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Reviews for The Kingdom of Speech:

1

Dec 15, 2017

Not having read any Tom Wolfe before, I was riveted by the prose style of this book, with its ellipses, colloquial asides, and multiple exclamation marks. I am sure it is possible to write a great book with this technique and perhaps Tom Wolfe has already done it, but this one is unfortunately a complete mess.

I say unfortunately because as a matter of fact I agree with his basic position. What Wolfe is trying to do is summarise the internecine fighting of the linguistics world that followed Not having read any Tom Wolfe before, I was riveted by the prose style of this book, with its ellipses, colloquial asides, and multiple exclamation marks. I am sure it is possible to write a great book with this technique and perhaps Tom Wolfe has already done it, but this one is unfortunately a complete mess.

I say ‘unfortunately’ because as a matter of fact I agree with his basic position. What Wolfe is trying to do is summarise the internecine fighting of the linguistics world that followed Daniel Everett's work on the Pirahã language, which attacked Noam Chomsky's idea of a universal grammar. I've written lots about all this in my review of Everett's Language: The Cultural Tool; suffice to say here that UG had become more of an ideology than an academic theory, an aggressively enforced orthodoxy that had never produced any very interesting results, or been proved even slightly to reflect physiological or neurological reality.

Wolfe sees this as a David v. Goliath story, plucky little Dan Everett taking on the mean old dictator Chomsky, and in his telling the characters, and the arguments, are so simplified as to become cartoons. Furthermore, the first half of the book for some reason is about Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, a diversion that is at best irrelevant and at worst misleading; the main effect on me was of exhausting my patience with Wolfe's cavalier approach to historical incident (‘Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie…said Lyell’).

When we finally get on to the main event, Wolfe simply lifts anecdotes wholesale from Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes and retells them. It's impossible not to feel that you'd rather just be reading Everett first-hand. More dangerously, Wolfe gives the impression that the debate over language origins has now been solved, by Everett, which is very far from the case. Everett's main contribution was to puncture the Chomskyan hegemony; his own explanation, that language didn't evolve but rather was invented, like a bow and arrow, is interesting but a hell of a long way from conclusive.

That matters, because we already get too many writers making assumptions about where language came from, and when it developed, and what it was for, whereas the truth is that no one has the slightest idea – nothing about that has changed, and nor does it seem likely to, not that you'd know it from Wolfe's strange and breathless polemic. ...more
1

Sep 03, 2016

If you ever wanted to read a book about a scientific field or two (in Wolfe's trademark flamboyant prose) that was utterly innocent of any understanding of science, here's your chance. This vapid piece of preening ignorance will stand as a pointless landmark (or better yet, sink like a witless stone) to sturm-und-drang self-regard. As an erstwhile colleague of mine put it in his review of the book in the Washington Post (here), the book is "unsullied by research."

You don't have to be an If you ever wanted to read a book about a scientific field or two (in Wolfe's trademark flamboyant prose) that was utterly innocent of any understanding of science, here's your chance. This vapid piece of preening ignorance will stand as a pointless landmark (or better yet, sink like a witless stone) to sturm-und-drang self-regard. As an erstwhile colleague of mine put it in his review of the book in the Washington Post (here), the book is "unsullied by research."

You don't have to be an evolutionary biologist or a linguist to find this book a piece of mean-spirited ad hominem drivel. The book is filled with incorrect assertions: to take just one, formal ("Chomskyan") linguists don't just sit around in "air-conditioned rooms" making theories--many have spent their careers doing fieldwork and documenting the intricacies of the grammars of languages all over the planet (and the rest do the same on languages they don't need to travel much to study, including their own native ones). Without in depth, careful observations about the grammars of human languages, formal linguists wouldn't have anything to analyze. To suggest anything else is a ridiculous lie. Wolfe's imputation that lab scientists aren't "real" scientists because they don't spend their lives in the field would be laughable coming from anyone else. From Wolfe, it's just sad. ...more
4

Sep 17, 2016

A great entertaining read. Wolfe gets off some magnificent and irreverent lines, aimed at the neo-Darwinian hand-wavers. Moreover, he is largely invulnerable to any counter attack from them because the one place he does his own hand-waving is a place where none of them can go. I hope to write more about this later.
5

Sep 16, 2016


When getting my Masters degree in English, I discovered the fascinating world of linguistics. With my emphasis in English as a Second Language, I took classes in Psycholinguistics (which is the physical and neurological aspects of language acquisition). I was especially intrigued by how language functions similarly to the genetic code, and I loved Modern Grammar which can be used with any language using the principles of Universal Grammar. Universal Grammar, postulates Noam Chomsky (the founder
When getting my Master’s degree in English, I discovered the fascinating world of linguistics. With my emphasis in English as a Second Language, I took classes in Psycholinguistics (which is the physical and neurological aspects of language acquisition). I was especially intrigued by how language functions similarly to the genetic code, and I loved Modern Grammar which can be used with any language using the principles of Universal Grammar. Universal Grammar, postulates Noam Chomsky (the founder and king of modern linguistic theory), is innate in all human beings - moreover all languages are similarly constructed of verbs, adjectives, and nouns. What I didn’t realize, until I read Tom Wolfe’s superb book, The Kingdom of Speech, was that Chomsky had been toppled from his position of linguistic demi-Godhood by a relative newcomer, Daniel Everett.



