Tom Wolfe: Science Can’t Explain Our Gift of Gab

In a passage from his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe ponders why science has failed repeatedly to account for human speech, much less grasp what it means.

08.30.16 5:35 PM ET

One bright night in the year 2016, my face aglow with godknows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading: THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION.1 It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists2—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists—had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works.

“The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” they concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we’ll keep trying, they said gamely… but we’ll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. “In the last 40 years,” he and the other seven were saying, “there has been an explosion of research on this problem,” and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia.

Now, that was odd… I had never heard of a group of experts coming together to announce what abject failures they were…

Very odd, in fact… so I surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon the only academic I could find who disagreed with the eight failures, a chemist at Rice University… Rice … Rice used to have a big-time football team… the Rice Owls… wonder how they’re doing now? I moused around on the Rice site some more, and uh-oh … not so great last season, the Owls… football … and I surfed to football concussions… exactly as I thought! There’s a regular epidemic of concussions raging! They’re busy beating each other into clots of early Alzheimer’s!… concussions … surfing surfing surfing, but look at this! Football is nothing compared to ice hockey … without at least two concussions under your skull you aren’t even ready for the NHL—

—and all the while something else was so caught on my pyramids of Betz that not even an NHL enforcer’s head check could have dislodged it: they can’t figure out what language is. One hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced, and they had learned… nothing … in that same century and a half, Einstein discovered the speed of light and the relativity of speed, time, and distance… Pasteur discovered that microorganisms, notably bacteria, cause an ungodly number of diseases, from head colds to anthrax and oxygen-tubed, collapsed-lung, finalstage pneumonia… Watson and Crick discovered DNA, the so-called building blocks genes are made of… and 150 years’ worth of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and people from every other discipline discovered… nothing … about language.

What is the problem? Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes—speech is the attribute of all attributes! Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.

What is the story? What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech? For half that time, as we will see, they formally and officially pronounced the question unsolvable and stopped trying. What is it they still don’t get after a veritable eternity?

2 They were: Marc D. Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard C. Lewontin.

From the book The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 2016 by Tom Wolfe. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back to Blood. A native of Richmond, Va., he earned his BA at Washington and Lee University and a PhD in American studies at Yale. He received the National Book Foundation’s 2010 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in New York City.