flawed vessel.

That message is this: It has become increasingly clear that human language did not “evolve” in the biological sense, and that there are no “language genes” or “language organs.” Instead, language is a creation of human culture which has been handed down over millennia, developing along the way from very basic forms of signaling to the ornate and powerful tool we have today.

This has vast implications for our understanding of human nature — not least, it is the final end to the notion that we are in any way distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, since other animals engage in various forms of signaling that we are now discovering are not fundamentally distinct from human language.

But Wolfe, instead of focusing on and exploring these implications, is mainly interested in how embarrassing this paradigm shift is for a few academics, particularly linguist Noam Chomsky and his followers. And along with that bathwater, he decides to throw out Charles Darwin himself.

The book is structured by two mirrored narratives. The first half tells the entwined stories of Darwin and naturalist Alfred Wallace. The second recounts the much more recent battle between Chomsky and anthropologist Daniel Everett. In each case, the science plays second fiddle to what Wolfe paints as high-stakes contests between powerful eminences (Darwin and Chomsky) and their upstart, fringe opponents (Wallace and Everett). In both, Wolfe clearly sides with the underdog.

He scores his biggest body blows against Chomsky, but his take on Darwin is, at the very least, bracing. The standard scientific history has Wallace somewhat intuitively stumbling onto the same theory of evolution by natural selection that Darwin had been meticulously developing for decades, forcing a reluctant Darwin to publish his findings to avoid being scooped.

Wolfe’s interpretation is much less generous to Darwin, construing well-known facts as a conspiracy of aristocratic naturalists who disown the working-class Wallace over a theory of which, Wolfe claims in no uncertain terms, he was “the actual creator.”

It’s a perspective worthy of airing, but in trying to be (I suppose) more dramatic, Wolfe conveys much of the story through histrionic innuendo and mind-reading that seem rooted in little more than imagination.

In recounting the joint announcement that publicized Darwin and Wallace’s discoveries while subtly giving Darwin primacy, he puts these thoughts in Darwin’s brain: “It wasn’t his idea. It was entirely theirs, [fellow elite naturalists] Lyell’s and Hooker’s. I, Charles Darwin, had nothing to do with it!

It’s unclear what this suggestion of Darwin’s repressed guilt over marginalizing Wallace is based on — we are given no letters, no diary entries, and little circumstantial evidence on the point.

Other instances of overextended inference concern science rather than politics. At one point, Wolfe, again edging his way into Darwin’s thoughts, compares the native people of Tierra del Fuego to “a howling hairy ape.”

It’s not clear whether he has a source for Darwin expressing this thought, and it’s even less clear that Wolfe is cognizant of the present-day implications of it. Darwin’s views on human race are sufficiently entwined with the echoes of social engineering and scientific racism that such a comparison of non-Europeans to apes should only be attributed to him in the most responsible and direct way.

But the deepest problem is Wolfe’s treatment of Darwin’s basic scientific values. According to Wolfe, Darwin wanted the theory of evolution to be a Theory of Everything, leading ultimately to the century-long persistence of the idea that speech is a genetic product of natural selection rather than a cultural innovation.

That’s a fine point, but Wolfe pushes it, launching into a digression about the creation myths of Earth’s various peoples, suggesting that evolution, as a Theory of Everything, is just another spin on, for instance, the Navajo Indians’ idea that the world was created by a biting midge.

Analyzing science as a continuation of human myth-making is a hot topic among serious thinkers. But Wolfe’s breezy half-engagement here threatens to lend serious succor to the enemies of scientific thought.

“The Apaches’ scorpion [myth] and Darwin’s cells in that warm pool somewhere were by definition educated guesses,” he writes, as if the two were completely interchangeable. He continues that “there was no scientific way to test” Darwin’s theory of evolution and that, in the final analysis, it “was sincere, but sheer, literature.”

By now, both history buffs and lovers of science will have migraines. It’s simply off-the-deep-end nonsense to assert that Darwin’s theory was nothing more than creative expression. Wolfe draws ammunition from fable-like “just so stories” Darwin tells about the paths of evolution, but these were, in fact, forms of logical argument often based on hard evidence. Darwin’s arguments and evidence were certainly flawed, but creation myths have no sense of either.

Wolfe tries to shore up this perspective by painting Darwin as a desk-bound theorist, contrasting him with Wallace’s dynamic, world-exploring “fly catcher.” He does this by focusing on Darwin’s later career while largely ignoring how Darwin’s theory was shaped by direct observations during his youthful voyage on the Beagle.

Finally, Wolfe’s desire to valorize Wallace glosses over one very important aspect of history. As Darwin pushed ever harder, albeit clumsily, to knit humans into the animal kingdom, Wallace retreated, late in his career, into the embrace of Spiritualism that reaffirmed human uniqueness.