In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe not only takes down Chomsky in his usual sharp yet languid manner, but Charles Darwin and his “Just-so” stories on the evolution of man also undergo a, much needed, examination. What ties Darwin, Chomsky, Everett, and this book together is the quest to solve mystery of the origin of language. Darwin guessed that language evolved from humans imitating bird speech. Chomsky believed that language ability evolved within (an as yet unknown) brain/nervous system “organ.” However, a relative newcomer in the world of linguistics, Daniel Everett, Moody Bible College graduate and former missionary to a remote Amazonian tribe called the Piraha, throws a monkey wrench into “established” Chomskyan linguistics.
What Everett discovers in this Amazonian tribe is a people who do not have all of the Universal Grammar elements in their language. Furthermore, they have no words for colors or numbers, and they have no language for the past or future as they live in a state of eternal now. Everett says that the uniqueness of the Piraha language - because it does not prescribe to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar - proves that language ability is not innate but actually an artifact created by humans to live in community. In other words, language is a tool, a sophisticated tool, somehow devised by humans over time.
I have a number of problems with Everett’s ideas - which Tom Wolfe, by the way, seems to totally embrace. Everett see the Piraha as an example of the earliest humans. They have embraced very little from other cultures (in the Amazon rainforest) because of their belief that anything outside of their culture is inferior and should be dismissed. The Piraha’s language - although extremely difficult to learn - is a very limited language in complexity, sociological constructs, and vocabulary. This tribe can not even be counted as stone age in their technological development since they don’t have stone tools. Their only tools are very rudimentary bows and arrows. They live in lean to’s that are easily disposed of. Having no concept for the future, limits their desire (or need perhaps) to prepare for it.
Obviously such a people will leave few traces of their existence; however, I see no reason to view them as something from which stone age and present day humans have evolved. Of course, I am not a (macro) evolutionists, and what I am about to say is terribly politically incorrect, but could it not be equally true that this tribe is an example of devolution? Cannot change (change and evolution are synonyms) happen in both directions? For example, present day humans have smaller brains and weaker physiques than Cro Magnon people.
I would be very interested to see a DNA analysis of this 300 or so person tribe. I would not be surprised if they all have a common ancestor that broke off a few hundred or so years ago from another Amazonian tribe. Are they really a separate and distinct people as their language seems to imply.
I could speculate as to why their progenitors were not using a native language. Could they have been feral children who have little experience of human language. What kind of language would such a pair or more of ferals create? And although the extreme conditions of the Amazon rainforest make it seem unlikely for a child to survive without adults, perhaps this is the case for the origins of the Pirahas. Perhaps the progenitors were deaf/mutes? I assume the tribe has no legends of their beginnings since they have little concept of the past, so why or how they came to be will remain a mystery. However, the magnitude of Everett’s claim has not been thoroughly examined, it seems to me.
He is saying the Piraha’s language is akin to a prima lingua. If this is true, it should be easily proven by the Piraha tribe having a separate and distinct DNA lineage because, as we have seen throughout history, when different people groups intermingle, their languages also intermingle. Everett is claiming (by using them as an example of a prima indigenous people) that this tiny tribe has somehow stayed intact, separate, an unchanged - for what? 10,000 - 100,000 - 1 million years? It is hard to say because evolutionists throw out numbers for humanity’s beginnings as easily as strippers throw off clothes. All that is needed is a simple DNA test to prove if the Piraha are truly a separate indigenous people group. In other words, to make a whole new case for the origins of language based on one tiny tribe of people seems ludicrous.
I suppose my true colors as a Chomskyite are being exposed. I do believe in an innate language ability that is wired into our brains/nervous system. I only disagree with the evolutionary (as in macro-evolutionary) origin of speech. I would say that we are endowed by our creator with the ability to use speech and to understand language. In Genesis, the very first task that Adam was given was to name the animals. And in the Gospel of John in the New Testament, it states that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Language is divine.
It was especially interesting to me that Everett the former missionary turned away from Christ to follow the God of Anthropology and Evolution. Interesting but hardly surprising. There is no quicker way to derail and ruin a career in academia than to be a Christian. Any theory (of anything) that is based on Intelligent Design rather than evolution is dismissed out of hand in this very small and narrow world. Unfortunately the evolutionary worldview limits scholars to new hypotheses and possibilities as to the origin and development of language.

