Tom Wolfe discusses his new book on NPR, claiming that humans “didn’t evolve from animals”; NPR doesn’t challenge that

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.



  1. jeffery
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    POINT TO REMEMBER: Just because someone labels themselves an “Atheist” doesn’t mean that they’re not an idiot, as well…..the Creatards will definitely take this book and run with it.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      But to label someone who authors significant books and is clearly very intelligent an idiot doesn’t quite satisfy. The question on the table is – how can a very smart writer say such ignorant things about a scientific subject?

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        I don’t know, but Wolfe turns out to have at least a decade-long history of science-dissing. It may reflect his social conservatism.

        • Merilee
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          Or lack of science education? But you’d think he’d be more curious.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          Wolfe is often labelled a “social conservative,” and I suppose that’s accurate. But I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that what motivates him isn’t so much social conservativism per se, as it is a pure, ornery contrarianism — most writers of his ilk (and the vast majority of “new journalists”) being of the Left. That’s the impression I took away from Radical Chic anyway, and from Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, too, as well as from some of his later writings.

          In any event, Jerry, I’m wondering if you’ve ever read Wolfe’s 1996 essay that I linked to in comment #13 below and, if so, what you make of it. There’s quite a bit in it about Darwinism (via E.O. Wilson).

          As for Wolfe’s premise about human language, it seems to come directly from Chomsky’s contention that the human capacity for language was not derived incrementally through natural selection, but arose swiftly, probably as a result of mutations in molecular brain chemistry. Indeed, Chomsky quotes such as “it is not easy to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to [human language]” seem as though they could’ve served as a précis for Wolfe’s new book.

          • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I read it, and I thought it was pretty dire. Chomsky’s view differs from Wolfe’s in this book because Wolfe doesn’t think language has any basis at all in biological evolution, whereas Chomsky thought it may have been a macromutation, and perhaps one not fixed by selection. Both views are clearly wrong.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Oh dear, I guess he doesn’t recognize humans as animals. Did we arise, fully formed from Zeus’s head or something?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I want to know. If we didn’t evolve, and he doesn’t believe in a supernatural explanation, how the hell did we get here? He must have an explanation.

      Was our planet perhaps originally an alien crèche and our parents forgot to come back for us? Our ancestors were abandoned before they could talk, which makes them young enough to have been extremely vulnerable but somehow they managed, unbelievably, to survive. Perhaps children’s stories of being raised by animals are racial memories? Problem solved!

      However, how did we arise on the planet of our origin? Did we evolve there, or did some greater alien being create us as a science experiment from other animals?

      Whatever he thinks happened we have the perennial problem: who created the creator.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        Heather’s first paragraph shows why, as Julian Huxley said, otherwise brilliant scientists in the 19th century went for Darwin’s theory, following some of the clergy.

        Scientists should not make such spurious claims for ideas that do not involve repeatability.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      That was Athena, her with the owls, wasn’t it. Didn’t Zeus form humans out of mud, or jizz, or a bit of both?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        Aphrodite was formed from the testicle of a Titan after it foamed in the ocean it had been tossed in.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

          Was it Cronos or Uranos? I forget. And I got the impression that it was a “clean sweep” job. but possibly the Greek is less ambiguous than English translations aimed at school boys.
          You know – the next time I find what I interpret as gastroliths, I may try terming them “Olympian stones” – see if any of my colleagues get the reference.

  3. Marco Neves
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Of course Wolfe just wants to get attention by saying dreadful things, but if he really wanted to learn something about evolution and language, he could start with Jerry’s own book (of course) and, regarding language, he could do much worse than read The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. But, of course, he just wants to sell books by saying stupid things in an intelligent-sounding way.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      But he didn’t USED to be that way, at least in his earliest “New Journalism” books. His anti-science attitude truly baffles me. The man is certainly not dumb. Did he ever investigate why scientists accept human evolution? If he did, why did he reject the evidence? The book doesn’t say.

