In this book, Tom Wolfe attempts to destroy the reputation of both Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.
I don't know how many of you have heard of this book, but about half-a-year ago or so (when it first came out) it generated quite a storm on the various linguistic websites that I follow.
Almost all negative coverage.
The best review of this book that I read is tom wolfe’s reflections on language by E.J. Spode [LINK HERE] which is an epic take-down of this book.
(And if you're thinking, "I can't read the review yet because I haven't read the book" , don't worry. This is one of those book reviews that summarize the main points of the book as it reviews it.)
After reading all the negative press about this book, I suppose the obvious question is: So why bother reading this book at all then?
Well, my excuses are:
1) I want to learn more about linguistics, and this seemed like a pretty painless way to do it.
I figured that even if Wolfe was biased, this book would at least give me some insight into current linguistics controversies. And since I struggle to read the academic literature, a popular writer like Tom Wolfe was more my speed.
2) I've always had a love-hate relationship with Tom Wolfe anyways. I don't like Wolfe's politics, but I like his writing style. So even though I knew Wolfe was making fun of liberals in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, I still really enjoyed that book anyway. As much as I hated the main point that Wolfe was trying to make, I thought his description of the events was very lively and exciting to read.
And I also read, and positively reviewed on this blog, I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe.
And so I figured it would be so with this book. Even though I knew I would disagree with Tom Wolfe, I figured it would still be an interesting reading experience nonetheless.
...Although [Spoiler Alert] in the end, it turned out that I learned very little about linguistics from this book, and in retrospect it would have been better to save my money.
Universal Grammar, Chomsky, and Evolution
Before I get into Tom Wolfe's book, let me give some background information on Chomsky's theory of universal grammar and evolution. (It's necessary to give this background before I get into the book, because Wolfe makes a complete mess of it inside his book).
Noam Chomsky believes that the human ability to form complex grammatical sentences is too complicated to be explained by normal cognitive processes.
Grammar is so complex that there is no way that a child could possibly learn all the grammar rules that they need to know in order to speak the language.
Instead, Chomsky believes that grammar is already pre-programmed into the human brain from birth.
Children need a certain amount of exposure to their native language, but they don't need to be taught any of the grammar rules. The grammar rules are already pre-programmed into the brain. Once the human brain is exposed to the language, the human brain will figure out the grammar rules all by itself.
If I'm not explaining that clearly, it's because it's difficult to summarize the theory of Universal Grammar in a few sentences. For a very clear explanation, see The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. (Steven Pinker spends pretty much a whole book explaining what I tried to say above in a few sentences.)
In chapter 11 of The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker reveals something fascinating about Chomsky's view of evolution. Namely, Chomsky's refusal to accept evolution as an explanation for his theories on grammar.
To quote from Chapter 11 of The Language Instinct:
Chomsky, one might think, would have everything to gain by grounding his controversial theory about a language organ in the firm foundation of evolutionary theory, and in some of his writings he has hinted at a connection. But more often he is skeptical:
Pinker goes on to quote Chomsky directly, which I'll also reproduce below:
It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate mental structure] to "natural selection," so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena. .. . In studying the evolution of mind, we cannot guess to what extent there are physically possible alternatives to, say, transformational generative grammar, for an organism meeting certain other physical conditions characteristic of humans. Conceivably, there are none—or very few—in which case talk about evolution of the language capacity is beside the point.***END QUOTE***
Can the problem [the evolution of language] be addressed today? In fact, little is known about these matters. Evolutionary theory is informative about many things, but it has little to say, as of now, about questions of this nature. The answers may well lie not so much in the theory of natural selection as in molecular biology, in the study of what kinds of physical systems can develop under the conditions of life on earth and why, ultimately because of physical principles. It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected. In the case of such systems as language .. . it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.
This, I thought, was interesting.
Keep in mind that Chomsky is not a creationist. He's an atheist. And what's more, in order for Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory to be accepted by the larger scientific community, it would have to be grounded in evolution. (Chomsky is arguing, after all, for a biological pre-disposition of the human brain).
And yet, here's Chomsky, with everything to gain from fitting his theory of Univeral Grammar into an evolutionary framework, stubbornly refusing to do it. Why?
The theory of evolution is based upon small changes that occur over millions of years. Grammar, according to Chomsky's view, is too complex to ever be accounted for by the micro-changes that evolution brings. How could natural selection account for relative clauses? How does micro-changes from gene mutations account for the fact that every child instinctively knows that the questions are formed by moving the auxiliary connected to the main verb (and not the auxiliary in the relative clause?)
