NPR’s Barbara King dismisses Tom Wolfe’s knowledge of evolution, but still recommends reading his new book

Barbara King, a retired anthropology professor at William and Mary (my alma mater), has a regular column at National Public Radio’s (NPR’s), Cosmos & Culture site.  The column this week, “Evolution uproar: What to do when a famous author dismisses Darwin, ” is devoted to Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom Of Speech, which I reviewed for the Washington Post. And while Wolfe’s book is devoted to taking down two people who saw some biologically hardwired basis for human language—Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky—King talks only about Darwin.

I can’t really grasp the point of King’s column, except to say that Wolfe’s book is deeply misguided about Darwin, and that Wolfe doesn’t have the chops to even begin attacking evolutionary biology. Several reviewers, including me, agreed, and feel that Wolfe’s book really isn’t worth reading.

But King disagrees with that, and point of her piece, if there is one, seems to be this: we should really, really read Wolfe’s book. I quote from King’s column:

The Kingdom of Speech has been out for 10 days. Many scientists I’m linked to through social media are suggesting it’s a waste of time to read it.

On the contrary, I believe we should read Wolfe’s book — and not only because it’s a slim little thing at 170 pages, easily consumed in a day.

An essay from 2005, “Always Go to the Funeral,” went viral for its poignant appeal for us to always honor someone else’s loss by making time in our busy schedules to go a memorial service. My parallel dictum would be “Always Read the Book.” Making the effort to read ideas that may diverge significantly from our own is a greater good — though doing so leaves us free to respond critically to the material in a way that I hope no one would do about the deceased at a funeral!

My “always read the book” mantra gains urgency because Wolfe flatly denies evolution. It’s not that he’s religious — he’s an atheist. He just, as he told CBS This Morning, considers evolution “a myth.” When people or projects distort or dismiss evolution, the bedrock understanding we have of life on Earth, we need to listen in a big way — and push back, as I wrote earlier this summer in “There’s No Controversy: Let’s Stop Failing Our Children On Evolution.”

It’s devastatingly easy to undermine Wolfe’s breezy dismissive statements — both about Darwin and about the great gulf that divides humans from other animals.

King then mentions Darwin’s Beagle voyage and the discovery and tool-using in chimps as forms of evidence for evolution, but she’s not more specific than that.

More important for her own argument, fails to make a case for why it’s important for us to read The Kingdom of Speech. And yet she’s insistent that we do. Why? There are far more comprehensive attempts to attack Darwin, and most people interested in the evolution vs. creationism controversy will have read them (Wolfe, for example, barely mentions intelligent design.) If you want to read more detailed critiques of modern evolution by creationists, pick up any of the Intelligent Design books of the last decade or so. You’ll find much more there to argue with than you will in Wolfe’s slim volume.

King then dismisses several lame reviews of Wolfe’s book, including the two in the New York Times (I agree), and gives me a shout-out, which I appreciate (though there’s a huge gaffe in the excerpt below—can you spot it?). But why on earth should we “certainly read Wolfe”? Reading Darwin (along with Behe or Wells, if you must) will suffice. Or, better yet, WEIT, which brings Darwin’s evidence up to date. But there’s nothing for the interested layperson to gain by perusing Wolfe’s cursory and misguided (though pretty well written) attacks on evolution.


So while King does call attention to the controversy, which NPR was loath to do, she doesn’t say why we need to read Wolfe’s take on Darwin. Maybe I’m missing something here, so have a look at her short column and weigh in below.


  1. Posted September 9, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    It’s not a blog; it’s a website!

  2. John Harshman
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I believe she thinks you should read it because 1) it’s likely to be popular and thus a higher priority for correction than a more obscure work and 2) you can criticize it on a more secure footing if you have read it.

    Blog, shmog.

  3. Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    … she doesn’t say why we need to read Wolfe’s take on Darwin.

    It’s common for anyone who has just done something to recommend that others do it. Why? Dunno. Maybe it’s for affirmation that they haven’t wasted their time or done the wrong thing by doing it, so they want other people to do it also. I suspect there’s little more to King’s recommendation than that.

  4. JohnH
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    “Making the effort to read ideas that may diverge significantly from our own is a greater good” Divergent and thoughtful ideas may be good to read, but does this also apply to reading “gross distortions” of facts? If so, maybe we ought to subscribe to the National Enquirer? I don’t think so.

