Jerry A. Coyne is professor emeritus in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. He is the author of “Why Evolution Is True” and “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.”
Tom Wolfe is known for two things: his trademark prose, liberally studded with exclamation marks, italics and ellipses, and the way he wields it to demolish pompous, status-seeking, class-conscious Americans. Who can forget his skewering of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein in the essay “Radical Chic,” or his takedowns of modern art and architecture — and their critics — in “The Painted Word” and “From Bauhaus to Our House”?
But sometimes his style shrouds both a mean-spiritedness — for Wolfe has the talent to make anyone look bad — and a superficial take on his subject. “Painted Word” and “Bauhaus” for instance, were criticized for their ignorance of art. Sadly, his latest book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” suffers from the same mix of sarcasm and ignorance, this time in attacking the claim that human language is partly a product of biological evolution.
Here Wolfe’s victims are two renowned scholars, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, whom he considers the most vocal exponents of the “hardwired” school of language. But Wolfe’s argument ultimately backfires, for the book grossly distorts the theory of evolution, the claims of linguistics and the controversies about their connection. Finally, after misleading the reader for nearly 200 pages, Wolfe proposes his own theory of how language began — a theory far less plausible than the ones he mocks.
Using the surgical kit of New Journalism, Wolfe flays Darwin and Chomsky as imperious, self-aggrandizing snobs, each humiliated by a lower-class “clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers.” In Darwin’s case it was the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who not only hit on the idea of natural selection at roughly the same time as Darwin, but then argued that it couldn’t explain important aspects of humanity. Hunter-gatherers, Wallace said, have brains far bigger than required to support their lifestyle. Why would they need the neural equipment to play chess, do higher mathematics or express complex, abstract ideas? But with the right environment and training, they can do those things. It appears, Wallace said, that somehow our brains got much bigger than evolutionarily necessary. Since selection can’t give you traits useful only in the future, Wallace saw our overachieving brains — and their ability to produce and comprehend language — as impossible products of evolution and probably vouchsafed by a higher power.
Wolfe agrees that our big cranial payload is a fatal flaw in evolutionary theory, though he’s too savvy to invoke divine intervention — perhaps remembering that Wallace’s spiritualism led him right off the deep end, as he spent the rest of career trying to communicate with the souls of the dead. But his and Wallace’s logic is off base. Hunter-gatherers certainly put their big brains to good use: They were sophisticated naturalists, toolmakers, huntsmen and politicians, not least because they could pool their knowledge and coordinate their actions through language.
And it’s not as if modern Westerners are born with the ability to produce the Principia Mathematica, airplanes and skyscrapers — these cultural inventions depend on millennia of accumulated discoveries, and no single brain could produce them from scratch. Just as a computer programming language, even if originally designed to help solve one kind of problem, can support an unlimited number of other programs, so the brain may have been selected with a cognitive tool kit that can be applied to endless new challenges.
By agreeing with Wallace, Wolfe joins those creationists who, if they can’t personally and immediately see how evolution could produce something complex, declare that the problem is insoluble and that an entire scientific edifice has crumbled.
But in fact Wolfe doesn’t even understand the theory he so despises. Evolution, he argues, isn’t a “scientific hypothesis” because nobody’s seen it happen, there’s no observation that could falsify it, it yields no predictions and it doesn’t “illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science.” Wrong — four times over. We’ve seen evolution via real-time observations and ordered series of fossils; evolution could be falsified by finding fossils out of place, such as that of a rabbit in 400 million-year-old sediments; and evolution certainly makes predictions (Darwin predicted, correctly, that human ancestors evolved in Africa). As for evolution’s supposed failure to solve biological puzzles, Wolfe might revisit Darwin’s description of how evolution not only unlocks enigmas about embryology and vestigial organs, but clarifies some perplexing geographic ranges of animals and plants. Or he could rouse himself to read recent biology journals, which describe multitudes of evolutionary riddles being solved.
The story then jumps to Chomsky, the famous linguist, who had the temerity to claim that aspects of human language were genetically encoded in the human brain — though not necessarily installed by natural selection. Evidence for that genetic program was Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” whose main feature, supposedly seen in all languages, was “recursion”: the embedding of one sentence or phrase inside another. (An example: “John told me that he was down on his luck,” describing both telling and bad fortune.) In true Wolfeian style, Chomsky is repeatedly portrayed as a nasty and arrogant twit, reigning smugly as the King of Linguistics “in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spick and span.”
