Peter Wood is editor of Academic Questions and president of the National Association of Scholars, 12 East 46th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017-2418; firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (Encounter, 2007). His most recent publications are the NAS reports Drilling through the Core: The Hollowness of the Common Core K–12 State Standards (2015) and, with Rachelle Peterson, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism (2015).
Geoffrey Clarfield is a development anthropologist and ethnomusicologist who has spent the last thirty years as a researcher, project manager, and policy advisor for the United Nations, the Canadian, Norwegian, Italian, and British governments, as well as international NGOs such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Having lived and worked in East Africa for just under two decades he is now focusing on projects in South Asia. He is currently based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; email@example.com.
Glynn Custred is professor of anthropology (linguistics) at California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA 94542; firstname.lastname@example.org. He is coauthor of the California Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 209.
Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, 12 East 46th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017-2418; email@example.com.
This piece originally appeared in the special section “Conversations,” in the Summer 2017 Academic Questions (volume 30, number 2).
The Kingdom of Speech is an extraordinary display of intellectual independence. This is a book that treats Charles Darwin as a toplofty prig and Noam Chomsky as a haughty fake—which is to say it aims to harpoon two of the biggest whales of modern secular thought.
Tom Wolfe, writing at age eighty-five with the deftness and assurance of Queequeg on the prow of Starbuck’s boat, undertakes these perilous ventures with his accustomed nonchalance. Having dispatched modern art in one book and modern architecture in another, why not aim a spear or two at exemplars of intellectual modernity?
We may not usually think of Darwin and Chomsky as a pair, but Wolfe traces a convincing link. Darwin struggled with and left an unsatisfactory hypothesis for the origins of human language. Chomsky, by conjuring (without much evidence) a portion of the human brain specifically wired for a universal human grammar, revived Darwin’s idea that we evolved language.
We moderns are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as products of evolution that it might be hard to imagine an alternative. Of course our capacity for language evolved. Apes don’t speak. We do. QED.
But there is a gap between “capacity to speak” and actual speech, and it is a gap that has proven devilishly hard to bridge. Evolutionists continue their efforts to cross it. For example, in Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity—a 2015 book not cited by Wolfe—Colin McGinn speculates that the Darwinian path from tree-dwelling hominid to articulate college professor lies through an evolutionary feedback loop between the human hand and the development of expressive speech. McGinn’s guesswork builds on a fossil record and a knowledge of neuroanatomy unavailable to Darwin, but it encounters the same conceptual cliff that thwarted Darwin. The gap between mere vocal expression and human language differs in profound ways from the gaps filled by all the micro-adaptations that shaped the human foot, knee, pelvis, or hand. The jump from “woof woof” to “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is not just larger than the switch from tree-climbing to walking upright; it is different in nature.
Wolfe, who knows a thing or two about expressive language, dives into this subject. He writes not so much as an anti-evolutionist than as a scourge of intellectual arrogance. His starting point is a sentence in a psychology journal to the effect that the experts can’t really explain the origins of human language.
Why not? Didn’t Charles Darwin settle this long ago? And suddenly we are off on a clever retelling of how Darwin stole credit for the idea of evolution by natural selection from the itinerant South Seas bug collector, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace had come up with natural selection independently and confided his discovery to Darwin in the hope of getting the older man’s help in publishing it. Darwin did help, but artfully announced it as coincident with his own version of the idea, long mulled but never announced.
Darwin was comfortable and socially connected: precisely the kind of person that Wolfe has made a career of skewering in his essays and novels. Darwin, of course, treated Wallace with patronizing generosity, and poor Wallace never realized he had been had. This story is familiar to many of us, but Wolfe’s exuberant telling freshens it. The Kingdom of Speech is about the origins of language, not the comedy of egoistic one-upmanship—though it is about that, too.
Darwin sought not just a workable theory of evolution in general, but a theory that would explain, without resort to God, The Descent of Man, as he titled the sequel to On the Origin of Species. Human anatomy sufficiently resembles that of the great apes that Darwin could intuitively work out the general lines of descent. By adding the principle of “sexual selection” in The Descent of Man, he had at least one path to explain some of the differences between us and the apes.
