hen The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe’s new book-length essay, was published in late summer, it received generally respectful reviews in the popular press, fitting for the Grand Old Man of Letters that Wolfe, through no fault of his own, has become. Those of us who are longtime fanboys of America’s greatest living essayist, social observer, and satirist were especially pleased to see that the reviewers managed to resist the temptation to use their reviews to release their long-stifled desire to imitate Wolfe’s highly imitable style: “Tom . . . believe it . . . Wolfe . . . watch out . . . delivers the GOODS!::: tttttthhhwwwack!!!” for example, or worse.
I think the first time a reviewer tried this was in 1965, more than half a century ago. And reviewers haven’t stopped trying, even though, as a teenager I know once said in another context, it has become increasingly less funny ever since.
This time around the notable exception was found in a ferociously negative review in the Washington Post. The reviewer was Jerry Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago and a volunteer border cop who patrols the perimeter where science and popular culture meet, making sure that scientists are accorded the proper deference. The Kingdom of Speech is deeply transgressive in this way. Wolfe makes sport of scientific pretensions generally and neo-Darwinian pretensions specifically, and Coyne, a neo-Darwinist to the soles of his Birkenstocks, isn’t going to let a mere journalist, or even a Grand Old Man of Letters, get away with it. And so:
Where did language come from? Wolfe has an answer! White suit unsullied by any real research, he proposes . . . yes . . . his own theory of language. And it’s a doozy! Language arose as . . . wait for it . . . a MNEMONIC DEVICE! Yes, that’s right: We devised words to help us remember objects and facts and then—poof! —we had language!!
In hands less skilled than Tom Wolfe’s, a little of this can go a long way, and Coyne spends the rest of his review insulting Wolfe in a more straightforward manner. He charges him with ignorance and unreason and, above all, presumption. Among scientists, this is a common reaction to an uppity layman. In their better moods, even scientific fundamentalists will tell you the glory of science lies in the endless empirical testing and revision of theories, the back-and-forth of assertion and rebuttal, the stuttering, incremental advance toward truth, the openness to dissent and new ideas. And most often that’s what science is. Let an uncredentialed outsider sneak into the lab, however, asking rude questions about one theory or another, and—wham!—the back-and-forth is shut down and something called “settled science” rises in its place to keep the amateurs at bay.
In neo-Darwinism, the “settled science” has spread like kudzu, as more and more areas of human life, from morality to music, are recast as nothing more than the consequence of natural selection. Charles Darwin, Wolfe points out, proposed his version of evolution with an adventurer named Alfred Wallace, who had separately arrived at the same theory at roughly the same time. Wallace eventually went nuts, but before he did, he parted ways with Darwin over the question of how much of human—as opposed to animal—life the theory could explain.
At first, Darwin timidly asserted that his grand theory described only the evolution of the animal kingdom. “But his real dream,” writes Wolfe, “was of being the genius who showed the world that man was just an animal himself, evolved from other animals—and that his mighty mental abilities had evolved the same way.”
Wallace wasn’t willing to go so far. Human beings, Wallace wrote, possessed powers that were radically discontinuous with the kinds of adaptations that natural selection could account for. Abstract thought, the use of language, the creation of music and art, and consciousness as we know it are absent from even the highest primates. More, Darwinian theory couldn’t show how these distinctively human attributes might have evolved step by step from lower species, through a steady series of environmental adaptations, to their present advanced state. Wallace concluded that some process must be operating in nature in addition to the materialist machinery of natural selection.
We might call this view—though Wolfe doesn’t use the term—“human exceptionalism.” Among scientists in good standing, Wallace wasn’t alone in advocating it. Max Muller, a pioneering 19th-century linguist at Oxford, read Darwin’s work and declared that the use of language was the gift that definitively separated human beings from the animal kingdom. It was, Muller said, “our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.” Nowadays, neo-Darwinians would dismiss mulish Muller as a “speciesist.”
Wolfe illustrates Darwin’s frustration at these dissents with his usual novelistic vividness. Here he imagines the great theorist reading Wallace’s work, which he took as a personal betrayal.
In a regular frenzy Charlie began scrawling NO! – NO! – NO! – NO! – in the margins of his copy and then hurling spears in the form of exclamation points. Only a few wound up immediately following the NOs. The rest of them hit the page in the form of . . . take that, Wallace! . . . right through your temporal fossa and your little fifty-cubic-inch brain cavity! . . . and this one! . . . right through your bowels! . . . and this one . . . a regular crotch crusher! . . . ” [ellipses, duh, in the original].
You don’t hear much about Wallace anymore, and you hear even less about Muller, while their contemporary Darwin became, of course, one of the most famous men who ever lived. Human exceptionalism has a lot to do with their relative reputations. Wallace embraced it and so did Muller; indeed, they thought it was self-evident. Darwin didn’t. And most scientists, especially fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, have inherited Darwin’s materialism as dogma. It’s a good deal for scientists. After all, if everything we consider uniquely human is a consequence of purely materialistic processes, then the guys who study materialistic processes for a living hold the key to every human question. It’s nice work if you can get it.