      • rickflick
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        The only explanation I can think of is, he’s simply saying bizarre things for publicity. He wants to be known as a bit of an oddball, not an ordinary writer. (I guess that makes him sound a bit like The Donald).

        • frednotfaith2
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

          This particular publicity won’t make me want to purchase any of his books. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. Prior to this I had thought of him as some sort of intellectual social observer but now he seems to have outed himself as yet another ignoramus.

          • rickflick
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

            I suspect you’re not his intended audience. Me neither.

    • James Walker
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Pinker’s book espouses the innatist approach to language (basically, that we’re born with a hard-wired ‘language acquisition device’) championed by Noam Chomsky, whom Wolfe already hates for his politics. Much of the anti-Linguistics in Wolfe’s book seems to stem from this personal grudge, as well as his selective citation of one or two recently prominent critics of innatism within Linguistics.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      It could be he’s always had bad ideas such as this but they were a low priority. Now that higher priorities have been taken care of he can get to this.

      Perhaps, as with Antony Flew, he has a growing fear of death as he advances in age. This work is a first step in growing more ‘spiritual’ He claims to be an atheist but after the things he’s asserted how great a leap will it be to think there is some ‘greater power’ that infused language into us? Before long he’ll be a full-fledged ID supporter. After all, 95% of the arguments for ID are really anti-evolution arguments- which hes already comfortable with

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      I doubt Wolfe is unfamiliar with Pinker’s work. The neuroscientist/college professor character in Wolfe’s third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons — the book’s most sympathetic, or (perhaps it would be better put) least-witheringly-criticized, character — struck me as being awfully Pinker-esque.

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Sounds like Wolfe’s angling for a free copy of WEIT.

    (And BTW, did WordPress give us all new Avatars?)

    • Christopher
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      I’m curious how one customizes the avatar? I’d like to have a pic instead, but if I have to fight with wordpress again, (never recognized my password at sign-in, no matter how many times I reset it) I won’t bother. Just wondering.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      “Wolfe gets roughly $6 and $7 million as an advance for his latest books.”

      According to my inner social justice warrior, this disqualifies him from receiving a free copy :-).

  5. Christopher
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    “Going to talk about religion on the program today, ok people, get your kid-gloves out and don’t ask any hard (and very obvious) questions please.”

    Besides the aforementioned problems with the interview, one other thing that also pissed me off was the whole “Darwin couldn’t explain it” crap, because obviously, science hasn’t progressed AT ALL in the last 150+ years!

    And I usually enjoy Scott Simon’s program.

    WTF, NPR?!

  6. Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Denial of creatureliness (ironic for a guy with the last name Wolfe). This is a showcase of Tom’s blunted psychology, mythologizing of language, and caricature of evolution. Pinker would clean up this mess while wearing a respirator, gloves, and a bucket of DSV.

  7. Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Oh no, not more feet of clay!

  8. Merilee
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Won’t be reading this one any time soon…

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes! Another author to put on my list of “Do Not Read Books”.

      Given that vocal communication to convey meaning (Danger! Watch out for the shark or tiger or whatever. Here I am by the coral. There’s good food in this valley. Etc.) seems to be characteristic of lots of animals, not just humans. It would seem that numerous life forms on our planet have evolved this ability.

      • Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        I would absolutely not write off (so to speak) Tom Wolfe. As Jerry noted, The Right Stuff is wonderful. His other writing of that period I find much more uneven.

        His Bonfire of the Vanities I also found excellent — an excellent indictment of the “Master of the Universe” syndrome (personality disorder) so evident on Wall Street of the 1980s and so well exemplified by Drumpf these days. (It’s also shown well in the hit and run scene from the excellent movie Michael Clayton.)

