When the acclaimed American author Tom Wolfe died in 2018, he left a rich body of work whose stylistic blend of literary and journalistic techniques pioneered a movement in the 1960s and 70s known as the New Journalism. Along with writers like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese, this new movement pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism and nonfiction writing by introducing novelistic elements (controversial at the time) into their reportorial accounts.
Armed with this novel technique, Wolfe produced such contemporary classics as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, From Bauhaus to Our House, and The Right Stuff that cemented his place in American literature. These and other books sought to cover the central cultural narrative of postwar America, but they never became literature. Wolfe addressed literary matters only occasionally, often as grist for his traditional stylistic flour mill.
In his last effort, The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe takes on two scientific pillars in the realms of biology and linguistics, namely Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Darwin, of course, is considered the father of evolution—the view that all life forms are descended from a single common ancestor through unguided natural processes, and that life and its taxa are the products of the same natural laws that governed the formation of the universe. Chomsky is regarded as the father of modern linguistics for his formalization of the principles of syntactic structures in the brain. His model of language in the brain, called universal grammar, explains how language is unique to humans.
Wolfe kicks off his narrative with the life and work of British naturalist, explorer, and travel writer, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was an explorer and adventurer who contributed to the theory of natural selection alongside Darwin, although never at the same time or location. In this book, Wolfe largely uses the writing and discoveries of Wallace to support much of the argument he is trying to make—namely, that Darwin and Wallace had similar ideas about evolution and natural selection before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and that Wallace’s discoveries equaled those of Darwin. This is important because Wallace was only awarded joint credit for his contributions with Darwin at Darwin’s insistence after the scientific community repeatedly snubbed him for many years. Perhaps the popular belief that Darwin was the real scientific genius behind his theory of evolution and the idea of natural selection and that Wallace was the one left out is, in fact, false and wrong. And contemporary science, rightly so, has given Wallace the credit he deserves, and Wolfe wants to see him further recognized.
Yet the central narrative of The Kingdom of Speech is Wolfe’s proposed cognitive revolution, a return to thinking about the origin of human nature and its place in the natural world, specifically the relationship between widely used languages and the many other languages found in the world’s wild. In the book, Wolfe takes on Darwin’s assertion that man is an ape and life is a meaningless process without intent. Wolfe asserts that far from the ape, humans stand apart from other animals with an incomparable ability to reason and communicate. The book is a broadside against Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Chomsky’s view that human language is simply one more adaptation of our brain. These pillars have been nothing short of a blind ideology for many researchers, Wolfe claims, a blindness that Wolfe seeks to overturn.
However, the true guiding principle of the book is Wolfe’s argument against Chomsky’s theory about the evolutionary basis of human language. Wolfe realized that Chomsky’s reliance on the notion of “perfect grammar” that humans have in their heads, separate from any empirical evidence, was very similar to the notion of “a perfect machine, already invented.” In later chapters, Wolfe accuses Chomsky of being Darwin’s intellectual heir, arguing that Chomsky’s theory that much of language is innate is similar to Darwin’s vision of the perfect machine. While Wolfe is right about Chomsky’s reliance on an ideal grammar, he is honestly wrong about the specifics of Chomsky’s views. There is no Chomskyan parallel to Darwin’s supposed “ideal machine.”
Chomsky holds that humans have certain innate grammatical rules which are used to explain how humans acquire language. His view is much more sophisticated than Wolfe’s caricature, which misrepresents Chomsky by ignoring many of his nuanced theories on the subject, and in particular, Chomsky’s view of individual languages being historical, social, and cultural phenomena, while language is a biological faculty of the mind.
Furthermore, Chomsky in his writings has proposed a specific mathematical model to describe the mind’s functioning, and not just language’s. This Mathematical Model of the Human Language Faculty, as Chomsky calls it, is Merge. Merge is a non-mandatory operation of putting together words in order to create meaningful sentences. This model is not purely concerned with language, but with the human mind’s ability to reason and understand abstract concepts. Chomsky’s famous views are not the fiction Wolfe makes them out to be, but empirical hypotheses about mind and brain. Chomsky is working on a neurobiological theory of how the mind is able to accomplish these functions that he has himself described in greater detail in recent writings. These are the essential features of Chomsky’s theory, and the outlines of the theory are not fiction; they are supported by empirical evidence.
Chomsky is not the father of the idea that language is an innate skill. A number of linguists before him have viewed language as a cognitive ability of human beings. More specifically, Chomsky is the father of the idea that language is an innate, learned skill that is not reliant on any specific culture or environment. Though this is true, Chomsky has emphasized over the years that in his view language is a biological faculty that is learned and socialized by humans in whatever culture they are born and raised in, and therefore, it is just as much cultural as biological. Wolfe’s claim that Chomsky posits that every human fetus is born with a universal grammar encoded in their brains which cues the right age of language acquisition, is patently false. Chomsky holds that children possess an innate, biological ability—universal grammar—which allows them to learn any human language. He does not believe that infants come out of the womb with “a universal language in perfect working shape.” That is dangerous, and Chomsky has often used the example that infants are never born with perfect pitch, yet they are able to acquire music.
Chomsky has championed the idea that language is primarily a human concern, not a scientific one, though it is both. He has written extensively about the shortcomings of the scientific method used in linguistics, critiquing non-empirical techniques that have been used for a long time in an effort to explain language’s evolution and development. Chomsky admits that because language is cultural and humans are not perfectly rational creatures, they cannot know what is truly in their heads, and therefore can’t know what language really is. In fact, as Chomsky puts it, language can be considered as a form of thought. But it is not only that; it is also a form of action. The old non-scientific model of linguistics, the structuralist approach which proposed that language represented three things—sound, meaning, and logic—is the kind of analytical approach that Chomsky has been arguing for and against. For instance, in his article, “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” he accuses Skinner of being unaware of the true complexity of language. Chomsky’s analysis of language made it easy for him to disagree with the sterile versions of linguistics that he sees linguists using in their studies. Chomsky says that language doesn’t just reside in the brain passively, but rather serves many purposes in the real world, and that language is action-oriented. It can be used by a person to tell a story, to ask for help, to write a poem, to say goodbye to an old friend, to call attention to an object, or to say good morning. If language didn’t do anything, then none of its meaning would be known to humans.
Chomsky focused on syntax, the common rules in our head that are used to create anything that we say. He also proves that the same rules are not used in music, in painting, or in mathematics. Human language is special because the rules are universal.
The Kingdom of Speech is the most poetic work of Wolfe’s long career. It is also his most visionary, most speculative, most excitable, and most intellectually dense. Wolfe has managed to create two literary worlds, old and new, that simultaneously exist, but not in the usual alternating fashion. He attempts to create a literary structure of simultaneous alternative futures that exist in the present. It is the literary prose of an old man trying to win an argument with a younger opponent who is not always convinced by the very argument he is trying to win himself. One only hopes that this work will lead to a counter-argument by another younger adversary, for who else will engage so passionately and with such animus this great boreal owl, this founding father of new American creative literature.