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In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe Tells the Story of Evolution’s Epic Tumble

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Darwinian evolution explains biological trivia — variable finch beaks and the like — but stumbles when it comes to the major innovations in the long history of life. No innovation could be more revolutionary than how homo sapiens, as Discovery Institute biologist Michael Denton puts it, “slipped suddenly into being on the rich, game-laden African grasslands of the late Pleistocene.”

The Kingdom of Speech.jpgThe most distinctive thing about man is of course his gift for language. On that, the great Tom Wolfe masterfully explains in a new book out today, Darwinism takes an epic tumble. Evolution cannot explain the very thing that preeminently makes us human. “To say that animals evolved into man,” writes Wolfe on the last page of The Kingdom of Speech, “is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

The analogy is heavy with significance. An artist shapes his medium as an act of deliberate design. Wolfe, one of the most treasured writers alive today, hasn’t come out for intelligent design, at least not directly. In previous statements he has shown sympathy for ID, comparing the persecution of ID scientists to the “Spanish Inquisition.” Here too he refers to the “Neo-Darwinist Inquisition.” But his focus is on the story of how evolution, from Darwin to Chomsky, came up short in explaining speech. He lets the implications of this speak for themselves.

The significance of speech goes beyond merely expressing our exceptional status as humans — the “cardinal distinction between man and animal.” As Wolfe points out, it grants us rule over the earth and its creatures, and even more than that.

In short, speech, and only speech, has enabled us human beasts to conquer every square inch of land in the world, subjugate every creature big enough to lay eyes on, and eat up half the population of the sea.

And this, the power to conquer the entire planet for our own species, is the minor achievement of speech’s great might. The great achievement has been the creation of an internal self, an ego.

From that “internal self,” endowed with curiosity and longing, flows the riches of civilization — art, religion, philosophy, literature, science, and so much more. How impressive, really, is a theory of origins if it can shed no light on the origin of any of that?

Wolfe frames his story in terms of two pairs of rivals or doppelgängers — Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, on one hand, and linguists Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett on the other. As in every other book of his that I’ve read, Wolfe is sharply attuned to matters of status, rank, class — which explain so much not only in fashion or politics but in the history of ideas. In both of these pairs of scientists, one is the established figure, the man of rank and prestige (Darwin, Chomsky), while he was overtaken and nearly knocked from his pedestal by a field researcher of lesser cachet (Wallace, Everett), a “flycatcher” in Wolfe’s phrase.

In 1858, Wallace panicked Darwin into going public with his theory, which Wallace had thought up independently while in a malarial swoon on the other side of the world. The co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection came later to reject the comprehensive explanatory power of his and Darwin’s theory.

Wallace showed, writes Wolfe, that “natural selection can expand a creature’s powers only to the point where it has an advantage over the competition in the struggle for existence.” What’s more, “natural selection can’t produce any ‘specially developed organ’ that is useless to a creature…or of so little use that it is not until thousands and thousands of years down the line that the creature can take advantage of the organ’s full power.”

Speech is the most obvious example of a power inexplicable in terms of natural selection. Only a designer could look ahead that way, using foresight and working out a plan, which led Wallace to his proto-intelligent design view, arguing for “the agency of some other power,” “a superior intelligence,” a “controlling intelligence,” at work in guiding evolution. Darwin, meanwhile, was left to speculate absurdly about speech being an extension of bird song.

And there the matter was left until Chomsky came on the scene in the 1950s with his own notion of an evolved language “organ,” hidden somewhere, as yet undetected, in the brain. Known as much for this theory as for his “Radical Chic” (Wolfe’s famous phrase) politics, Chomsky intimidated his field and looked askance at “flycatchers” who left the air-conditioned department building to investigate obscure languages in obscure, inconvenient, and unhygienic parts of the world.

Chomsky’s theory reigned supreme until 2008 when a flycatcher, Daniel Everett, revealed a primitive language, that of the Pirahã, a people of the Amazon, that lacked a key linguistic feature (<href=”#In_language”>recursion) that Chomsky held to be universal. It must be universal if a shared, evolved “organ” was responsible for all human speech. The conclusion of Everett’s research was that speech, not a product of evolution, was in truth an “artifact” of human devising.

The study of linguistics was thrown into chaos. Chomsky himself, even as he all but denied the existence of his rival, was compelled to admit that after decades of his labor, “The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma”:

[I]n thirty years, Chomsky had advanced from “specific neural structures, though their nature is not well understood” to “some rather obscure system of thought that we know is there but we don’t know much about it.”

We hardly understand language today, what it is, any better today than Aristotle, who explained it as a system of “mnemonics,” an aid to memory.

The Kingdom of Speech is a brief, wonderfully written book, often hilarious. The bits about Darwin’s dog and Chomsky’s “visiting Martian” (a fixture of his lectures), for example, are delicious. The role of social prestige, not science, in accounting for a failed idea’s persistence is a theme that nobody is better suited to explore than Tom Wolfe. He tells how in Darwin’s own day, “people began to judge one another socially according to their belief, or not, in Darwin’s great discovery.” How little has changed!

Wolfe, it’s true, does not pull the obvious trigger. He fairly begs to be introduced to Michael Denton. If speech is an artifact, how did man acquire the capacity to devise and use it? As Dr. Denton writes in his recent book, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, the exalted intellectual capacities shared by men and women of all races, and accessed only through language, probably were not much use in hunting mammoths. He writes:

One of the most curious features of human evolution, and one that poses at the outset an intriguing and still unanswered challenge to the Darwinian and functionalist narrative, is the fact that all modern humans share the same higher intellectual capabilities. This means, incredible though it may seem, a brain capable of the intellectual feats of an Einstein, a Newton, or a Mozart must have already emerged in our last common ancestors more than 200,000 years ago. Such intellectual abilities seem absurdly powerful, beyond any conceivable utility for hunter-gatherers on that ancient savanna, and hence beyond any functionalist explanation.

Language, Denton writes, the “Type-defining homolog,” is “consistent with a saltational origin.” In other words, it appears to have sprung into existence, “slipped suddenly into being,” from no primitive or animal model before it.

Alfred Wallace, as ever, pointed the way. Such a power, coming into existence when it could not possibly serve an evolutionary purpose, can only be accounted for as the product of design. Wolfe prefers to let us pull that trigger for ourselves.

Photo: Tom Wolfe, by MoSchle (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.