Wolfe glancingly lauds this belief in the unseeable as an attempt to grapple with language outside the frame of materialist evolution, as if Wallace’s enthusiasm for ghosts was only as a metaphor for culture. You can say one thing for Wolfe: He’s dancing with who brung him.

In short, the first half of Kingdom may have been pitched as a reconsideration of an untouchable scientific demigod. But it comes off as a clumsy and hasty historical hit-piece, with a shocking and seemingly unintentional chunk of anti-intellectualism.

Wolfe gives a more assured recounting of the story of Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett. One might object to the depiction of the revered Chomsky as an authoritarian buffoon, but in the end, it’s the most convincing aspect of The Kingdom of Speech.

Wolfe ably identifies the many moments when Chomsky belittled his intellectual opponents, marshalled his army of adherents against them, and then beat strategic and disingenuous retreats in the face of mounting evidence against his theory of a Universal Grammar — a genetically determined structure in the human brain that supposedly generates forms of language common across all humankind.

While convincing, the book is at times far too gleeful in this hatchet-work, missing the opportunity to empathize with a man who has devoted so much of his life to digging what seems in the end to have been a dead-end rabbit hole. A more empathetic portrait, though, would have required a closer sort of research — interviews, if not with Chomsky, then at least with his compatriots, of which there is no evidence here.

Instead, even though its players are still alive, the second half of Speech is written just as much from secondary sources as primary. That’s ironic, given Wolfe’s vicious attacks on others who aren’t out exploring the literal or metaphorical jungle. But in principle, it’s a fine tactic. Wolfe is mostly glossing over Chomskian linguistics papers that no one needs to read.

But Wolfe skirts a line when relaying Daniel Everett’s story of discovering prehistoric language structures among the Pirahã, an isolated Amazonian tribe. That research contributed hugely to the ongoing decentering of Universal Grammar and evolutionary presumptions from linguistics, and also brings a frisson of personal drama, since Everett, once a follower of Chomsky, has become a hated adversary.

But again, instead of getting to know Everett more deeply, Wolfe devotes most of a chapter to what amounts to little more than a paraphrasing of Everett’s own book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. Using the tactics of a modern-day content-spinner, Wolfe selects scenes and replaces words, but doesn’t add any new information or much insight.

One glaring moment comes when he recounts Everett overhearing the normally peaceful tribespeople drunkenly crafting a murderous plot. Here’s Wolfe’s telling:

One Pirahã said, “I am not afraid. I kill the Americans. We kill them, the Brazilian gives us a new shotgun. He told me that.”
“You kill them, then?” said the other.
“Yes. They go to sleep. I shoot them.”

Here is Everett telling the story in his book:

The first words that impressed themselves on my senses were “I am not afraid to kill the Americans. The Brazilian says to kill them and he will give us a new shotgun.”
“You’re going to kill them, then?”
“Yes, I will shoot them while they are sleeping.”

It’s confusing just what’s going on here, and why. Wolfe doesn’t indicate anywhere that Everett has told him this story in person, and of course, Wolfe didn’t witness it. So on what basis does he transform Everett’s translations of what he heard, instead of just quoting the book directly?

Subjectively, it doesn’t add any literary value. And even if Wolfe spoke a bit of Pirahã (there’s no indication that he does), it’s unlikely his rephrasing would capture some underlying linguistic truth missed by Everett, who has spent decades unearthing the deep structures of the language. If anything, Wolfe’s version seems to paint the Pirahã as far more stereotypically “primitive” than Everett suggests.

I suspect that what’s going on here is entirely ego-driven. Wolfe is embarrassed to admit that he has written a book from his desk, and so he obfuscates that fact. It’s not necessarily unethical, but it’s hard to see how it’s a good use of a reader’s time.

The same is true of the entire book. The Kingdom of Speech, at about 180 pages, could be knocked out in three or four hours. But even that time might be better spent with Everett’s much more informative and, yes, more dramatic bestseller. And the truly curious will have their minds blown by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart Shanker’s The First Idea, a gripping (but dense) account of how language may have developed out of emotional signaling, which includes paradigm-shifting nuggets about the rich vocabulary of vervet monkeys.

Wolfe, in short, has proven his enduring ability to choose the right moment. Our views of language and human nature are shifting radically and quickly. Eventually, a great popular book will come along to put that transformation into terms both compelling and comprehensible to the NPR crowd. The Kingdom of Speech is traversing the right territory, but it is too loose, too glib, and, in a few places, too glaringly flawed to be that book.

David Z. Morris's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Word Riot, Wired, MilkFist, Aeon, Fortune, and Maximum Rock n' Roll. More of his commentary on fiction, film, and music can (occasionally) be found at blownhorizonz.com.

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