Science and Status
Tom Wolfe wrote a book ostensibly about science that reads as one on snobbery. The Kingdom of Speech offers not one but two haughty villains in Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Alfred Russel Wallace and Dan Everett, unheralded but quite accomplished, play the humble heroes.
In 1858, Darwin received a manuscript from Wallace detailing the latter’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin maintained that the same idea had occurred to him more than two decades earlier. Wallace, a man who dropped out of school at 14 and sold exotic fly specimens to subsidize his scientific endeavors, lacked the prestige of his correspondent. So, when the English gentleman forwarded his own ideas on evolution, coincidentally similar to Wallace’s, along with his pen pal’s manuscript to London’s Linnean Society, the group read the papers aloud (Darwin first!) and the scientific world gave the established man of letters in London, rather than the “flycatcher” in the Malaysian Archipelago, the credit. “To put the matter in perspective,” Wolfe writes, “one has only to imagine what would have happened had the roles been reversed. Suppose Darwin is the one who has just written a formal twenty-page scientific treatise for publication … and somehow Wallace got his hands on it ahead of time … and announces that he made this same astounding epochal discovery twenty-one years ago but never got around to writing it up and claiming priority … a horse laugh?”
Darwin’s private writings predating Wallace’s papers show a similarity in thinking, so perhaps Wolfe acts somewhat uncharitably toward Darwin here. But this does not negate his larger point of history’s ingratitude toward Wallace. As it turned out, Darwin became famous and Wallace a footnote.
The author draws a parallel between the shabby treatment afforded to Darwin’s rival, on the one hand, and the attacks on Chomsky’s debunker, on the other.
Dan Everett came to study language at the Moody Bible Institute, and first encountered the Pirahã tribe that helped to disprove Chomskyan linguistics while working as a missionary. “Everett struck them as a born-again Alfred Wallace, the clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers,” Wolfe observes. “Look at him! Everett was everything Chomsky wasn’t: a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair. He could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller. But of course! He was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguistics with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.”
The Pirahã language, Everett discovered after years of living among the primitive people, does not conform to the supposedly universal principles Chomsky assigned to language. The Pirahã possessed just three vowels and eight consonants, with no mathematics and no tense beyond the present, and, importantly, no recursion—the phenomenon of theoretically endless additions to a sentence. The simple language spoken by a few hundred people “contained no recursion, none at all, immediately reducing Chomsky’s law to just another feature found mainly in Western languages; and second, it was the Pirahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique ways of living, that shaped the language—not any ‘language organ,’ not any ‘universal grammar’ or ‘deep structure’ or ‘language acquisition device’ that Chomsky said all languages had in common.”
Wolfe’s more argued than opened book ignites most of its disputes on this heretofore arcane question of recursion. Whereas Chomsky’s defenders at Current Affairscontend that he “never believed that all languages had recursion,” rather, “that all people had the capacity to acquire languages with recursion,” linguist John McWhorter finds Everett’s indictment “inconclusive,” partially on the grounds that the sentence structure in Pirahã strikes him as a distinction without a difference from recursion.
In the case of Darwin, scientists deferred to status. In the case of Everett, linguists deferred to the status quo. They fought vigorously for the science to remain static.
If Darwin’s and Chomsky’s relevance pertained merely to biology and linguistics, then Kingdom of Speech’s appearances on bestseller lists might confound even more than the weighty ideas discussed lightly within. But much the same way a book ostensibly about big ideas reads as one about big egos, debates among readers superficially about biology and linguistics quickly turn into heated disputes on two of the three subjects Linus advised us to avoid. (“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”) Topics that normally bring out yawns instead bring out claws.
On Darwin, Wolfe cannot help but show his hand in snide comments (“To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David”) here and there. In turn, readers respond as much to the perceived ideological or theological implications of the book as they do to the matters actually discussed. So, it’s not just academics with skin in the game but 700 Club watchers and God Delusion readers and motorists with “Human Needs Not Corporate Greed” bumper stickers that respond energetically if not hysterically.
And rather than mock Chomsky for predicting millions of deaths in Afghanistan as a result of the post-9/11 invasion or for chronicling a Cambodian genocide in which “executions have numbered at most in the thousands” with the bulk occurring in areas of “limited Khmer Rouge influence,” Wolfe discredits him in his academic vocation to kneecap him in his political avocation. Or at least that’s what his critics think. The review in Current Affairs, for instance, maintains that “It is a tribute to the power of Chomsky’s political views and the evidence he presents in their support that so many critics of his politics feel that the best strategy for undermining them is to attack his linguistics.” But while the same force that motivates Current Affairs’ defense might also motivate Wolfe’s attack, he steers almost entirely clear of Chomsky the public intellectual, a purposeful silence that speaks loudly.
