Sunday, February 12, 2017

Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech

Aug. 26, 2016 3:12 p.m. ET

Tom Wolfe is back, but which Tom Wolfe? The nose-thumbing satirical novelist? The journalistic anatomist of the American id? No: It’s the pop-intellectual historian, the guy who eviscerated modernist art in “The Painted Word,” modernist architecture in “From Bauhaus to Our House” and modernist literature in “The New Journalism.” In a twist, “The Kingdom of Speech” is an Olympic dive into the Rio-murky waters of evolution and language. Is speech a product of evolution, Mr. Wolfe asks, or of the free play of the human mind? The author’s own prose is, as ever, a marvelous mix of gleeful energy and whip-around-the-neck control, and his book is a gas to read. It’s also kind of bonkers.

Mr. Wolfe begins by retelling the curious episode in which Alfred Russel Wallace, racked with malaria in the Malay Archipelago in 1858, invents the basic intellectual framework of evolution, writes up his ideas in a literal fever and mails them from his sweat-soaked hammock to a British acquaintance, seeking help with publication. The acquaintance is, of all people, Charles Darwin. Darwin had arrived at precisely the same notions two decades before, but a mix of timidity, perfectionism, writer’s block and psychosomatic illness had kept him from writing them down.

Mr. Wolfe has great fun (who can blame him?) evoking how the painfully moral and propriety-conscious Darwin talked himself into euchring most of the credit for evolution from Wallace, the scion of a downwardly mobile family who made his living as a “flycatcher,” collecting exotic specimens from faraway places and selling them to rich hobbyists.

As Mr. Wolfe notes, naturalists—gentlemen and flycatchers alike—had suspected for decades that the Earth’s panoply of creatures had developed from a much smaller set of ancestors. Darwin and Wallace provided the mechanism: natural selection. Natural selection is the notion that some offspring are, by chance, different from their parents; that some of the random differences—stronger muscles, say—will be beneficial (others won’t); and that individuals with favorable variations will have a better chance of surviving. These survivors will then pass on the favorable characteristics to more offspring. In this way, Darwin and Wallace argued, advantageous features spread spontaneously through populations, and species evolve.

All histories of evolution sing this song, but Mr. Wolfe’s version adds weird notes. Darwin’s “real dream,” he claims, was to show the world that “man was just an animal himself.” This, he writes, was “the central point of his entire theory from the beginning.” What makes humans human? Speech and language, says Mr. Wolfe. Thus “proving that speech evolved from sounds uttered by lower animals became Darwin’s obsession.”

Obsession? By this point, I was scribbling “???” in the margins. Darwin did mull over the place of humankind in general and speech and language in particular. If speech and language, our defining features, were produced by natural selection, how, exactly, was the trick performed? There is an enormous gap between animal sounds—baboons barking and beagles baying—and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Invoking natural selection to explain the origins of speech can seem like claiming that F-16s evolved from toy balloons by the accumulation of chance variations. But Darwin appears to have been anything but obsessed by the puzzle. His musings about speech occupy fewer than 20 of the more than 1,000 pages of his evolution notebooks, all from the late 1830s, according to an exhaustive study by historian Stephen Alter.

Quickly, and with no evident doubt, Darwin concluded that language and the human brain had probably “coevolved.” The slow development of the one fed the development of the other, and vice versa—a positive feedback loop. But because Darwin didn’t know how to flesh out this intuition, because talking about human evolution risked angering the forces of Christianity, and because, above all, he was most interested in his general ideas on evolution, he left all discussion of speech out of his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species” (1859, the year after Wallace’s letter).
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.”

Faced against them was Max Müller, a German-born Sanskrit scholar at Oxford. Unlike the Darwinians, Müller insisted that language was fundamentally different from animal sounds. We can say “moo” and know that the sound refers to a cow, but the sound “moo” and the word “cow” are not the same. Unlike the sound, the word carries within it a complex mental model of the species Bos taurus—its appearance, behaviors and uses. Each part of the model depends on the others so much that the ability to link them all together must have been present at the beginning rather than gradually developed. Ergo humans must have had speech from Day One.

Müller was making a kind of “irreducible complexity” argument, a favorite nowadays of creationists. After Darwin wrote his book on humanity, Müller responded, in 1873, with another irreducible-complexity argument (this one hauled in Immanuel Kant as backup). Darwin, whose health was failing, didn’t respond. And there, Mr. Wolfe says, the matter stood—for decades. “The most crucial single matter, by far, in the entire debate over the Evolution of man—language—was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872 to 1949.”

Again, in the margins: “Hunh?” Mr. Wolfe’s incredulity seems odd—and not just because Darwin’s protégé, George Romanes, sparred with Müller about speech for another two decades. Speech leaves no traces, so tracing its origin is extraordinarily difficult. To me, it seems plausible that the question was “abandoned” because scientists are loath to hurl themselves at questions that may not be answerable in their lifetimes.