If you are interested in language or in understanding the philosophical trendsetters in the last 150 years, I highly recommend The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe makes the journey in this 185 page book not only educational but enjoyable.
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4

May 26, 2018

After Wolfe's death I looked for books he authored that I hadn't read. This is one.

The Kingdom of Speech is short (170 pages) and leans more on research than reporting. However, like all Tom Wolfe books it is a fun read, extremely clear, and non-obvious as he dissects the way in which human language has been treated in evolutionary theory--by, among others, Darwin, Chomsky, and Everett. Wolfe's discussion of Everett's field work with the Piraha is not to be missed.

While The Kingdom of Speech is After Wolfe's death I looked for books he authored that I hadn't read. This is one.

The Kingdom of Speech is short (170 pages) and leans more on research than reporting. However, like all Tom Wolfe books it is a fun read, extremely clear, and non-obvious as he dissects the way in which human language has been treated in evolutionary theory--by, among others, Darwin, Chomsky, and Everett. Wolfe's discussion of Everett's field work with the Piraha is not to be missed.

While The Kingdom of Speech is not one of Wolfe's big books, it offers the welcome, familiar pleasure of his analysis and description of a meaningful subject. ...more
5

Jul 17, 2016

Tom Wolfe one day stumbled across a 2014 essay by eight "heavyweight Evolutionists," the famed-linguist Noam Chomsky being notability among them, and was startled by their conclusion that, after 150 years of scientific research and academic speculation, what we know about speech and language remains "as mysterious as ever." A "poverty of evidence," they wrote, leaves us with "no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved."

Wolfe looked askance at this Tom Wolfe one day stumbled across a 2014 essay by eight "heavyweight Evolutionists," the famed-linguist Noam Chomsky being notability among them, and was startled by their conclusion that, after 150 years of scientific research and academic speculation, what we know about speech and language remains "as mysterious as ever." A "poverty of evidence," they wrote, leaves us with "no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved."

Wolfe looked askance at this conclusion, noting first how odd it was for a group of experts to announce "what abject failures they were," but then, wisely, proceeded to question the essay's underlying assumption. According to Chomsky et al, the notion that language has "evolved," just like any other trait of living organisms, was "uncontroversial." In the story which he presents, Wolfe, in his inimitable style as a reporter and storyteller, challenges that assumption: Why must language have evolved?

The story of evolution begins, of course, with Charles Darwin--or, as Wolfe reminds us, with Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), who virtually beat Darwin to the punch on biological evolution, but ultimately questioned Darwin's conclusion on the evolution of language. The Darwin/Wallace rivalry, told entertainingly by Wolfe, is juxtaposed with the author's account of a more modern rivalry concerning the origin of language, one which pitted Chomsky's supposition of an inborn "universal grammar" against that theory's challenger, Daniel L. Everett ("Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes"). Everett concluded, after closely studying a tribe indigenous to a remote part of the Amazon, that language did not evolve; rather, he posits, it is an “artifact” created by mankind.

The story ends with Wolfe choosing sides. His solution to the mystery will, no doubt, be quickly added to the long list of unsubstantiated theories he cites. Words "create meaning," Wolfe suggests. Yet others, beginning long before him, have contended (far more convincingly) just the opposite: we create words to designate meaning, while meaning is, simply, apprehended. In short, the origin of language has an essential side to it which, to the reader's misfortune, Wolfe never explored. It is a view that has been with us since Aristotle walked the streets of Athens, one which does not pre-suppose a divinity, but which, consistent with Everett, insists that language could not have evolved biologically.

Thus, in this significant way, Wolfe's tour of the origin of language is incomplete. Nevertheless, his challenge to scientific authority has merit. The eight evolutionists deserve credit for admitting what they do not know, but to suggest their quest for an evolutionary basis of language is "uncontroversial," opened them up to the very entertaining smack down Wolfe has thoughtfully delivered in his "The Kingdom of Speech." ...more
1

Sep 07, 2016

Maybe Tom Wolfe should be commended for diving headfirst into a complicated, even esoteric, debate raging inside linguistics and exposing it to a far larger audience than ever before. But praise for this book should really end there.

As someone with some formal training in linguistics and more extensive exploration of the field as a hobby, I read Wolfe's prose in the voice of a supremely confident, almost entirely uninformed brat. In dealing with the fraught, hotly debated question of the origin Maybe Tom Wolfe should be commended for diving headfirst into a complicated, even esoteric, debate raging inside linguistics and exposing it to a far larger audience than ever before. But praise for this book should really end there.

