Sui Generis

a review by James Como (December 2016)



Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech
New York: Little, Brown, 2016.  185pp.  $26.



Tom Wolfe is back and enjoying himself as much as he ever has. His reporting is sound: historically accurate and thorough, with archives consulted and sources cited. His argument – Darwin’s Origin of the Species and its impact were largely contrivances and no “theory of everything” can account for speech: it simply did not evolve, from anything – is rigorous and, at least on its surface, dispositive: he certainly makes a prima facie case. His voice is . . . distinctive: nothing dull, elusive, or cagey here. (With Wolfe is there ever?) And amidst the splendidly told tale he provides a richly contextualized social history of a controversy with its own terms of political correctness and demons. (I did not know that Stephen Jay Gould became one.)

Six tight chapters: 1/ “The Beast Who Talked” (the problem is framed). 2/ “Gentlemen and Old Pals” (the conflict established). 3/ “The Dark Ages” (Wallace: Darwin’s despair). 4/ “Noam’s Charisma” (the antepenultimate nail: Noam’s ‘organ of language’ and its rule of recursions, the embedding within a main clause of as many subclauses the speaker cares to embed, wreaks havoc with natural selection). 5/ “What the Flycatcher Caught” (the penultimate nail: Brazilian Parahas KO ‘the organ of language’). 6/ “The Firewall” (the final nail: Everett’s ‘Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes’ KOs Chomsky) – all followed by one hundred and fifty-eight reference notes (with nearly twenty other footnotes throughout the text).

From the beginning, the reader knows that Wolfe has a dog in the fight, and his personae never lack dramatis. He has little respect for Darwin, for his coterie, and for the class system that made things so difficult for Alfred Wallace, who hit upon natural selection before Charles and who later would blast The Descent of Man (truly repugnant, not least in its incipient social Darwinism) out of the sandbox, systematically using speech and our brain to refute the lineaments of evolution – and yet always be second fiddle, at best. He makes clear the magnitude of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic achievement (as well as the idolatry that he enjoyed):  ‘the organ of language’ cannot be accounted for by natural selection. 

But then – another reversal. Along comes Daniel Everett, who after thirty years of field work (which Chomsky and his followers disdained) finds a tribe, the Paraha, whose primitive speech has led to none of the achievements – recursion, religion, ritual, planning for the future beyond a lifetime, hierarchies – that Chomsky’s ‘organ of language’ assures us must eventuate, everywhere and always. Here the fifth chapter becomes a page turner, with Wolfe at his narrative best, depicting the Methodist missionary and gifted linguist-cum-Lone Ranger against the Behemoth and his dreadnought. The Battle of the Prestigious Journals is crashing upon the rocks of academic opinion (it’s not easy to avoid Wolfe-isms here) when The New Yorker sends one John Colapinto to the Brazilian jungle to investigate directly the Paraha and Everett’s claims about them (“The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?” April 10, 2007). Colapinto’s party includes a Chomsky partisan named W. Tecumseh Fitch, whose experiment attempting to debunk Everett’s claims fails. The chapter ends with, “Everett executed a coup de scoop.”

The first half of the final chapter is no anti-climax. In 2008 Everett publishes Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, his account of thirty years of travail and truly heroic survival among the Paraha, a genuinely hair-raising tale told (that is, re-told) by the master. It devastates Chomsky’s cherished theory, especially recursion. Then comes an anti-climax: Chomsky simply ignores the upstart (as Wallace eventually had been ignored, more or less, by Darwin), subsumes some of the new paradigm, and . . . forgets about recursion entirely. And yet, since Chomsky’s “specific neural structures” and “some rather obscure system of thought that we know is there but we don’t know much about,” nothing has been discovered. Wolfe’s penultimate thought is his own hypothesis: language as mnemonics. Finally he suggests a fourth kingdom in the company of animal, vegetable and mineral, Regnum Loquax, inhabited solely by Homo Loquax.

Wolfe begins his inquiry as only a New Journalist would. “One bright night in the year 2016, my face aglow with god-knows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading: ‘THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION’.” (Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between Wolfe’s exclamations and his characters’.) In 2014 in Frontiers in Psychology “eight heavyweight Evolutionists” – Marc D. Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard C. Lewontin – published “The Mystery of Language Evolution.” Their conclusion: “The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever.” 

Wolfe was . . . puzzled (in a manic sort of way), not least because the eight went on to say that, even after an explosion of research, there seemed no hope of ever finding an answer to the question of the origin of human language. “In fact, in the one hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced,” continues Wolfe, “they had learned nothing”: Einstein, Pasteur, Watson and Crick and so many others had learned so much, but “people from every other discipline discovered . . . nothing . . . about language.” And so Wolfe writes his book, showing us that we are a mystery: “Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes – speech is the attribute of all attributes.” 

Thus his beginning. His ending? “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.” Or, as Walker Percy has put it in his Message in the Bottle:

[E]xistentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the science of man. The case is rather that man’s science is one of the things that man does, a mode of existence. Another mode is speech. Man is not merely a higher organism responding to and controlling his environment. He is . . . that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.

And I think: hadn’t St. John reported as much two thousand years ago?


James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: essays on conversation, rhetoric and the transmission of culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).


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