In any case, as Mr. Wolfe recounts, the impasse was finally broken by the arrival of Noam Chomsky, a combative linguist and philosopher hired by MIT about a nanosecond after he finished his doctoral dissertation. In “Syntactic Structures” (1957), Mr. Chomsky argued that babies learn to speak with so little instruction that the underpinnings of language must be present from birth in a built-in “language organ” in the brain, a biological construction given to us by evolution. Because all humans have the same language organ, its capacities must shape all languages. These shared properties are a “universal grammar.”

Mr. Chomsky’s approach transformed linguistics and made him a star in academia—Mr. Wolfe is very funny describing this. But by the 1990s, the failure of biologists to find an actual language organ in the brain was leading to dissent. Mr. Chomsky also had trouble specifying the precise features of the universal grammar—it had to be broad enough to include every language from Japanese to Urdu yet simple enough to be viewed as a small batch of principles. Recognizing the problems, Mr. Chomsky sought to find the minimal foundation of language. In 2002 he and two Harvard cognitive scientists announced that they had discovered it: recursion.

“The only uniquely human component of the faculty of language,” as they put it, recursion refers to embedding a language structure (a sentence or clause, for instance) within another similar structure. Take the awkward but understandable sentence “The cat (that the dog ((which the boy called Spot)) chased) ran away.” Slipped inside one thought (“the cat ran away”) are two more thoughts, one about the dog, one about its name. Recursion allows small units to be combined into larger units, with no theoretical stopping point. More tentatively than Mr. Wolfe allows, the three men proposed that all the rest of the traits necessary for language evolved separately, then were capped by the arrival of the mental structure that permitted recursion. 

Because of this theory, Mr. Wolfe says, “by 2005, Noam Chomsky was flying very high. In fact, very high barely says it. The man was . . . in . . . orbit.”

In the margin: “WTF??” Actually, early that year Mr. Chomsky et al.’s recursion was criticized at length by two luminaries, Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff. Never mind: Mr. Wolfe instead turns attention to another 2005 attack on Mr. Chomsky and recursion theory: “OOOF!—right into the solar plexus!—a twenty-five-thousand-word article” that was “an affront aimed straight at him, by name.”

The “affront” was an account by linguist Daniel L. Everett, a former Chomsky disciple, of the Pirahã language, spoken only by the several hundred members of an indigenous group of the same name in the western Amazon. Mr. Everett had gone to the Pirahã as a missionary with his family, lived for years in difficult conditions and emerged as one of the few outsiders fluent in the language. Pirahã, he said, has no recursion—it doesn’t embody Mr. Chomsky’s universal grammar. More than that, its structure is so obviously tied to Pirahã culture that the language must have been created in its reflection—and not by some universal language organ. Nurture, Mr. Everett was saying, not nature.

A fight of baffling nastiness broke out—baffling because the near-simultaneous dispute between Messrs. Chomsky and Pinker, though equally intense, wasn’t marked by personal insult. Baffling, too, because to an outsider it is hard to judge between a language organ that nobody has yet identified and a language spoken by so few linguists that nobody can actually verify claims about it. Baffling because Mr. Everett saw a single counter-example as proof that Mr. Chomsky and his co-theorists were wrong—when the Pirahã, who have a long and dreadful history, could simply have lost or greatly reduced recursion along the way. Baffling because Mr. Chomsky and his epigones, instead of making this kind of obvious counter-argument, tried to muddy the waters by claiming that the recursion paper didn’t mean what it said and charging Mr. Everett with racism and charlatanism.

Mr. Wolfe sees the whole conflict as a replay of Darwin vs. Wallace, pitting “an old-fashioned flycatcher” against “modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.” When the New Yorker printed a photograph of Mr. Everett neck-deep in an Amazonian river, Mr. Wolfe claims, “no linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span,” never leaving his desk “except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees.” I laughed out loud when I came to this delightful shiv-wielding, though I wondered about Mr. Wolfe’s pretension to mind-reading. But I also thought: Why does this author care about all this? What is at stake here?

“Bango!” Tom Wolfe explains in his conclusion. “One bright night it dawned on me—not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.” (Aristotle made exactly this argument around 330 B.C. in his “Politics.” But maybe it doesn’t count?) To Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Everett’s attack on recursion—and on the idea that speech was produced by evolution—was proof our species is special. “Speech, language, was something that existed quite apart from Evolution. It had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Man, man unaided, created language.”

Müller was right all along! Wolfe is saying. “Not only is speech an artifact, it is the primal artifact,” coming before agriculture, art and science. “Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary for survival, but also the evolution of animals.” Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo ’s David.”
And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. 

Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution?  Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart ’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. 

Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his. 

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