There’s a problem, though. Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be. The scientists keep trying, of course, as scientists should. One of the most advanced efforts to explain language as an evolutionary adaptation has been undertaken by the linguist Noam Chomsky of MIT. After 80 pages chaffing Darwin, Wolfe turns his attention Chomsky-ward, and the result is brutal.
For Wolfe, Chomsky is a made-to-order figure of fun. He trails all the red banners of respectability that amuse Wolfe even as they cow the rest of us. Chomsky is wildly overpraised; Wolfe notes that in a 1986 survey of influential thinkers, “Chomsky came in eighth . . . in very fast company . . . the first seven were Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud.” Chomsky’s dour look and his soul-deep humorlessness are easy to mistake for the gravitas of genius. As a scientist, he is averse to meat-and-potatoes field research, preferring to weave abstract theories of ever greater complexity. He has the careerist’s eerie ability to walk away from disasters of his own making, intellectual or otherwise, with scarcely a scratch and nary a dent to his public reputation, which in any case rests less on his scientific achievement than on his pristinely left-wing politics. His fellow academics revered him for his brave opposition to any assertion of American power in the world, from Vietnam to Grenada to Iraq.
With such a character, Wolfe finds himself on well-grooved ground. Chomsky, he writes, “marched in the most publicized demonstration of all, the March on the Pentagon in 1967. He proved he was the real thing. He got himself arrested and wound up in the same cell with Norman Mailer, who was an ‘activist’ of what was known as the Radical Chic variety. A Radical Chic protester got himself arrested in the late morning or early afternoon, in mild weather. He was booked and released in time to make it to the Electric Circus, that year’s New York nightspot of the century, and tell war stories.” That last phrase marks the master’s touch.
Chomsky’s effort to explain human language in evolutionary terms, and thus reinforce the case against human exceptionalism, has largely failed. Wolfe outlines the reasons in jaunty style, but there are others he doesn’t get to. “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” read the headline in the September Scientific American. “Recently,” write the two authors, both linguists, “cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.” Chomsky’s armchair theorizing is being dismantled by the accumulation of empirical evidence, which is how scientists told us science works all along.
The Kingdom of Speech is popular intellectual history of the most exhilarating kind. Its closest antecedents came along nearly 40 years ago, both of them also by Wolfe. The Painted Word laid waste the world of abstract art, and From Bauhaus to Our House attacked the absurdities of modernist architecture. In all three of these books, Wolfe lampoons the reigning orthodoxy of our intellectual elites—specialists, critics, experts, publicists, academics, nearly everyone who has an interest, professional or rooting, in the status quo, even as they try to persuade the rest of us of notions that we know are crazy. We’re supposed to think that the buildings of Bauhaus are lovely and functional and humane? That nonrepresentational painting is an aesthetic advance over traditional art? As smart as the smart guys and much more amiable, Wolfe has made himself the popularizer of common sense.
Those earlier books provoked outrage from the specialists, and The Kingdom of Speech has inspired the same reaction from the same quarters. Coyne is not the only scientist who rushed to the blogs and manned the message boards to post dozens of objections to the book and its argument. Wolfe is simply in over his head, they say. A recurring charge is that he never takes care to define his terms—using, for example, the words “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which a specialist would never do.
The particular criticism has merit, but it doesn’t travel very far. As a journalist and entertainer, Wolfe has an obligation to avoid the tedium that makes scientific publications interesting to scientists and nobody else. That obligation doesn’t relieve him of the obligation to be accurate; the two demands live side by side. But it does require him to shun pedantry, to keep his readers away from thickets of technical arguments and counterarguments that will leave them half-dead. The trick for the popularizer is to write both generally and vividly, skirting complicating niceties here and there, while never failing to steer the reader toward the truth.
The alternative is grim indeed. Clearing the popularizers from the field, as many specialists would like to do, would cede all scientific argument to scientists, who in many notable cases have not earned the deference they demand. The danger is doubled when scientists use science to draw metaphysical lessons—when, that is, they assert that human beings and primates are in essence the same kind of creature. A flurry of data and polysyllabic detail shouldn’t obscure the fact that such a thesis defies human experience and devalues the noblest human endeavors (including science, by the way).
Wolfe joins a small and hardy band of writers and other high-brows who take joy in staring down the bullies of scientism: Marilynne Robinson, David Berlinski, Wendell Berry, Thomas Nagel, a few others. But Wolfe is the best of them. And, listen, he does it . . . somehow . . . I mean, really!!!! – at the (((HEE_YAH!))) mother-lovin’ age of eighty-freakin’-six!!!!