NYT’s pathetic summary of Tom Wolfe’s book misses the boat on evolution and linguistics

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.


Not a plagiarizer


  1. Bill Shaddle
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh well. Next time.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Petrushka
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Chomsky got pretty much the same pass.

    On the same topic.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking somebody needs to write an article on the book reviewers, maybe using this guy and a few others to show that their ship has sailed and for the public to look at the reviews can be worse than a waste of time. Could it be that book reviewer, as a job is going the way of journalism?

  4. colnago80
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Equally egregious of Lynn Margulis was her HIV/AIDS denialism, apparently due to the influence of Peter Duesberg. She had pretty much jumped the shark in her declining years.

    • Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t know this, nor about her being a 9/11 Truther. Sad!

      • Daniel Engblom
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        She’s also flirted with Anti-GMO ideas (Jerry has brought it up before here on the website) and with bigfoot if I recall correctly.

        • Daniel Engblom
          Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink

          Oh sorry! I completely messed up, I mixed her up with Jane Goodall. My comments could be deleted.

  5. Howard Neufeld
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Well said. Jim Costa’s recent book on Darwin/Wallace clearly shows that Darwin did not steal ideas from Wallace. I’ve lost any respect I might have had for Wolfe after this debacle. Thanks, Jerry, for going after the lazy reviewers.

    • Christopher
      Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      I bought that but I’ve yet to read it. I did read Darwin via Costa’s Annotated Origin of Species, which I found helpful.

  6. Petrushka
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if this fits the roolz, but on the topic of book reviews, I think this is an example of how an honorable person reviews a book that tries to support his interests, but fails.


    • Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

      No, not a roolz violation at all. I was given Axe’s book (by Paul Nelson, of all people) and wasn’t going to read it, but I’m amazed that the book was ripped apart by his fellow ID advocate Torley. I wonder if Torley is still with the Discovery Institute.

  7. colnago80
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Considering that Carl Zimmer has written a number of articles for the Times, I question the choice of Garner, who appears to have no knowledge of science whatever as the reviewer. At the least, the Newspaper of Record should have had Zimmer also review the book for scientific accuracy.

    • Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      There will almost certainly be a review in this Sunday’s NYT (Garner’s was just a warmup), so check that one out. Maybe Zimmer will have gotten the nod.

  8. Tom
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    It seems that Mr Wolfe has chosen to charge into the same dead end that fooled the creationists bandwagon.
    It doesn’t matter if Darwin stole every word in his book from Wallace, evolution is true.
    Darwin is not the Moses of evolutionary theory and the Origin is not holy script.
    Also, as a professional author Mr Wolfe should know that insinuating plagiarism without evidence is just about as low as one can get in the profession.

  9. Posted August 31, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Wolfe may have developed some form of dementia that exacerbated his glossolalia. I can’t imagine an excuse for the reviewers.

  10. Posted August 31, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I think a review along the following lines should be entirely sufficient even for the most logorrheic of reviewers:

    Mr. Wolfe’s new book proposes origins for human language that he explicitly indicates contradict the modern foundation of the science of biology. At the same time, he is casually dismissive of modern cosmology — and therefore, by extension, of modern astronomy and high-energy physics.

    In doing so, Mr. Wolfe does not present any evidence that would hitherto have been unknown or surprising to experts in those fields. As such, there is no reason to consider any meaningful possibility of even the slightest hint of credible scholarship in this book, regardless of how entertaining the prose.

    Had Mr. Wolfe’s publishers chosen to categorize the book as inventive and fantastical fiction, a review on its literary merits might be in order. But, as it stands, the book is as utterly without redemptive merit and undeserving of further consideration. Mr. Wolfe might as well have published a tale urging that shipmasters exercise caution when sailing near the edge of the world lest they fall prey to the Kraken, for The Kingdom of Speech has as much relevance to reality and modernity.



    • colnago80
      Posted August 31, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Right on!

  11. amarnath
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    When I learnt that Tamil (in the Southern part of India) was spoken in todays’s Kerala before ca 1400 CE, and due to isolation (the Western Ghats) the language evolved into present day Malayalam, I thought Aha, languages also evolve like biological species. Of course, the great one had already noticed it. Why no one asks, If Malayalam came from Tamil, how come Tamil is still around?

