Where does speech come from?

wolfeTom Wolfe is a natural phenomenon. Being able to produce at age 85 – hell, at any age – a coruscating essay like Kingdom of Speech smashes all sorts of stereotypes.

But then smashing stereotypes is Wolfe’s stock in trade. I know many superb journalists, but I can’t think offhand of anyone else who has created a whole new genre of journalism.

Wolfe has. It’s called New Journalism, and it blurs the line between literature and essay to a point where it isn’t clear where one ends and the other begins.

When Wolfe oversteps the line into the area of journalistic novel, he is, to me, less convincing, albeit still eminently readable. But one step back into novelised journalism, and Wolfe is without equals. He’s even without close seconds.

I’ve read just about his whole output, and my own literary path is signposted with such milestones as Radical Chic, The Painted Word, From Bauhaus to Your House, The Purple Decade, Hooking Up and so forth.

No turn is left unstoned – Wolfe is merciless to every modern perversion and its purveyors, as he now is to Darwin and Chomsky in Kingdom of Speech, an essay attempting to answer the question in my title.

Actually Wolfe’s answer comes rather late in the book. The first two thirds is a systematic thrashing of Darwin, with every haymaker landing right on the button.

I myself have got into that ring with just about every book I’ve written, but even so I’ve learned a few new facts.

For example, I didn’t know that ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ Huxley never believed Darwin’s slipshod theory and only devoted his life to shilling for it because it rationalised his own strident atheism: arguing that man is nothing but an animal is tantamount to delivering a redundancy note to God.

But the story of Alfred Russel Wallace is well known, and it drives a stake through the heart of Evolution, which Darwin and his champions have tried to pass for the Theory of Everything.

Wallace wrote a paper on natural selection (transmutation, as it was then called) and naively sent it to Darwin, seeking his help in introducing it to the Royal Society. Little did he know that Darwin had been thinking along the same lines for 25 years.

The Great Man, however, had refrained from publication because he feared that such a manifestly atheist work would hurt his glorious career as traditional naturalist. Yet Darwin, writes Wolfe, was a Gentleman, which Wallace wasn’t. So Darwin had the pack loaded.

Sir Charles Lyell and other Gentlemen of the Royal Society closed ranks behind Darwin and persuaded him to knock off an abstract of a book yet unwritten. The abstract was then presented at the same session as Wallace’s completed paper – alphabetically. Since the D comes before the W, Darwin reaped the ensuing harvest of adulation, while generously acknowledging Wallace’s honest but implicitly inferior efforts.

Wallace was at the time catching flies in Malaysia and had no clue about the unfolding tragicomedy. When the flycatcher did become aware of it, diffident man that he was, he didn’t argue against Darwin’s priority, choosing to remain a footnote to the hastily written Origin.

So far it was all good knockabout stuff, as typical of the cutthroat scientific establishment then as it is now. But a few years later Wallace did something that today’s Darwinists don’t like to mention.

He blew out of the water Darwin’s cosmogony, such as it was. Before things evolve, they have to be. So where did Evolution start from? Here’s Wolfe at his best:

“Darwin had apparently never thought of it quite that way before. Long pause… and finally, ‘Ohhh,’ he said, ‘probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.’ One student pressed him further. He wanted to know where the cells came from…”

No one, not Darwin, not Dawkins – no one – has answered this question in an intelligible way. Wolfe then proceeds to show that Darwin’s Evolution fails every one of the standard tests for a scientific hypothesis:

No one has ever observed and recorded this phenomenon. Other scientists can’t replicate it. The theory isn’t falsifiable, in the Karl Popper sense. Scientists can’t make prediction based on it. It doesn’t illuminate hitherto unknown areas of science.

Wolfe then lands another crushing blow: “Next to genetic theory, the Theory of Evolution came off not as a science but as a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy, and leaking all over the place.”

Wallace identified another gushing leak in Darwin’s cosmogony. He disavowed Darwin’s (and his own) theory because it couldn’t possibly explain the appearance of the human brain and its most conspicuous function: speech.

According to Darwin, natural selection delivers only meliorating characteristics necessary for physical survival. The brain obviously doesn’t answer this description, wrote Wallace. People don’t need to write sonnets to survive physically. Quite the contrary, that ability may well imperil physical survival. And in any case, it took man millions of years to learn how to use a tiny, if still significant portion, of his brain. He managed to survive famously – so why did the brain become so intricate?

Darwin’s take on speech was frankly risible: in The Descent of Man, he claimed that human speech had evolved from onomatopoeic gibberish, man trying to imitate sounds made by birds. Such musings are strictly for the birds: it’s easier to believe in Genesis than in birdsong evolving into a Shakespeare sonnet, Aquinas’s Summa or even Darwin’s Origin.

Wallace, being a scientist first and foremost, accepted that problem and realised that Evolution wasn’t the Theory of Everything. At best, it was a theory of some things, and not even a definitive one.

No such problems for Darwin. By frankly admitting in his preface to The Descent of Man that his aim was to prove that God didn’t exist, he stopped being a scientist and became a propagandist, typologically closer to Lenin’s League of Militant Atheists than, say, to Watson and Crick.

Having brilliantly shown what the origin of speech isn’t, Wolfe then proceeds to show what it is. That animates his frontal assault on Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of structural linguistics, whose theories tortured me at university.

According to Chomsky, every person’s brain contains a ‘language organ’, more or less the same for everyone. “To Chomsky,” writes Wolfe, “it didn’t matter what a child’s first language was. Whatever it was, every child’s language organ could use the ‘deep structure’, ‘universal grammar’, and ‘language acquisition device’ he was born with to express what he had to say,… whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese.”

