In his ninth decade Tom Wolfe is still twisting the noses of the high and mighty—this time Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin. Playing with language has always been one of Wolfe’s pastimes. But now the social critic and novelist is doing Chomsky one better by inventing his own theory as to why humans have the gift of the gab. Wolfe’s answer: Forget evolution and don’t even think about “language organs,” as postulated by Chomsky.
Humans, Wolfe concludes, invented language as a cultural artifact—in the same way a tango or an iPhone came from our own labors. This culmination to The Kingdom of Speech comes after Wolfe has already untethered language from any evolutionary antecedents. “Speech, language, was something that existed quite apart from evolution. It had nothing to do with it.”
Wolfe contends that language creates an unbridgeable gap between us and other creatures. Speech as the ultimate artifact gave us the cognitive muscle to devise mathematics, farming and other endeavors, , along with a capacity for thought lacking in our primate cousins. “Even the smartest apes don’t have thoughts so much as conditioned responses to certain primal pressures...”
Primatologists would undoubtedly beg to differ with that assertion, but no matter. A funny coincidence occurred just about the time Wolfe’s book was released a couple of weeks ago. The journal Science published a study that showed dogs’ brains are capable of responding to the meaning of words and how they are used—evidence that another species evolved the capacity to process sounds in the brain and derive substance from them. Or maybe this trait in dogs is merely a canine cultural artifact, if one follows along with Mr. Canis lupus.
The notion that Chomsky’s theory of linguistics may be on shaky ground predates any of Wolfe’s contributions on this topic. In fact, Scientific American has a recently posted article, which will also appear in the November print issue, that casts out various pillars of the Chomskyan intellectual edifice (with no aspirations to dis Darwinian evolution).
Have a look. No paywall in sight until mid-October.