    • agentmacgyver
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      Tamil itself has evolved considerably. The Old Tamil of Sangam poetry is often obscure in grammar and vocabulary, even to “medieval” commentators.

  12. Smith Powell
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Wolfe should have read the research on dogs and their understanding of human language before publishing his book.

  13. Les
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing about this. The origin of speech includes biology. The

    FOXP2-related proteins and other proteins
    have different variants in humans than other animals. Boo-boos in those proteins can cause speech defects.
    Languages were built on top of that.

  14. Joe Dickinson
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    There is an equally bad review in the New York Times Book Review dated Nov. 4 by one Caitlin Flanagan. It barely mentions the questioning of evolution, focusing instead on Wolfe’s quarrel with Chomsky which, apparently, occupies a sizable part of the book.

    • Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      November 4? That was long before the book was released. Do you have a link?

      • Joe Dickinson
        Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, that would be Sept. 4. Fixating on Nov. since that will be my next big wildlife opportunity – Tanzania!

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

          Is this a review that’s set to run in this coming Sunday’s Book Review that you’ve seen an advance copy of, Joe?

          • Joe Dickinson
            Posted August 31, 2016 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

            Nope, we subscribe just to the book review, not the “Times” as a whole, and received a copy in the mail today but dated Sept 4. Perhaps it will be included in the Sunday edition of the full paper.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:55 am | Permalink

              Thx. Hope you enjoy Tanzania.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      I like Caitlin Flanagan’s writing, and try to keep track of her work, but don’t recall seeing such a book review. Also, a google search fails to return any result for it.

      • sskuce
        Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        Caitlyn Flanagan’s review appears in the print edition of the NYT Book Review dated September 4, 2016; I just read it in that format. For my money it’s worse than Garner’s, and his was at least as terrible as Jerry Coyne says it is.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    … Nice prose, eh?

    Nice enough, I suppose (but then I’m a sucker for this stuff). Just below the surface euphony, however, you can feel Garner straining just a hair to land on his allusion to Col. Kilgore of Apocalypse Now.

    And unfortunately for Tom Wolfe, the scent coming off all that cold-brewed napalm doesn’t … smell like … victory.

  16. John
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if you’ve already commented on this choice Wolfe quote from the NPR interview: “I hate people who go around saying they’re atheists, but I’m an atheist.”

    It’s striking how much anti-atheist bigotry there is among atheists.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 31, 2016 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      Oh I don’t know, Wolfe is an atheist I could very happily be bigoted against. Specially when he claims to be an atheist and drags us all down by association. 😦


  17. Robert Seidel
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    > 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).

    I read a selection of Darwin’s correspondence some time ago, and wrote a review on it. This was my impression of Darwin and Wallace:

    He was pals with Wallace. The letters between the two are cordially, and, with Wallace being as humble as Darwin, shaped by an “After you.” “No, after you!” – attitude about who deserves more credit in coming up with the theory. So much for the claim that their relation was not as frictionless in private than it was exhibited in public.

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

    Garner, you lug. You’re still my favorite book reviewer at the Times but you really dropped the ball with your piece on that silly, but, of course, always entertaining white-suited idiot.

    You failed the above 8 and yourself as well by not throwing a spear straight into the heart of that asshole’s book.

    Good luck with the aftermath of your review.

  19. Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    i wonder what “your comment is awaiting moderation” means? i guess i’m supposed to know.

  20. Marilee Lovit
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I recommend “Darwin’s Ghosts:The Secret History of Evolution” by Rebecca Stott. The title sounds unfortunately woo-ish, but do not despair. The book examines claims that had been made after Darwin published Origin, that others had already proposed evolution before Darwin. Darwin added acknowledgements to precursors, in a later revision. But Rebecca Stott, while describing the advances and insights made by earlier philosophers and scientists, does not find them (so far in my reading) developing Darwin’s ideas ahead of him. I have not yet finished the book and am looking forward to the chapter on Wallace. The book is an interesting survey. I previously enjoyed another book by Rebecca Stott, “Darwin and the Barnacle.”