As someone with some formal training in linguistics and more extensive exploration of the field as a hobby, I read Wolfe's prose in the voice of a supremely confident, almost entirely uninformed brat. In dealing with the fraught, hotly debated question of the origin of language, Wolfe cannot resist engaging in gross simplifications and exaggerations, which turned me off entirely and really limited his credibility as a narrator. As an example, he repeatedly boils long-winded, highly technical series of academic "comments" (i.e. criticisms) and their subsequent rebuttals into Facebook-style clickbait headlines: "Everett et al DEMOLISH Chomsky and His Ilk". Not once does he actually engage with the academic materials he references, likely because he does not know how.

Wolfe is very obviously invested in a simple David and Goliath narrative, one in which a humble, soft-spoken newcomer (Dr. Daniel Everett) takes on the academic establishment and wins in resounding fashion. In fact, the matter in question is far, far from settled, and the thuggish, intimidating Goliath (in this case Noam Chomsky) is mostly conjured out of thin air. Perhaps most irritatingly, Wolfe is not at all interested in grappling with the actual content of the academic debate - he simply declares a winner and revels in the drama of his unlikely victory.

When Wolfe does get around to positing where he thinks language came from, or rather, what he thinks Dr. Everett thinks, his summation is laughably simple, even crude. After repeatedly mocking some of the great minds of all time (e.g. Darwin, Chomsky) for failing to construct an effective explanation for language's origins, he puts forth an unbelievable, almost comical, theory that he spends all of two pages expounding. Charles Darwin, it turns out, is no match for Tom Wolfe.

The whole thing is smug, pretentious and, frankly, insulting. Maybe worst of all, Tom Wolfe abuses ellipses. No, seriously, you will not believe the number of pointless ellipses he uses. ...more
1

Sep 03, 2016

I normally enjoy Tom Wolfe, but this takedown of modern linguistics is simply a rant. His "new journalism" style was completely unsuited to persuading me of the validity of some of his rather specious scientific arguments. Despite the fairly copious footnotes, there was little evidence that Wolfe's understanding of either evolution or linguistics had any depth.
1

Sep 02, 2016

Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky with baffling (and terrible) results. Alternate title: "The Wrong Stuff."
3

Sep 05, 2016

This book forms a loose trilogy with "The Painted Word," Wolfe's dissection of art and art criticism, and "From Bauhaus to Our House," his similar evisceration of architectural theory. This book is different in that Wolfe has ventured into scientific theory - or actually, holy writ, i.e. Darwinian evolutionary theory. Those two books also dealt with a smaller topic - the conflict between American independent thought and the tendency of American intellectuals to follow European "isms," one of This book forms a loose trilogy with "The Painted Word," Wolfe's dissection of art and art criticism, and "From Bauhaus to Our House," his similar evisceration of architectural theory. This book is different in that Wolfe has ventured into scientific theory - or actually, holy writ, i.e. Darwinian evolutionary theory. Those two books also dealt with a smaller topic - the conflict between American independent thought and the tendency of American intellectuals to follow European "isms," one of Wolfe's particular bugaboos.

But even though this book deals with science, you see the same themes as Wolfe's earlier works - the importance of cultural and class distinctions in how thoughts gain social currency; the need for human beings to group themselves off into hostile tribes, even within "civilization"; the capacity of intellectuals to accept large concepts for largely non-intellectual reasons, and the importance of personality in shaping what are supposed to be impersonal concepts that shape how we live our lives. Wolfe likes to toss these occasional grenades into the ether and watch people shrink in horror when they see their various sacred cows in art, science or politics threatened.

Like those earlier works, Wolfe does some reporting but largely relies on previously published work, into which he injects his own distinctive style. One need only look at the reviews to see some of his suspicions confirmed -How dare this mere journalist question the accepted logic of scientists?! What could he possibly know of science?! All sounding, strangely enough, like offended clergymen confronted with 'The Origin of the Species.'

There are various stories within the story - and Wolfe enjoys showing Darwin as not so much a big brain but as a man with maladies and pride and vanity, much in the same vein as Noam Chomsky and others. This drives home his point that our intellectual heroes are not always so much concerned with truth as their own jealously-guarded reputations.

Keeping in mind this is a 169-page book with footnotes, Wolfe isn't interested in a big takedown of evolutionary theory as much as a window on how human beings digest thought. One gets a sense of the vast acreage of how much we don't really know about areas we pretend we completely understand, and how much of what we think is unshakeable scientific fact may be resting on foundations of educated guesses, making us no different than the ancestors we look down upon. The effect perhaps isn't so much that we should mistrust what we know as we should never be afraid to question any part of it.
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3

Jul 11, 2017

I generally enjoy Tom Wolfe, but this is an exception.

This is a diatribe, a rant.

He goes after two, I feel, very, unrelated individuals Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Wolfes main theme is language the premise being that this distinguishes us(humans) from all others on the planet. I have no argument with this.

He blasts Darwin for not acknowledging this. But Darwin was a naturalist. He was not a speech linguistic researcher. Was Wolfe trying to discredit evolution? This seems a tall order.