Language, however, presented that chasm of difference that natural selection even augmented by sexual selection could not seem to bridge. Darwin’s last attempt to make human speech conform to his model was to treat human speech as just an elaboration of animal vocalization. Wolfe has a pleasant time recounting the disdain with which linguists treated the “bow wow” hypothesis.
Wolfe’s takedown of Chomsky involves an elaborate parallel of Darwin’s patronizing and sometimes dismissive treatment of Wallace. The Wallace figure in Chomsky’s life is itinerant South American ethnographer Daniel L. Everett, who found a human language that differs in fundamental ways from what Chomsky claims to be the unalterable basics of human speech. A key issue is that the language of the Amazonian Pirahã (the name is pronounced something like PEE-da-HA) lacks a feature called “recursion”—the embedding of sentences within sentences. Everett’s analysis has been met with skepticism by Chomsky loyalists, but Wolfe is convinced that the skepticism is merely a power play. The skeptics set out “to carpet bomb, obliterate, every syllable Everett had to say about this miserable little tribe.” But wonderful to say, Everett outmaneuvered them both in scholarship and appeal to the general public.
I’ve read Everett’s delightful book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), as well as some of the back-and-forth scholarly debate, and I find myself rooting for Everett—which is, of course, not the same as having reached an expert assessment of the evidence, which is outside my field. Wolfe has no inhibitions on that score, nor need he. The Kingdom of Speech is a can opener, not a treatise; a harpoon, not a nail file. Some reviewers have been aghast at his temerity, and nearly all have gasped at the bravado of his closing sentences: “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.”
The light that illuminates Wolfe’s book is the idea that humans invented speech, the way we invented so many other things. Evolution doesn’t explain the invention any more than it explains kaleidoscopes or microprocessors. That we can and do invent tools, luxuries, games, and cultures testifies to capacities that set us apart from animals. Where those capacities came from is a question still worth asking.
Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech is a short book with four themes.
The first is that the ethnographic evidence provided by anthropologist and linguist Daniel L. Everett, based on decades of participant observation and a thorough, analytic, experience-based documentation and mastery of the language and culture of an isolated tribe, demonstrates that many aspects of the “universal grammar” that linguist Noam Chomsky has proclaimed for more than four decades, are contradicted by the evidence of the structure, tenses, and semantics of the language of the Pirahã Indian people, who live in the Amazon river basin. Chomsky’s universal grammar is… not universal.
The second is that the trajectory of Everett’s career and his ultimate challenge to the Chomskyan monopoly on the nature of language is a strange twentieth-/twenty-first-century recapitulation of the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace, the working-class collector of exotic plants and animals in the tropics, versus the upper-class establishment-based collector and scholar, Charles Darwin.
The third theme is that if we accept that Everett has shown that the emperor has no clothes—that Chomsky’s language machine and universal grammar may not indeed be universal, nor cross-culturally valid—then all rigid Darwinian/Chomskyan schemes to explain the evolution of language have come to naught.
The fourth and final theme, or conclusion, is that language may be a human invention. It may not be hardwired into the brain and universal in the way Chomsky and his followers have argued. It is now open to a more empirical and philosophical investigation.
Wolfe does an excellent job of showing how the sociological equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigm took over linguistics after World War II. Chomsky and his followers made linguistics quantitative, transformative, and created the notion of the transformational grammar. The implication was that with a finite number of sounds and words and limited grammatical transactions an infinite number of sentences could be generated. Thus, his generative grammar. As an undergraduate studying the rudiments of anthropological linguistics in the 1970s, I simply assumed that he must be right.
What I drew from reading about linguistics in the early seventies was that differences in language must be solely differences in semantics. This would be the only way that I could make sense of cultural differences. This would be the only way I could marry Franz Boas with Chomsky and Charles Darwin.
And so Everett’s destruction of Chomsky’s stranglehold on language demonstrates that perhaps not all grammars are the same. They must therefore be the result of historical development. Perhaps Darwin was right, and there is some sort of evolution in language as suggested by Russian historical linguists such as Aharon Dolgopolsky, who have shown that there has been an evolution or development of language groups going back to the Proto-Nostratic of perhaps eighty thousand years ago, the first language spoken by hunter-gatherers in East Africa, which, from there, moved out into the world.
We need not assume that Proto-Nostratic was the basis of universal grammar. It may simply be the origins of all grammar. And grammars may have changed over time and developed into Afro-Asiatic, Proto Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan language families.
