The best review yet of Tom Wolfe’s book on language

I don’t think my WaPo review of Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech was half bad, but there’s a better one out, which is very long and ergo can cover a lot more ground. It’s at 3:AM Magazine, is by “E. J. Spode” (probably a pseudonym), and, when printed out, is 19 pages long. But it’s very good, written partly in Wolfe’s own imitable style, and covers all the bases—including both evolution and linguistics, as Wolfe’s book was meant to take down both Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Whoever Spode is, that person did their homework, but wears the learning lightly. I won’t quote anything from it except for one point Spode makes at the end. And that is this: the book, though it got some bad press, was largely either praised or given neutral reviews by mainstream publications like The New York Times. Very few reviewers, it seems, actually checked the facts asserted by Chomsky, read Darwin to see if he really was the charlatan Wolfe maintains, or plowed through the complicated papers on Universal Grammar and the language of Brazil’s Pirahā people.  And so they often praised Wolfe’s style, his snark, and so on, neglecting the fact that almost everything he said about Darwin, Chomsky, and linguistics was flat wrong.

This bespeaks not just sloppiness in book reviewing, but a growing anti-intellectualism in American life, whereas the best newspaper in the U.S. was unforgivably remiss in reviewing a widely-read book. This kind of distrust of “elites” like Darwin and Chomsky is, of course, most evident among the followers of Donald Trump.

After quoting some of the reviews, Spode says this:

The Trumpiest undercurrent of it all is the idea that the empirical evidence and logical argumentation is an invention of the elites — designed to bamboozle you into believing what your guts tell you is wrong. And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well. Ignore those pointy-headed intellectuals and listen to your gut my friends, because your gut is telling you the obvious truth that man’s higher faculties did not evolve from the ape and we have the super-duper-primitive people to prove it.

. . . The list is long and depressing here, but we can begin with Barbara King at NPR, who uncritically parrots the nonsense about Pirahã having no color terms or embedded clauses (see Everett’s own counterexample above) and then salutes Everett for “challenging a dominant discourse.”

Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.

As for The Kingdom of Speech and the fine scientific reasoning therein, Dwight Gardner, in the New York Times informs us that Wolfe’s book successfully “tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.” What? Just in case that wasn’t enough Wolfe boosterism, the Times added a second review of Wolfe’s book – this by Caitlin Flanagan – in which we are assured that Wolfe has “shank[ed]” Chomsky “with characteristic wit and savage precision.”

. . . Meanwhile we have those journalists that recognize the Everett/Wolfe stuff is all a bunch of hokum but simply don’t care. Why? Because, in this day and age, it isn’t about finding the truth; it’s about winning the news cycle. This attitude is pristinely reflected in a review of the book in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

“Wolfe is a reporter and an entertainer, an opinionated raconteur rather than a scientist, and that is why we will always report on his jocular provocations. And if they serve as an excuse to explain what universal grammar was in the first place – as it has done – then Chomsky should be thrilled.” [JAC: That is an execrable statement!]

Right. Because what could thrill Chomsky more than to have the media fraudulently misrepresent his theory using a facts-be-damned line of anti-intellectual argumentation that exoticizes another human culture? Chomsky must be “thrilled” about that, because, my God, his whole life he has been complaining that the media is too serious and too concerned with getting the facts right, when it should be, you know, writing about the Kardashians and otherwise using misinformation to bring eyeballs to advertisers. THRILLED I tell you!

And, finally, this:

I’m not worried about Chomsky, however, no more than I’m worried about Darwin’s position in future histories of science. Chomsky’s position too will be just fine. I do worry about how we will look in those histories, however. Because from where I sit the rampant anti-intellectual responses and the failures to distinguish nonsense from solid science in the attacks on Chomsky’s work look more like harbingers of a new dark age, one that rejects thoughtful scientific probes into human nature and levels charges of a new kind of apostasy– the apostasy of using one’s mind instead of gut instinct. And I suspect that, from the perspective of future intellectual historians, Chomsky’s ability to produce this last great piece of work against the backdrop of our new dark age will make his achievements seem all the more impressive.