Then I generally enjoy Tom Wolfe, but this is an exception.

This is a diatribe, a rant.

He goes after two, I feel, very, unrelated individuals – Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Wolfe’s main theme is language – the premise being that this distinguishes us(humans) from all others on the planet. I have no argument with this.

He blasts Darwin for not acknowledging this. But Darwin was a naturalist. He was not a speech linguistic researcher. Was Wolfe trying to discredit evolution? This seems a tall order.

Then he trains his sites full blast on Chomsky. And to tell you the truth I rather enjoyed this, never being much in awe of the fellow. Wolfe presents evidence of other researchers that demolishes Chomsky’s theory on the linguistic portion of the brain.

He also gets very personal with his attacks.

Even at 170 pages the book is too long. It could easily be summarized by just reading the last chapter. So it is entertaining, but long-winded, with many digressions. ...more
5

Apr 23, 2018

4.5. Wolfe demonstrates how Speech is the silver bullet for Darwinism. He shows that Chuck D himself felt it then, and how Chomsky grants it today. The disrespect is delicious.
5

Dec 24, 2016

Surprisingly, for me at least, Wolfe careens between wildly engaging works, think Bonfire of the Vanities, to the near tears boredom inducing, A Man in Full. This one you figure, try it, maybe? Well...!

He first takes on no less than the god Darwin. He makes two basic points. One, Darwin may have stolen his theory of evolution (Alfred Russell Wallace beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection and sent his paper to Darwin for review). And two, speechnot evolutionis responsible for humanity's Surprisingly, for me at least, Wolfe careens between wildly engaging works, think Bonfire of the Vanities, to the near tears boredom inducing, A Man in Full. This one you figure, try it, maybe? Well...!

He first takes on no less than the god Darwin. He makes two basic points. One, Darwin may have stolen his theory of evolution (Alfred Russell Wallace beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection and sent his paper to Darwin for review). And two, speech—not evolution—is responsible for humanity's complex societies and achievements. And in the end it is hard not to see Darwin as at best a decent writer who could expound on other’s ideas.

Then for good measure, Wolfe reduces Noam Chomsky, the creator of the current wisdom that language is hard-wired in humans, from his Olympian perch to no better than a lesser demi-god for failing to account for the possibility – born out by the work of Daniel Everett with the isolated Pirahã tribe – that language is actually man-made.

You would think all this is fretfully, frightfully dry. Not so. Wolfe takes it from wry amusement all the way to laugh out loud funny without so much as a paragraph of lapse. ...more
5

Apr 06, 2017

I'd forgotten what a rambunctious, eloquent, mentally-arresting writer Tom Wolfe is. And here he's thumbing his nose at one of modernity's most sacred Golden Cows: the Theory of Everything. Of all the nerve.

Well worth reading, if only for the part where Darwin's work is praised as more imaginative than Kipling's. I was almost in tears.
1

Sep 08, 2016

This book is, simply put, the heresy of an uneducated washed-up author. Wolfe's logic is completely lacking and shows how not arrive at a theory through proper scientific method. He makes several claims in the book that show how uneducated he is. This is not because he disagrees with the standard theory, but because his arguments consist of claiming there is no proof. A senior highschool student could come up with stronger arguments FOR his claims. This is the type of rhetoric that damages the This book is, simply put, the heresy of an uneducated washed-up author. Wolfe's logic is completely lacking and shows how not arrive at a theory through proper scientific method. He makes several claims in the book that show how uneducated he is. This is not because he disagrees with the standard theory, but because his arguments consist of claiming there is no proof. A senior highschool student could come up with stronger arguments FOR his claims. This is the type of rhetoric that damages the progression of science. I recommend this book to you if you have more than half a brain, so that you can muse at the shortcomings. If you have less than half a brain, please do not read this as it is pure misinformation and you are doing yourself a disservice. ...more
1

Sep 16, 2016

Imagine you're at a party and off in the corner is an enigmatic man dressed in white talking to a large group. He has them eating out of his hand as he loudly, and drunkenly, has a one sided debate about language, Darwinism, and his own wit.

From your view across the room, you're uncertain about this man. But as you get closer - out of curiosity, of course - you listen in and can't help but find him mildly entertaining. Maybe you'll listen a little more. His story takes form as David vs. Goliath Imagine you're at a party and off in the corner is an enigmatic man dressed in white talking to a large group. He has them eating out of his hand as he loudly, and drunkenly, has a one sided debate about language, Darwinism, and his own wit.

From your view across the room, you're uncertain about this man. But as you get closer - out of curiosity, of course - you listen in and can't help but find him mildly entertaining. Maybe you'll listen a little more. His story takes form as David vs. Goliath played out in the realms of evolutionary theory and linguistics. One of Darwin and one of Noam Chomsky. The unblemished ivory elite vs the rag-tag upstart squatting in the jungle.