The second theme suggests that Alfred Russel Wallace never quite got the scientific recognition for his co-invention of the theory of descent from natural selection and for which Darwin is universally known. Wolfe is at his most devastating when he shows how Darwin’s mentors took Wallace’s extensive, more than thirty-page essay that boldly and clearly outlined the theory of natural selection and had it presented on the same day as Darwin’s unpublished rough draft. As a matter of fact, it would appear that Sir Charles Lyell and others managed, falsely, to make the discovery a “co-discovery” by encouraging Darwin to write soon thereafter On the Origin of Species, for his book subsequently eclipsed Wallace’s primacy in the discovery and announcement of evolution until today.
Yet Wallace always thought of Darwin as his friend and benefactor. He was a pallbearer at his funeral! So, yes, that Darwin did not have sufficient moral strength to defer to Wallace’s primacy in the discovery of natural selection falls into the Marxist model that would argue that Darwin was indeed to some degree a prisoner of his class and its prejudices, as much as Wallace was a victim of the lower-class origins that made his life so hard.
Wolfe argues that Everett and Chomsky are analogues of Wallace and Darwin. Yet there are many differences between the dyads. Chomsky was and remains a self-declared Marxist aristocrat. He believes that scientifically, with regard to language, he is and always has been in the vanguard. He believes that politically, as a good Marxist, he is in the moral and political vanguard. Unfortunately, as a “vanguardiste” he takes on the predictable authoritarian style of the commissar, both intellectual and political, and he has shamelessly tried to discredit Everett as not “Ivy League.”
And so, at a deep anthropological level, the prestige hierarchies of class in nineteenth-century England that made Wallace the sidekick of Darwin are replicated here in America, and now make Chomsky the self-appointed king of his own ivory tower. Chomsky has wanted to make sure that a mere Protestant missionary (for SIL International) cum ethnographer/ethnographic linguist such as Everett is not able to destroy the Ptolemaic-like spheres within spheres of Chomsky’s universal grammar. (By the way, the quality of Everett’s prose in Language: The Cultural Tool is first-rate and his thinking is influenced by Plato as well as ethnography. Everett is no stranger to the world of ideas.)
There is something funny about Chomsky. Apparently he speaks no foreign languages, certainly not fluently, nor has he ever studied a tribal language. Despite the fact that he is a Marxist, he epitomizes that nineteenth-century disdain of the office-bound English imperialist who did not believe in learning the language of the “natives.” It was enough to rule them at a distance from London and Whitehall, as Chomsky does from MIT.
I truly believe that the preindustrial world is disappearing and that the goal of anthropology is to document cultural differences as extensively as possible (in some cases for decades, as did Everett) and from as many angles as possible. But this will not happen. Anthropologists are now supposed to be advocates for “social justice”—or they’re supposed to be servants of women’s studies or any other form of identity studies. They no longer do long-term participation/linguistic immersion in foreign cultures. And there is no institutional money for it. The Carnegie Mellon Foundation is too busy giving charlatans like Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, 1.5 million dollars for “excellence in scholarship.”
At least Everett has blown Chomsky’s cover and hopefully the curse of Chomsky has been lifted from linguistics. No longer will he reign over language from MIT. No longer will he be allowed to hound and dismiss Everett’s findings. No longer will he use his tenured position there to defend his defense of the Khmer Rouge. No longer will he be allowed to express, in his Marxist-tinged approach to language, that we have all been equal all the time, from the beginning of our species to the present day.
Tom Wolfe ends The Kingdom of Speech by reminding us (as Wallace would have) of the unique language of the Bible and its enduring legacy. Wolfe implies that this cannot be explained by Darwin. There’s something mysterious out there. It is called language. Perhaps now that the curse of Chomsky’s monopoly is passing, we will be able to explore it with new eyes and new ears. It is a kingdom worth entering.
In The Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe champions upstart outsiders against insider elites. Charles Darwin and his inner circle of gentleman scientists face outsider Alfred Russel Wallace.