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Nor shall I be reading it. I recommend to all, though, Nick Lane’s extraordinary (in the good sense)argument about the origins of life in submerged alkaline hydrothermal vents ‘The Vital Question’. I am reading it at the moment – hard work for a layman such as myself, but very well worth it.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Very poor performance by NPR. Are they now just a forum for every idiot with a stupid theory to promote? Maybe Wolfe made a big donation to NPR and that’s the way it works now. Such garbage and proof that a known person has much more influence than the idea he carries around or peddles, at least with NPR.

    • barn owl
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Perhaps they’re giving voice to idiots in an attempt to create balance?? I don’t know, but whatever their reason, it’s extremely irritating. There are plenty of other radio stations exclusively devoted to the opinions of idiots, so I’m not sure why NPR listeners have to run the risk of suffering through interviews such as this one with the delusional and dishonest Pastor Burns:

      Another liar for Jesus and Trump.

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Bingo, they’re giving voice to idiots to create balance. As Public radio, their funding is contingent on not being perceived as too biased. And to quote a famous philosopher – whose face is my avatar – the facts have a well known liberal bias.

        • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          You mean, idiots also pay taxes so a public radio must give a tribune to their representatives? Or else they can sue for discrimination 🙂 ?

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Most surely a loony fellow there, but at least Scott questions his double standard and other bizzare things coming out of his mouth.

  10. Alan
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Unleash the Pinkah!

  11. Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Scott Simon is useless in general, not just this one interview. Krista Tippett:Jerry::Scott Simon:me.

  12. Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    It would be swell if you could twist Pinkah’s arm again and elecit a response on the linguistic part of Wolfe’s claims. As far as I know, the general idea is now that language, words, sounds are part of the categories like all the other features that are bundled up within the category, and not a label attached to it on the “outside” or “above”. As any speech suggests, including mine, the underlying mechanism appears to be one of constant analogy-making between perceptions, and between stuff that seems alike.

    Humans build up a repertoire of categories over time, which are composed of such analogy networks, of which some features are more central to a category (“prototypical”) than others. The word “bird” is simply very central to the category, as are (probably) beak and feathers. When we think of penguins or ostrichs (as Europeans and Americans), we apply the prototypical knowledge and infer how non-typical birds, which is effective (they have beaks, lay eggs, too) but can also be misleading (cannot fly). This standard example may show that the mechanism is not perfectly designed, but works well for the most part and how it also could have evolved, since the principle works as well as for animals and their sounds. For example, a lions roar can be part of the same category just as an early warning call some tenthousand years ago, where one ancestor alerted the next.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Shocker, coming from the author of “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” — Wolfe’s disquisition on Nietzsche, neuroscience, E.O. Wilson and other assorted topics. He sure comes off there as pro-science (including evolutionary biology). Even says in the essay that, if he had it to do all over again, he’d opt for neuroscience over a writing career.

    • Larry Smith
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      But Wolfe is pro-science in that 1996 essay only up to a point. At the very end of the essay he invokes people like Michael Behe to demonstrate that Darwinism is on its way out. One can clearly see the seeds of his current argument if you read the last part of this essay. Wolfe describes Dennett and Dawkins as “apoplectic” at Behe’s claims, and then lapses into a turgid primordial ooze metaphor. For good measure, he also casually dismisses Einstein’s theories of relativity, and suggests that the entire foundation of science is unstable.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        I was a bit taken aback by Wolfe’s antepenultimate paragraph too, Larry, but I don’t read it quite as harshly as you do. I think all he was saying back in 1996 was that there was a new mood of skepticism afoot, that all orthodoxies were open to question. I don’t think he was endorsing ID or a challenge to Relativity in any way.

        • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          Wolfe has also called the Big Bang “the nuttiest idea I’ve ever heard.” See here:

            Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            Indeed, he has. But in the great Venn diagram in the sky, there’s a subset where the circle labelled “the crazy” intersects with the one labelled “the true.” (There’s certainly a huge subset where the true intersects with “the counterintuitive”; we label that one “quantum mechanics.”)

