Well, given the number of comments on my review in the Washington Post of Tom Wolfe’s abysmal new book on Darwin, Chomsky, and the evolutionary basis of language (Wolfe says there is no such basis), I shouldn’t have been surprised that there would be pushback from readers. But what I didn’t expect was that one of the two letters published would be from a creationist. Yes, like a dog returning to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11), intelligent-design creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, whose obsession with me is regularly on parade at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News and Views, couldn’t resist commenting.
Egnor had no beef with my “defense”—such as it was—of Chomsky, but he sure didn’t like my defense of Darwin. The curious thing is that, contrary to Egnor’s claim, I didn’t defend Darwin’s own views on language, which were rudimentary and fanciful, but rather the proposition that there is some genetic basis for the human use of language. I also called out Wolfe for his ignorant claim that there is no evidence for evolution, and that it neither explains any biological puzzles nor makes any predictions.
Egnor, of course, ignores my own comments in favor of casting doubt on the whole evolutionary enterprise on the basis of speculations that Darwin made about language. (By the way, Dr. Egnor, Darwin was right about evolution, natural selection, and common ancestry of all organisms.) Egnor apparently believes that language is a gift of the Unspecified Designer. And, as you might expect, he doesn’t identify himself as an intelligent-design creationist, which of course would cast doubt on his competence. Here’s his letter:
Jerry A. Coyne’s review of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Kingdom of Speech” [“Tom Wolfe should stop posing as an evolutionary biologist,” Outlook, Sept. 4] was a mixed bag. Coyne was right to defend Noam Chomsky from Wolfe’s attacks. Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar and recursion are supported by massive evidence and landmarks in modern linguistics and neuroscience. Chomsky has earned the respect of the scientific community. [JAC: This isn’t true—there is huge controversy about Chomsky’s theories, which I noted in my review.]
Coyne, however, was wrong to defend Charles Darwin from Wolfe’s scathing critique. As Wolfe pointed out, Darwinian stories about the origin of human language are pitifully inadequate. Human language bears no relation to the crude signals and gestures of animals. Nothing in the animal realm is a precursor to universal grammar or to the semantic subtlety of recursion — the layered meaning packed into clauses-within-clauses used routinely by all human beings.
Human language is sui generis. It is a window into the human soul, and it lacks any credible Darwinian roots. Wolfe is to be commended for bringing this fascinating discussion into the public forum.
Michael Egnor, Stony Brook, N.Y.
Go back to my original review and look again at my defense of Darwin.
But this second letter, from the director of an institute in Massachusetts that specializes in treating autistic children, is in some ways more disturbing, because you expect someone who treats autism to be a bit more rational:
Tom Wolfe is to be applauded for his new book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” in which he posits that speech, contrary to Noam Chomsky’s position, did not arise from evolution but rather is a direct human creation. For those teaching children with autism, this truth is evident every day.
A primary diagnosis of autism is lack of speech and social interaction. For this large population, language is neither inherited nor instinctually structured, as Chomsky believes. The key to establishing language for those with autism is teaching functional communication, including alternative methods: sign language, pictures, touch-to-speak technology and mobile apps.
This functional approach is grounded in the science of applied-behavior analysis, proving Chomsky’s structural theory false. For the Chomsky school, nature is weighted over nurture. In our experience, nurture is the path by which those with no speech skills can achieve meaningful communication.
If language were an innate characteristic rather than something that could be acquired, there would be no option for a child who can’t speak. As those who teach children with autism know, this is clearly not the case. Teaching language, regardless of form, is a powerful tool to allow individuals diagnosed with autism to lead richer lives.
Vincent Strully Jr.,
The writer is founder and chief executive of the New England Center for Children.
Here Mr. Strully argues that because you can help autistic children learn to communicate through sign language and other non-speech-related techniques, language cannot have a genetic basis. This fallacy, that cultural intervention can’t change a trait if it has a genetic/evolutionary basis, is as old as modern biology.
Autism causes problems with communication and social interaction, and, as Strully notes, there are environmental interventions that can promote communication. Further, although we don’t understand the precise neural or physiological basis of autism, the condition is not only biologically based, probably representing some neural malfunction, but also has some genetic basis (it’s passed on) as well as some environmental influences, and this complex nexus of genes and environment, as well as difficulties with diagnosis, results in a highly variable condition—the “autism spectrum”.
Deafness, too, which also impedes communication, often has a genetic basis, but deaf people can use (and even invent) sign language without even being taught. But the existence of that language has no bearing on the biological basis of deafness. Maybe Mr. Strully finds that easier to grasp.
But as biologists (and rational folks) have long realized, the fact that a biological “malfunction” (like diabetes) can be cured or ameliorated does not mean that the “normal” condition (language, in the case of autism) is not based on genes and evolution. Strully’s argument—that autistic children learning to communicate shows that language has no basis in “nature” (genetics/evolution)—is equivalent to saying this: the fact that we can correct defective vision with eyeglasses is evidence that the eye did not evolve. Or, as Strully might say:
A primary diagnosis of myopia is an inability to focus the eye properly. For this large population, the eye itself is not inherited. . . In our experience, nurture (wearing glasses) is the path by which those with poor vision can achieve better sight.
Frankly, I’m appalled that Strully fell victim to a fallacy like this.