As for the actual content of Chomskyan linguistics, given the stakes, a coterie of acolytes set out to debunk the debunker and, in some cases, stifle Everett’s work. Wolfe writes that the campaign involved ad hominem attacks, publication suppression, and even the Brazilian government banning him from a return to the rainforest for further study. A Chomsky ally, and then the Brazilian group tasked with permitting visits to the interior rainforest, tagged his scholarship “racist.” This conversation-stopper of a word, not exactly found in a language that regarded its native speakers as the “straight ones” and everyone else as “crooked heads,” ended Everett’s decades in the jungle. He last lived among the Pirahã in 2009, and despite the roadblock, expresses hope in correspondence with this author that the authorities will soon allow him back.
The charge curiously stems from the very part of Everett’s scholarship that refutes Chomsky. “The accusation goes that because Everett says that the Pirahã do not have recursion, and that all human languages supposedly have recursion, Everett is asserting that the Pirahã are less than human,” Chronicle of Higher Education writer Tom Bartlett noted in a 2012 article on the controversy. Do you believe in Chomskyan linguistics or do you believe in white supremacy? “Racist” seems a strange opprobrium toward a man who spent the better part of three decades with the people he allegedly holds bigoted views toward.
The means of denying credit and suppressing criticism seemed less the stuff of higher education than of gutter politics. The adage of academic politics becoming so vicious because of the smallness of the stakes may come to mind. It shouldn’t. The stakes, and not just for Chomsky and Everett, are in fact high.
Wolfe indicts the process, the big shots, and their big ideas. He finds Darwin and Chomsky long on imagination but short on proof. If their partisans see in the novelist a storyteller masquerading as a scientist, Wolfe sees their heroes in much the same light. They weave thought-provoking explanations of the origins of the species and what separates the species from other species. But they don’t offer convincing proof.
“There were five standard tests for a scientific hypothesis,” Wolfe writes in one passage that predictably infuriated defenders of evolutionary theory. “Had anyone observed the phenomenon—in this case, Evolution—as it occurred and recorded it? Could other scientists replicate it? Could any of them come up with a set of facts that, if true, would contradict the theory (Karl Popper’s ‘falsifiability’ test)? Could scientists make predictions based on it? Did it illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science? In the case of Evolution … well … no … no … no … no … and no.”
Wolfe sees Chomsky’s universal grammar, which posits an innate mental circuitry enabling humans to learn language, as something of a category mistake. Arriving in academia in the data-driven postwar years, the MIT professor made a science of social science. He not only rooted language primarily in biology, but developed linguistic theories involving mathematics and computer languages. But in tethering his soft speculations to hard science, Chomsky ultimately set them up for strangulation.
“In three decades nobody had turned up any hard evidence to support Chomsky’s conviction that every person is born with an innate, gene-driven power of speech with the motor running,” The Kingdom of Speech points out. “But so what? Chomsky had made the most ambitious attempt since Aristotle’s in 350 BCE to explain what exactly language is. And no one else in human history had come even close. It was dazzling in its own flailing way—this age-old, unending, utter, ultimate, universal display of ignorance concerning man’s most important single gift.”
Beyond a mistreatment of the men threatening their esteemed placements in their respective fields, Wolfe sees in Darwin and Chomsky a vexing continuity in their unsatisfying attempts to explain the origin of the words that separate man from beast. Not bipedalism or opposing thumbs, traits we share with other animals, but language, a characteristic we share only with other humans, strikes Wolfe as the key difference. But here the continuity that Wolfe sees comes across as a contradiction. Did language gradually evolve, as Darwin suggested, or did it appear relatively suddenly, as Chomsky theorizes? We don’t know, and, barring a discovery that the tape recorder predated the advent of speech, we will never know.
Count Wolfe as a Doubting Thomas on both Charles Darwin’s and Noam Chomsky’s claims. Few may consider this famed novelist and social commentator to be qualified to repudiate or ratify scientific theories. We read him because he’s a great storyteller, and he tells two amazing stories in one book here. Perhaps, in passing himself off as an authority on the science involved, Wolfe may be stretching beyond his particular talents, as considerable as they are.
But a veteran writer on the subject of status—The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, etc.—somehow seems strangely suited to write this book. Wolfe demonstrates powerfully that the men behind two of the most celebrated scientific theories involving human development perpetrated great acts of condescension and injustice toward the rivals and critics threatening their station among scholars. Perhaps it took a layman with less, well, status to pull off what Wolfe does here.
The dust jacket advertises a book on verbal communication. The pages within tell a story about body language, looks, airs, and sniffs. Raised noses, closed ears, curled lips, and jaundiced eyes say more than a loud mouth.