            Look, I’m not trying to carry water for Wolfe here; I was appalled by a couple comments that fell from his pie-hole in the NPR interview, too. He’s just somebody I’ve got pleasure from reading over the years, so I’m struggling to give him a charitable interpretation. (Plus, I’m a bit of an ornery contrarian myself — soon as everyone else starts heading in one direction, I instinctively push back in the other.) 🙂

            • Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              Look, I had nothing but good feelings about Wolfe when I started reading his book; his own ignorance about evolution is hard to interpret charitably. As for contrarianism, if you’re among liberals do you start defending Trump?

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

                About the most I can say in that regard is that I’ve defended Trump’s wife (and, on occasion, his kids) from unfair attacks by liberals. The Donald himself is too far gone in a haze of hubris and ignorance for me to tread out to where only fools and fringe-ists defend him. A fella’s gotta draw the line somewhere — I said “contrarian,” not “crazy.” 🙂

                I’ve been wailing on Donald Trump ever since I first caught wind of him in the Eighties when he owned the New Jersey Generals and led his fellow USFL owners over the cliff of a disastrous lawsuit against the NFL. (I didn’t care much about the USFL, and even less about the New Jersey Generals, but the Donald caught my eye and ire.) I despised the witless vulgarian then, and I despise him even more now. I plan to keep wailing on his ass every chance I get until he’s been safely banished from the White House — until the dumb bastard tucks his serpent’s tail between his legs and retreats from public life entirely.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

            Indeed, he has. But in the great Venn diagram in the sky, there’s a subset where the circle labelled “the crazy” intersects with the one labelled “the true.” (There’s certainly a huge subset where the true intersects with “the counterintuitive”; we call that one “quantum mechanics.”)

            Look, I’m not trying to carry water for Wolfe here; I was appalled by a couple comments that fell from his pie-hole in the NPR interview, too. He’s just somebody I’ve got pleasure from reading over the years, so I’m struggling to give him a charitable interpretation. (Plus, I’m a bit of an ornery contrarian myself — soon as everyone else starts heading in one direction, I instinctively push back in the other.) 🙂

  14. Billy Bl.
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the heads up. I also read, and enjoyed, many of his earlier books, but I’ll give this one a pass. Sounds like Wolfe is well down the slide most writers ride.

  15. ploubere
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    How sad, I really liked Wolfe’s books, but haven’t read any since Man in Full. He’s the one who taught me the word superannuated, which might now apply to him. Perhaps Simon was just being nice to a demented old man. Sure grandpa, whatever you say.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    “It’s time for people interested in evolution to say ‘The theory of evolution applies only to animals.’”

    Wolfe seems so focused on claiming that he isn’t “an animal” that he blurs the context.

    For surely Wolfe doesn’t think there is something special with animals too, and has no explanation for the rest of life!?

  17. colnago80
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    What about our nonfunctional olfactory-receptor genes, or our dead gene for synthesizing Vitamin C?

    In addition, it should be pointed out that the same dead gene exists in apes, and is active in virtually every other mammal, which is one of strongest pieces of evidence for the common ancestry of apes and humans.

  18. µ
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Electric cool-aid can cause memory-loss, including perhaps denial of fossil evidence.

    Hence the psychological need for mnemonics?

  19. Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    *From* animals? Holy exceptionalism, Batman.

    • ploubere
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

  20. mordacious1
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    A better title would have been, “The Wrong Stuff”.

    • Christopher
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Funny, but I really had no idea who he was when I came across the interview. I knew his name but not his work, and assumed he was primarily a fiction writer, not a journalist or a non-fiction writer. (yes, I’ve lived a lonely, sheltered life) Your comment made me realize who he was. I’m even more dumbfounded now than when I read and listened to the interview. This is, however, why I have mostly stayed away from non-scientist writers of science, and most especially journalists (same goes for non-historians writing history, Mathew Cobb a notable exception). While it may be wise to avoid the logical fallacy of an appeal to authority, for reasons I’m sure many here already know, it’s also a good bet than in science, people are authorities in their field for a reason. But even as a non-scientist and non-authority, it should be pretty damn obvious what a howler this book and interview are.

