Neuroscience & Mind
An Evolutionary View on Speech Isn’t “Settled Science”
And in large part it isn’t even about science. That’s the takeaway from an entertaining review at The American Spectator by Larry Thornberry of Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:
Darwin’s theories are not, in the modern phrase, settled science. They aren’t even unsettled science. They are educated guesses at best. To be science, Wolfe reminds us, “There are five standard tests for a scientific hypothesis. Has anyone observed the phenomenon — in this case, Evolution — as it occurred and recorded it? Could other scientists replicate it? Could any of them come up with a set of facts that, if true, would contradict the theory? Could scientists make predictions based on it? Did it illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science? In the case of Evolution… well… no… no… no… no… and no.”
Darwin made several lame attempts to explain how man got his gift of gab from lower animals through his exotic selection process. Wolfe catalogues these in Kingdom for our amusement. Later comes Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, who dismisses the question of speech by claiming that humans have an organ for speech, which organ, misfortunately for those hoping to cling to this easy out, has never been captured by an X-ray, MRI, or CAT-Scan. It has never been turned up by exploratory surgery or autopsy. No one, least of all Chomsky, knows where it resides. It fails all the tests above. But Chomsky, for reasons Wolfe elaborates, is a scientific Bigfoot. So woe be to the assistant professor who challenges Chomsky’s anatomical equivalent to the unicorn.
Chomsky is better known to those outside of the small, closed, and some might consider dreary world of linguists because of his left-wing politics, which he has broadcast fortissimo for decades. Chomsky has no more expertise in foreign affairs, and the other matters he pontificates on, than your Aunt Eunice. But in today’s leftist academy, and with today’s relentlessly left-wing media, this is no handicap. In fact, as Wolfe lays out for readers, this may be the main reason for his prestige in linguistics, and why his highly questionable theories are catechism, not to be questioned by cheeky researchers.
I know well-informed people with differing views on Chomsky. Our friend the neuroscientist Michael Egnor, for one, thinks Chomsky on language is “fundamentally right.”
But the extreme reverence in which he’s held is determined much more by his politics than anything else. In that sense, the politics drives the science. In fact he’s rarely out of the spotlight for very long — he’s back in it today, as a matter of fact — for just that reason. Or did you think that’s exclusively because of his theories on grammar and recursion?
We always have to bear in mind the extent to which discussion of even such a learned scientific subject as evolution is, for its true believers, an incognito negotiation over worldview, power, and personal status.
Addressing the relevant science, as we do obsessively here, only gets you so far if you don’t recognize that. That’s why in the Darwin controversy, Darwinists consistently flee from a debate on that science.
Photo: Noam Chomsky in Toronto, by Andrew Rusk [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.