Noam Chomsky and his phalanx of academic linguists face outsider Daniel L. Everett. For years Wallace tramped the Amazon and the Malay jungles in pursuit of knowledge about the varied plant and animal life of the world, sending home thousands of specimens. Such collectors of specimens were mere “flycatchers” in the eyes of respectable scientists, and Darwin was shocked when Wallace independently proposed a theory of natural selection. Everett lived for years deep in the Amazon jungle studying the language of a remote and isolated indigenous people. Chomsky considered such linguistic fieldwork irrelevant and was shocked when Everett documented a language that vitiated Chomsky’s theory of linguistic universals.
Wolfe pairs these two stories to frame a larger debate about the origins of human language. Darwin eventually came to the view that language arose from the sounds of animals in nature, and that the more useful the faculty of language became, the more the brain evolved to accommodate and to facilitate its development. Wallace countered that human language came about due to “the agency of another power,” not God, because Wallace was an atheist, but something he called “a superior intelligence” and “a controlling intelligence.” It was, wrote Wallace, only such “a new power of definite character” that could account for “ever advancing” man, a power, whatever it might be, that was more significant than natural selection.
Chomsky first gained fame for his generative transformational model and his book, Language and Mind (1968), in which he argued that language is an evolved capacity with an underlying template in the human brain. Everett countered with data taken from his study of the Pirahã language, which is spoken by a small, remote tribe in the Amazon jungle, a language that lacks features that Chomsky declared were bedrock to all human languages.
Chomsky’s approach restored to linguistics the habits of the old-fashioned philologist, a scholar sitting in his study, reaching his conclusions by introspection. Wolfe says that ordinarily “Chomsky was bored brainless by all those tiny little languages that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett were still bringing back from out in ‘the field.’”
Wolfe exaggerates this point. Chomsky welcomed data from other languages that were gathered in the field, as long as those data fit the received theory. But the Chomsky establishment responded with fury to Daniel L. Everett, who struck Chomsky and his disciples as “a born-again Alfred Russel Wallace…an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicable here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer screen pallors.” Everett had been at MIT and had met Chomsky and had used his model in the initial stages of his work. His challenge therefore was not just from the outside; it was heresy.
Wolfe gives the impression that the Chomskyan model has totally dominated the field of linguistics. Not true. One example of other approaches is cognitive linguistics that focuses not on languages as isolated structures, as does Chomskyan linguistics, but rather on discourse, the expression of thoughts, ideas, and emotions in language above the sentence level.
The Pirahã had apparently remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, representing what might have been the earliest stage of cultural development. They have no social hierarchy, no government, no religion (just belief in evil spirits), and no musical tradition. Their vocabulary is extremely sparse. There are no color terms and no numerals (quantity is expressed as “many,” “few,” etc.), which is not uncommon in the small, preliterate languages of the world. Moreover, its grammar consists of simple sentences and conjunction and juxtaposition, with a rich morphology (prefixes and suffixes) but no subordination; a simple grammar, but one sufficient for the needs of its speakers so that more complicated syntactic structures never emerged.
The highly simplified language of the Pirahã thus provides a sample of what language might have been like in the early stages of human history. Its structure supports the argument that syntax is not a built-in genetically preprogrammed structure, as Chomsky argues, but rather develops from general cognitive abilities as needed. Everett argues that language is a cultural tool (the name of his 2012 book), which, like the bow and arrow, was invented to solve a common human problem.
Attacks on Everett were relentless. One heard over and over words used in reference to him such as “brutal,” “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” “childish,” “liar,” and “charlatan.” The Chomskyites assembled what Wolfe calls a “truth squad” to refute the claims and to discredit their author. They first published their refutation online in 2007, and while they were waiting for its appearance in the mainline linguistic journal Language, Everett published his 2008 memoir of life deep in the jungle, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, in what Wolfe calls “a coup de scoop.” The title of the book is the way the Pirahã say good night, for there are snakes, dangerous insects, and deadly diseases in the Amazon, where things can get very dicey very fast, one reason why that vast region has been so remote for so long. Everett’s account reads in places like Conrad’s journey into The Heart of Darkness.
Everett’s account of a field linguist in a dangerous, distant place, and what he had discovered about one of its obscure languages, was, says Wolfe, “the biggest wallop in the breadbasket [that] Noam Chomsky’s hegemony had suffered,” for it caught the attention of the only media that really mattered, among them coverage in New Scientist, National Public Radio, and the New Yorker, where Everett was referred to as “Little Dan standing up to a daunting Dictator Chomsky.”
