Tom Wolfe and “The Kingdom of Speech”

Yesterday, I read Tom Wolfe’s 185-page book, The Kingdom of Speech (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016). It’s a curious but apt title for such a book, implying, as becomes apparent by the end, that the human ability to speak: to formulate and utter fine-grained sounds – with voice, lips, tongue, and teeth – is unique, and has produced a spectacular result. All human beings are able to convey to other human beings, complex and wholly abstract concepts, formulas, feelings, present and future intentions, and so much else, and this has made us, well … kings of the earth. It’s our Kingdom now. We are controllers of the whole planet. Even, perhaps, little gods. An animal like no other on earth. The apes? Not even close.

Without confessing any religious convictions of his own, this fashionable literary giant who wields an acerbic pen with a keen eye for the low and the lofty details of every subject he tackles, has struck a reactionary gong that will reverberate for some time. In a thoroughly-researched manner, with lots of his signature irony, biting sarcasm, and gimlet-eyed detail, Wolfe reveals the reprehensible manner in which the gentleman scholar Charles Darwin and his intellectual buddies contrived to cheat Alfred Wallace of his rightful claim to have been the first to propose the theory of evolution of species by natural selection.

Wallace was “a flycatcher” chasing down rare bugs in Malaysia (when he wasn’t suffering from malaria), when the theory of “evolution by natural selection”, rooted in what he called “survival of the fittest,” first entered his brain with such force that he jumped out of his sick-bed and wrote a twenty-page paper outlining the theory. Wolfe writes: it was “the first description ever published of the evolution of the species through natural selection.” Wallace immediately sent it to Darwin and asked for his opinion. might Darwin arrange for its publication, if he found it worthy?

Wallace’s paper profoundly shocked Darwin, who had arrived at the same theory, but had never written a word of it. Not one. He realized that Wallace had just possibly “smashed” his life’s work. But … was there still some wiggle-room? He would have to move very fast to claim priority. So, thinking himself too decent for direct deception, he arranged to have two of his aristocratic science buddies write an “abstract” of his theory. Indirect deception might work. Unbeknownst to the lower-class, busy-bee flycatcher Wallace, who was still in Malaysia, these buddy-boys arranged to present Darwin’s abstract, along with the Wallace paper, to a meeting of the Linnean society in London, on July 1st, 1858.

However, it so happened that by tradition papers were always presented to Society members in alphabetical order, and … as D precedes W in the alphabet, the effect created by having Darwin’s abstract presented before the Wallace paper was that Darwin was the first creator of an original theory explaining the evolution of the species. The room gave Three Cheers for Darwin, and a Big Yawn for Wallace, whose paper, delivered only an hour later, already seemed derivative. Darwin had arranged to scoop the scooper, while salvaging his sense of personal decency.

The first half of Wolfe’s engaging book is about the Darwin-Wallace drama, and about how later in his life, well-published and famous in his own right, Wallace got a revenge of sorts by publically attacking the idea that Darwin went on to develop in his next book The Descent of Man: that humans had evolved from apes. His main objection (and Wolfe’s) to Darwin’s Man-is-just-an-evolved-ape theory, is that evolution theory cannot explain how natural selection could possibly create something like a human brain (and human speech) that has capacities far beyond anything that simple natural selection and survival might have required at the time. In effect: how could natural selection create the largest and most impressive computational and concept-creating organ in the known universe, when the most complex natural challenge for the survival of the species was … where to get the next meal?

In short, Wallace argued (as does Wolfe) that there is an immense – a virtually unbridgeable – gap between the stunted mental capacity of an ape, and the intellectual sophistication of a human being. Oh, sure, many other species – birds, ants, bees, and so on – have their own complex “languages” and systems of communication. But no language other than human language can create symphonies, philosophies, poetry, physics, mathematics, and so on. Why, humans have even developed “metalanguages” – language about language, as no other animal has, or ever could, do. Wallace got a revenge of sorts as a potent public critic of his own, and of Darwin’s theories, and went on to become a believer in human spiritual potential.

Reacting to this unanswerable challenge to his theory, Darwin just threw up his hands after trotting out a lot of embarrassing guesswork about how humans developed language by mimicking bird-sounds, or from mothers coo-ing to their babies (called “motherese”). The end result of the first half of his book is that Wolfe dismisses all claims of evolution theory to explain human language (and therefore, implicitly, to explain human beings).