Now you're pulled in. This story is a living comic book, complete with WHAM!s and BANG!s. You can't help but fall into it and join the crowd, marveling and wondering what the next soap operatic twist will be.

Then there's the crescendo ..... and you're back on earth wondering, "Why did I just listen to that guy?" The story turns out to be all flash and no substance. A sad attempt at a professional attack while mucking up the science.

Maybe this party isn't for you. But they did have top shelf booze (aka writing). ...more
5

Nov 22, 2016

I normally would give this a 4 star rating, but I noticed there are a lot of pained 1 star reviews, so I upped my rating to a 5 to bring back some balance to the total average.

Wolfe is generally in good standing with the liberal defenders of evolution who are for the most part all for his criticism of investment bankers (The Bonfire of the Vanities) or big business (A Man in Full). When he decided to tear down liberal icons Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, the reaction has been less than kind.

I normally would give this a 4 star rating, but I noticed there are a lot of pained 1 star reviews, so I upped my rating to a 5 to bring back some balance to the total average.

Wolfe is generally in good standing with the liberal defenders of evolution who are for the most part all for his criticism of investment bankers (The Bonfire of the Vanities) or big business (A Man in Full). When he decided to tear down liberal icons Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, the reaction has been less than kind.

When I learned about this book, I was eager to read it, although Wolfe's tendency to write massive tomes meant a big time commitment. It was a pleasant surprise to find it was only 169 pages long. Maybe when you are 86 years old, you write shorter books.

Wolfe's conclusions will be applauded by those like myself who advocate for Intelligent Design. The reaction from Darwiniacs is, as can be expected; wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Any Darwin worshipers, be forewarned; Wolfe portrays him as overrated and none-too-bright -- also a borderline plagiarist.

One of the objections to Darwin's theory of evolution raised during his lifetime was the inability for evolution to account for the development of language. Darwin claimed it evolved, but had no persuasive evidence; he spun fables a la Rudyard Kipling's Just So stories. Jump 100 years and Noam Chomsky took up the fight that language evolved due to 'universal grammar' made possible by some unidentified part of the brain. Another 50 years and no such organ has been found. If fact, field research by Daniel Everett in the Amazon jungle leads many to concede that Chomsky was all wrong and Darwin all was wrong.

We don't know how man developed language, but we do know it was not a product of evolution.

To most people this is no big deal. Those who consider man is made in the image of God find it natural that language is God given. To atheists and die-hard Darwiniacs, this is a big deal. They don't like cracks that undermine their faith in their religious like devotion to Darwin.

Quotes I enjoyed from the book:

Regarding Darwin position when he put forth his theory of evolution: "There was no scientific way to test it. Like every other cosmogony, it was serious and sincere story meant to satisfy man's endless curiosity about where he came from and how he came to be so different from the animals around him. But it was still a story. It was not evidence. It short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature." (27)

"In Germany, on the other hand, The Origin of Species was an immediate sensation. By 1874 Nietzsche had paid Darwin and his theory the highest praise with the most famous declaration in modern philosophy: "God is dead." Without mentioning Darwin by name, he said the "doctrine that there is no cardinal distinction between man and animal" will demoralize humanity throughout the West; it will lead to the rise of "barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods" -- he all but called them by name: Nazism, Communism, and Fascism -- and result within one generation in "wars such as never have been fought before." If we take one generation to be thirty years, that would have meant by 1904. In fact, the First Word War broke out in 1914. This latter-day barbarism, he went on to say, will in the twenty-first century lead to something worse than the great wars: the total eclipse of all values. (51)

Max Muller "The Science of Language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of evolutionists and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute." (54)

The power of the human brain was so far beyond the boundaries of natural selection that the term became meaningless in explaining the origins of man. (61)

Language in all its forms advanced man far beyond the boundaries of natural selection, allowing him to think abstractly and plan ahead (no animal was capable of it); measure things and record measurements for later (no animal was capable of it); comprehend space and time, God, freedom, and immortality; and remove items from Nature to create artifacts, whether axes or algebra. No animal could even begin to do any such thing. Darwin's doctrine of natural selection couldn't deal with artifacts, which were by definition unnatural, or with the month of all artifacts, which was the Word -- speech, language -- was driving him crazy ... (64)

Kipling's intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin's intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to. But Darwin did. (70)

Language was the crux of it all. If language sealed off man from animal, then the Theory of Evolution applied only to animal studies and reached no higher than the hairy apes. (75)

Mendelian genetics overshadowed the Theory of Evolution from the very beginning. This new field had come straight out of purely scientific experiments that agronomists and biologists everywhere were able to replicate. The Theory of Evolution, on the other hand, had come out of cerebrations of two immobile thinkers, ... thinking about things no man had ever seen and couldn't even hope to replicate in much less than a few million years. (80)