Eventually Chomsky and Co. backed down, and with three MIT colleagues he published “How Could Language Have Evolved?” in the August 2014 PloS Biology, in which the authors say that “the evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.” Wolfe writes, “[S]hazzzzammm—Chomsky’s language organ and all its para-anatomy, if that’s what it was, disappeared, as if it had never been there in the first place. He never recanted a word.” Nor did Chomsky and Co. “even extend Everett the courtesy of loathing him in print. They left non-him behind with all the rest of history’s roadside trash.”
Geoffrey Clarfield Responds
Peter Wood has written about The Kingdom of Speech describing Tom Wolfe’s legitimate attack on Chomsky’s linguistic assumptions as a “can opener,” implying that Wolfe is opening up the can of worms that has bedeviled Chomskyan linguistics for more than fifty years: the origins of language. Glynn Custred has pointed out that Chomsky’s Stalinist monopoly of linguistics and his attempt to destroy the reputation of Everett is in keeping with the authoritarian and hostile paranoia that has characterized the Left since the time of Karl Marx. I cannot disagree with either of them.
If we return to Wolfe’s comparison of Darwin and Wallace with that of Chomsky and Everett, we see what a Freudian would point out as a parallel psychodynamic phenomenon. Darwin and his colleagues quickly established a scientific orthodoxy, which replaced the natural theology that was the expression of Anglican orthodoxy in nineteenth-century England. Chomsky established a similar, but somewhat more pseudoscientific, orthodoxy in the so-called science of linguistics that he has almost single-handedly dominated for more than half a century. Wallace was rejected by this new secular orthodoxy in part because he was not a fully committed atheist, as Darwin and Thomas Huxley later became. Wallace was not religious, but he believed in the existence of a nonmaterial spiritual realm. Similarly, Everett comes from a missionary background.
Wallace and Everett suffered because they did not bow to orthodoxy. They did not bow to the symbolic authoritarian father figure/patron, “the priest of Nemi,” and so the parallel of both Wallace and Everett reminds us that orthodoxies must be continuously challenged. The scientific world is still structured in a way that orthodox scientific theories can be challenged, modified, and even replaced in a short period of time as the arguments, and now even the evidence and hard data, are often shared with the public on the Internet. However, when it comes to assumptions and epistemology, these can often resemble the worst orthodoxies of the Middle Ages and the later Inquisition.
The fact that Everett has triumphed, the fact that he teaches, the fact that he publishes is not a done deal. He has slain the Chomskyan priests of Nemi and now wears the Golden Bough. He is the classic hero. But there are hundreds of men and women far less assertive than Everett who are unable to teach freely anthropology or history or other social sciences in today’s universities and colleges.
If they raise certain issues they will be shouted down. Sometimes they will be physically assaulted. More often than not, their contracts will not be renewed. If their students complain that they are “offended,” these professors will be fired. Everett’s story is a story of hope, but it is the exception, not the rule. We must find more creative institutional ways of fighting back, for today most academic orthodoxy outside of science is simply a new form of intellectual tyranny.
Glynn Custred Responds
Two major themes emerge from the conversation on Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech. First, that scholars who labor in the name of science tend to form communities that exhibit characteristics more similar to doctrine-based communities of faith (religious and ideological) than to communities of science that are grounded on fact-based theories, theories that may be falsified at any time, depending on the evidence. Second, that the Left—a community of faith based on a doctrine of everything—operates no differently in the academy than it does everywhere else, by defending its doctrine with censorship and intimidation when rational arguments fail.
In the 1960s (those heady days of revolutionary élan) Chomskyites were the bold outsiders challenging the authority of established linguistic scholarship. Their leader, Noam Chomsky, was and still is a militant radical on the left ceaselessly voicing his hostility toward the established order. Yet when the Chomskyites became the establishment in their own domain, they defended it with the same vigor and with the same tactics as do authoritarian regimes in other spheres of activity.