  1. Dominic
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I think we know which Mr T. Wolfe Professor Ceiling Cat prefers.

    ‘Spode’ is sadly spot on here – we are in an age when learning is being rubbished. It isn’t as if facts & knowledge ever BUILT THE MODERN WORLD – it did? oh… well there you go…

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “… the idea that the empirical evidence and logical argumentation is an invention of the elites — designed to bamboozle you into believing what your guts tell you is wrong. And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well.”

    This is the rightwing equivalent of post-modernism (and is, in its essence, a throwback to pre-modernism).

    The rightwing equivalent of political correctness makes it verboten to breathe a word in favor of women’s reproductive rights or climate change — and requires that the answer to any inquiry regarding evolution begin with “I’m not a scientist” and end with a call for local control over school curricula.

  3. TPO
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Stephen Colbert had the last word on Truth from the Gut….

    Hopefully, the Comedy Central link will work better for you — it requires Flash. It’s with it, I promise.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I see how that might be Glen Beck’s view, clearly. Not the truth maybe but gut-wrenching

  4. Posted October 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well.

    Its interesting that these fads will be hit upon by several people independently. While Wolfe was working on his book, Doug Axe was working on Undenianble, the jist of which is that people should listen to their intuition that living things are designed and ignore the scientists who are out of touch with their feelings.

  5. Alpha Neil
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”
    ― Thomas Paine

  6. Zado
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Tom Wolfe: yet another person proving that intellectuals can hate evolutionary thinking just as much as religious yokels.

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      What accomplishment of Wolfe would lead anyone to regard him as an intellectual?

  7. ethologist
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like Steven Pinker. VERY enjoyable.

  8. Martin Levin
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    So glad you found, and posted, this review. It needs to be widely disseminated, though I guess it’s preaching to one’s own parish. I read the whole thing and despite twitching a it at Spode’s occasional misuse of personal pronouns, thought it one of the best takedowns I’ve seen. Prof. Coyne’s was also prime, but several were careless and rubbishy. By the way, I’m thinking the pseudonym is a backhanded tribute to Roderick Spode, an Oswald Mosleyish character who appears in several of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels and stories.

    • Martin Levin
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I meant, of course, “twitching a bit.” Should be careful of one’s own nest before smearing others, however gently.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      The Spode character in Wodehouse appears alongside the Rev. Pinker in at least one story…

      • Posted October 3, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        The pseudonym could be a combination of Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode of the infamous Black Shorts (“Heil Spode!”) and Private Eye’s poet-in-residence, E. J. Thribb…

        • bric
          Posted October 4, 2016 at 3:11 am | Permalink

          For those unfamiliar with the oeuvre of the threnodist Thribb (who has claimed to be 17 1/2 for over 40 years now) here is a fine example of his non-elitist work:

          In Memoriam Tiny Tim

          So. Farewell then
          Tiny Tim

          Once you sang “Tiptoe through
          The tulips”. Now you’re
          Pushing up the

  9. Kevin
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Very thankful for this post. It is extremely important that information like this continue to be broadcast to as many people as possible.

    There is a disease in our society, our universities, our press, and purported intellectual reviewers. Let Spode be a champion for more champions to place facts above ‘gut instincts’.

  10. Gareth
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Full article is a great read, for those who haven’t done so already.

    • W.Benson
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink


  11. Merilee
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink


  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    So, as it turned out, it was not so much the generative linguists who had it in for Wolfe so much as the field linguists and the cultural anthropologists.

    Would make more sense if it read “Everett” in place of Wolfe. No one had it in for Wolfe on that topic in 2009 because he had not yet written his book.

  13. loren russell
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Nice takedown.

    I found a link to the Spode review at PZMeyers site as well — drawn there by PZs entry about Ohsuma’s Nobel for autophagy.

    Amazingly PZ seems to have taken a chill pill lately. Lots of recent postings on science and skepticism and a new “Happy Atheist” sobriquet.

    Hope his mood persists.

  14. Posted October 3, 2016 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    3AM magazine is an excellent website in general. Nice find here, especially.

