Max Muller, a pioneering 19th-century linguist at Oxford, read Darwin’s work and declared that the use of language was the gift that definitively separated human beings from the animal kingdom. It was, Muller said, “our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.” Nowadays, neo-Darwinians would dismiss mulish Muller as a “speciesist.”
Andrew Ferguson summarizes and reviews Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech for sympathetic readers. He condemns scientists who argue against non-scientists asking awkward questions they’d rather ignore and claim to deserve a respect they have yet to earn. “Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be.” (via Prufrock News)
“There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.”
The great Tom Wolfe takes on language, Darwin, and Noam Chomsky in his new book, The Kingdom of Speech. He says all of the theories on how language began are terrible, exposing a major weakness in the bowels of evolution.
In his article yesterday, Hillel Italie notes:
Speech is the book’s primary subject, but status has been the running theme of Wolfe’s work from the astronauts in “The Right Stuff” to campus life in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” and it’s a subplot for “Kingdom of Speech.” He doesn’t only take on Chomsky, but portrays Darwin as a competitive, would-be aristocrat striving for “honor as a Gentleman and a scholar.”
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to any argument against evolution, but this particular argument also draws me in and recalls what I read about language origin in a course on the history of English. All of them are grasping at straws.
Charles Mann goes into detail on what Wolfe explores and explains:
When Darwin finally took on language in “The Descent of Man” (1871), the coffee got pretty weak. By that point, the argument that language evolved from animal sounds had already been made by well-known figures like Wallace, August Schleicher (the best-respected linguist of the day) and Edward B. Tylor (one of cultural anthropology’s founders). Darwin mainly reiterated their reasoning, which amounted to: Bird song and dog barks are actually pretty expressive, so I bet they could have extended somehow into human language. The term for this kind of thing in academia is “hand-waving.”
I shared this idea on Facebook today. I’ll elaborate it here.
I had an epiphany today. I figured out what I think is the essential problem with liberalism in our time. They believe in an outmoded form of science, a pseudoscientific myth.
Think of one of our president’s favorite phrases: “My opponents are on the wrong side of history.”
Think about it. What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history? How can history have sides?
It can only have sides if you believe there is some overarching inevitability to the course of history. It’s understandable for Christians to think that way. We’re supernaturalists. We believe a Mind is in control. That’s how our world-view works.
But how can secularists believe that history has an inevitable course, a right and a wrong side?
It can only come from a myth, a belief in some kind of driving force behind the course of events, even if it’s seen as somehow non-supernatural.
In the 19th Century there was a common belief in Progress. You may think of the 19th Century as an age of faith, but it was also an age in which the driving, dynamic new world view was Darwinian. The problem was that even the scientists of the time generally didn’t understand how evolution works.
(I don’t propose to debate the evolution question here. I’m talking in terms of social myths and common assumptions.)
The kind of Evolution that was popularized by writers like H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw was purposeful. Nature – in some way – was striving to perfect itself. Everything it did was an attempt to come closer to the perfection that waited at the end. History had an inevitable course. This is implicit in Marx. He firmly believed he was writing science. Because it was science, anyone who disagreed had to be insane. Continue reading Conservatism is scientific