A review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff, 2016.
This little book by the novelist and contemporary commentator on modern culture Tom Wolfe is worth the attention of anyone interested in the enigma of language. An enigma it is, more especially if one does not understand language as God ordained. Wolfe would appear to be an example of this point of view.
So if Wolfe does not connect language to the Creator, but rather sees it as an artifact, an invention of man, what use is this book to the Christian reader? My answer is in two halves. In the first instance Kingdom of Speech is a good book because Wolfe puts his finger firmly (and repeatedly) on the problem of incorporating the realities of speech within the confines of evolutionary grand narratives, whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, it makes no difference, since he shows how all its champions come up empty-handed. He shows further, with the assured poise of a well-read researcher, and in entertaining prose that the problem of accounting for speech has eluded and is eluding the brightest of the “brights” from Darwin down to Chomsky. That story itself is worth getting the book for.
But an added feature is that in posing the problem, the author presents the enormity of the task for the evolutionary purists, and while doing so spells out the “achievement” that language and speech is. Alongside of this there are diverting examinations of the sort of conformity-at-all-costs peer pressure which has been exercised within the academy since before the publication of the Origin of Species. One more exposure of how utterly fallacious the picture of how cool and disinterested the scientific establishment has always been is always to be welcomed.
But the second part of my answer sounds a note of caution. While Wolfe is rightly dismissive of the usual accounts of human speech in evolutionary dogma, he replaces it with Daniel Everett’s view of language as artifact, which, though an improvement, is nonetheless unsatisfactory.
The book can be roughly divided between the compelling story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, which is the most entertaining part of the book, and the more contemporary tale of the supremacy of the armchair linguist Noam Chomsky and the rise of the young field-hardened pretender, Everett. Wolfe is well aware that Chomsky is a patron saint of progressives as well as of the scientific who’s who, and he unleashes both barrels of his furious irony upon him (for those of you who cannot get enough of this cruel pursuit, may I recommend the appropriate essays in David Berlinski’s Black Mischief).
He contrasts Chomsky’s ivory tower approach to his subject with Everett’s more down to earth empirical studies. Everett lived and worked among an obscure Amazonian tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pea-de-hah) for many years. These people have an accentuated view of present experience; they are the ultimate empiricists. Everett, who went there as a missionary, lost his faith when he couldn’t provide evidence to the Piraha which they could comprehend, of Christ’s existence (of course, the reality of Christian truth claims, along with very many other things – like the year 1564, or tomorrow, or the existence of Antarctica -, cannot be decided within the limits of a strict empiricism, unless one has been to the Antarctic!).
Anyway, Everett’s work threatened to overthrow the Chomskian paradigm and has therefore been vigorously opposed. Still, the outcome of all of this is that at the time of writing, the phenomenon of speech is a mystery.
I give the book a cautious recommendation. What it lacks is a good critique of Everett’s epistemological assumptions and any interaction with his thesis that language is just a tool for getting communication done. As such, The Kingdom of Speech seriously lacks a proper ending. In sum, it is entertaining, informative, iconoclastic, but without any thought of exploring the deficiencies of the feeble-looking speech as artifact thesis. From all the eulogizing of speech which Wolfe has indulged in inside the book, this is a grave omission.