    • Christopher
      Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      I loved Darwin and the Barnacle! Stott is a talented writer who deserves to be better known. I read Darwin’s Ghosts too, but kept getting it confused with Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost, which I finally bought but haven’t read. I am reading, or attempting to read, Jones’ Y: The Descent of Men.

  21. Christopher
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    When I first read and then listened to the NPR interview, I honestly had no idea who Wolfe was. I honestly, and embarrassingly, thought he was some sort of fiction writer (guess now he’s closer to a science-fiction writer). I’d never read anything by him, and didn’t put 2 & 2 together until reading a comment about the Right Stuff. That book was on my list of things I wanted to read, and to re-watch the movie now that I’m old enough to understand it. I’ll have a hard time doing so in light of this new book. And after all this strangely positive press he’s getting, I wish I still had no idea who he was. Just being famous is no excuse for cocking up so spectacularly. I may have been somewhat critical of Bill Nye for overstepping his professional authority on certain statements about evolution, but those were somewhat common and simple mistakes and he clearly had done his research, even if he didn’t fully explain it correctly. Wolfe sounds like he’s just pulling things out of his butt, smearing it on the page, and getting praised for it by people who idolize him and can’t be arsed to double check some of his looney tune ideas. This has turned out to be a huge black mark against a famous writer and several media sources who should have all known better.

    and while I’m at it, I’ve never read Moby Dick, never seen the Godfather, never been to a theater production, but damn it, at least I know humans are animals, which is something I expect even little kids to know, never mind the overpaid cultural “elites” like Wolfe, Simon, and Garner, so I don’t feel so embarrassed after all.

  22. Tony C
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s unfortunate that people are deemed experts in all fields based upon past work in some fields. When opinion is wrapped in the cloak of scholarship, we all suffer. It happens too often and Wolfe is no exception.

  23. Posted August 31, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Wolfe certainly seems to have a problem accepting truth. But unless I’m mistaken, even Pinker agrees that there must be something to the idea not only of innate tendencies to language, but also of a universal grammar.

  24. frednotfaith2
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Ok, now I’m convinced that either Wolfe has had a major mental breakdown or he was never all that intelligent to begin with, at least not about science. If he doesn’t even acknowledge that humans are in fact animals and that we are all products of evolution, he is an idiot, despite his apparent cleverness at putting words together.

  25. Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    I wish people would never call him Thomas, but just leave it at Tom. The earlier Thomas Wolfe was a much better novelist.

  26. Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    For journalists who agree with theclaim there is no evidence for evolution, I would recommend a textbook on bioinformatics.

    Also L. Luca Cavalli Sforza’s book, The History and Geography of Human Genes.

    There is an abridged paperback edition of 413 pages.

    The latter contains quite a bit on linguistics.

    • TonyC
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      Waste of time. Anybody that still does not accept evolution has the motto, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts!”

  27. Erwin
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I like the head line of your Washington Post review.

  28. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I just read PCC(E)’s review of Wolfe’s book in the Washington Post – excellent read!

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Ooooh my avatar changed

  29. douglasgscofield
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Wolfe has no idea what he’s saying about Darwin. Darwin was way more than ‘just an idea man’, even excepting those years on the Beagle. The plant books (Forms of Flowers, Cross- and Self-Fertilisation, Fertilisation of Orchids, Power of Movement) show Darwin to be not only a busy experimentalist, but a darn good one! He often had not only the first thing to say about many evolutionary questions but was also the first to do a relevant experiment. For example, while investigating inbreeding depression following selfing, he thought to scatter seeds in a weedy area to check whether a more competitive environment would expose more inbreeding depression, and found it does, a line of research still very much at the fore today.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 3, 2016 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    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?

    Everything else aside, that is theology. What has that got to do with anything? The “mythopoet” is Wolfe.

    Oh, you can straitjacket big bang cosmologies into a simple initial condition. But extreme (exotic) physics is hard, and even in the case of older ones that was an open question.

    With today’s inflationary cosmology it looks more like a case of “[the current] everything came from [an inflating] everything”. And that we may have to leave it there.

  31. sjpatejak
    Posted September 10, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    So why do whales have vestigial hind legs? My guess would be that Wolfe does not even know this fact.

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