  5. GodlessMarkets
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Her mantra:, “always read the book”, is nonsense. We only have so much time to read and would do wise to allocate that time carefully…if I didnt want to break da roolz I’d recommend one of mine …

  6. Sastra
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink


    I think King’s argument makes sense if we assume that she’s talking to people with a solid, clear understanding of evolution. We ought to read the ‘best’ of the challenges to established views like evolution (look, it’s a low bar, ok) in order to understand the other side — and check to see if there’s a bit of a point somewhere in there.

    BUT … even the usual audience for NPR can’t be assumed to have that sort of background in basic biology. Some of the most educated, intelligent, otherwise sophisticated people get their quantum physics from Deepak Chopra, for crying out loud. Her recommendation, then, is more likely to do harm than good, I think.

    • peepuk
      Posted September 10, 2016 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      “We ought to read the ‘best’ of the challenges to established views to understand the other side”

      Even if he tried, he couldn’t write a book to challenge Darwin and Chomsky: Tom Wolfe is a journalist from the “New Journalism literary movement”; they are writers of fiction, not science.

      Wolfe is like the “creative writing professor” Reza Aslan; at best you learn how to mislead and distort.

      So why bother?

      • Sastra
        Posted September 10, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        But misleading and distorting are respected tactics in apologetics — under different names of cour

  7. Historian
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    It seems that King says we should read Wolfe so that we know what the opposition is saying and thereby be better able to rebut it. Would her logic extend to recommending that atheists read every work of theology? Fortunately, Professor Coyne did not much of that work for us in FvF.

  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with her that we should read opinions different from our own, and the short length of Wolfe’s book makes it easier in this case. However, imo there are limits.

    My reasons for not reading his book are several:
    1. Reading creationists adds absolutely nothing to any argument.
    2. I’m no scientist but when one whose opinion I trust (Jerry), and who is an acknowledged expert in the field, disses an argument with reasons that make sense as far as my knowledge takes me, it makes sense to ignore the argument.
    3. There’s a limit to how much I can read. I don’t have the time to read all the books I want to read so why waste time on one I don’t.
    4. I can’t afford to buy all the books I want, and I’m not wasting money on a book a reliable source has told me isn’t worth it. (There’s not a lot available in a library in a town of <4,000.)

    Given time, I bet I could come up with several more reasons.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      1. Reading creationists adds absolutely nothing to any argument.

      Sometimes it adds new punctuation errors and spelling mistakes. Nothing useful, certainly.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted September 9, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        Since Wolfe clearly has no ideas worth engaging, there is no point in reading the book. There are plenty of ridiculous ‘ideas’ about – why should Wolfe’s be thought worth attending to over others?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      “3. There’s a limit to how much I can read. I don’t have the time to read all the books I want to read so why waste time on one I don’t.”

      That’s all the reason I need (though if I were deliberately setting out to challenge a book that would create an exception).

      I used to be a compulsive reader – corn flakes packets, instruction manuals, ‘free’ newspapers – until I made a policy decision – if I had spare time to read crap I should refrain and grab a *good* book instead.

      At university an old school friend started urging me to read the Bible. I eventually just avoided him. If the (presumptively) best bits, excerpted at Sunday school, had utterly failed to impress me, there was zero chance any of the rest would.


  9. Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I took her exhortation as a twist on freedom of speech issues on college campuses, likening refusal to read a book as to disinviting a speaker if you disagree with their views. Not sure there is a valid equvalency there.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I think English major types have a view of these things as being interesting because they say something that hasn’t been said yet, but not like a thesis defense…. Sort of an art, but not Pomo…. Like a painting but with ideas, words…

    The attack on major figures is something else though – pot-shot fun?

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I cannot even agree with her – Always go to the funeral comparison, always read the book. What does always going to the funeral have to do with anything and why should we? Always slow down on the freeway when there is an accident and get a good look. Always go to the train wreak or the big fire.

    I’m sorry, just because someone who can write well does not mean you need to read total nonsense without very good reason and she does not have it.

  12. Posted September 9, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    If Wolfe is an atheist but he doesn’t believe in evolution where does he think humans came from? It has to be either natural processes or supernatural ones.

    Is it the big pale guys in Prometheus? If so, where did they come from?