Wolfe mercilessly mocks Chomsky and his theories, exciting my schadenfreude no end. Like Wolfe, I detest gurus of any kind, and leftie gurus like Chomsky especially. However, I’d more charitably describe this particular theory as dubious, rather than worthless – especially if I had Wolfe’s problem of offering a viable alternative.

Here he co-opts the anthropological linguist Daniel Everett, who spent years among the Pirahã people, a hunter-gatherer group of the Amazon Rainforest and the most primitive tribe extant.

Everett was the first non-Pirahã to learn their language, which couldn’t have been unduly hard. The language has all of 500 words, heavily relies on whistling as a means of communication and has only one grammatical tense, the present. The Pirahãs are incapable of abstract thought and therefore don’t need words to express them. Their way of wishing someone goodnight is saying “Don’t sleep, there are snakes” (the title of Everett’s book).

Everett disagrees with Chomsky that language is innate. He argues that language is like the bow and arrow, a tool to solve a problem as it arises. Language, in other words, is a cultural artefact developed in parallel with culture.

Wolfe accepts Everett’s view uncritically, which to me somewhat mars his dazzling essay. Everett implicitly countenances Darwin’s theory by treating the Pirahã as a throwback to primordial times, an early stage in the development of man.

That presupposes a steady progress: in one era, out the other. But there’s no evidence for any such process. There exists, however, quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

For example, the earliest known sites of human habitation show that all those thousands of years ago people were already as intelligent as any Darwinist and quite a bit more artistic. Also, rather than replacing one another with kaleidoscopic finality, human types happily coexisted. For example, Neanderthals overlapped with Homo sapiens by up to 5,400 years, with much crosspollination going on.

By saying that language is but an artefact, if one without which no other artefact would have been created, Wolfe not only accepts a clearly Darwinist argument, something he spent so many pages debunking, but also falls into a logical trap.

If language is an artefact without which no other artefacts would have been created, then it has to be an innate property. Man simply wouldn’t have survived the millions of years it supposedly took for language to develop without at least some primitive tools essential for his survival.

Wolfe refuses to accept, possibly for pragmatic reasons, that the creation of language is inseparable from the creation of man, which in turn is inseparable from general cosmogony. And no secular theory can match the intelligibility of the cosmogony story presented in Genesis.

I happen to believe it’s true, but such clearly retrograde credulity isn’t essential to realising that the story adds up philosophically and even evidentially (certainly better than any all-encompassing secular theory).

Much as I admire Wolfe and despise Chomsky, the latter is in my judgement closer to the truth: language was born at the same time man was. Trying to explain it in any other way is digging an intellectual hole for oneself.

That’s what Wolfe does, but that by no means diminished my delight in reading his idiosyncratic prose. Show me a writer who doesn’t envy Wolfe, and I’ll show you a hypocrite.

4 thoughts on “Where does speech come from?”

  1. Fortunately, what you believe or what I believe has no bearing or influence on whatever the truth is. All theories are an approximation of the truth of that theory applicable at that time. From Newton to Einstein their theories have been modified to a newer, maybe nearer approximation of the “Truth”.
    We are all subject to the view we hold filtered through our prevailing mindset and ideas that we hold dear, and onto, until a newer one forms and then refilters everything again.

    Happy new year and thanks for an entertaining blog.

  2. Notwithstanding the possible failings in Darwin’s theory as it was expounded 150 years ago and implied moral lacunae in his dealings with the unfortunate Wallace to my mind it is absurd to say that Genesis provides a more compelling and sounder explanation for everything than evolution.

    It is a splendid founding myth (and far closer to the truth than other religious systems) to be sure and has great value as an historical and literary artifact especially in the Authorised version (less sure about the happy clappy later versions) and there may even be grains of real scientific truth and insight in there, possibly deriving from genuine scientific knowledge from an earlier lost civilization – “let there be light” for example can easily be intepreted as a reference to the big bang, almost certainly the true origin of our universe; but it is really stretching it to say the evidence is compelling that as a story, it is true in any more meaningful sense.

    Sure there may be holes in the detail of the evolutionary chain from amoebae to the human brain, but as a working explanation (which is all any scientific theory is until something better comes along) it does a good job and certainly a better job than the bible.

    I think it is helpful to think of evolution as similar to compound interest. If any given parameter improves, across the species, by say 0.0001% per generation; then over the generations we have at our disposition in the 4bn years since the earth was formed (and possibly anything up to 13bn years if we think that the very first living thing in the planet may have come from space and therefore formed and began evolving very much longer ago) then by applying the maths of compound interest we find that after a tiny fraction of this time span anything short of the super computers deployed by NASA will baulk at the size of the resulting number – which in our example is equivalent to the amount of improvement possible – in other words over say 1 bn iterations the amount of change that can be achieved by compounding these absurdly small increments is absolutely staggering.

  3. “The language has all of 500 words, heavily relies on whistling as a means of communication and has only one grammatical tense, the present.”

    That is about the same number of words in French a recruit to the French Foreign Legion is required to learn. That number of words and form into a sentence.

  4. I read The Kingdom of Speech and was intrigued. What I still can’t understand is why Darwin’s theory has become so popular. If Wallace’s argument ruins evolution, why are modern intellectuals so in love with natural selection as The Theory of Everything? They often accuse their theistic opponents of solipsism, which may well be justified, but it seems they are doing the very same thing by ignoring the data that casts doubt on their cherished notions.

    The best thing that can be said of the book is that it caused me to ponder the wonder of language, which had always been something I simply took for granted.

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