My WaPo review of Tom Wolfe’s new book: “The Kingdom of Speech”, and some background

The reason I’ve been writing about other people’s reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech is because I wrote a review of it for The Washington Post a month ago, and it’s just now online as “His white suit unsullied by research, Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.” I am told it will be in the Outlook section of the Sunday paper-paper. Do go read the review, as I’m proud of it.

When I saw some other reviews, like ones in the New York Times and USA Today, soft-pedaling the egregious and erroneous statements in Wolfe’s book, it made me mad. There were, however, some reviews that were accurate, and therefore critical, including those at the Wall Street Journal and The Spectator. One problem is that Wolfe’s thesis involves both linguistics and evolution, and there are few people who are experts in both fields. (Steve Pinker is the obvious choice, but he’s busy writing his next book.)

At any rate, I won’t reprise my review here, except to say that Wolfe’s thesis is that human speech has nothing to do with biological evolution, that in pursuit of this aim he tries to take down both Darwin and Noam Chomsky, who espoused some “hard wiring” of human linguistic ability, and that Wolfe fails miserably on both counts, grossly distorting evolutionary theory, linguistics, and what Darwin and Chomsky really said.

I want, instead, to give a few pieces of background information about the review and the process of researching and writing it.

  • I’m not an expert in linguistics, though I know something about it. To be able to review Wolfe’s claims about Chomsky, Daniel Everett, “universal grammar,” and so on, I spent dozens of hours reading papers and books by these people. It didn’t take long before I discovered that Wolfe did a very superficial job of reporting, and what he said about the history of linguistics was erroneous. It was a grueling effort, as many of these papers are technical, but I learned a lot.
  • I am an expert on Darwin and evolution, and Wolfe just screwed that bit up completely. I didn’t mention in my review that Wolfe claimed that Darwin was literally obsessed with the origin of language. While Darwin did discuss the issue, it isn’t true that it was his obsession. More important, Wolfe’s attempt to paint Darwin as someone who plagiarized A. R. Wallace’s ideas, and tried to suppress the fact that Wallace had hit on natural selection at the same time as Darwin, is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Darwin had written two précis of his theories, one in 1842 and an 189-page one in 1844, with instructions to his wife Emma that the latter should be published posthumously if he died before writing his Big Book (The Origin in 1859, which was itself an abstract for a larger book that never got published). He was well in advance of Wallace, who hit on the idea of natural selection only much later in a fit of malarial fever. Wolfe doesn’t even deal with Darwin’s earlier sketches of his theory, which clearly gives him precedence. He had no need to plagiarize from anyone.
  • As you’ll see from my piece, Wolfe is basically an evolution denialist, claiming that there is no evidence for gradual transitions or evolution “in action”, that evolution makes no predictions, and doesn’t solve any puzzles about biology. Only someone who hasn’t followed evolutionary biology or read On the Origin of Species could say such things, particularly about the puzzles. Darwin, for instance, devotes a huge section of his book to showing how evolution solves puzzles about biogeography, vestigial organs, and embryology. The ignorance evinced in Wolfe’s statements about evolution is stunning. He’s also, as I noted, someone who makes fun of the idea that the Big Bang occurred, despite the copious evidence for it. Apparently evidence means very little to Mr. Wolfe.
  • You’ll see from the review that the third and fourth paragraphs from the end are written in Wolfe’s own “New Journalism” style. That was just a lark on my part (I hope the readers note the stylistic change there), and I didn’t think the Post would go for it. But they did, and I was happy.
  • The many hours I spent on this means that my per-hour wage for the piece works out to be about $5. You don’t write these things to make money! Rather, I wrote it because the book sounded interesting, because it was Wolfe, whose previous books (especially The Right Stuff) I’d much admired, and, after I read it, I decided that Wolfe’s misconceptions about both linguistics and evolutionary biology had to be corrected. Wolfe is famous and hence gets a big platform (and probably several million dollars as an advance on this book), so I wanted a platform to push back. I especially didn’t want the public to be misled about evolution. The Intelligent Design creationists have touted his book, as they know Wolfe doesn’t accept evolution.
  • Wolfe has a notoriously thin skin, and is famous for going after his critics. (One example is his famous “My Three Stooges” essay ripping apart his critics John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.) I’m curious to see if he’ll go after me. I’m not worried, though, as he was just wrong about many of his claims. He may write better than I, but I have the data on my side!
  • Finally, have a look at the readers’ comments under my Post piece (I’ve made one in response to an evolution denialist). There are still people out there—people who read the liberal Post—who don’t accept evolution. It’s America, Jake!

