Think of the poor schmucks who work at the Discovery Institute (DI). Having completely failed to get Intelligent Design taught in schools, or ever moderately accepted in the scientific community—and they predicted such acceptance would have happened by now—they are reduced to carping about evolutionists like me, making ad hominem arguments, and touting those scholars—like Jerry Fodor and Tom Nagel—who have jumped the shark by claiming that evolutionary theory is fatally flawed. The IDer’s main gambit, which has always been the strategy of Intelligent Design, is to point out that evolution can’t explain everything, and that therefore an Intelligent Designer (read “Jesus and God’) did it.
While they differ on how much real Darwinian evolution really occurred (Michael Behe, for instance, says he has no problem with “common ancestry”), and whether the Earth is old or young, the IDers are united in spending their time attacking evolutionists on nonscientific grounds as well as emphasizing the things that evolution hasn’t yet explained, all while ignoring the great sea of evidence for evolution around them.
And so, when Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech came out, the IDers were elated. For the premise of Wolfe’s book is twofold. First, evolution is a non-starter (as Wolfe said, ““Darwin offered nothing at all.”), although Wolfe was cagey about admitting whether he believed that any part of evolution was true. Second, Wolfe, like his hero Alfred Russel Wallace, promoted human exceptionalism: that human biology, and speech in particular, has no possible evolutionary explanation, and that therefore some other explanation must hold for both the origin of speech and the large human brain. Wolfe spent much of the book attacking Noam Chomsky for asserting that the structure of human speech (“universal grammar”) has anything to do with evolution.
I reviewed the book for the Washington Post, and showed that Wolfe was way out of his depth, completely ignorant of both linguistics and evolutionary biology, as well as of the evidence that natural selection is at partly involved in the origin and elaboration of human speech.
Now there’s a new review of Wolfe’s book, one on the Jewish-oriented site Commentary. The review, “We’re only human” is by Andrew Ferguson described by Commentary as “formerly our Press Man columnist, [Ferguson is] senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.” He’s also a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. The review is extremely laudatory, praising Wolfe’s book for its attack on materialism, its emphasis on human exceptionalism, and for breaking the stereotype (what stereotype?) that scientists have a monopoly on describing science in the popular press—a trend that Ferguson thinks is invidious and self-serving. Ferguson’s book also goes after yours truly, but let’s ignore that for the nonce. Let’s just say that the review, by tacitly promoting creationism, human evolutionary exceptionalism, and by dissing the canard “scientism”, should be an embarrassment to Commentary. It’s especially galling to me, as one of Jewish ancestry, that a Jewish site is so credulous.
Over at the ID creationist site Evolution News & Views (who will love this attention), an anonymous writer for the DI calls attention to Ferguson’s book and uses the excuse to criticize my negative view of it. Why? Because I like cats and cowboy boots!. And apparently wear Birkenstocks, a bogus accusation leveled by Ferguson.
EN&V’s quote of Ferguson:
The reviewer was Jerry Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago and a volunteer border cop who patrols the perimeter where science and popular culture meet, making sure that scientists are accorded the proper deference. The Kingdom of Speech is deeply transgressive in this way. Wolfe makes sport of scientific pretensions generally and neo-Darwinian pretensions specifically, and Coyne, a neo-Darwinist to the soles of his Birkenstocks, isn’t going to let a mere journalist, or even a Grand Old Man of Letters, get away with it.
And their own criticism:
Fact-check: Coyne wears specially custom-handmade cowboy boots, not Birkenstocks. He must own closets full. We know because he spends a great deal of space on his evolution blog detailing this with accompanying photos of the boots both under construction and on his feet. Only imagined dialogues between a cat and a dog receive more attention. Even Wolfe would have a hard time spoofing Coyne. Otherwise this is spot-on.
When the IDiots go after stuff like this, it’s clear that they have nothing. The resort to this kind of criticism (and, after all, don’t IDers have hobbies?) instead of substantive criticism of what I said, is telling. After all, I don’t go after Wolfe in my review in that way, except to mention briefly his famous white suits.
But on to Ferguson. Here’s a precis of his main points, with quotes indented.
Scientists are wedded to fundamentalist materialism, and we do that because that gives us a good living. But it blinkers us from seeing “other ways of knowing”.
You don’t hear much about Wallace anymore, and you hear even less about Muller, while their contemporary Darwin became, of course, one of the most famous men who ever lived. Human exceptionalism has a lot to do with their relative reputations. Wallace embraced it and so did Muller; indeed, they thought it was self-evident. Darwin didn’t. And most scientists, especially fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, have inherited Darwin’s materialism as dogma. It’s a good deal for scientists. After all, if everything we consider uniquely human is a consequence of purely materialistic processes, then the guys who study materialistic processes for a living hold the key to every human question. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Right away this shows Ferguson’s ignorance of science. We don’t inherit materialism—I prefer the word “naturalism”—as dogma; rather, it is the only strategy that has worked. Here, for instance, are Sean Carroll’s three tenets of naturalism taken from his recent book The Big Picture:
- There is only one world: the natural world.
