A fresh look at an old controversy, as a master provocateur suggests that human language renders the theory of evolution more like a fable than scientific fact.
Before he started focusing his energy on epic novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wolfe delighted in making trouble with his cultural pronouncements, including one that labeled the novel itself an anachronism. Here, the author is in particularly delighted (and often delightful) form, as he targets “Charlie” Darwin and Noam Chomsky (no nickname) as overly influential figures with inflated reputations. What links the two in this short book that encapsulates some 150 years of scientific history is Wolfe’s contention that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language, and that the pompous Chomsky has been exposed, at least in Wolfe’s estimation, as the emperor who has no clothes. “I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before,” he writes toward the conclusion. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a…dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.” As is typical with Wolfe, he finds considerations of class and fashion crucial to his argument. Darwin “freaked out” when he found himself “scooped” by a theorist considerably below his social station, one who “realized there was no way that he, all by himself on the wrong side of the class divide, was going to prevail against the Gentlemen.” Chomsky faced a “clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers” yet who provides persuasive evidence so that Chomsky’s insistence that language was “innate” in evolved humans and that there was such thing as a “universal grammar” was subsequently dismissed as “half-baked twaddle.” If language isn’t part of the evolutionary process, how did it come to be developed by humans alone?
Typically, Wolfe throws a Molotov cocktail at conventional wisdom in a book that won’t settle any argument but is sure to start some.