Language had not evolved from anything. It was an artifact. Just as man had taken natural materials, namely wood and metal, and combined them to create the ax, he had taken natural sounds and put them together in the form of codes representing objects, actions, and ultimately, thoughts and calculations -- and called the codes words. (141)

"I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of 'universal grammar.' This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge attracts so much attention outside linguistics, so much so that many non-linguistics believe that Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics ... and that UG is now an established piece of truth beyond criticism or discussion. The truth is entirely otherwise." Larry Trask, linguist at England's University of Sussex (144)

"The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma." (Chomsky)
An enigma! A century and a half's worth of certified wise men, if we make Darwin the starting point -- or of bearers of doctoral degrees, in any case -- six generations of them had devoted their careers to explaining exactly what language is. After all that time and cerebration they had arrived at a conclusion: language is ... an enigma? Chomsky all by himself had spent sixty years on the subject. He had convinced not only academia but also an awed public that he had the answer. And now he was a signatory of a declaration that language remains... an enigma? (150)

"In the last 40 years there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense tha considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our lingustic computations and representations evolved." (Chomsky) (156)

...more
2

Sep 27, 2016

Depending on how much Wolfe's writing style irritates you, most of this book is a readable but disjointed and superficial narrative trying but mostly failing to connect two largely separate fields. Combining the vagueness of informal language with the pomposity of formal language, Wolfe's style is grating and awkward for non-fiction writing, but this book is short enough that it didn't accumulate into intolerable for me. The text, while clearly under-researched, still touches on enough important Depending on how much Wolfe's writing style irritates you, most of this book is a readable but disjointed and superficial narrative trying but mostly failing to connect two largely separate fields. Combining the vagueness of informal language with the pomposity of formal language, Wolfe's style is grating and awkward for non-fiction writing, but this book is short enough that it didn't accumulate into intolerable for me. The text, while clearly under-researched, still touches on enough important questions that it is mostly worthwhile. Why Wolfe spends the first half of the book showing off his ignorance by pretending the Theory of Evolution doesn't have any scientific merit or relevance is unclear, since the second half of the book, about linguistics, is spent dismissing evolution's relevance to the field. Indeed, evolutionary linguistics is but one branch of a wide field that is primarily concerned with describing languages as they are, not where language comes from. But besides the major structural weakness and many lesser weaknesses, what makes this book a bad one is the last few pages, in which Wolfe summons all of his formidable arrogance in a bizarre, unsupported rant in which he claims to have found the answer to life, the linguoverse and everything. At that point, the man behind the curtain reveals himself to be no more than a drunk on a bar stool, drawing on a faraway tenure in college to spin self-important fantasies out of half-remembered facts. ...more
4

Sep 01, 2016

Wonderful to have Tom Wolfe back and setting fire to sacred cows. This is a bit like his classic attacks on pretentious flim flammery From Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word but it also shares a lot of characteristics with snappy popular history like The Right Stuff or even popular science histories like Longitude. The language is crackling and playful throughout, even more so than his usual in order to make a "the medium is the message" point about the subject of the book. Thoroughly Wonderful to have Tom Wolfe back and setting fire to sacred cows. This is a bit like his classic attacks on pretentious flim flammery From Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word but it also shares a lot of characteristics with snappy popular history like The Right Stuff or even popular science histories like Longitude. The language is crackling and playful throughout, even more so than his usual in order to make a "the medium is the message" point about the subject of the book. Thoroughly enjoyable. ...more
1

Oct 07, 2016

Tom Wolfe wrote a book on a subject where he has no knowledge. He also appears unable to meaningfully back/cite/logically argue any of his lofty claims. This is one of the worst books I've ever read. I hated his writing style which came across as pompous, over confident, and rude. He also used way too many ellipses and said "solar plexus" an unreasonable number of times in such a short book. This book is poorly argued, makes no sense, and is generally extremely annoying. Another key shortfall: Tom Wolfe wrote a book on a subject where he has no knowledge. He also appears unable to meaningfully back/cite/logically argue any of his lofty claims. This is one of the worst books I've ever read. I hated his writing style which came across as pompous, over confident, and rude. He also used way too many ellipses and said "solar plexus" an unreasonable number of times in such a short book. This book is poorly argued, makes no sense, and is generally extremely annoying. Another key shortfall: speech and language are not the same thing! ...more
1

Jan 09, 2018

It had its funny parts and interesting moments, but it barely seemed to touch the topic of speech, spending the first half on evolutions history, the second on the wars over language, and the last chapter focused on speech. Most troublesome of all, Wolfe acted like an annoyed child each time he had to correct himself with the new politically correct terms for indigenous people, making it partway through the word native EVERY TIME. It was obnoxious. It had its funny parts and interesting moments, but it barely seemed to touch the topic of speech, spending the first half on evolution’s history, the second on the wars over language, and the last chapter focused on speech. Most troublesome of all, Wolfe acted like an annoyed child each time he had to “correct” himself with the “new politically correct” terms for indigenous people, making it partway through the word “native” EVERY TIME. It was obnoxious. ...more
5

