Sunday, August 4, 2019

Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech"

In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe is amazed by the power of speech and argues that it's what separates us from the animals. Of course, one could point to the greater brain size and consciousness that lead to speech. But he's certainly correct that speech is able to move us forward at a rapid rate. Speech allows us to make plans, to create and preserve accurate memories, to do math ("Doubters need only try to count from one to ten without words."), to ask questions (164-165), etc. Speech is so powerful that Wolfe argues it should be the Fourth "Kingdom"-- after animal, vegetable, and mineral (168). 

(I'm a relatively big Wolfe fan, having read a half-dozen of his books. Here's my blog post honoring his life and work, on the occasion of his death-- including a reference to this book, which was widely ignored because of its implications. A shorter version of the book was published as a long article in Harpers. Here's John McWhorter and Chris Knight with what look like balanced views the book and the Wolfe/Chomsky "debate".) 

But what is speech? Wolfe doesn't define it until the end; throughout the book, he's happy to allow the Darwinists to flail around in their failure to explain "it". He describes speech as a form of "mnemonics"-- a memory aid. Thus, language is "the mother of all mnemonics...Speech, language is a matter of using these mnemonics, i.e., words, to create meaning." (162)

OK, speech is amazing and powerful. But Wolfe is most interested in the immense efforts to explain its origins and development-- i.e., its evolution. The term "evolution" is used in two basic ways-- and those uses are often sloppily conflated, for convenience's sake or worse. The first definition is quite powerful but has modest ambitions: evolution as the process by which a set of mechanisms have led to some of the development of life on earth. These mechanisms can explain-- or if not explain, at least provide a compelling narrative for-- many minor changes over time. 

The second definition is far grander: some version of a sciency narrative (and often-purported explanations) for describing the entire development of all life on earth. (Evolution does not speak to two other vital big-picture questions: the creation/beginning of all and the beginning of life.) Wolfe discusses both uses of the term evolution, but is especially focused on the latter. 

Speech is one of a handful of areas where evolution runs into immense (prohibitive?) difficulties in moving from "narrative about" to "explanation for" the development of life. (See also: consciousness, vital organs, reproductive organs, irreducible complexity, why we lost our body hair, etc.) And concerns about speech within the larger picture have been around since Charles Darwin. Thus, Wolfe details Darwin's stories about the development of speech. Speech is vocal communication and he noted that "animals had their forms" of this (20). So, presumably, "language had somehow evolved from imitation of animal sounds...instinctive cries...sounds [from nature]...", bird mating songs, and so on (55, 70-71, 152-153). 

Wolfe details how Max Muller took up the cudgels for science and skewered Darwin's stories, starting in 1861, by labeling them "the bow-wow theory...the pooh-pooh theory...the ding-dong theory...the mama theory...the sing-song theory..." and so on (55-56). Darwin and friends kept looking for evidence, diligently, but couldn't find anything (66). In 1872, the Philological Society of London "gave upon trying to find out the origin of language" (76-77). This period lasted for 77 years, until 1949, when World War II reignited the question. 

Led by Morris Swadesh, cryptography became important; linguistics moved into a scientific phase; and speech communication became a significant academic discipline. He wanted to establish a chronology of languages, including explanations for their development (81-85). This effort continued for 75 years (until 2014), led by the charismatic and brilliant Noam Chomsky. Wolfe devotes chapter 4 to Chomsky. The discussion is largely respectful, as Wolfe is amazed by his output, charisma, and influence. Chomsky wrote 118 books and 271 articles (105-106). And he took over the entire field of linguistics (86). (For what it's worth, Wolfe sees his scathing review of a B.F. Skinner book as the cause of his rise to the top [92-95].)

Chomsky introduced a radically new theory of language-- that we were born with a "language organ" in our brains (87, 96). In 2002, he and two colleagues added the "theory of recursion"-- that sentences and thoughts were endlessly put inside each other, allowing for more constructive speech. Both theories allowed for the prospective evolution of language. Every language depended on the organ and got more complex through recursion, so language must have evolved. As such, all languages "were the same, with just some minor local accents." (89) "It was just a matter of time...before empirical research substantiated his analysis." (96) 

(From linguistics, Chomsky moved into the role of "public intellectual" with his essay on America's role in Vietnam [98, 100]. He also dabbled in "Radical Chic"-style protests: get yourself arrested in the late morning or early afternoon of a day with nice weather-- in time to get to popular nightspots to tell war stories [101].) Chomsky's academic and political work bolstered each other and he grew to staggering reputation and prominence [104].)

