The Kingdom of Speech
By Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, 186 pages, $26)
George Orwell nailed it when he said that some ideas are so daft that only intellectuals could take them seriously. Intellectuals, as Thomas Sowell teaches us, are simply those who work with ideas. These folks, experience has taught us, are no better at parsing ideas than people in other vocations. To substantiate this gloomy evaluation we need look no further than how thoroughly the peculiar ideas of three peculiar men — Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin — dominated the thinking (if such it can be called) of intellectuals, artistes, and academics through most of the last century. With Darwinism, the melody lingers on even into this century, though we should know better by now.
The ideas of the first two, Marx and Freud, would seem to have been unpersuasive from the first. Unworthy of the attention of folks who were, well, paying attention. As important as economics are, humans are motivated by many more things than their material condition, contrary to what Marx tried to teach us. He’s discredited now almost everywhere save university faculty lounges, always the last places to get the memo.
Freud, from the comfort of his middle-class psychiatric practice in Vienna, gave us penis envy, the Oedipus complex, and other equally risible phantasms. First hearing of these matters in university lectures as a freshman, I kept waiting for the punch line which never arrived. It finally sank in on me that sentient and otherwise coherent adults were taking this nonsense seriously. (Confirming once again that he who laughs last didn’t get the joke.)
Of the three men, only Darwin’s ideas had a bit of surface plausibility about them at the beginning. But only a bit. Darwinism, which many with the show call science but has no experimental basis and is dealt with now like religious dogma, can be stated economically, to wit: A series of small, random, mutations with survival value brought us, in four and a half billion years, from the single-cell bacterium in slime to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Not a chance in the world.
Since Darwin gave the world his arm-chair theories in the back half of the 19th century, we’ve learned a great deal about the numbing complexity of bio-chemistry, and the fossil record has stubbornly refused to produce evidence of all those intermediary steps that would have put flesh (or at least bones) on Darwin’s theory. And throughout it all, the huge gap between homo sapiens sapiens and every other species should have made it clear on reflection that Darwin’s theory was way too simple to explain how we got from there to here.
But you don’t have to take my word for this when you have Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, his estimable deconstruction of Darwin, modern linguist Noam Chomsky, and the entire careerist branch of the scientific-journalism-complex and its political temptations. In Kingdom, Wolfe does for self-regarding, self-protecting, lushly funded science what he did for art humbugs in The Painted Word and for modern architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House.
Wolfe confirms what many have long suspected, that science is not a secular priesthood whose members are simply searching for The Truth, whatever it might be, and are immune to matters that lesser mortals concern themselves with: getting a good job, tenure, promotion, raises, getting one’s PhD dissertation accepted, grant money, getting one’s articles published in the right journals, prestige among the in-group, and so on. Many scientists, Wolfe notes, are indeed competent, honest truth-seekers who do fine work. But when some upstart, even an upstart with solid evidence for his case (perhaps especially an upstart with evidence) challenges a cherished theory or a high-ranking poo-bah, Big Science, and its enabling journalists, are as quick to circle the wagons as any other institution. (Google global warming, University of East Anglia, “Climategate” for a fine example of this.)
At the center of the vast difference between humans and every other species to call Earth home, and the fatal complication for every theory that purports to explain all, is speech. Language. It’s the main thing that separates humans from every other species, and makes possible the things that make humans human — abstract thought, the ability to remember the past and contemplate the future, to have aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual lives. Humans write books about dolphins. Dolphins don’t write books about humans (don’t even read them). Humans, in Milton’s words, justify the ways of God to man. Dogs don’t do the same for dogs (charming and splendid creatures though they are).
Darwin’s theories are not, in the modern phrase, settled science. They aren’t even unsettled science. They are educated guesses at best. To be science, Wolfe reminds us, “There are five standard tests for a scientific hypothesis. Has anyone observed the phenomenon — in this case, Evolution — as it occurred and recorded it? Could other scientists replicate it? Could any of them come up with a set of facts that, if true, would contradict the theory? Could scientists make predictions based on it? Did it illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science? In the case of Evolution… well… no… no… no… no… and no.”
Darwin made several lame attempts to explain how man got his gift of gab from lower animals through his exotic selection process. Wolfe catalogues these in Kingdom for our amusement. Later comes Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, who dismisses the question of speech by claiming that humans have an organ for speech, which organ, misfortunately for those hoping to cling to this easy out, has never been captured by an X-ray, MRI, or CAT-Scan. It has never been turned up by exploratory surgery or autopsy. No one, least of all Chomsky, knows where it resides. It fails all the tests above. But Chomsky, for reasons Wolfe elaborates, is a scientific Bigfoot. So woe be to the assistant professor who challenges Chomsky’s anatomical equivalent to the unicorn.
Chomsky is better known to those outside of the small, closed, and some might consider dreary world of linguists because of his left-wing politics, which he has broadcast fortissimo for decades. Chomsky has no more expertise in foreign affairs, and the other matters he pontificates on, than your Aunt Eunice. But in today’s leftist academy, and with today’s relentlessly left-wing media, this is no handicap. In fact, as Wolfe lays out for readers, this may be the main reason for his prestige in linguistics, and why his highly questionable theories are catechism, not to be questioned by cheeky researchers.
This short trip with Wolfe is, as has been the case with his other books, both enlightening and amusing. It repays the reading time.
Santa should know about this book.
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