May 28, 2017

This book is a Chestertonian take-down of Darwin and Chomsky. Excellent. Very fun.
3

Oct 09, 2017

Five stars for making fun of Darwin (for the despicable way he double-crossed Alfred Wallace) and Chompsky (for being an armchair intellectual nincompoop). (I mean, these gods are worshipped so devotedly so as to make you ill). Hearing Darwin's little tree of life sketch being described as 'abortive' makes me laugh even now, because my lecturers were so sanctimonious about it in class... I laughed so much that I don't think I'll ever be able to read anything by those two too seriously (actually, Five stars for making fun of Darwin (for the despicable way he double-crossed Alfred Wallace) and Chompsky (for being an armchair intellectual nincompoop). (I mean, these gods are worshipped so devotedly so as to make you ill). Hearing Darwin's little tree of life sketch being described as 'abortive' makes me laugh even now, because my lecturers were so sanctimonious about it in class... I laughed so much that I don't think I'll ever be able to read anything by those two too seriously (actually, I probably wouldn't even bother with Chompsky).

But only two stars for the argument for why language couldn't have evolved - it wasn't fleshed out enough, and lacked a good evidence base. ...more
4

Dec 07, 2016

I was scrolling through thousands of my library's digital offerings when I saw this and thought, "Hmmm...I've never read any Tom Wolfe; maybe I should give him a try." I now want to read everything he's written. He's got a remarkable gift with words, so it is not remarkable that he would turn is attention in this book to the subject of how we got them. First, he rounds up the usual emperors in their usual new clothes, parades them before us, and pokes them with sticks that wouldn't hurt so bad I was scrolling through thousands of my library's digital offerings when I saw this and thought, "Hmmm...I've never read any Tom Wolfe; maybe I should give him a try." I now want to read everything he's written. He's got a remarkable gift with words, so it is not remarkable that he would turn is attention in this book to the subject of how we got them. First, he rounds up the usual emperors in their usual new clothes, parades them before us, and pokes them with sticks that wouldn't hurt so bad if they'd observed just a modicum of decorum. We are made to laugh at their self-inflicted ridiculousness before they shuffle off the stage in shame.

Alas, Wolfe, himself au naturel, abhors a vacuum, and hops out from behind the curtain to dance the next act to the same silly tune, namely denial of God and ingratitude for His gifts. I averted my eyes and checked to ensure I was not suffering any wardrobe malfunctions, myself.

One of the heroes of the book is Daniel Everett, whose story grieved me. An SIL missionary to a tiny Amazonian tribe, he truly "gave up his body to be burned, but had not love." When they appeared content with their lives and didn't want to hear anymore about Jesus, Everett decided that they really didn't need Him, after all, and neither did he. These are people who at one point tried to murder him, and still he could not discern their need of salvation because "Jesus exists to solve my felt problems" is an impotent gospel for men who are blissfully ignorant of their sin, be they primitive tribesmen or MIT scholars. I can't remember which bits of Everett's story I gleaned from the book, and which from YouTube, but here's a bit you can listen to if you're interested.

Oh! And I almost forgot: The reader, Robert Petkoff, was simply smashing. Nailed loads of difficult pronunciations and what must have been a challenging tone. One of the best audiobook performances I've ever listened to. ...more
0

Aug 30, 2016

Humorous NYT review here: "[T]his book is a rebuke of the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, whom Mr. Wolfe refers to as 'Noam Charisma.' Rebuke is actually too frivolous a word for the contumely Mr. Wolfe looses in his direction. More precisely, he tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff."

See here for comments on the kudzu of "settled science," and see here for Cheaney's article on how "Darwinism hasn't been able to Humorous NYT review here: "[T]his book is a rebuke of the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, whom Mr. Wolfe refers to as 'Noam Charisma.' Rebuke is actually too frivolous a word for the contumely Mr. Wolfe looses in his direction. More precisely, he tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff."

See here for comments on the kudzu of "settled science," and see here for Cheaney's article on how "Darwinism hasn't been able to explain the mystery of human language." Read more here. Nice review by Toby Sumpter here. Excerpt from Chapter 2 here.

Apparently relies heavily on the work of Daniel L. Everett. Wolfe takes on Darwin and Chomsky.

WORLD comments here. CBS interview (video) here.

Here's a piece on a necessary retraction after scientists realize that their Darwinian solution to the problem of speech was inaccurate. Apparently, Walker Percy discusses this issue (i.e., the mystery of human language and consciousness) in his fiction. ...more

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