The good/bad news: unlike many other aspects of the evolutionary narrative, the power of Chomsky's theories and the concreteness of its predictions allowed it to be tested by evidence and the scientific method. And so, with chapters 5-6, Wolfe turns his focus to Daniel Everett's field work within an obscure South American tribe, the Piraha and their rudimentary language. 

In the tradition of Darwin (after his early work), Chomsky did not rely on fieldwork (89). In this, Wolfe compares Everett to Alfred Wallace (the co-founder of evolution) as "fly-catchers"-- and Chomsky to Darwin as gentlemen who theorized. Although a "fly-catcher" in terms of fieldwork, Everett was also an accomplished scholar-- with three books and about 70 articles (110).

In a word, Everett found that the Piraha language was not recursive. Thus, it had been invented by them and had not evolved. The bomb was a 2005 article in Current Anthropology, revealing that the Piraha language had developed out of their culture. 

Everett's findings sacked much of Chomsky's work. Ironically, Everett had been a "full-fledged Chomsky acolyte" (110). In fact, it took years "for him to realize that his adherence to Chomskyan beliefs was preventing him from deciphering Piraha." (110)  

Wolfe details the back-and-forth battles that ensued-- a March 2007 academic article by Chomskyans in response, an influential and favorable April 2007 New Yorker piece on Everett, and an effort to test Everett's findings by another prominent Chomskyan, Tecumseh Fitch (123-124; described in the New Yorker piece). After living and working with the Piraha for 30 years, Everett was even accused of racism (129). Go figure! 

But then Everett published a popularizing book in 2008 on linguistics, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes-- what Wolfe calls a coup de scoop (130-131). "Everett didn't so much attack Chomsky's theory as dismiss it." (141) Likewise, the title of Everett's follow-up 2012 book was "Language-- The Cultural Tool"-- i.e., something man had made for himself, not something that had evolved (159). 

Better yet, from a scientific view, Everett's findings and work allowed others the space and courage to join the fray. "Linguists who had kept their doubts and grumbles to themselves were emboldened to speak out openly." (143) Wolfe cites one example, Vyvyan Evans' The Language Myth from 2014 that "rejected Chomsky's and Pinker's ideas of a 'language instinct'." (144) 

Chomsky's responses to all of this? Opposition at first. But then the "language organ" disappeared: "he never recanted a word...merely subsumed the same concepts beneath a new and broader body of thought. Gone, too, astonishingly, was recursion." (146) This eventually led to an amazing 2014 academic article where Chomsky and seven prominent colleagues said they were giving up the ghost and acknowledging their failure in finding explanations for the development of language. This article was the catalyst for Wolfe's book.

The scholars "sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we'll keep trying, they said gamely, but...running up a white flag of abject defeat and surrender." (4, 156) The first 11 words of the article: "the evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma." (150) After that, they said "the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved...[it was] as mysterious as ever" (156-157) In sum, it had been 150 years since Darwin's theory was announced "and they had learned...nothing." (5)  

More on the development and emergence of evolution as science and narrative

Wolfe is also interested in the broader topic of evolution-- as a comprehensive "theory of everything" narrative about the development of life. He notes Darwin's early fieldwork-- particularly with the Fuegians who seemed like a "missing link" to him, with their simple speech and ape-like bodies (18). Wolfe also points to a trip to a zoo in 1838 as a key moment for Darwin's belief that man evolved from apes, after seeing the "human" reactions of an orangutan named Jenny (28). 

Darwin was convinced of the theory, but worried about publishing in an environment when such views were heretical and the church had considerable power. Robert Chambers published a related and highly-criticized book in 1844-- but anonymous until 1884, well after his death-- cementing Darwin's concerns (8, 19). 

But Alfred Wallace had come to conclusions similar to Darwin's. Wallace was on the field far away, so he sent a 20-page manuscript to Charles Lyell, a prominent scientist (and friend of Darwin's). Wallace was looking for input and support, rather than submitting it to journals for publication. "If Lyell found merit in his stunning theory, he had the power to introduce it to the world in a heroic way." (11) Unfortunately, this goaded Lyell, Darwin, and their coterie of friends into a very different (and un-heroic) introduction. 

Wolfe portrays this as a class struggle: Wallace the field scientist and "fly-catcher" (who captured all sorts of critters and sold them to collectors and zoos) vs. Lyell, Darwin, and Co.-- the "British Gentlemen" in the scientific establishment. (Wolfe makes a similar comparison between Chomsky and Everett.) 