  13. Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I guessed what her gaffe would be even before I read the excerpt.
    As for “Always read the book”, it may have been a justification of “why should I have to suffer this alone” feeling.

  14. Curt Nelson
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “By no means do I always agree with Coyne’s writings but…”

    What is the purpose of that statement? Lacking any specificity, it seems like a cheap jab.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s not how I read that at all. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable statement, to forestall anyone in the Wolfe camp who might accuse her of being a Coyne fanboi. (fangrrl ?)


      • Curt Nelson
        Posted September 10, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I think I was being too negative there.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 11, 2016 at 2:43 am | Permalink

          Thank you, I’m pleased my comment caused you to reconsider yours. Kudos for being ready to reconsider.

          (If that sounds a little patronising I apologise and assure you it wasn’t meant to be, I can’t find a way to phrase it any better)


  15. dargndorp
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Pretty much unrelated to any point King might have been wanting to make – but I find it reassuring to follow a previously admired artist/author/public figure and then realize that they’ve passed their zenith (as Wolfe has certainly demonstrated with his latest work.) There’s less of a feeling of loss that way when they finally stop producing.

    To contrast this, I pine for the wonderful works artists such as Freddy Mercury or Mozart could have given the world if not for their untimely demise. With Wolfe, it’s pretty much a given that now’s the time to say one’s inner good byes.

    • ploubere
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      It is sad to see his capacities so eroded.

      • Michelle Beissel
        Posted September 10, 2016 at 4:46 am | Permalink

        He has lost his inner editor which is the most important aspect of good writing, even more than creativity.

  16. somer
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Its one thing reading an idea I think I will disagree with as a whole but feel may have useful ideas or (if the book deals with mainly scientific material) don’t feel able to judge whether its overall thesis is disproved in other literature until I’ve read it. Its another thing reading something I know in advance from various experts is complete scientific bollocks. Unless I’m a masochist, or want something to send me to sleep before bed (and like wasting money/time to borrow it). King seems to be telling us its a light airy little book – so why read it?

  17. rickflick
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    “Making the effort to read ideas that may diverge significantly from our own is a greater good”

    This sounds appealing. Of course we don’t want to dismiss alternative viewpoints unreasonably. On the other hand, that’s part of what reviewers like King are for. Her own description of the book ought to be enough to either encourage or discourage my wanting to read it without her superfluous urgings to do so.

    • reasonshark
      Posted September 11, 2016 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      “Of course we don’t want to dismiss alternative viewpoints unreasonably.”

      While being bang alongside the idea of dismissing alternative viewpoints reasonably. There’s a reason editors exist, for example.

  18. Cate Plys
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Her gaffe is saying that she doesn’t always agree with Jerry. And calling it a “blog.” So two gaffes.

  19. Posted September 9, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink


  20. Posted September 9, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of books and not reading them, I have gotten rid of all my religious apologists’ books.

    I had a brief period when I read a bunch of them (following my reading of The God Delusion for the first time). Mostly based on taunts and challenges from internets interlocutors.

    I read them. I found them absurdly wanting in anything worth taking seriously.

    I close friend who appears to be a serious theist (would have never guessed it before) pointed me to an online piece by a tenured Philosophy professor somewhere. His argument was: There are good reasons to believe god exists.

    And his argument?

    The Cosmological Argument. (You’ve got to be kidding! Everything that exists has cause. Look! It’s snowing! sotto voce — except God, he requires no cause …. The Universe exists. Hah! God had to have caused the universe! Got you!)

    And Argumentum ad populum: Well, lots of people believe it, must be a good reason for that.

    You’d think a Professor of Philosophy (of all things) would know about basic logical fallacies … I guess not, when addressing general audiences?

    Wow, I really got off the track there didn’t I? Time for a drink!

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      It might be rude to say so, but being taught about logical fallacies *allows one to use them for evil*, too. (I.e., deliberately construct arguments which are bad but sometimes persuasive.) This is just an example of the duality of basic research giving rise to two or more technological possibilities.

      (I’ve never seen any direct evidence that any particular apologist is doing this, but I have to wonder about folks like Plantinga and WLC sometimes.)

  21. Posted September 9, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like the argument for why people like Prof Ceiling Cat (emeritus) should always debate every person who challenges.