This stubbornness, however, has cost Chomsky. As Steven Pinker says (in the same chapter quoted above) "Many psychologists, impatient with arguments that cannot be fit into a slogan, pounce on such statements and ridicule Chomsky as a crypto-creationist."
And, as I noted in my review of The Ling Space series, Daniel Dennet appears to be very uspet about Chomsky's reluctance to accept evolution as an explanation for Universal Grammar.
Tom Wolfe Gets it All Wrong
So, Tom Wolfe has this whole controversy back-to-front. Wolfe attacks the failure of naturalists to account for an evolutionary model of human speech, and Wolfe thinks that by doing this he is destroying Chomsky.
In actuality, Wolfe is (unknowingly) supporting Chomsky's position. It's Chomsky's critics who are upset with Chomsky's reluctance to put Universal Grammar in an evolutionary framework.
The fact that Wolfe spends 170 pages arguing that language can not be explained by evolution, and then thinks that this is devastating to Chomsky's theories, just indicates that Wolfe doesn't understand what he's writing about.
(Actually I should be careful here, since I don't fully understand linguistics myself. Am I the one who is confused, or is Wolfe? Someone let me know in the comments if I'm getting it wrong.)
Since E.J. Spode and others have already done such a good job of pointing out this book's many faults, I'm going to try to avoid re-writing what they have already written so well.
Instead, I'm just going to talk about the experience of reading this book.
Despite all the bad press this book has gotten, it actually starts off interestingly enough.
It seems Wolfe's interest in the whole subject was sparked by a 2014 article that he came across one night while surfing the web.
The article (co-authored by Noam Chomsky and 7 other people) described the failure of evolutionary models to account for human language.
From there, Wolfe launches into a history of the struggles of evolutionists to account for human language.
Actually with all the digressions Wolfe goes on, it's a bit hard to tell what the main point of the book is supposed to be.
On one hand, it's the story of how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution (and how Darwin struggled, and ultimately failed, to account for human language in evolution).
On the other hand, it's the story of Darwin's relationship with Alfred Wallace, and how Darwin's status as a British Gentleman allowed him to steal Wallace's credit. (Wallace came up with the idea of natural selection at around the same time as Darwin, but Darwin and his British Gentleman buddies managed to sideline Wallace)
Now, thematically these two threads are completely unconnected. (The fact that Darwin struggled to account for human language has nothing to do with whether Wallace or Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection first.)
But put that aside for the moment.
If you can overlook the disconnect between the two themes, you should find this section interesting and highly readable. Or at least I did. And, dare I say it, I actually enjoyed this section. It gave me a lot of insight into scientists of the 19th century, and their politics. It was interesting to read about the history of the theory of evolution.
For example, I learned that the theory of evolution had been around, and had been creating controversy, long before Darwin. Darwin (and Wallace) simply added the theory of natural selection to account help explain how evolution could work.
In the review I linked to above, E.J. Spode picked out a few inaccuracies in Tom Wolfe's portrayal of Darwin. And I noted those as I read. But I assumed that everything else in this section was more-or-less accurate. (Somebody let me know if I'm wrong).
Then after the section on Darwin, we leave the 19th century, and move ahead to Noam Chomsky and his theory of Universal Grammar. And now the knives really come out.
Certainly, not everyone in linguistics agrees with Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar. (There are other competing theories such as "connectionism").
But for Wolfe, it's not enough for Chomsky to be wrong about Universal Grammar. Instead, Wolfe has to attack Chomsky's character on all levels. Chomsky's not just wrong about Universal Grammar, Chomsky's also a phony egghead, an intellectual bully, a fake bourgeois radical chic...
In a book supposedly about the nature of language, this kind of over-the-top character assassination seems really pointless. Chomsky could be the nicest guy in the world, or the worst kind of bully. It wouldn't make his theories about Universal Grammar any more or less true.
Really, where is all this hostility coming from? Did Chomsky run over Wolfe's dog? Is Chomsky sleeping with Wolfe's wife? Why does Wolfe feel he needs to not only destroy Chomsky's theories, but destroy Chomsky personally as well?
For that matter, why does Wolfe even feel the need to wade into this controversy in the first place? How did Wolfe become so passionate about whether or not the Piraha language has recursion in it or not? Does Wolfe have a background in linguistics or syntax? Does Wolfe even speak any Piraha? What makes Wolfe so sure that Chomsky's theories are wrong?
By the time you get to the end of this section, you feel that this book wasn't really about language at all. Wolfe just really really hates Chomsky for some reason.
Quite probably, Wolfe just didn't like Chomsky's politics, and so Wolfe decided to attack Chomsky on his home turf of linguistics. (It's the only possibly explanation I can think of for why Wolfe decided to jump into an obscure controversy in linguistics and try to adjudicate who is right and who is wrong).