Kudos to the Post‘s nonfiction editor Steve Levingston, who was a pleasure to work with—and also allowed me to put in some Wolfe-ian prose.

Tom Wolfe author photo_(c) Mark Seliger

Click on the photo of Wolfe to see my two-thumbs-down take.

UPDATE: Here’s a funny comment on the piece. It’s not about Wolfe or my review, but about religion, and it’s sad, funny, and true!

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.44.13 AM


  1. Historian
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    The review is beautifully written. Kudos to the Washington Post for allowing an expert in the field destroy the blathering rantings of a non-scientist, whose ignorance may be accepted by many due to his notoriety. As Professor Coyne mentioned, it would be interesting to know how Wolfe came up with has assorted absurdities.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Just curious. Did you mean “notoriety” or ” popularity?” After Jerry’s takedown, he might be neither.

      • Historian
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        I used notoriety as meaning well known or celebrated without necessarily the negative connotation.

  2. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Wow, that is a devastating review. Game, set, match.

    The comments by some IDers on your review were amusing and pathetic. Discovery Institute (sic) hacks, no doubt.

  3. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I liked the approachable explanation of universal grammar.

  4. colnago80
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Good job professor.

  5. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Great job Jerry!

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I saw the Twitter storm – well done. A great read in its own right! I said this on another thread … Now I understand

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      My new avatar seems permanent

  7. Historian
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    There may be another example of real-time evolution, more evidence of how wrong Wolfe is. The Tasmanian Devil is threatened with extinction due to a certain type of cancer. Yet, scientists seem to have discovered that its genome is evolving at an extraordinary rate to fight the disease. At least, that is my non-scientific understanding of what is happening.

  8. abram
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I did notice the hilarious ~zing!~ switch to Wolfeian journalese. Well done.

    • Michael Day
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      You might say the review…evolved.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Great review, and yes, I loved the stylistic shift. He deserved that.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      The only Wolfe I’ve read is the extracts quoted recently from this book. Nonetheless I immediately spotted your parody, and felt it to be totally appropriate. Well done!

  9. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Your review is a superb public demonstration of how the private peer review process works. Clearly, Wolfe’s book wouldn’t have made it past the first round — as the way you ripped him to shreds makes clear.

    Were Wolfe wise, he would have sought feedback from experts such as you before putting his name on such an academic embarrassment. He deserves the evisceration you just gave him for his hubris in thinking he knew better.



  10. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I was thinking that maybe Mr. Wolfe was too active a participant when he wrote the Electric Acid Kool-Aid Acid Test and that explans why his brain now has difficulty accepting reality.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Except that Wolfe was never on the bus, as the saying goes.

  11. Roux Brownwell
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Excellent review. Just wanted to put in a word for Daniel Everett. His memoir of his time among the Piraha, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is well worth reading, IMO. He places a great deal more emphasis on his loss of faith, partly as the result of living among the Amazonian tribes, than on his differences with Chomsky. (He wrote a second book entirely devoted to that.)

  12. Arno Matthias
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Most excellent piece. One question though: why “Westerners” in the sentence ‘And it’s not as if modern Westerners are born with…’ ?

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      It’s sarcastic, because the “savages” were always contrasted with Europeans in Wallace’s (and Darwin’s) writings.

      • Arno Matthias
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I hope WaPo readers have that background knowledge.

        • Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think they need it. After all, it is Westerners who have produced Principia Mathematica, airplanes and skyscrapers. To me, it sounded quite naturally.

          • Arno Matthias
            Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

            You’re missing the point: why single out *western* inventions, when the argument is about *modern* inventions? But the author has already answered my question, so there is no good reason for you to contradict him.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            Sounded quite natural to me, too.

            If the question arises, most modern inventions have in fact been Western inventions – including specifically the three PCC mentioned.

            I don’t think any background knowledge of Darwin’s writing is needed to appreciate the point PCC was making.


          • P Vaishnavi
            Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            // After all, it is Westerners who have produced Principia Mathematica, airplanes and skyscrapers //

            Sure, the “westerners” did produce the Principia 200 years after getting to know how to count properly using the (via Arabs) Indian decimal place-value system.

            Modern Science has been built on the work of a long succession of honest, hard-working and determined people from a variety of cultures. Science is not owned by any one of those cultures, but is a collaborative human effort.

            • Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              You are quite right that intellectual advancement of humanity is the collective deed of people from may cultures.
              I, however, continue to insist on the importance of the fact that the West has faced no serious competition in math, science and technology for the last several centuries, and that while today people from many cultures make valuable contrubutions, they make the bulk of these contributions in the West. Khorana worked in the USA, Tjio in Sweden, Tonegawa in Basel (though today’s Japan can for all intents and purposes be considered a part of the West).
              My own country, in South-East Europe, seems too preoccupied with its own survival to produce anything of value.

              • P Vaishnavi
                Posted September 5, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

                // the bulk of these contributions in the West //

                Putting it that way is better. I have no disagreement with that.

  13. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    A good review. But the comments are disheartening, as usual.😦

    • Edward
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the review by Jerry was magnificent and I should have known better than to even check the comments which were mostly pathetic.

  14. Ken Elliott
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    The absolute best part of this site is that you treat it like your living room and we’re your close friends and family. I don’t get that experience anywhere else I go online, and only slightly from friends and family on Facebook. Of course the big difference between family and friends on Facebook and is the immense amount of enjoyable content here.

    “Do go read the review, as I’m proud of it.”

    It’s not so much what you said there, but the manner in which you said it. It seriously made a ‘warm’ impression. As always, thank you for what you do. It IS significant.

    • dabertini
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Could not agree more!! Fist-pumping stuff!!

      • abram
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        One of the best sites on the web, to be sure. Always polite, humble, and erudite.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink


  15. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why Wolfe, if he rejects evolution, would simultaneously deny Darwin credit for it.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      No one just rejects evolution, they *hate* it. And they hate the man who thought of it, for thinking of it. They must attack both, even when it makes no sense.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      You are quite right!

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Great point. I was once cornered by a creationist uncle who demanded to know how I can accept Darwin’s theories when he was “clearly a racist”. I then pointed out that in that respect he was no different than Newton, so therefore should I reject all of his discoveries?

      As another poster mentioned, rejection of evolution rarely seems to involve a sober analysis of the facts.

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The “evolution is false and also Darwin was a bad man” trope is very common. Think of all those folks who try to smear Darwin as a racist.

      I don’t know for sure, but it is the same move as the “Islam is false and Mohammed was a bad man” you also see, where it makes a bit more sense, since Islam ostensibly has an ethics, whereas of course Darwin is not normally (or at least first) held to be worthy of emulation as a *person* or for his ethical teachings.

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Oh, and it is the twist on the version from the 17th century Jesuits in China: that Confucius was a great man, and came “this close” to being a Christian.

  16. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Just want to add my praise for the review.

  17. Kevin
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Great review and great quote from CraigKH. However, just because most of my nearest neighbors believe in idiotic things, I am afraid, religion has not quite run its course. But it’s a good start to reveal the obvious to others so they can dwell on their idiotic beliefs.