The second half is about Noam Chomsky, and this strikes close to home for me. I began graduate studies in linguistic theory at Stanford University in 1965, the very year Chomsky’s ground-breaking book Syntactic Structures was published. To make a long story very short, before Chomsky, a lot of language theory was mired in semantics, in meaning. Let me give an example. In every high school in the world, students learned that a “noun”, say, is “the name of a person, place, or thing.” But this was confusing. Is love a “thing”? Is a concept, a “thing”? Teachers would gloss over such questions. To teach grammar was to teach a lot of leaky rules and semantic definitions which had far too many exceptions.

Not Chomsky. He and his colleagues were exploring the possibility of describing human language(s) as “structural” systems. You could eliminate meaning entirely from the description of a language by describing the functions and rules, or laws governing the generation of any utterance acceptable to a competent speaker of a language. You could then speak in terms of “generative” or “transformational grammar”, and so on. A “noun” could be described as anything that you could put in an empty functional slot, such as “The _____ went down the road.” Whatever it is acceptable to put in the blank slot is a noun. No need for semantics. Everyone was intrigued. Finally, the study of human language would be analytical and scientific. It was intriguing.

As for grammatical rules? I have just pulled Syntactic Structures off my shelf. On page 15, the 27 year-old Chomsky wrote:

The notion “grammatical” cannot be identified with “meaningful” or “significant” in any semantic sense. Sentences (1) and (2) below, are equally nonsensical, but any speaker of English will recognize that only the former (1) is grammatical:

1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless

He closes with this statement: “I think we are forced to conclude that grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning …” and then proceeds to describe the system he was inventing, all by his lonesome. It was an ingenious attempt to explain how a virtually unconscious system that he assumed was universal in all human beings, is able to generate perfectly acceptable complex sentences that the speaker and the listener may never have heard before. How is that possible? There had to be an “organ” somewhere within each of us – in the brain? – something Chomsky later called a “universal grammar” (UG), a kind of language-generating capacity enabling human beings everywhere, even children as young as two, to generate unlimited novel but grammatically-acceptable utterances. Else, how can a tiny child who hasn’t the slightest inkling of the deeply complex rules of a grammar, do this? Chomsky and his followers have spent more than forty years trying to explain how the “language organ” works. But no one has ever found such an organ.

Wolfe then proceeds to describe in some detail how an American linguist named Everett, a former Chomsky student, spent thirty years studying a Brazilian tribe called the Pirahã, whose language shares almost nothing with other human languages. Everett concluded that there is no universal language organ at all. Language has nothing to do with evolution. It seems to be just a cultural tool that man has invented, time and again, to create meaning. Wolfe concludes that language must be just a mnemonic system, an artifact – “the mother of all mnemonics” – just a sign-system humans invent repeatedly, using sounds and words, to create meaning.

Well, in May of 2014, we learn, Chomsky and a half-dozen of the world’s most brilliant language theorists, gave up their hunt for the language organ. I was unaware. In a ten-thousand word essay entitled, “The Mystery of Language Evolution,” Wolfe says, they finally ran up “a white flag of abject defeat and surrender … after forty straight years of failure.”

Here is the authors’ joint statement about this failure:

Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that 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 linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses (https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/12406903).

Frankly, I think they gave up too soon. The fact that humans everywhere create complex rule-bound linguistic structures may not point to any dedicated biological organ of the brain. But it strongly implies some universal human capacity that is hard-wired, as they say, to produce universal language structures. Another professor of mine at Stanford, Joseph Greenberg, was a language typologist who did a lot of field-work, and wrote a great deal about “Language Universals”. Only some factor or hard-wired capacity common to all humans could explain the existence of universals.

Be that as it may, having deftly eviscerated both Darwin and Chomsky, with the plain truth that neither was able to explain the human capacity for speech, Wolfe, ends by concluding that language-production is still a mysterious imperium. Standing in admiration of the impressive towering skyscrapers visible from his window, wraps up with the thought: “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Cararra marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

[Note: Readers who wish to study an extended scientific critique of evolution theory, will enjoy “The Top Ten Scientific Problems With Biological and Chemical Evolution,” by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, available at http://www.discovery.org/a/24041]

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