Tom Wolfe is a wild character in the world of writing. He is most famously known for advocating the New Journalism movement which criticized mainstream media for pretending to have the ability to be objective. Since then he has been known to be a controversial writer who challenges things we all assume to be true. His newest target: evolution.
His book, The Kingdom of Speech, argues that evolution is not really about natural selection, instead it is about language. In Wolfe’s interview with CBS News, he argued, “I came to the conclusion that Darwinism, the theory of evolution, is another myth. … And it’s no use saying that human beings evolved from animals, because they’re creatures with totally different powers. If you have the power of speech, that’s also the power of memory.”
Wolfe is advocating that evolution is wrong in the same way a creationist would say evolution is wrong. Humans are not beings evolved from animals because humans have an attribute that animals do not have: speech. With the ability to speak and remember things we set ourselves apart from the animal kingdom.
A reasonable objection to his argument is: What about animal communication? Studies show that dolphins are able to use their voice to give each other unique names. Without getting too into the woods with the philosophy of language, Ludwig von Wittgenstein argued a long time ago that, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” His point is that animals may very well have the ability to speak, but we just don’t have the biological capacity to understand them.
Unfortunately Wolfe does not tackle the giants of linguistic philosophy, instead his focus is solely on Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argued earlier in his career about “universal grammar” which means that each human being has the innate ability to develop grammar. Wolfe critiziced Chomsky’s book on this subject because it ultimately came to the conclusion that “the evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.” Which is to say that Chomsky’s concept of universal grammar was naïve and never got clost to unerstanding what language represents.
If this conversation interests you at all, you may find interest in Wolfe’s book. I have a sneaking suspicion, however that Wolfe’s snarky charm has worn thin on even his most dedicated readers. And he is probably not winning new fans by arguing against the theory of evolution in the kind of half joking manner that has followed him throughout his career. Despite my criticisms, The Kingdom of Speech is sure to get you thinking and may be the perfect introduction into these big ideas.
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