  18. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Certainly more than a few of the readers here will be keeping a copy of this review. It is always good to see and worth saying – PCC is one who puts his money and his brains out there far in front of the mouth. While others complain prof. Coyne acts.

  19. darrelle
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve mentioned this once before, but I’ll say it again. The penchant you have for taking the time to thoroughly learn about an issue and then making substantive, specific arguments about it is one of your most admirable qualities.

    For example, for a mere book review you did (apparently) more research than the author of the book you reviewed did for the book itself.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      + 1. If Wolfe had done similar research, I suppose he wouldn’t make such fool of himself.

  20. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Great review! One small quibble, though. There is one exception to the rule that all Japanese words end with a vowel sound–and that is the letter “n.” Gaijin, ramen, taifun (typhoon), etc. But other than that, excellent review.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Ah, thank you! I am edified.

    • James Walker
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Quibble with the quibble – Japanese allows word-final n-*sounds* – Japanese has no “letters”😉

  21. Patrick
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Well written critique of Wolfe’s book. I enjoyed reading it and was delighted in your passion to defend Darwin, evolution and for researching the topic of linguistics in detail. Bravo!

  22. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Using the surgical kit of New Journalism, Wolfe flays Darwin and Chomsky as imperious, self-aggrandizing snobs, each humiliated by a lower-class “clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers.”

    That’s just one of many well-turned sentences in your book review. Say what you will about the fancy prose by Garner of The Times, Jerry, you’re something of a belletrist yourself.

    (Hell, I even approve the Wolfe pastiche in the antepenultimate and preantepenultimate paragraphs of your piece; you do it better than most.)

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Now you’re just showing off.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, or as Sam Jackson might put it, “check out the big words on Ken.” :‑J

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        Good thing Jerry didn’t start his Wolfe parody a paragraph earlier; I don’t know any words for “fifth-from-the-end.”🙂

  23. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    You’ll see from the review that the third and fourth paragraphs from the end are written in Wolfe’s own “New Journalism” style. That was just a lark on my part (I hope the readers note the stylistic change there), and I didn’t think the Post would go for it. But they did, and I was happy.

    I did notice! And it was lovely! Right back atcha Tom!

    Loved the review and this posting. Thanks very much!

    because it was Wolfe, whose previous books (especially The Right Stuff) I’d much admired

    Me too. Thanks for saving me the time and trouble of reading this dud!

    There are some amazingly foolish people about in the USA (reading the creationist comments on the WP piece.)

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Have you read, “Back To Blood?” I’d love to read a good novel about Miami, but I worry that it’s not a good novel.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        Back to Blood‘s a good novel. Not as good as Wolfe’s first two, but better than his third, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

        And I say that as a longtime S. Fla. resident.

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        Well, being a contrarian, I would recommend almost any book by Carl Hiaasen. He writes fun, sort of crazy books about his state, Florida.

        As an antidote to the sickly saccharine production of the corporate giant merchandiser, Disney, I recommend in particular his book Team Rodent.

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Here are a bunch of reccomendations:

        I have not read any of these.

  24. Debbie Coplan
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Bravo Jerry!

  25. TJR
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    If I knew as little about evolution and language as Wolfe apparently does then I wouldn’t even venture an opinion in the pub after 5 pints, let alone write a book about them.

  26. Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    And, as one crotchety (but very good) older professor I had at university long ago said when confronted with a very silly question: “Well, there’s no substitute for intelligence!”

  27. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The real shame of Wolfe’s mean-spirited “Three Stooges” hit-piece was that Mailer and Updike had written long, intricately analyzed reviews of Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, containing as much praise for the book as criticism of it. (IIRC, the third of Wolfe’s “stooges,” John Irving, earned his hiding merely by making an unflattering remark regarding Wolfe’s novel during a tv interview.)

    “Thin-skinned” isn’t the half of it.

  28. Steve Zeoli
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Great review, Jerry. I’ve linked to it on my Facebook page… hope you don’t mind.

