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.
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!