This weekend, National Public Radio (NPR) host Scott Simon interviewed renowned author Tom Wolfe about Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech. You can hear the five-minute interview here. I just now listened to it, but several exercised readers emailed me yesterday complaining about Wolfe’s criticisms of evolution—criticisms that weren’t called out by Simon.
Let me begin by saying I had no idea Wolfe had jumped the rails this way. I hugely admired The Right Stuff, which is one of the classics of modern nonfiction/journalism. And his earlier books, like Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Cathers, as well as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, were not only absorbing portraits of the Sixties, but pioneered what is now known as New Journalism. His two books on art and architecture I found thin, and I haven’t read any of his fiction. But in none of this was there any hint of the kind of anti-science attitude apparently evinced in The Kingdom of Speech.
I’ll have more to say about the book later this week, but its thesis is that language is not in any way a product of biological evolution and, moreover, that humans didn’t even evolve! Wolfe’s alternate theory is apparently that language came about as a mnemonic device to help us remember things, sort of like the mnemonics medical students use to memorize the order of cranial nerves: “On Old Olympus’ Tip-most Top, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops.”
As I said, I’ll go into more detail about Wolfe’s thesis within the week, but some of its more ridiculous claims can be heard in the interview. The surprising thing is that host Scott Simon sat back amiably, letting Wolfe say the most outrageous things about linguistics and evolution without challenging him. Wolfe’s quotes are indented below:
“It’s misleading to say that human being evolved from animals, and actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs except the general resemblance between apes and humans.”
. . . “It’s time for people interested in evolution to say ‘The theory of evolution applies only to animals.'”
This is pure untrammeled hogwash. All rational people—I used to include Wolfe in that group—accept the mountainous evidence that human beings evolved not just from animals, but from other apes. Indeed, we are animals, Mr. Wolfe, and if we didn’t evolve from other animals, just how did we get here?
And what about the fossil evidence: that sequence of fossils, beginning about five million years ago, showing a modern-human-like creature evolving through a branching tree from early primates that had much smaller brains, and were barely bipedal? The fossils alone refute Wolfe’s claim.
But of course there is plenty of other evidence (documented in Why Evolution is True) of our common ancestry with other animals, both living and extinct. This includes the presence of “dead genes” in the human genome: nonfunctional bits of DNA that are the vestigial remnants of genes present in our ancestors, and still active in some of our relatives. Humans, for instance, have three genes for egg yolk proteins: all are nonfunctional, but all are functional in our relatives like birds and reptiles. How do you explain that, Mr. Wolfe? What about our nonfunctional olfactory-receptor genes, or our dead gene for synthesizing Vitamin C? I would love to confront Wolfe with that data. How does he explain it?
There’s more: the identical position of dead retroviruses in the same genomic position in humans and our closest relatives. The only explanation for that is that the viral DNA was inherited from common ancestors that got infected. The evidence goes on and on, far beyond what I can say here.
In fact, I’m not sure that Wolfe has any biological knowledge of the evidence for human evolution. If he does, he doesn’t mention it. More inexcusable is Scott Simon’s failure to call Wolfe out on his ignorant assertions. In fact, Simon only asks one timorous question about whether Wolfe’s views that humans didn’t evolve might give fodder for creationists. Wolfe says no:
“I wouldn’t think so, because there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. In fact, I hate people who go around saying they’re atheists, but I’m an atheist.”
I’m not sure what that’s about, but the book, and Wolfe’s earlier approbation of Intelligent Design, has already been touted by creationists (see here and here for blurbs about the book and Wolfe’s antievolution views from The Discovery Institute.)
Because Wolfe’s book doesn’t talk about “faith” or “extraterrestrials”, he says, it won’t be mentioned by creationists. That shows he knows nothing about creationism, for the only fodder they need is someone famous saying that Darwin’s theories are wrong. The ID people, in fact, would prefer that Wolfe not mention religion, because they disingenuously pretend that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion. In this way Wolfe and his book provide plenty of ammunition for modern creationists.
Wolfe briefly describes his thesis, that “language had “nothing to do with the theory of evolution”. Yet we have plenty of evidence that language in humans does have some evolutionary basis, and I’ll talk about that in a few days. Clearly language is heavily influenced by culture as well: if it wasn’t, everybody would speak the same language. But there is substantial morphological, behavioral, and neurological evidence that the ability to use semantic language, which is something unique to humans, is based on our genes, and probably evolved by natural selection.
Wolfe’s alternative “mnemonic” theory has its own problems, for the claim that language is a way to help us remember the names of things leaves no space for its primary function: communication with others.
It’s shameful that NPR is, in effect, promoting creationism and a shoddy theory of language. Granted, they’re not a big venue for investigative journalism, but at the very least Scott Simon should have asked Wolfe to a). clarify his theory of where language comes from, b). confront and discuss the massive evidence that humans evolved from other animals—indeed, other primates, and c). explain where humans came from if God didn’t make us—as Wolfe said, he’s an atheist—and yet we didn’t evolve.
So, NPR, it’s time to give some real balance to Wolfe’s nonsense. I’ll be glad to discuss the book, which I have read, if Mr. Simon wants to give me a call. This is not just their choice: it’s their responsibility to present the views of someone—it doesn’t have to be me—who can address Wolfe’s foolish claims. It’s like uncritically presenting the views of flat-Earthers without refutation.
By the way, I’ve read somewhere that Wolfe gets roughly $6 and $7 million as an advance for his latest books. No wonder he can afford his New York townhouse!
The Kingdom of Speech is published by Little, Brown and Company, with formal release in two days. Click on the screenshot to see its Amazon site. And stay tuned.