And as Darwin had his Wallace, so Chomsky had his Everett: Daniel Everett, a missionary turned anthropologist who studied the small Pirahã tribe of Brazil. As Wolfe tells it, Everett discovered that the stripped-down Pirahã language lacked recursion, comporting with a simple, here-and-now lifestyle that ignored the past and the future. And so, says Wolfe, Everett destroyed the universality of universal grammar — and Chomsky’s reputation with it.
But every part of this story is wrong. Chomsky’s views were influential but hardly, as Wolfe maintains, a universal paradigm — perhaps not even the majority view. And Everett didn’t slay universal grammar: Later linguists found that the Pirahã language indeed had recursion (e.g., “I want the same hammock you just showed me”). Finally, the technical notion of “recursion” was never the totality of Chomsky’s theory anyway. He highlighted the idea in a brief paper in 2003, but his theory always consisted of operations for merging words into bigger and bigger phrases, something no one disputes.
Although Wolfe haughtily dismisses the idea of universal grammar, he does so without considering the facts. In reality, all languages, including Pirahã, have common elements. For one thing, they use words (not just sounds), which are made from groups of sounds subject to language-specific rules. We can end an English syllable, for instance, with a group of consonants, like “frisks,” but that’s verboten in Japanese, whose syllables end with a vowel. And these words may be combined into more complex words and in turn into phrases that can be joined to express ideas. This structure is found not just in long-existing spoken languages with writing systems, but in sign languages that arose in a single generation in communities of deaf Bedouins and Nicaraguans.
The upshot — the universality — is that languages are generative, with rules that help us merge sounds into words, and words into sentences, yielding a creativity of communication far beyond what other species can manage.
Determined to reject the idea that any part of language is hard-wired, Wolfe chooses again to rely on sarcasm rather than data. He therefore ignores the observation that circuits of our brains are devoted to processing language, while different parts deal with non-linguistic sounds and with general reasoning and problem-solving. Further, the configuration of the human larynx is novel among primates: The voicebox has evolved downward, and half the tongue is lodged in the throat, giving us an exquisite ability to articulate — particularly the vowels so important for speech. There are genes that, when mutated, cause disorders of language, speech and comprehension, and statistical analyses of our genomes show that these genes were targets of Darwinian natural selection.
Most striking is the ability of human babies to selectively attend to language, spontaneously babble in syllables and quickly pick up the grammar of the surrounding language to produce novel sentences like “We holded the baby rabbits” and “Hey, Horton heared a Who.” No other animal even comes close: Chimps have to be laboriously taught over years to use a rudimentary set of signs, and only when another species decides to train them.
All this grammatical structure, genetic data and uniquely human behavior implies something Wolfe cannot abide: that our language is — horrors! — the result of . . . evolution! But why would evolution do that? If the good Mr. Wolfe thought about it for a minute, maybe he’d see some advantage in our group-living, problem-solving ancestors producing and comprehending language — and realize that any mutually intelligible language needs, well, rules and conventions! And those who most effortlessly understand and follow such conventions — might they not have a reproductive advantage? And wouldn’t that produce genetic change? But of course he can’t bear to think about that . . . for it leads him back to bearded old Darwin. Still, Wolfe’s not wrong to view all the “rather swell hotels” he sees from his air-conditioned uptown digs — and many other amenities of New York culture — as nongenetic byproducts of language. Yet the Big Question keeps buzzing around like a pesky mosquito . . . 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!! All from memory tricks like “30 days hath September!” No matter that this ignores language’s function not just in private reveries but for communication between people. Or that languages have . . . rules — the same rules for everyone in a community! But Wolfe must be Wolfe, and if that involves smacking evolutionary biology and linguistics on the tuchas, then — potch! — smacked they must be.
I’m not sure why Wolfe bears such animus against evolution and the use of evidence rather than bluster to support claims about reality. Perhaps his social conservatism has bred such a discomfort with the implications of modern science — that the universe works by natural rather than supernatural or divine laws — that he’s compelled to snicker at one of the foundations of modern science: He’s called another one, the big bang, “the nuttiest theory I’ve ever heard.”
At the end, Wolfe places Darwin in company with five others whose words changed history: Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The first four offered hope, and Freud offered sex, but, Wolfe says, “Darwin offered nothing at all.” Most thoughtful people, pondering the depth, beauty and far-reaching implications of modern evolutionary theory, would beg to differ. Somewhere on his mission to tear down the famous, elevate the neglected outsider and hit the exclamation-point key as often as possible, Wolfe has forgotten how to think.
By Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown. 185 pp. $26