    • ploubere
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink


  21. Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    He’s 85 years old.

    Just sayin’.

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Bingo! Funny things happens to brains as they age.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Well, the publisher didn’t think about age when they gave him millions for this short manuscript!

  22. E.A. Blair
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Whoever designed that book cover ought to be shot for impersonating an artist.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      I was going to make a similar comment: With that cover, I wouldn’t expect too many people to buy a copy. It is a very uninviting cover with no obvious connection to the topic.

  23. Larry Smith
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    First of all, thanks again for being at the ready to take up the cudgels when these things happen!

    My 26-year old daughter and I heard Wolfe’s interview in the car yesterday and we were both gobsmacked. She told me, “that evolution web site guy should write about this.” He will, I told her, he will…

    I think there’s a long tradition of brilliant writers backing the wrong scientific horse. Facility with language does not guarantee a solid scientific perspective by any means.

    As Oscar Wilde wrote in a similar context, “Anybody can write a three-volume novel; it merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature.”

  24. Kevin
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    The chimpanzees in Madagascar (the movie) want to throw poo on him. Well done chimps.

  25. Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Oliver Kamm in the Sunday Times has written a fairly brutal, and brutally fair, review:

    Sadly, readers who pick up The Kingdom of Speech imagining that it’s a popular exposition of big ideas will be misled. It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky. It’s not even stylishly written. What I learnt from it is that a crotchety celebrity of vaulting hubris and small mind doesn’t feel constrained by canons of evidence and accuracy.

  26. colnago80
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    An admittedly cursory Google search failed to turn up any indication of Simon’s educational background. I would bet that he has a humanities background and it may be that he doesn’t know anything about scientific subjects such as evolution.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Having a Humanities background isn’t the problem imo. Failing to research his topic is the problem. That is standard whatever your background. Having a Humanities background doesn’t make you incapable of learning science. At 85, he’s had a long time to learn stuff other than what he graduated in anyway, which I suspect was Journalism (though I have no idea).

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s the humanities background. Fred Hoyle said dumb shit about evolution and he ought to have won a Nobel Prize for his work on nucleosynthesis.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Yes, his failing, in my opinion, isn’t that he’s ignorant about evolution but that he draws conclusions and makes assertions from this ignorance. What kind of writer does this? Not one that will gain professional respect.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

          He may be beyond the need for approval of his peers. He may be, at 85, just trying to pay the rent on his Manhattan apartment. I think it’s one of Maslow’s hierarchy. Somewhere between belonging and not giving a shit.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

            Yes, his conscientiousness has dribbled away with age perhaps though I’ve found mine has not though I do give less of a shit what others think.

            • rickflick
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink


      • E.A. Blair
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        “At 85, he’s had a long time to learn stuff other than what he graduated in anyway, which I suspect was Journalism (though I have no idea).”

        Simon is a young whippersnapper of 64. It’s Wolfe who’s the 85-year-old geezer.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          I got mixed up there – I was talking about Wolfe. I didn’t even realize my screw-up until you pointed it out – am I a perhaps a Humanities graduate not doing her research properly? Kina screwed up my argument there! 😀

          • rickflick
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

            Completely forgivable and understandable. In the southern hemisphere, 85 is 58 isn’t it?

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

              I wish – I’d be 25 again!

              • rickflick
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

                I’ve heard there is a fountain in Florida…

            • Posted August 29, 2016 at 3:17 am | Permalink

              Hmm… I’m in the southern hemisphere at the moment and oddly I still feel 55 …

              /@ / Adelaide

              • rickflick
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:45 am | Permalink

                You’re swirling in the doldrums of an age palindrome Ant. As soon as the Earth gets off it’s duff you’ll be headed for normal inversions. The universe harmonizes itself once again.

    • Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      have always really enjoyed his weekend edition shows on NPR. Here’s what NPR says about him:

      Scott Simon is one of America’s most admired writers and broadcasters. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

      Simon’s weekly show, Weekend Edition Saturday, has been called by the Washington Post, “the most literate, witty, moving, and just plain interesting news show on any dial,” and by Brett Martin of Time-Out New York “the most eclectic, intelligent two hours of broadcasting on the airwaves.” He has won every major award in broadcasting, including the Peabody, the Emmy, the Columbia-DuPont, the Ohio State Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the Sidney Hillman Award. Simon received the Presidential End Hunger Award for his coverage of the Ethiopian civil war and famine, and a special citation from the Peabody Awards for his weekly essays, which were cited as “consistently thoughtful, graceful, and challenging.” He has also received the Barry M. Goldwater Award from the Human Rights Fund. Recently, he was awarded the Studs Terkel Award.

      Simon has hosted many television specials, including the PBS’s “State of Mind,” “Voices of Vision,” and “Need to Know.” “The Paterson Project” won a national Emmy, as did his two-hour special from the Rio earth summit meeting. He co-anchored PBS’s “Millennium 2000” coverage in concert with the BBC, and has co-hosted the televised Columbia-DuPont Awards. He also became familiar to viewers in Great Britain as host of the continuing BBC series, “Eyewitness,” and a special on the White House press corps. He has appeared as a guest and commentator on all major networks, including BBC, NBC, CNN, and ESPN.

      Simon has contributed articles to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian, and Gourmet among other publications, and won a James Beard Award for his story, “Conflict Cuisine” in Gourmet. He has received numerous honorary degrees.

      Sports Illustrated called his book Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan “extraordinary…uniformly superb…a memoir of such breadth and reach that it compares favorably with Fredrick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.” It was at the top of several non-fiction bestseller lists. His book, and Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, was Barnes and Nobles’ Sports Book of the Year. His novel, Pretty Birds, the story of two teenage girls in Sarajevo during the siege, received rave reviews, Scott Turow calling it, “the most auspicious fiction debut by a journalist of note since Tom Wolfe’s. . . always gripping, always tender, and often painfully funny. It is a marvel of technical finesse, close observation, and a perfectly pitched heart.” Windy City, Simon’s second novel, is a political comedy set in the Chicago City Council. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, an essay about the joys of adoption, was published in August 2010.

      Simon’s tweets to his 1.25 million Twitter followers from his mother’s bedside in the summer of 2013 gathered major media attention around the world. He is completing a book on their last week together that will appear in time for Mother’s Day 2015.

      Simon is a native of Chicago and the son of comedian Ernie Simon and Patricia Lyons Simon. His hobbies are books, theater, ballet, British comedy, Mexican cooking and “bleeding for the Chicago Cubs.” He appeared as Mother Ginger in the Ballet Austin production of The Nutcracker.

      He;’s received a couple of honorary degrees:

      He doesn’t look like your typical college undergraduate in this photo:

      He went to Senn High School in Chicago.

      His college education is pretty well hidden from view. I wonder why?

      • Anthony Paul
        Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        The photo in your link is attributed to Lincoln College and if you search for Lincoln College you end up with what, at my first glance, appears to be a vocation-oriented school in Illinois. If that is the correct school, given all that professional recognition, his education there does not appear to have hurt him any, but it would just not have the aura of a degree from an ivy league or equivalent big name school. Other than that, . . . ?

        • Posted August 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I looked into Lincoln College and they did not list Simon as an alumnus, that I saw. But they did make him a “Lincoln Laureate” in 2016.

          • Posted August 30, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

            But Lincoln Laureates are an honor from the State of IL, not Lincoln College. My error.

