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.