Darwin had kept silent, while "his career had been compiling evidence to support" his earth-shaking theory (30). He had been afraid of "the Wrath of the Godly" and an "enterprising competitor" who would reach similar conclusions and beat him to the punch (30). When Lyell showed the manuscript to Darwin, he was worried about being pre-empted by Wallace. In sum, "Darwin was petrified by the prospect of condemnation [for holding unpopular views], but aflame with ambition." (19) 

So, Lyell came up with the idea of presenting Wallace's paper alongside Darwin's work at an impending meeting of scientists. Darwin quickly had two short papers written for him. (Writing his own would have been tacky and ungentlemanly.) Fortuitously, D comes before W in the alphabet, so his work was read before Wallace's. One irony: Wallace's paper was published without his knowledge or consent. And given the pace of mail in those days, Wallace wouldn't learn of this for months and decided to defer to his more powerful "colleagues". In the meantime, Darwin was busy writing his book, beating Wallace to press with his first book, The Origin of Species (32-41).

Darwin was goaded into action by Wallace's work. But in Origins, Darwin was still pussy-footing around the question of man in particular. He only mentions it in passing at the end. Still, reviewers saw where he was going-- and crushed him for that reason among others (43-45). Thomas Huxley was the notable counterexample, publishing versions of the same review in many prominent publications, under different names (46-49). (I'm not sure if that was ethical then; it certainly isn't today! An interesting aside: Wolfe says that the French consistently panned Darwin's work, having already wrestled with the same ideas through Lamarck decades earlier [50-51].) 

Wallace went on to a prolific publishing career. By Wolfe's estimation, his "heft had turned into real gravitas" by 1870, just before Darwin published his second book, formalizing his theory that man had descended from apes (75). At that time, Wallace "systematically disassembled and demolished what was closest to Darwin's heart, the central point of his entire theory from the beginning, namely, that human beings are animals themselves..." (60) 

Wallace pointed to the limits of natural selection as a mechanism (only helpful in "the competition in the struggle for existence"); its narrowness ("it can't produce any changes that are bad for the creature"); and its inability to "produce any 'specially developed organ' that is useless to a creature" at the time (as is required in the supposed evolution of vital organs). He pointed to the brain and hairless bodies as examples (60-63). (In this battle of legacy over evolutionary thinking, Wolfe argues that Darwin was helped-- and Wallace hindered-- by Wallace's later belief in spiritism [64].) 

Wolfe comes back to the "theory of everything" idea and describes Darwin's claims about "cosmogony" (how life began and developed on earth). Wolfe details many other cosmogonies, including the Navajo belief that a midge created everything. The midge is so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. This resulted in "probably the most sophisticated cosmogony ever believed in, a story of full-scale, gradual evolution from next to nothing to modern man." (25) Wolfe then segues to Darwin's midge-like story that a single cell (or "4-5 cells", he would later claim) were responsible for it all (24-26). 

How did Darwin's story gain traction when people would laugh at the Navajo story? It was sciency in a time of increasing respect for science. Was Darwin's hypothesis "scientific" in the usual ways: was it observed; could it be replicated; could it be contradicted; could scientists make predictions based on it; did it advance other areas of science? The answers were no or mostly so (27-28). But sciency sounded pretty good at the time. (It still does!) And there was always the promise of more evidence in the future. 

After years of failing to find much evidence on crucial gaps in the narrative, Darwin developed his stories with more detail. Wolfe ridicules a lot of this, pointing to Darwin's repeated use of his dog to bolster the story's intuition (72-74). "The upshot was a real tour de force of literary imagination" (69): The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Then Wolfe compares Darwin's tales to Kipling's Just So Stories from 1902. "Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to." (70) (As an aside, Wolfe notes that Stephen Jay Gould was the first to make the Kipling/Darwin parallel-- in 1978 [72].) 

From there, Wolfe argues that Darwin's theory was "overshadowed" by genetics as a (real/full) science-- as Mendel's work gained prominence, posthumously, 16 years after he died. Darwinism took a hit, by comparison, but eventually genetics were co-opted as one component of the grand narrative (78-80). 

Wolfe's book makes many things clearer-- from the particulars of the linguistics debate to the Wallace/Darwin "competition". But on the bigger picture, it's quite helpful in elucidating that we all believe in narratives and we all believe in miracles (defined as fantastic low-probability events or series of events). Some believe in the natural and supernatural; others are only (and narrowly) willing to entertain the natural. 


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