My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Eloquently argued, though tendentious to the point of screed. Thomas Wolfe eviscerates the theories of Charles Darwin (evolution based on natural selection) and Noam Chomsky (linguistics as an innate language acquisition device that produces a universal grammar).
An Informative Lecture
I love how it started out, though. As a lively lecture on the origins of The Origin Of Species, and how Darwin basically waylaid his contemporary discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace – syntactically identical to poly-genius David Foster Wallace.
Then Wolfe goes after Chomsky with a vengeance. Shredding the latter’s hypothesis that the brain contains a hidden region that evolved to create speech. And proclaiming, sans sufficient evidence, that today’s linguists have admitted defeat in having found, in any way at all, how speech might have evolved.
Throughout it all, it quickly becomes clear that this work of creative nonfiction contains a few too many fictional pronouncements of its own. Plus the use of speech and language as synonyms by the author conflates two distinct (though related) concepts, making this diatribe truly reductionist.
Why Wolfe is so eager to to accept the contrary findings of Daniel Everett, who proclaims that speech is an “artifact” that humans crafted to deal with situational imperatives, and not some relic of biological/neurological evolution, defies logic.
That the author never once mentions how vocal chords and brain regions for handling language have adapted over the millennia, and are present in some orders of animalia, plus are evident to some degree or other in Homo neanderthalensis, simply reinforces that this book not is not much more than a singular effort to discredit modern science without proving a thing.
This is not to say that Wolfe doesn’t raise some legitimate points. He has obviously done his research, and the admission of Chomsky and a cohort of his linguist peers that there is much yet to be confirmed in that discipline supports some of the doubter’s contentions.
Consider this book an invigorating, albeit flawed lesson in language origins and evolutionist history. It was fascinating to listening to on my mp3 player as I jogged this summer. Just don’t swallow the conclusions wholesale.