  29. Robert Seidel
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    > I’m not sure why Wolfe bears such animus against evolution and the use of evidence rather than bluster to support claims about reality.

    It’s my theory that many artists and humanists, who make their living by coming up with different ways of looking at the world, get the willies from the thought that there might be only one objective truth.

    • George
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I think you can make an argument for how Wolfe’s mind works. On the one hand, you have his admiration for the Merry Pranksters (as expressed in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test). While he may not be big on drugs, he does like their pursuit of transcendence and some form of ultimate freedom. Then you have his first non-fiction work, Bonfire of the Vanities. Which I think was inspired by “Radical Chic”, “The Painted Word” and “From Bauhaus to Our House”. All ugly and scummy.

      Evolution, while grand, is a workmanlike, grind it out process. Like the ugly real world of Sherman McCoy. Not Ken Kesey searching for ultimate meaning.

      I’ll just throw this out there – don’t really feel like making the argument. Wolfe’s latest self destructs on its own.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I think you misspoke, George: Vanities was Wolfe’s first novel; his earlier works were non-fiction.

        • George
          Posted September 1, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for catching that. I did mean that Bonfire was his first work of fiction. But with New Journalism, where exactly is the line between fact and fiction?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            I dunno; I’ve heard the rumors over the years that Wolfe has done some embellishing, too.

            Other “New Journalists,” not as much. Gay Talese, for example, perhaps the dean of New Journalism (check out his 1966 piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) has a reputation for punctilious reporting.

            • Jenny Haniver
              Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

              Punctilious reporting? He may have done the piece on Sinatra punctiliously, but that was then and this is now, and just a month or so ago, Talese got caught up in a an exceedingly sleazy, disturbing and monumentally shameful scandal over his most recent effort, concerning the veracity of his reporting in “The Voyeur’s Motel” which he published in the New Yorker. Talese hung out with the motel owner and corresponded with him over a long period of time, on and off for years and years. Yet when fact checkers got to work, albeit ex-post facto, so many things proved to be highly suspect or simply didn’t comport with the facts insofar as they could be independently established. Then there was the fact (which he admitted) that he climbed up and crawled around in the rafters along with the owner, and actually participated in the voyeurism – for “research” purposes, of course. Such a stupid, credulous dickhead. New Journalism run amok. – all this apparently before the fact checking began; and this after questions of credibility began to be examined. His response: It’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

  30. Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Both your review, and the photographer’s portrait of Wolfe are excellent work🙂

  31. GBJames
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink


  32. Desnes Diev
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    You may be interested by an article published recently that support the idea that the human brain is structurally “pre-wired” in a way which facilitates the acquisition of reading skills. From the abstract:
    “We found the [visual word form area (VWFA)] developed functionally in this interval and that its location in a particular child at age 8 could be predicted from that child’s connectivity fingerprints (but not functional responses) at age 5. These results suggest that early connectivity instructs the functional development of the VWFA, possibly reflecting a general mechanism of cortical development.”
    Saygin ZM et al. (2016) Connectivity precedes function in the development of the visual word form area. Nature Neuroscience 19: 1250-55.

  33. Rick
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    What did you read by Chomsky? (He’s written so much that I’m curious what you looked at.)

  34. Stephen Barnard
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    The last paragraphs are spot on. I wonder who will get it.

  35. Steve Pollard
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    A truly devastating review. Many congratulations. It will be interesting to see how Wolfe responds: either he will have to admit that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he will dig himself into an even deeper hole.

    Hat-tip also to the Post for commissioning PCC(E)’s review. They must have known it would be critical, but also been confident that it would be solidly based. Sometimes the media are all too happy to publish reviews that they know will be hostile without enquiring too much into the credibility of the reviewer. For instance, the late lamented Independent got the food biologist Colin Tudge to review ‘The Magic of Reality’, knowing of his animus against Dawkins, with the outcome being an ignorant and insulting rant. Nice to see that journalistic standards are still occasionally being upheld!

