This is what happens when a book reviewer is assigned a book in which he has no expertise whatsoever. Over at USA Today, Don Oldenburg reviews Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech. I’ve read the book, and its thesis is that human language is not in any way a product of biological evolution. Indeed, Wolfe has said that not only are humans not a product of biological evolution, but that only animals evolve and humans aren’t animals! (In an NPR interview with Wolfe, Scott Simon didn’t challenge him on that fatuous assertion.) Over the last decade, Wolfe has flirted with Intelligent Design creationism, and that’s clearly evident in the book. Insofar as Americans who read this book come to it with ignorance about evolution or its history, they will be not only let down, but deceived.
Further, Wolfe distorts the data and history of linguistics—at least the part of linguistics concerned with what aspects of humans’ ability to speak, and their ability to use semantic language, may have a biological origin—and whether that origin involves natural selection. I’ll have more to say on that later this week; let’s just say that we have data addressing that.
Sadly, Mr. Oldenburg seems to have missed every flaw in Wolfe’s argument, and produces instead a puff piece, giving the book three stars out of four. Oldenburg has only minor quibbles, which explains the missing fourth star, but simply doesn’t address Wolfe’s solution to Big Problem: Where did language come from?
Here’s a bit of USA Today‘s puff piece:
And so begins Wolfe’s provocative and winding tale that attempts to demystify the mystery that has baffled the world of linguistics and, arguably, makes what we think we know about the origins of speech and human evolution wrong.
Arguably? That implies there’s a counterargument. Sadly, Oldenburg doesn’t give one.
[Wolfe] presents that intriguing case in his inimitable, casual-chatty, captivating storytelling style. His trademark rich reporting is unmistakable throughout his first non-fiction endeavor in 16 years, since Hooking Up, his 2000 essay collection. But The Kingdom of Speech is much more a legacy of his brilliant 1981 lambasting of modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, and his fascinating 1975 assault on modern art, The Painted Word.
I’ve read Bauhaus and The Painted Word. I found both books gratuitously nasty and show-offy, and the critics found them ignorant as well. They show neither the absorbing narrative of Radical Chic and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test nor the research that went into what I consider Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (highly recommended). As for this book, Oldenburg simply hasn’t done his homework in either evolution or linguistics, enabling him to emit stuff like this:
Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution [sic] from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace. Going forward, he identifies many rogue evolutionaries gone wild, from anti-Darwinian Robert Chambers to the Darwin-cheerleader Thomas Huxley, to the first-geneticist Gregor Johann Mendel.
Wolfe’s diversions include everything from Apache cosmology to “gestural theory” (the standing man’s freed-hand gestures evolving into speech). The second half of the book focuses on pompous, nasty, but conversation-changing Noam Chomsky versus mosquito-bitten, neck-deep-in-Amazon-primitiveness, anthropologist Daniel Everett, whose life story is a splendidly cinematic read.
Seriously? Huxley and Mendel are “rogue evolutionaries gone wild”? Huxley defended Darwin, but he was in no sense a “rogue,” nor did he “go wild.” As for Mendel, does Mr. Oldenburg realize that Mendel was not an “evolutionary” but a geneticist who didn’t have an inkling about evolution? The main lacuna here is that Oldenburg doesn’t address the book’s claims seriously. Even in the restricted space of USA Today one can call attention to the fact that there are serious problems with both the evolutionary and linguistic parts of the book. Nor does he apparently have the expertise to review the book properly (I don’t know Mr Oldenburg’s background, but if he had that expertise, he should have used it.)
Instead, Oldenburg’s quibbles are stylistic ones:
Sure, Wolfe-ish annoyances persist. Too-many repeated words (“talk talk talk it was, and endless theory theory theory”) and slam-bang semantics (“Bango!” and “OOOF!”). One of his detours — where he lists historic oddball charismatic leaders just to prove that, like Chomsky, many were in their 20s — makes you want to say, “Stop it, Tom.”
Still, he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — without the trippy, ‘60s, Merry Prankster craziness. You’ll find here the same manic prose, the hip rhythms and cleverly crafted arguments of the genius Tom Wolfe. Which you must read.
I wouldn’t follow the advice of that last sentence. If you want to read more incisive reviews of The Kingdom of Speech, see Charles Mann’s at the Wall Street Journal, Harry Ritchie’s at The Spectator (he calls Wolfe’s thesis “bollocks”), or Tom Bartlett’s analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Bartlett is far too credulous and uncritical about the evolutionary parts of Wolfe’s book, his fact-checking of Wolfe’s claims about Noam Chomsky (claims that, in effect, Bartlett calls “bollocks” as well) is instructive.