- The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature
- The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.
These principles developed by a process of trial and error over centuries. As I’ve emphasized for years, there were times when naturalism wasn’t all-encompassing in science, and when supernatural process were invoked. Before Darwin, God’s hand was the only credible explanation for the “design-like” features of plants and animals. But that didn’t work, and was displaced by natural selection. Newton couldn’t explain why planetary orbits were stable, and thus invoked the hand of God interceding by pushing the planets around. Now we know that we needn’t do that; we have no need of the God hypothesis to explain stable orbits. If there were any evidence of supernatural or preternatural influences in science, like the efficacy of intercessory prayer (tested and rejected), or the ability of humans to practice telekinesis or remote viewing, scientists would be studying those phenomena. But we aren’t because there’s no credible evidence. Once again, naturalism (“materialism”) is the only route that has ever given us reliable evidence about the world, and about human biology.
Evolutionary biology hasn’t explained speech, and therefore there must be Some Other Explanation. This, of course, is a God of the Gaps argument. (Ferguson doesn’t mention God, but it’s clear where he’s going.)
There’s a problem, though. Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be. The scientists keep trying, of course, as scientists should.
But should we keep trying if the explanation be supernaturalistic? If materialism isn’t the solution, then why bother?
One thing that neither the DI nor Ferguson deals with is the pervasive evidence for human physical evolution as seen in the fossil record. You may say that part of human biology, like consciousness or speech, could not have arisen by natural selection, but you can’t deny that the evidence shows that the human body, including our big brain, evolved gradually over time. If God was doing that, he made it look remarkably like evolution! And we have evidence for the evolution of speech capacity as well, evidence that I give in my review. A good refutation of Ferguson’s GOTG argument was in fact given by a commenter on my WaPo review:
Wolfe was attacked by scientists because he is an “outsider” who dares criticize our field. That is, we had to attack him because he wasn’t a scientist. The first quote above, about the Birkenstocks (which I’ve never worn and dislike, as I find them ugly), shows this, as well as the following one:
Those earlier books [The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House] provoked outrage from the specialists, and The Kingdom of Speech has inspired the same reaction from the same quarters. Coyne is not the only scientist who rushed to the blogs and manned the message boards to post dozens of objections to the book and its argument. Wolfe is simply in over his head, they say. A recurring charge is that he never takes care to define his terms—using, for example, the words “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which a specialist would never do.
. . . Clearing the popularizers from the field, as many specialists would like to do, would cede all scientific argument to scientists, who in many notable cases have not earned the deference they demand. The danger is doubled when scientists use science to draw metaphysical lessons—when, that is, they assert that human beings and primates are in essence the same kind of creature. A flurry of data and polysyllabic detail shouldn’t obscure the fact that such a thesis defies human experience and devalues the noblest human endeavors (including science, by the way).
I don’t know where to begin on this one. First of all, we don’t want to clear popularizers from the field. Who would want to dispose of Carl Zimmer’s great scientific reportage, or David Quammen’s wonderful books, or Jonathan Weiner, or David Attenborough, or James Gleick, or. . . . the list is long. Yes, some scientists have also been popularizers, like Jared Diamond, Steve Gould, and Richard Dawkins, but in fact many of them have been criticized by other scientists for popularizing instead of doing science!
On this issue Ferguson is just wrong. Why I and others criticized Wolfe was that he was simply wrong about many issues—issues in both linguistics and evolution. If you read the bit on evolution, and know anything about it, you’ll see that Wolfe simply didn’t do his homework, and it showed. It is the non-scientist reviewers who didn’t catch these errors, and that’s one reason why the press should get scientists who can write to review works of popular science.
Wolfe had to “skirt complicated niceties” as he was writing as a journalist and entertainer.
As a journalist and entertainer, Wolfe has an obligation to avoid the tedium that makes scientific publications interesting to scientists and nobody else. That obligation doesn’t relieve him of the obligation to be accurate; the two demands live side by side. But it does require him to shun pedantry, to keep his readers away from thickets of technical arguments and counterarguments that will leave them half-dead. The trick for the popularizer is to write both generally and vividly, skirting complicating niceties here and there, while never failing to steer the reader toward the truth.
Sadly, Wolfe wasn’t accurate about nearly anything, as you can see from my review. In fact, the “complicating niceties” are crucial in evaluating his book. Is there a naturalistic explanation for the increase in human brain size, giving us a capacity to do more than could ever have been subject to direct selection in our ancestors? Was Daniel Everett’s claim that the Pirahã language didn’t show recursion accurate? Is there really no evidence for an evolutionary component of human speech? In Wolfe’s book, the devil is in the complicating niceties, for they completely overturn his thesis.
If you doubt the worthlessness of Wolfe’s book, and know something about evolution or linguistics, by all means read it. That is, if you can do so without buying the book.