Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tom Wolfe on Language

Tom Wolfe's forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech is a criticism of Darwin and Chomsky, among others. I hope the arguments he will offer will be better than this one I read in the Guardian:
“My contention is that language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings. It’s a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions.”
His thesis seems to be that
(i) language is not a product of evolution, but
(ii) it is a human invention
(iii) it's a memory aid ... That enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions."

(iii) seems to me obviously true, but it says nothing about the truth of (i) and (ii). Language can be a memory aid, no matter whether it is invented or a product of evolution.

His argument (if an argument it is) would certainly be true of writing which does seem to be a memory aid invented that allows us to store pieces of information, compare them and draw conclusions from them, but I don't know anyone who has claimed that writing is the product of evolution.[1] On the other hand Stanislas Dehaene has shown (convincingly to my mind) how reading (though "invented"), depends on certain structures of the brain that have evolved.[2] "Reading, but also writing, mathematics, art, religion, agriculture, and city life have dramatically increased the native capacities of our primate brains." But we have independent evidence for human beings who could use tools, but who could not write.

Whether there ever were beings that were human but who could not speak is an entirely different matter. Aristotle already proposed as a definition of human beings that they are the animal that can speak or have "logos", though he ultimately opted for rationality as the essential characteristic of humans. What language has to do with rational thought is an interesting question; and there is a host of other interesting questions having to do with language. I just doubt that Wolfe has anything interesting to say about it, and not just because of the passage discussed here. The mess he makes of Stoicism in his A Man in Full seems to me independent evidence for this skepticism. I am not going to rush out and buy Wolfe's book.

1. It seems to me that he is probably not making an argument but simply a claim that (i), (ii), and (iii) are true. I cannot help agreeing with Chomsky who is reported to have said: “I’m frankly astonished at the publicity this is receiving.”

2. Dehaene, S. (2009) Reading in the Brain. The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking.

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