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure they knew I’d be critical. Sometimes they just assign reviewers based on their expertise. In fact, they didn’t say a word to me about the quality of the book or what kind of review they expected. That’s what a good newspaper does.

  36. Posted September 1, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Great review.

    Biological evolution is a necessary consequence of genetics and differential recombinant survival. Does Wolf also reject genetics? If not, then he also believes in biological evolution, possibly without realising it.


  37. George
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Good news for Jerry. He may get his second censor award from the Discotute. They resent his attacks on Wolfe:

    I have been reading the comments on the WaPo site. Some are good. But there seems to be a group of people who regularly kibbits in comment sections.

  38. David Fuqua
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Well done! As always clearly stated and well reasoned. Why would Wolfe take on Darwin and his on-going legacy with no evidence?

  39. Pliny the in Between
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Well my guiding star for critical evisceration is “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Twain, but this is pretty damn great.

    • Robert Seidel
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      You may also like Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder, then. A devastating critique of the classical English Whodunit detective novel:

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        The best critical review of all is Peter Medawar’s scathing and hilarious takedown of Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man”. It’s on the internet, too:

        • Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          How about Mencken’s review of…(I don’t remember), with the line about the sweating professor? That’s a great line.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 2, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          OMG. That is indeed good.

          Medawar quotes a para of Teilhard’s, of which I’ll just quote the first couple of lines:

          “Reproduction doubles the mother cell. Thus, by a mechanism which is the inverse of chemical disintegration, it multiplies without crumbling. At the same time, however, it transforms what was only intended to be prolonged. Closed in on itself, the living element reaches more or less quickly a state of immobility. It becomes stuck and coagulated in its evolution.” … and so on…

          Now where have I seen that flavour of thing before? Oh yes, in Dawkins’ Postmodernism Disrobed, dredged from Lacan or Derrida or one of those.

          It is possible to discern – with some uncertainty – what Teilhard is trying to say through the fog of verbiage (though reproduction is NOT exactly the inverse of disintegration). I suppose we shouldn’t judge Teilhard by the way he sounds any more than we should judge Tom Wolfe by the way he looks. But the temptation to say “sounds like woo, therefore *is* woo” is very strong. However Peter Medawar has done the spadework and it seems it is, indeed, woo.


  40. Dennis McCarthy
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Great review, you should be proud of it.

  41. Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Superb, Jerry. The Wolfeian prose shift towards the end was a nice twist.

    I have one question, how do you approach a totally unfamiliar academic field? Do you check most cited papers, read randomly across until themes emerge, search for key words and read what comes up, consult intestines of a goat, ask an expert colleague for input? How do you go about it?

  42. dargndorp
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Did I spot a typo? I think there’s a “his” missing in the sentence fragment “…as he spent the rest of [his] career trying to…”

  43. Filippo
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:57 pm | Permalink


  44. Christopher
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    How very sly! It’s funny to think I emailed you about the NPR interview and you were waaaaay ahead of me and everyone else already. Well played and well written. I only hope your review is one of many that take the time to actually step back and realize how foolish Wolfe comes across in this rather sophomoric attempt to blacken the reputation of evolution and Darwin (I’m not very familiar with Chomsky’s work so i can’t comment) and hopefully we’ll see his book sitting forlornly in the bargain bins drastically reduced and completely ignored.

  45. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    I can only echo the kudos of others commenting on your excellent review of Wolfe’s book. You build your argument carefully – every word counts for something and sentences are deployed with precision to demolish his theses; whereas, though I’ve only heard his NPR interview, he flaps on and on, thinking to dazzle and stupefy with his language, but in the end, where’s the substance. I don’t know about the size of his brain, but he’s certainly developed a monstrously swelled head in the metaphoric sense.
    However, though it’s fun for one and all to conjure up choice terms and phrases of opprobrium with which to characterize this sorry business, and delectable characterizations abound in all the unfavorable reviews I’ve read; the most damning and perspicuous observation of all, I think, is the last clause of the last sentence of your review: “…Wolfe has forgotten how to think” – since language, to him, is no more than a mnemonic device, he’s been hoisted with his own petard.
    I don’t know if I’ll read the book (maybe check it out of the library and page through it). Far better to return to Isaac Disraeli, my favorite English prose stylist, hands down. He’d have a lot to say about a writer such as Wolfe and he’d do it with such exquisitely delicate but lethal turns of phrase that Wolfe would return begging for more. For instance,