  27. peltonrandy
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    “… I hate people who go around saying they’re atheists, but I’m an atheist.”

    I read this and could not help but wonder if Wolfe hates himself.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      Or he finds people proclaiming their atheism to be offensive. So you’re allowed to be an atheist, but your not allowed to articulate that about yourself out loud. How gauche!

  28. Kingasaurus
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    For some reason this reminds me of a similar situation that happened many years ago, when the author Jeremy Rifkin seemingly lost his mind and started parroting creationist talking points in his book “Algeny”.

  29. Florian
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Can’t stand Scott Simon. I avoid NPR on Saturday mornings.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      I used to like him a lot. Then I noticed he was pretty soft on bullshit.

  30. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Tom Wolfe is (was) a great writer, but he’s 85 years old. Time to hang it up.

  31. chrism
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Jerry, the XI cranial nerve was once known as the Accessory nerve, and in my day we learned the mnemonic for all of them as:

    “Oh, oh, oh – to touch and feel a girl’s vagina and hope.”

    Well, it wasn’t meant to impress grandma, and it certainly worked for the remembering part. There were also anatomical limericks, such as the splendid example reminding us that the lingual nerve had become hooked around the submandibular salivary (‘Wharton’s) duct, akin to the recurrent laryngeal nerve that evolution explains. It went:

    The lingual nerve took a swerve
    Over the hyoglossus
    Said Wharton’s Duct
    ‘I’ll be fucked:
    The bugger’s double crossed us!’

    And that’s enough rudery from me or I shall get a yellow card from the ref.

    • steve
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      veterinarian students learn “giraffes” vagina and “hymen”

      And whether they are sensory, motor, or both:

      “Some say marry money, but my brother says big balls mean more.”

  32. Eric Schultz
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for this cogent post, I was taken aback by Wolfe’s flawed thinking as expressed in the Scott Simon interview. I feel that your slap at Wolfe for his large advances and his townhouse are gratuitous. His success and the wealth that has come with it are not relevant to the issue of Wolfe’s errors.

    • Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but if you read the book you’d see that Wolfe levels similar charges at Chomsky: he got lots of money and fame and an “air-conditioned office” undeservedly. Besides, I was talking in general about how a severely misguided book could garner so much money, which speaks to the level of both vetting of books by publishers (Little, Brown & Co. in this case), and how someone who is famous can benefit hugely while committing so many errors, while a lesser known person wouldn’t get near that kind of advance. This is a comment on the publishing industry.

      So no, I don’t accept your criticism that my comment was gratuitous. I was writing about the book and the NPR review in general, not reviewing it formally.

      • Anthony Paul
        Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Harper’s published an article more or less re Chomsky by Wolfe that is probably an edited excerpt from this book. It read to me like a hatchet job and my only conclusion was that he has a personal vendetta going against Chomsky due to Chomsky’s politics. At the time I could not imagine how a journo known for dressing like an ice cream vendor was qualified to seriously discuss linguistics and the origin of language, particularly when his style of writing does not appear to lend itself to reasonable discussion.

  33. sanford sharp
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Wolfe may be going off the rails, a la Anthony Flew a few years ago. It may also be another example of a really smart person assuming that being smart makes you an expert in everything – Randi called attention to this bias with Project Alpha. I suspect the Chomskys of the world may find his arguments about language simplistic.
    But, I don’t think we should blame NPR and Scott Simon for not interrogating Wolfe about his screwy beliefs – Simon was likely surprised by the assertions. I’m pretty sure it would take me a while to regain my bearings after an icon like Wolfe served up such a steaming pile! Plus, this was a short interview, not investigative journalism.

    • Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Well, I don’t like to speculate about ageing and stuff, but I do fault NPR for not giving Wolfe pushback, even with a simple question: “What about all that evidence for human evolution?” After all, Wolfe’s views are completely expected if you’ve read his book, which I hope Simon did. They wouldn’t have struck a prepared interview as at all surprising.

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