When Daniel Everett walked out of the jungle with evidence that falsifies one of the basic tenets of Chomskyan linguistics, he was treated like a heretic, for he had once supported that theory, and he was treated like a dissenter whose work had to be discredited in every way possible, even by means of personal attack. What made it even worse for the Chomskyites is that Everett’s data from the field came during his work as a missionary on behalf of an opposing community of faith—traditional religion. What happened next is a revealing story about one corner of academia, but it is a story that plays out over and over in similar ways in other domains of scholarship that have been penetrated or are dominated by the Left—a story told with humor by Tom Wolfe using the techniques of creative nonfiction, of which he is a master.
Wolfe published his account of the Everett-Chomsky dispute in 2016, the same year that Everett authored another book on the subject, The Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, following his first two books, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), his account of life in a remote corner of the Amazon jungle, and Language: The Cultural Tool (2012), which argues that language is not a genetically preprogrammed faculty, but rather a cultural tool that emerges from the intersection of human cognitive abilities and physical and social needs in the world of everyday living. In his latest book, Everett brings together the results of his linguistic work in one jungle, and its reception in another, along with further development of his theory, bolstered by research in both cognitive science and neuroscience.
Peter Wood Responds
The Pirahã are a gift to humanity. Just when anthropology had collectively closed the book on basic ethnography of what we used to call “primitive peoples,” along comes the ethnographer Daniel Everett with this tiny Brazilian tribe (some 250 to 390 people) speaking a language that, according to prevailing theory, ought not to exist.
A pity it is that we don’t know much of anything about the languages spoken by the other members of the Mura tribal group. They all died out or were assimilated in the last few centuries and the Pirahã alone stand as evidence of what might have been—and probably was—a much more substantial hole in the side of Chomskyan theory.
It wasn’t part of Wolfe’s purpose to tell his readers more about the Pirahã than that they are a fly in the ointment of generative grammar. But rather than let them be defined by what they don’t have (grammatical recursion) we might tie this up with some observations on what the Pirahã do have. They have an extraordinary alertness to what is happening around them. Everett singles out their concept of xibipíío, which he glosses as “experiential liminality.” A man in a canoe disappearing around a bend is this in relation to the man watching him; likewise the man appearing from out of the forest. And the match flickering in the breeze is going back and forth between the state of perceptible and imperceptible. Everett likens the idea to the children’s game of peekaboo, but the Pirahã language is adapted to an exquisite degree to make relevant distinctions. It has sixteen suffixes for verbs that can be used in combination, and every verb requires one of three suffixes that declares how the speaker knows what he says. The choices are three: I saw it myself; I was told by someone who saw it; I deduced it.
The Pirahã language is poorly equipped for philosophy, speculation, or large hypotheses, but it is wonderfully well equipped for paying attention to the here and now. The Pirahã are, in Everett’s terms, extreme “empiricists.” Glynn Custred writes that the Pirahã were apparently “unchanged for thousands of years,” which might be true, but possibly their language reflects how one people learned to live in a very dangerous place. Their language privileges watchfulness, and brushes aside the unseen past and the unknowable future.
In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe takes us among those theoretical precipices eons deep in human prehistory. How exactly did we humans learn to speak? We still don’t know, but if the answer is to be gleaned from what we actually do with this extraordinary power, we can weigh the options. We use it to lie, to mislead, and often to subordinate others. Darwin and Chomsky on Wolfe’s telling did the latter. We use it to conjure theories and persuade others that our speculations are right. We also use it to unseat false gods. And on the evidence of the Pirahã, we use it to figure out what is happening and whom to trust. Wolfe has, in that sense, given us a Pirahã testament in which the mud-splattered fieldworkers in the here-and-now of the jungle, Wallace and Everett, see more clearly than the hypothesizing giants. There is a word for that. Xibipíío.
As I read Tom Wolfe’s brilliant new book, The Kingdom of Speech, I was struck with how—long before and long after William Jennings Bryan—there was honorable and intelligent skepticism regarding Darwinian evolution regarding man. It’s as if Wolfe had uncovered a vein of gold in a mine that was thought to be defunct: starting with Alfred Russel Wallace, who actually preceded Darwin in the delineation of the hypothesis of evolution, continuing on to Max Müller, who said science would never cross the Rubicon of the origin of language question—which implies that Darwinian evolution cannot account for the full nature of man—and up to Daniel Everett in our present day, who studied the tribe whose language has no recursion, which is basically the capacity to form complex sentences. Everett’s documentation of the language of the Pirahã as lacking this capacity undercuts the hypothesis of an innate language gene or organ that produces the same structures in every tongue and that has only to be discovered, something both Darwin and linguist Noam Chomsky believed. As Geoffrey Clarfield asserts above, “If we accept that Everett has shown that the emperor has no clothes—that Chomsky’s language machine and universal grammar may not indeed be universal, nor cross-culturally valid, then all rigid Darwinian/Chomskyan schemes to explain the evolution of language have come to naught.”