  15. phoffman56
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Jerry’s quotes are the best, but I also liked the short gut-wrenching paragraph:

    “As I said, this anti-intellectualism is a cultural tragedy, but there are layers of tragedy and the top layer (or bottom, I guess) is that our alleged liberal media, which rightly recoils in horror at Trump’s nonsense, cannot contain their squeals of delight when Everett and Wolfe hand them a similarly constructed shit sandwich. They eat it up.”

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    You don’t suppose Steven Pinker spends his spare time writing book reviews under the pseudonym EJ Spode, do you?

    The irony of ironies here is that the “Spode” critique of Wolfe’s book resembles nothing so much as the critique that the Pinkeresque neuroscientist/college professor character in Wolfe’s third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, gave to the freshman paper refuting Darwinism submitted by the novel’s preternaturally bright, but as-yet uninformed, title character.

    Spode’s review is written with such brio and biting wit, and its faux Wolfe bits are so deftly done, that I half-suspect that the whole megillah — The Kingdom of Speech book itself and this review of it — were written by Wolfe himself as an elaborate prank on the literary establishment. Or I would, anyway, if this review had been published not in 3AM Magazine, but in one of the New York-based slicks that still turns out a few copies of each issue on glossy paper.

    • Erp
      Posted October 3, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Unlikely Wolfe pretending to be Spode, Spode managed to misspell ‘Wedgwood’ and Wolfe didn’t (Wedgwoods made pottery, Wedgewoods made stoves). (Spode btw is also a Staffordshire potter.)

  17. James Walker
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I’m not going to defend (or even bother reading) Wolfe’s book but in fairness we should consider Dan Everett’s take on the reaction to his work:

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Fair enough, and worth looking at. But his references to his critics seem quite vague. In particular no reference whatsoever to Spode, the nom-de-plume of the critic author discussed here. And his article is dated today.

      One cannot help to be suspicious about any empirical claims he makes, given the content of Spode’s criticism.

      I’m not interested that he plays guitar with one of Chomsky’s co-authors, nor any insults he may have traded with Chomsky.

      • Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Can you pay attention to the author’s substantive criticisms, though? I’ve read a lot of the literature he cites (including Darwin, of course), and Spode is accurate in every assertion whose verity I could check.

        • phoffman56
          Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          I apologize for my overuse of pronouns, rather than proper names, seeming to result in a complete misunderstanding of what I was trying to, but failed to, say. So here is the same reply to Mr. Walker except that the pronouns have been replaced by explicit persons’ names:

          ‘Fair enough, and worth looking at. But Everett’s references to Everett’s critics seem quite vague. In particular no reference whatsoever to Spode, the nom-de-plume of the critic author discussed here. And Everett’s article is dated today.

          One cannot help to be suspicious about any empirical claims Everett makes, given the content of Spode’s criticism.

          I’m not interested that Everett plays guitar with one of Chomsky’s co-authors, nor any insults Everett may have traded with Chomsky.’

          I imagine this will clear up any confusion I apparently caused. Otherwise, Dr. Coyne’s apparent dislike of what I said is utterly confusing to me.

        • Joshua Sayre
          Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Spode keeps conflating Wolfe, who deserves every criticism, with Everett, who doesn’t, at least not obviously. See here for example, Everett with comments from Pinker:

          Everett could be wrong about how to characterize the Piraha of course, but he’s not unreasonable and he makes a number of salient points. Moreover he calls for additional empirical research to resolve the disputes. At least in the interview I linked, he never says the Piraha have no tools, or no conception of past or future, etc. Everett absolutely says that the Piraha have concepts that involve recursion, past and future (obviously), etc. His point is that the grammar, in his interpretation, does not. (And he correctly points out that he is the actual expert on this language compared to some of his critics.) One has to understand the distinction between his views and Chomsky’s.

