The Kingdom of Speech

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Acting only on the strength of the author's name, Tom Wolfe, I requested this book from the University Near Here's interlibrary loan; it took over a week but it finally showed up, all the way from Texas Tech University in sunny Lubbock. It's surprisingly short, about 170 pages of main text, with unsmall fonts and unnarrow margins. It's a lot of fun.

It's a bit of a stretch for Mr. Wolfe, whose previous non-fiction words have been about art, architecture, and observations of modern American culture. Here, his general topic is the quest to merge the phenomenon of syntactical language, only appearing in a single species (us), into the classical constraints of Darwinistic evolution. His outrageous assertion: such efforts have failed, and they're likely to keep failing.

His argument is wide-ranging, starting with the beginnings of modern evolutionary theory in the mid-19th century. He tells the story with an entertaining and iconoclastic twist: Alfred Wallace, a "flycatcher" naturalist trudging in the nasty swamps of the Malay peninsula comes up with the theory of natural selection while in a malarial fever. He writes his idea up, sends it back to England, where Darwin gets a pre-publication whiff. As it turns out, it's pretty much the same idea he's been working on, without publishing, for decades since the voyage of the Beagle. A little legerdemain, and he wangles publication in the same prestigious journal as Wallace's article. And goes on to grab the lion's share of scientific fame and glory.

Wolfe doesn't bow to Darwinism; he echoes the criticisms it has faced through the years, most tellingly the "Just-So Stories" that it adopts to account for evolutionary outcomes: this is a plausible explanation, so this is what must have happened.

Fast-forward to post-WWII MIT, where Noam Chomsky is developing modern linguistics. He's the acknowledged guru of the field, kind of like physics' Feynman. He postulates a brain-based "language organ", implementing a universal syntax, accounting neatly for all possible language permutations, so game pretty much over. Except nobody can nail down the language organ. And, worse, Daniel Everett, another "flycatcher" working in the remote Amazon, finds a primitive tribe, the Pirahã, whose language doesn't fit into Chomskyite theorizing at all. Confounding all who look for confirmatory evidence of the "evolution of language".

Wolfe's contention: language isn't part of natural evolution. It's a human-made artifact, like a pencil or a Buick. Wolfe gets quite lyrical about this; for all I know, he might be right. I'm pretty sure the fans of Chomsky and Darwin are on the attack.

Does Wolfe do all this with his trademark pyrotechnical prose? Yes, he does. (I wish Wolfe narrated the Audible version of this book; it would be a blast to listen to him read his own stuff; unfortunately, someone else does it.)

A side note: back when I was in high school, I snagged a $2.95 copy of Mortimer J. Adler's The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes, touching much the same issues. It's followed me from Nebraska, to California, to Iowa, up to New Hampshire, down to Maryland, back to New Hampshire. Now, nearly 50 years later, it might be time to reread it.