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Tom Wolfe traces the often-amusing history of bickering over how humans started talking

Tom Wolfe examines the debate over language and evolution in his new book.
Mark Seliger
Tom Wolfe examines the debate over language and evolution in his new book.

Charles Darwin’s head hurt. Or so Tom Wolfe, with his celebrated descriptive powers, imagines.

For a century and a half, linguists have debated whether Darwin’s theory of evolution sufficiently accounts for the development of human language. The old naturalist believed (or at least wanted to believe) that language was another product of natural selection, and Darwinists have claimed antecedents in bird calls, or whale song. Wolfe, however, is having none of it.

“Bango! One bright night it dawned on me,” he writes, signaling, among other things, that he’s not just writing for academics. There’s one “cardinal distinction between man and animal . . . namely, speech.”

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If that observation might seem elementary to a general reader, Wolfe’s latest book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” lays out the often-amusing recent history of scientific bickering over the subject of the human capacity for communication, and how we got it. Inspired by the 2014 publication of a scholarly article coauthored by a group of linguists, anthropologists, and cognitive and computer scientists (one of them named Chomsky), which essentially threw in the towel on finding “proof” about the origins of language, Wolfe eagerly plunged down his latest rabbit hole.

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This being Tom Wolfe — the modern-day sociologist who has pitched himself giddily into such subcultures as the hippie generation (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”), space flight (“The Right Stuff”), and New York City’s stark class and racial divides (“The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his first novel) — the ponderous debate over language and evolution takes on a kind of pop-art pizzazz in “The Kingdom of Speech.” It’s easy to imagine Wolfe, up late but still wearing his seersucker suit, laughing dementedly in the glow of his computer screen as he reads deeper into, say, Max Müller’s early criticism of Darwin.

“Darwin’s notion that language had somehow evolved from imitation of animal sounds . . . Müller called that the bow-wow theory,” he writes. The idea that certain words — “whisper,” “crack,” “belch” — came from the sounds that things made: That was the ding-dong theory. And so on.

Wolfe also revels in the comic-book dust-up between MIT’s Noam Chomsky, the “father of modern linguistics,” and Daniel Everett, the field researcher who is now dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University. It was Everett who undermined Chomsky’s theory of “universal grammar” — that all human beings share an innate sense of language construction — during his time spent with a remote Amazonian tribe, whose simple vocabulary, devoid as it is of subordinate clauses or the concepts of past and future, lacks several key “UG” components.

Unlike physical attributes, which can be dug up, carbon-dated, and examined under a microscope, there is as yet no way to travel back in time to study the origins of human language. That’s why Darwin’s head hurt, Wolfe figures. This vexation, Wolfe writes, might also explain why one of Darwin’s contemporaries, the naturalist Alfred Wallace — who independently devised his own theory of evolution — was eventually drawn to seances, part of the period’s notably unscientific vogue for the supernatural.

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Language, and language alone, gave humankind the ability to think abstractly and plan for the future, Wolfe writes; to make measurements and record them for later use; to “comprehend space and time, God, freedom, and immortality; and remove items from Nature to create artifacts, whether axes or algebra.” For all that knowledge gained, it’s the not-knowing about language’s origins that “was driving [Darwin] crazy and Wallace across to the Other Side.”

Emphatically, Wolfe sides with Everett in his belief that language is not a product of evolution but a cultural tool, as surely as is a knife, ax, or hammer. Speech “is not something that had evolved in Homo sapiens, the way the breed’s unique small-motor-skilled hands had . . . or its next-to-hairless body. Speech is man-made. It is an artifact . . . and it explains man’s power over all other creatures in a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to.”

Thus the title of this curiously entertaining little book. “Soon speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom of Earth,” Wolfe predicts, sidling up to the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. Or maybe it’s even bigger than that: the “Spoken Universe.” The author has made a career of planting his flag in smaller kingdoms with words. His latest fascination is only natural.

THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH

By Tom Wolfe

Little, Brown, 185 pp., $26

James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin.” He can be reached at jamesg
sullivan@gmail.com or
on Twitter @sullivanjames.