          Chomsky says (or said) that there was a universal grammar, i.e. an ingrained structure of all human language with various differential options that show up in specific languages. Supposedly, recursion was one of the very general features of languages, as I understand it. Everett’s view is that the brain is structured to solve problems and form concepts, but that it doesn’t have a predetermined Chomskyan language form. Language is, to him, an outworking of more general brain functions. Thus, the claim that humans can learn a recursive language, as Spode has it, is not a refutation of Everett’s point. Everett fairly points out that if Chomsky is not claiming any universal features of language then he’s blowing smoke. The Universal Grammar just becomes a poor name for “whatever it is that lets humans learn human language”, but no one disputes that humans in general can learn language and one is left wondering what Chomsky’s contribution is supposed to be. Presumably, there is more to be said for UG and it may even be that Chomsky’s modern position is not so different from Everett’s. My point is that Everett is not ignorant, foolish, or a transparent fraud and thus not a “bunch of hokum” to be lumped in with Wolfe by Spode.

  18. christinab4
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I am not attempting to defend Wolfe’s book here. It contains many errors of fact. But I am amazed by how easily people jump to conclusions of anti-intellectualism and worse when criticism of Chomsky is involved. IMHO it is very questionable that E.J. Spode has done her/his homework on the value of Chomsky’s recent [and not so recent] work. Otherwise he’d knew just how problematic that work is.
    Here is my question for contributors to this blog [and to E.J. Spode in case s/he reads it]: You seem outraged by inaccuracies in Wolfe’s book even though [1] Wolfe is no linguist [and never claims otherwise] and [2] his book is aimed at the lay reader who knows little about technical linguistics. So if you are so angered by him getting stuff wrong where was your outrage about Chomsky/McGilvray making a mockery of linguistics in their 2014 work titled ‘The SCIENCE of Language’ [for a review go to:

    • Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Please give me a break. I didn’t defend everything Chomsky ever did; I called out Wolfe for misrepresenting what he DID say about Chomsky’s work. Your claim that we have to go after everything Chomsky did that wasn’t mentioned by Wolfe is seriously misguided.

    • eric
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      You seem outraged by inaccuracies in Wolfe’s book even though [1] Wolfe is no linguist [and never claims otherwise] and [2] his book is aimed at the lay reader who knows little about technical linguistics.

      That makes it worse, not better. You should be more careful when you’re describing a subject you don’t know well to laypeople, not less careful.

      If Jerry wants to describe evolution in a journal article “without doing his homework”, his odds of making a mistake are pretty low (because of his expertise). Moreover, if he does get something wrong, the impact is relatively low because his audience (other experts) will be able to correct him and understand whether the slip was important or trivial to his point. In contrast, when Wolfe describes evolution without doing his homework, he is very apt to get something wrong. And because his audience is laypeople, they are much more apt to just accept his error as true.

      Thus, “doing the homework” is much more necessary for someone like Wolfe describing a subject he doesn’t know, than it is for an expert describing a subject he or she does know. And when Wolfe chooses not to do it, our criticism should be much harsher.

      • christinab4
        Posted October 5, 2016 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        I actually agree that one ought to be more careful when addressing the general public. And that is exactly why I am so surprised that the outrage about Wolfe’s inaccuracies [which is justified] is not met by a proportionally much greater outrage about the inaccuracies in the works of Chomsky [who, unlike Wolfe, is an expert on linguistics!] that are aimed at the general audience. If one dares to complain about those one is told Chomsky is making ‘off the cuff remarks’ and OBVIOUSLY everyone knows what he means …

        • Posted October 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

          Just so you know we exist, ^_^ I’m a linguist who both acknowledges Chomsky’s contributions to the field while also glaring suspiciously at the content of works like The Science of Language (BTW: thanks for pointing out that review; I hadn’t seen it). I do wish more of us would come out and openly address Chomsky’s more peculiar views about evolution and language (i.e., focus on ideas rather than people).

          I will say, though, that a common sentiment in more mainstream and lay discussions of his work tends towards just how wrong he got everything (see the preponderance of uncritical reviews for Wolfe’s book). In that context, I find it refreshing to see the occasional defence.

  19. Posted October 4, 2016 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Don’t be so modest; I thought your review was wonderful! ^_^

  20. Merilee
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Two scathing letters in the October Harper’s criticizing an essay, “The Origins of Speech”, which Wolfe apparently wrote for the August issue. (I’m travelling and don’t have the earlier issue with me. )

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