What would a major newspaper do if they were discussing the views of a famous scientist who went off the rails about something unrelated to their profession? Take Lynn Margulis, for example, rightly renowned for promulgating (but not inventing) the idea that mitochondria within cells are actually the remnants of bacteria, showing an ancient event in which one organism engulfed another. That was a major advance in understanding cells, and a remarkable twist in our understanding of evolution.
Yet Margulis was also a 9/11 conspiracy theorist (see also here), suggesting that the plane strikes and downing of the World Trade Center (through setting of incendiaries in the structure!) represented a conspiracy by the U.S. government to give us a justification to go after Muslims.
Would she get a pass from the press because of her previous and acclaimed work? I doubt it.
But Thomas Wolfe is getting that kind of pass—not everywhere, but certainly in this week’s New York Times (and by Scott Simon on NPR)—for his cockamamie ideas, expressed in his new book The Kingdom of Speech. These ideas include that a) evolution is a mere speculation without any evidence supporting it and b) there’s not the slightest evidence that human language has any evolutionary basis.
A new piece in Books of the Times by NYT critic Dwight Garner discusses Wolfe’s book, and in so doing manages to completely ignore the evidence that Wolfe adduces supporting these two misguided ideas. Yes, Garner does say that, contra Wolfe’s claim that Darwin was just an “idea man,” he did have those five years on the Beagle, but that’s as far as Garner’s criticisms go, except for his noting that in some places Wolfe’s prose is overheated.
Well, Wolfe’s prose is no more overheated here than in The Right Stuff, but going after prose quality is what the lazier or more ignorant critics do, for they have neither the background to assess evolution and evolutionary theories, nor the diligence to have boned up on them before cranking out their piece.
Here are just a couple examples of where Garner could have done better, at least by questioning Wolfe’s claims. After all, Garner’s isn’t a puff piece nor a “this-is-what-Wolfe said” piece, but an attempt to assess the book’s merits:
Mr. Wolfe, now 85, shows no sign of mellowing. His new book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” is his boldest bit of dueling yet. It’s a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution, which he finds to be less scientific certainty than “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,” to put it in the words he inserts into the mouths of past genetic theorists.
. . . Mr. Wolfe does not complain about evolution on religious grounds; in fact, he is an atheist. He begins by declaring the notion of the big bang to be vaguely ridiculous, and likens it to a mythopoetic bedtime story. Everything came from nothing?
Nope, the “genetic theorists” (what are those?) didn’t say those words. And of course we are as certain about evolution as about the Big Bang (which Wolfe also thinks is bogus) or about the spherical nature of Earth. If Wolfe finds evolution to be unscientific, should Garner let that pass unremarked?
And there’s this:
Because this is a Tom Wolfe production, there is a great deal of funny and acid commentary on social class. About the possibility that Darwin, a wealthy and connected British gentleman, might have plundered some of his ideas about evolution from Alfred Russel Wallace, a social nobody, he writes:
“The British Gentleman was not merely rich, powerful, and refined. He was also a slick operator … smooth … smooth … smooth and then some. It was said that a British Gentleman could steal your underwear, your smalls and skivvies and knickers, and leave you staring straight at him asking if he didn’t think it had turned rather chilly all of a sudden.”
I’ve read a lot about Darwin, probably a lot more than Wolfe, and Darwin simply didn’t steal any ideas about evolution from Wallace (yes, Wolfe does imply that). Darwin’s theory was well worked out—and written out, though not published—well before he got Wallace’s letter in 1858, the letter that led to their joint publication in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. If you read Wolfe’s book, you’ll find Darwin painted as a cynical manipulator, and Wallace as the lower-class (he wasn’t that lower class!) outsider whom Darwin tried not only to thwart, but to plagiarize. It’s up to Garner to push back against those misrepresentations, but he gives Wolfe a pass.
Garner gives Wolfe an even bigger pass about linguistics, not questioning in the least whether the story Wolfe tells about Chomsky’s theory of universal (and hence innate) language capacity being completely overturned by the “outsider” Daniel Everett is true. It isn’t. But I’ll leave that for later.
Those reviewers who take the time to investigate Wolfe’s claims have excoriated the book; those who are lazy and just want to issue something that sounds nice, like Garner, have missed the boat, as well as the fact that Wolfe is misleading the public about evolution and linguistics.
And so we, on the boat, set sail into the sunset accompanied by the strains of Garner’s euphonious prose and praise for Mr. Wolfe, the Damner of Darwin:
“The Kingdom of Speech” is meant to be a provocation rather than a dissertation. The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time, and enjoying the scent of its own cold-brewed napalm in the morning.
Nice prose, eh? Well, Lynn Margulis’s 9/11 conspiracy theories were also meant to be provocative. But all that shows is what we already know: being provocative doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right. But apparently the truth doesn’t matter to some book reviewers.