And so it seems. Various branches of science, including new branches such as neuroscience, have discovered nothing. We still don’t understand how the brain or the physical organism in general produces the mind and its attendant aspects, consciousness, will, etc., resulting in language and speech. Truth to tell, it is really just hopefulness on the part of E.O. Wilson and others that the physical origins of these higher functions will one day be discovered.
It all makes quite reasonable, not narrow and ignorant, the Tennessee law that resulted in the Scopes trial and allowed for the teaching of evolution, but not with regard to man. Since man means much more than his physical form, and evolution has nothing to say about the origin and development of the higher functions, such as thought, deliberation, and, of course, speech and language, the Tennessee law could be seen as a reasonable compromise. Or perhaps it could have allowed that evolution has produced man’s physical form, but cannot account for his higher functions, something acknowledged by Wallace. As Glynn Custred explains above, Wallace was an atheist, but still believed that human language developed through “the agency of another power,” “a superior intelligence,” a “controlling intelligence,” “a new power of definite character.” Only this kind of power could have resulted in “ever advancing” man—“a power, whatever it might be,” writes Custred, “that was more significant than natural selection” (emphasis added).
Wolfe, and Everett, too, according to Custred, agree that language is an acquired cultural tool. So does Jerry Coyne, renowned Darwinian atheist, who says he lost all belief in a higher power while listening to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band. But saying that language is a cultural tool does not explain how human beings came to have the capacity to develop this particular “tool.”
According to the concept called compatibilism, even though we are commanded by science to accept certain all-encompassing theories—such as the evolutionary compulsion to spread one’s genes being the only driving force in living creatures—such theories shouldn’t stop us from being able to accept purposefulness, accountability, punishment, and so on for human actions. Up to now, this doubleness has been rather dishonest. As Wolfe shows, Darwin did indeed project that evolution—random mutation and natural selection—would and could explain everything. And he proffered all those silly barking dog explanations to begin to account for speech, as Wolfe colorfully describes.
The neo-Darwinians, too, often insist that their theory precludes any need of God or further explanation. As ethnologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has famously proclaimed, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” They continue their efforts to locate speech in the physical evidence to this day, finding again and again, however, in Peter Wood’s words, that “[t]he gap between mere vocal expression and human language differs in profound ways from the gaps filled by all the micro-adaptations that shaped the human foot, knee, pelvis, or hand. The jump from ‘woof woof’ to ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is not just larger than the switch from tree-climbing to walking upright; it is different in nature.”
Nevertheless, the Darwinians repel any mention of a spiritual or metaphysical explanation to account for the higher nature of man, ascribing such to ignorance à la Inherit the Wind, and they have succeeded in enlisting the Supreme Court and the United States Constitution on their side. But then they blithely and blandly assert that questions of morality, choice, will, etc., can, indeed must, continue.
A review of a new book by prominent neo-Darwinian Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, illustrates the double-think.
According to reviewer Michael S. Gazzaniga, Dennett, a proponent of materialistic determinism, believes that free will, understood as a “personal power somehow isolated from physical causation,” is, in his words, an “incoherent and unnecessary” idea.
“Incoherent and unnecessary.” Sounds like we’ve put paid to free will.
Undaunted by his own words, however, our flexible Darwinian “warn[s] against the dangers of assuming that holding a deterministic view of the brain forces you to abandon the idea of free will entirely.” As Gazzaniga explains for emphasis, “Mr. Dennett insists that accepting a materialistic account of the brain does not mean that we should completely rid ourselves of the ideas of personal responsibility or blame.”
Gazzaniga understandably finds this “seemingly a surprising position for Mr. Dennett.”
Actually, we might call it contradictory and “incoherent,” to use Dennett’s own word for the idea of free will.
Gazzaniga puzzles it out for readers: “If everything that is going to happen happens because it is determined by the physical brain, why hold someone morally responsible for his actions? This is a common reaction and concern, Mr. Dennett notes, of both cognitive scientists and the layperson.”