  22. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    … William and Mary (my alma mater) …

    That reminds me to ask, were those Bard College alums Becker & Fagen referring to your alma mater with their line from My Old School “William and Mary won’t do”?

    There must be a story behind that story, right?

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    “By no means do I always agree with Coyne’s blog [sic] writings …”

    Maybe Ms. King isn’t a fan of boots and cats and high-caloric repasts?

  24. Craw
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    You’ve misread her tone. “Read the book certainly. Then read …” is a way of saying “Don’t let me stop you — but then get the good stuff.” It’s not a recommendation.

  25. Christopher
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I can appreciate her “read the book” sentiment, but life is too short and I’ve already purchased about 100 or so books more worthy of my time (including Speciation, which I keep saying I’ll get around to…) and I’ve got lists upon lists of other books I want to buy and read, and that’s long before I even consider non-science books like history, anthropology, or philosophy books awaiting my attention, never mind the embarrassingly long list of non-fiction classics that I have yet to dive into (I could spend a fair amount of my years left just wandering around in the worlds of Twain, Melville, Dickens,and Conan-Doyle)! So, yeah, I guess, If you have the time and inclination, “read the book”, but hell, I’m still meandering my way through Letters to a Young Contrarian, Y: The Descent of Men, The Extended Phenotype, and Trilobite! (I’ve probably started a few more that slipped my mind) so,yes, perhaps I should get off the computer and go “read A book”, just not his.

  26. Posted September 9, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether it is mostly to defuse the inevitable cries from the faithful that Wolfe has us running scared, so we defame his credentials and then tell people not to bother to read his book lest they get “the truth”. She is saying: this book has no good arguments against evolution – go see for yourself.

    She can’t literally mean, “always read the book” – there are far too many books out there. I think she really means, “never say, don’t read the book”, as (1) every book may help you grow, and (2) you should only really slag off books/ideas that you have read yourself.

    But of course, whether you actually bother to read the book depends on what other books you have read, and how much time you have, and whether you really care what Wolfe actually wrote etc..

    • somer
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      But in that spirit – why wouldn’t we read salacious magazines, gossip, scurrilous newspapers etc – its still “reading”. In the spirit of going to a funeral we should patronise as many as possible. Just doesnt make sense to me, and I thought the Memorial- going analogy was completely inept.

  27. keith cook +/-
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    “Read Wolfe, certainly. Then go read Darwin’s beautiful insightful and revolutionary words themselves.”
    By all means, but…
    Darwin’s insight are no longer ‘revolutionary’ they are a fact, evolution is true.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 9, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      “Darwin’s insight are no longer ‘revolutionary’ they are a fact, evolution is true.”

      Not to everybody.

      • keith cook +/-
        Posted September 12, 2016 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Granted, but does that make it untrue?

  28. frednotfaith2
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I can sort of understand King’s stance, but on the other hand I already have enough books I haven’t had a chance to read (both purchased and given to me) and based on the reviews I’ve already read about Wolfe’s it’s not one I have any desire to add to my stack.

  29. docbill1351
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Read the book is nonsense. Why have book reviews if that is her attitude.

    Why, for example, should I read anything by Stephen Meyer? To track down his mined quotes? To scoff at his many misrepresentations? There’s no point. Meyer writes junk and I’m not going to waste my time on it.

    As for Wolfe, no. I’ve seen the salient parts of his “thesis” and there’s no point in listening to another ignorant creationist, or whatever he is, jabber on.

    If Wolfe had a substantial argument then sure, but he doesn’t so, no and hell no.

  30. Hempenstein
    Posted September 10, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    My guess is she didn’t buy it – the publisher sent it to her, and she wants them to continue. Otherwise, her mantra would be different.

  31. Diane G.
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Loved the WaPo review, Jerry! Brilliant!

  32. Nim
    Posted September 24, 2016 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Wolfe’s approach to Darwin is ridiculous. However, his book should provoke a greater interest in the debates around language origins – which would be a good thing.

    For example see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    ‘The Chomsky Puzzle, Piecing together a celebrity scientist’ by Tom Bartlett.

    If anyone is interested in a far better critique of Chomsky’s linguistics than Wolfes, they can check this out in the Scientific American:
    ‘Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning’ by Michael Tomasello.

%d bloggers like this: