Tag Archives: language

Wolfe Argues Against Evolutionary Speech

“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.”