    A list of some of the linguistics books and articles consulted would be nice to have.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      I hadn’t heard of those impostures Disraeli writes about. Quite amusing – and sad. I imagine there is far more fraudulent writing out there than we would think. The bible might be one important case.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted September 2, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        I agree — the bible and all those monumental myths advanced as Fact should take pride of place on any such list.

        I think that Tom Wolfe in publishing a ‘non-fiction’ book based on questionable theories and misrepresented information is guilty of imposture, and for all his flash and felicity with language, and despite being indelibly documented all over the Internet, will be written about by some future Disraeli in a similar manner.

        “Curiosities of Literature” is a rich and fascinating potpourri of elegant writing, full of frequently bizarre, information and full of people who were famous, some infamous, in their times but now scarcely a trace of them remains, if that – which is by no means to dismiss the seriousness and value of the pieces. Many of the essays are brief, and few are much longer than “Literary Impostures.” One of its cardinal virtues is that a person can dip into it at random. Not all he writes about are literary folk. I’ve done Internet searches and can’t find anything at all about many of them, yet I’m absolutely confident that Disraeli isn’t putting forth his own imposture. It just goes to show the truth of the maxim, sic transit gloria mundi.

        Here’s a very brief ludicrous and tragic entry I just found, but it’s also, dare I say, food for reflection. If you have an interest in this sort of writing, just click on the heading, “Curiosities…”; it’ll take you to the main page and to a complete list of the Spamula archives.

        I see the canard that “Wallace beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection” repeated as bald fact in the current issue of the monthly newsletter of Books Inc, “the West’s oldest independet bookseller.” Wonder if he’ll be invited to appear at one of their august featured readings, broadcast over our local pub. radio station, co-sponsored by a prestigious local “arts and lectures.” institution. And I expect longer interviews than the one with Scott Simon; if so, I bet that in nary a one will he be put to the test.

        • rickflick
          Posted September 2, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the fascinating info.
          Any invitation to interview with a potential skeptic will no doubt be rejected. He’s just looking to cushion his retirement without doing too much damage to his wobbly reputation.

  46. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Nice article! The guy sells provocation and it appears it he sells well. Probably a kind of entertainment for various categories of people that don’t care much about accuracy of information but only for the “relaxation” they can offer controversy fantasies against famous people or ideas. The miracles of the big US (and English language) market! There is an adequately sized audience almost for anything.

    I never heard of this guy before but I learned that a good movie from early 80s was based in one of his books.

  47. Posted September 2, 2016 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    As a linguist, I just wanted to say “kudos” — both for doing as much research as you obviously did, and really hitting the nail on the head!

    It’s a fantastic review, and a relief to have something reliable and accessible that I can point people to if the subject comes up in conversation. There’s no lack of mainstream misrepresentation or misunderstanding of our field, so your writing on this is a real treasure! ^_^

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:21 am | Permalink


      I would like to hear your opinions on Daniel Everett’s work.

      I tried to read his, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, after hearing many people gush over it.

      I could not get through it. I thought is was particularly well written and jumped to conclusions.

      I would value hearing your opinion.


      • Posted September 3, 2016 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        Hi, jblilie!

        I have not read his more popular writings. But, I’ve read some of his academic writing and I had the opportunity to hear him speak after a screening of the film “The Grammar of Happiness” — a 2012 documentary detailing his experiences with the Pirahã people and the fallout from the controversy surrounding his claims. I’m also vaguely aware of how much public attention the whole affair received, and what kind of reaction it elicited from within the world of linguistics.

