Book review: Tom Wolfe picks an argument with Darwin and Chomsky in The Kingdom of Speech

The book is a triumph of style rather than substance, with its drama focused on rivalries and an over-reliance on literary flair instead of scientific facts.
To question Charles Darwin’s scientific status, Wolfe uses Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo by Fototeca Gilardi / Getty Images
To question Charles Darwin’s scientific status, Wolfe uses Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo by Fototeca Gilardi / Getty Images

Tom Wolfe has left a palpable mark on modern journalism. In a career stretching more than half a century, Wolfe defined a new genre, putting literary techniques into the service of journalism. In the 1960s when he first burst on the scene with his flamboyant style, white suits, mordant wit and inveterate iconoclasm, Wolfe served as a defibrillator for an intellectual culture that had been left moribund by a decade of stifling conformity and ideological inquisition.

But while radical in style, Wolfe’s politics were always conservative, even reactionary. In the 1960s, amid all the countercultural fervour and the growing disdain for authority, the target of Wolfe’s derision was not so much the people in power but those trying to challenge it. The contradictions of the New Left and the absurdities of radical chic provided Wolfe with ample material for his satires. He pricked many an inflated ego with his irreverent sallies. But even as contemporaries such as Norman Mailer were risking arrest to protest the Vietnam War, Wolfe was content with skewering the glitterati for their well-meaning but ill-­conceived philanthropy.

Wolfe has franchised this decidedly exclusive iconoclasm into a successful career with well-regarded books and unremitting media exposure. It is rare for a Wolfe book not to make the best-seller list. And his latest – The Kingdom of Speech – is no exception. But where in the past the subjects of his mockery have been the media, artists, composers, writers and critics, this time Wolfe has undertaken a more formidable adversary. The focus of Wolfe’s latest provocation is evolution and speech; and he is out to dethrone the reigning colossi of both fields: Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Speech, he argues, is the power that gives humans undeniable superiority over other animals even though many of them have more strength, greater agility and keener senses. But if natural selection is the evolutionary engine that turned an amoeba into a man, what explains a human brain equipped to play chess, compose symphonies and develop penicillin emerging millions of years before it would be put to any of those uses?

This was the question that led Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who hit upon the idea of natural selection, to start seeing humans as distinct – a species defying evolutionary explanation. Natural selection, he argued, occurs in response to present needs; it can’t logically help a species develop traits that it won’t need until sometime in the future.

This is also the basis that Wolfe uses to dismiss the theory of evolution.

As a journalist, Wolfe understands that the evidentiary basis for his objections is thin. Lacking the intellectual apparatus for scientific refutation, however, Wolfe deploys a literary arsenal: he uses drama, contradiction, rivalry, hubris, nemesis, juxtaposition and irony to make his case. The result is vastly entertaining but it comes at the expense of science and knowledge.

So how does one refute Darwin? Not by referring to available scientific data, but by lampooning his gentlemanly excesses, his years of daddy-paid indolence, and his class-­enabled glory, stolen from a worthier, but less privileged adversary. Wolfe compares Darwin’s hypothesis on the origin of species to a litany of creation myths – from Ancient Egypt to Assiniboine Indians. As far as Wolfe is concerned, Darwin was offering nothing more than Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – a collection of fantasies for children about the origin of various phenomena, from the leopard’s spots to the camel’s hump – but with scientific pretensions.

But hubris alone does not make for a satisfying story. There has to be a nemesis. And in the case of Darwin, Wolfe brings in the aforementioned Wallace, a common “flycatcher”, who without Darwin’s wealth or advantages manages to beat the celebrated naturalist to the theory of natural selection. Wallace sends his findings to Darwin who, with the assistance of his gentlemen friends, manoeuvres his plebeian rival out of the limelight – and thereby history.

Rivalries constitute much of the book’s drama – a drama that is replicated when Wolfe moves from Darwin to Chomsky. Since Chomsky is no aristocrat, Wolfe’s animus towards him seems to be of a different source. Chomsky made his name as a linguist, but his celebrity is derived from his political activism. Wolfe has little time for such activism. He is less concerned with the convictions of the activists than the faux pas they commit while acting upon them. Chomsky’s commitments thus become less important than the fact that he sits in an air-conditioned room. And the air-conditioner becomes Chomsky’s indictment when he is pitted against a nemesis, Daniel Everett, another outsider, who braves pythons and diarrhoea deep in the Amazon in his quest to unlock the mysteries of language.

Chomsky burst onto the scene roughly the same time as Wolfe. He revolutionised modern linguistics with his theory that the structure of language is genetically hardwired into the human brain in a way that remains uniform regardless of culture. The proof of this was a universal grammar and the uniquely human capacity for recursion (ie the ability to combine more than one proposition in a single sentence). But after dominating the field for half-century, Chomsky’s reign is being challenged. After spending years in the Brazilian Amazon with the Parahã tribe, linguist Everett has shaken the very foundations of Chomsky’s theory with the claim that the Parahã have no recursion in their language, thereby disproving universal grammar. This supposed humbling of an ivory tower intellectual by an outsider is the stage for Wolfe’s drama of dissent and persecution.

But dramatic rivalries do not absolve one of the need for verification. Though compulsively readable, the book ends up as a triumph of style over substance. Wolfe is a consummate entertainer and he has certainly armed readers with enough witticisms to fight an army of scientists. But by allowing form to precede function, he has fallen short of the promised regicide.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War. He is currently writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria.

Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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