That is indeed a matter of some concern, not least since Clarence Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb. But the Darwinian explanation is at hand. “For Mr. Dennett,” Gazzaniga elaborates, “free will is indeed an illusion, but it is a useful and necessary one, like our conscious sense of ourselves” (emphasis added).
But didn’t Gazzaniga just tell us that according to Dennett free will is “unnecessary”? He did (and also “incoherent”), but Dennett nevertheless insists that we need to hold not only to free will, but even to “a conscious sense of ourselves” as necessary illusions.
Why should we hold to illusions?
Because, writes Gazzaniga, “[a]n illusion like this allows us to live and work in a society. As Mr. Dennett says, ‘We couldn’t live the way we do without it.’”
Without these illusions, it seems, we would not be able actually to be the human beings that we are—the human beings that Darwinian theory says that we are not!
And why should we live the way we do, as recognizable human beings, if it is all based on illusion? Why not be true to our authentic, gene-driven, red-in-tooth-and-claw selves?
There is no direct answer for this in Darwinian theory, but according to Gazzaniga, Dennett insists that despite free will and consciousness being nothing more than illusions, “we still must regulate society as if we are choosing our actions, punishing conduct that breaks the rules we have set for ourselves.”
But who are we to set rules for ourselves, let alone others?
There is no answer for that question, either, in Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theory, at least no answer that isn’t circular (such as is Dennett’s own “mimetic mutation,” expounded in this book). But if we didn’t allow for free will, consciousness, choosing our actions, setting rules, etc., Darwinians would be unable to propagate their tenets and no one would have to listen to them.
The upshot is that The Kingdom of Speech has flushed all this out and clarified the muddle-puddle that Darwin and his followers have kept us in for over a century and a half. Throughout that time, many from all walks of life have known that something more than Darwinian evolution is needed to explain human existence. And that is a scientific fact. Not an illusion.
Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016).
Colin McGinn, Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
Wolfe, Kingdom of Speech, 122.
Daniel L. Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (New York: Pantheon, 2008).
Aharon Dolgopolsky, The Nostratic Macrofamily and Linguistic Paleontology (Papers in the Prehistory of Languages), intro. Colin Renfrew (Oxford: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1998). Dolgopolsky’s work is in many ways the opposite of that of Chomsky. Dolgopolsky and his colleagues have examined the lexicon of entire language families and treated them like archaeological layers, peeling them back in time until they have the first language or a model of it. That Dolgopolsky developed his expertise before the fall of the Soviet Union and before he moved to the West prevented him from succumbing to the implicit Marxist orthodoxy of Chomsky. And so we bear witness to empirical resistance against institutional Marxism among Soviet linguists, whereas in America linguists were at the mercy of institutionalized Marxists—quite the irony.
The most recent biography of Wallace is by Peter Raby, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). Raby makes a persuasive case that Wallace was the real inventor/discoverer of natural selection and that his first article was better than anything Darwin had produced to date. But their relationship was complex, and although deeply affected by class differences they remained friends and colleagues until the end.
SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) is a “faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities worldwide as they build capacity for sustainable language development. SIL does this primarily through research, translation, training and materials development. SIL works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners as they discover how language development addresses the challenging areas of their daily lives—social, cultural, political, economic and spiritual.” “About SIL,” https://www.sil.org/about.
Daniel L. Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool (New York, Pantheon Books, 2011). In this book Everett not only shows the weakness of the Chomskyan paradigm but familiarizes readers with a host of new linguistic thinking that has emerged during the last two decades, including explanations of phenomena such as “construction grammar.”
Wolfe, Kingdom of Speech, 62–63.
Ibid., 141, 127.
Ibid., 159, 150.
Daniel Everett, “Losing Religion to the Amazonian Pirahã Tribe,” YouTube video, 4:36, from an address given on March 9, 2009, to The Long Now Foundation, San Francisco, CA, posted by “FORA.tv,” April 3, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNajfMZGnuo.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986), 6.
Michael S. Gazzaniga, “Daniel Dennett Explains It All,” review of From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett, Bookshelf, Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/daniel-dennett-explains-it-all-1486149888. All further references to this work are taken from this citation.