        I think maybe the most meaningful thing I can say is that I don’t have a terribly strong opinion of him, or of his work. And I think that’s not especially uncommon. In other words: Everett’s work had no real effect on the day-to-day lives of linguists, Chomskyan and non-Chomskyan alike. There’s been no great paradigm shift, from what I can see.

        There was certainly an ugly side to what happened. He seems sincere in his beliefs, but he’s also not been shy about capitalizing on everything that’s gone down. And some vicious things were said and done by those who decided to step up and publicly dispute his claims, too. But this is different from any kind of big, internal shake-up within the field, which did not happen.

        There’s more I could say, but the bottom line might be this:

        (1) It’s not clear his analysis of the Pirahã language is correct in its conclusion that one cannot embed (for example) one clause inside of another; it’s not clear it lacks recursion, in this sense of the word.

        (2) Even if he’s 100% correct, this kind of recursion is crucially different from the sort that Chomsky touts as lying at the core of human language. Essentially, Chomsky supposes that all languages employ the same recursive rule to build up sentences, and this can in turn lead to structures that are recursive in Everett’s sense — but it need not.

        (3) Even if Everett’s claims pertained specifically to Chomsky’s idea of recursion lying at the heart of language, this . . . doesn’t really affect anybody or anything. Not everyone buys into this idea, and even if they did . . . I just don’t think it would have much of an effect on the work people are doing. So, yeah.

        TLDR: The whole thing’s overblown.:-/

  48. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    “You’ll see from the review that the third and fourth paragraphs from the end are written in Wolfe’s own “New Journalism” style. That was just a lark on my part (I hope the readers note the stylistic change there)”

    Actually, I just took that to be (well-merited) sarcasm.

    There was another highly critical review of Wolfe’s opus in The Times, by Oliver Kamm, who also seems to have done his homework.

    But Kamm and you, PCC, were both grossly unfair to Wolfe – you both published a photo of him, though Kamm’s was more outre. How very unkind! Who, looking at that, could fail to think ‘what a pompous dandified poseur’. (And this is the person who derided Chomsky for his tidy air-conditioned office).


  49. Posted September 2, 2016 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Superb stuff! Nice channeling of New Journalism.

    Love the kool-aid drinkers in the comments too.

  50. Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Loved your review, Jerry

  51. Robert Bray
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I have, belatedly, gotten around to reading PCCE’s review of Wolfe’s book on language and evolution. My congratulations on a clear and convincing demolition. Nothing further need be written about this hapless volume.

    But I did hang around the WP site for a time to read some of the comments. How appalling! Many of them were, quite simply, incomprehensible. Others, uncivil. Still others rudely ignorant of what PCCE had written. Because I do not follow any website besides WEIT, I’m not used to either the tone or the foolishness of what was there.

    Makes me appreciate the blessing of WEIT anew.

  52. jwthomas
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Jerry’s essay has now gone viral since every arts & lit type who makes Arts and Letters Daily their first online stop in the morning has seen its prominent link to the review.

  53. W.Benson
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Seems Wolfe has bitten off more than he can chew. Good work Jerry.

  54. Michael G
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Maybe your review wasn’t the place to complicate things, but in linguistics, isn’t generative grammar pretty controversial (even without the Pirahã sideshow)? I’m thinking of construction grammar, cognitive and functional stuff, etc. Or do all of these play nice?

  55. P Vaishnavi
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    A terrific review. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Please keep up the good work.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] in Wolfe’s patent quotables. For details, see Jerry Coyne’s Washington Post review (and his accompanying blog post at Why Evolution is True) and Charles Mann’s review at the Wall Street […]

  2. […] and seems to have ignored any scientific studies on evolution. The responses to the book from reviewers, NPR listeners, and evolutionary scientists and educators have ranged from dubious to […]

  3. […] and seems to have ignored any scientific studies on evolution. The responses to the book from reviewers, NPR listeners, and evolutionary scientists and educators have ranged from dubious to […]

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