If you can't be bothered to pay $26 for this book (and I wouldn't particularly recommend it), then I'll just summarize it for you here: Wolfe really hates Chomsky. Whatever theories Chomsky has on language, Wolfe disagrees with them. Whatever Chomsky's critics say about language, Wolfe agrees with them.
Then when we get to the end of the section, Wolfe tries to destroy Chomsky by pointing out that Universal Grammar can't be explained by evolution. (As mentioned above, Wolfe seems unaware that this is what Chomsky has been saying all along).
And then the real kicker comes at the very end, when Wolfe gives his own theories on language.
Wolfe spends about 6 pages explaining his own theory of language, but to summarize it, Wolfe believes that we use words as memory aids to remember physical objects and concepts. And then we can communicate these words to each other using speech.
"Language itself, the mother of all mnemonics, is precisely the same sort of device that chemistry employs. Words are elemental mnemonics, sequences of sounds (the alphabet) used to remember everything in the world, from the smallest to the greatest. Speech, language, is a matter of using these mnemonics, ie., words, to create meaning.This view of language as just isolated words strung together indicates that Wolfe never understood the issue to begin with.
And that is all that speech is, a mnemonic system--one that has enabled Homo sapiens to take control of the entire world..." (p.162)
Words are an important part of language, but they don't explain how every 5 year-old child instinctively knows that "The dog plays" is made negative by:
* creating a dummy auxiliary,
* moving the subject-verb agreement marker (in this case the 3rd-person singular "s") to the dummy auxiliary, and
*placing the negative marker after the dummy auxiliary.
"The dog doesn't play."
And that isn't even one of the more complex grammatical operations our brain does.
For example, every native speaker of English intuitively knows that a relative pronoun can be omitted if the relative clause is defining, and if the relative pronoun is functioning as the object of the clause. And so every native speaker intuitively knows that "This man I like is tall" is acceptable, but both "the man likes me is tall" and "Thomas I like is tall" are ungrammatical. Most people couldn't explain the rule to you, but somewhere in their brain, their grammar system intuitively understands this.
This doesn't necessarily mean Universal Grammar is correct. (There are alternative models to explaining grammar, such as connectivism, or ACT* theory) But at the very least, it means that every model of language has to take into account all the complex grammatical rules that a native speaker intuitively knows.
Wolfe, by defining language as a way to encode concepts into words, shows that he doesn't even understand the controversy that he's writing about.
In other words, this book is a complete waste of time.
Both E.J. Spode (in the review linked to above) and Stephen Poole writing in The Guardian [LINK HERE] wonder how a book this erroneous could ever have gotten published in the first place. And both of them came to the conclusion that the book got published only because of Tom Wolfe's celebrity status. (A lesser known author probably would have been fact checked before publication.) And I'm inclined to agree.
* Tom Wolfe brings back his accusation of radical chic in this book.
The term radical chic was something Tom Wolfe used in a 1970 essay (W) to describe the type of liberal who supported the Black Panthers just because it was the cool thing to do.
In this particular book, Tom Wolfe believes that Chomsky and everyone else who opposed the Vietnam War was just radical chic.
This is a very cheap accusation.
It is undoubtedly true that many people hold religious or political beliefs for sociological reasons. (The impact of your peer-group on what you believe should not be under-stated.) But then you could use this accusation for any group on any issue. So if we just started throwing this accusation around all the time, then political dialogue would break down.
Probably some people in the 1960s did oppose the Vietnam War because it was popular with their peer-group. But the exact extent to which sociology meets ideology varies from person to person, and in the absence of any evidence otherwise, the safest thing to do is to just assume that someone's political beliefs are sincere.
Furthermore, Wolfe knows Chomsky's beliefs are sincere, because just a few pages previous he recounted how Chomsky's beliefs were influenced by the Russian Jewish community he came from, and how Chomsky was an anarchist long before the Vietnam War.
* Wolfe is at least half-right on one point. The cult of personality around Noam Chomsky has probably been damaging to the field of linguistics.
Or at least Steven Pinker thinks so.
In this interview here (at around the 1:32) mark, Steven Pinker says: "Linguistics is an eccentric field in some ways, partly because it was so polarized by a charismatic figure [Noam Chomsky] and his opponents that it didn't proceed in the ordinary direction of making the theory more precise, more testable."
But by viciously attacking Noam Chomsky, Wolfe isn't solving the problem. He's just one of the people making the field more polarized.
* Connections With Other Books I've Read: In the section on the 19th Century, Wolfe does a lot of name dropping. Many of these names line up with books on my reading list.
Clemenceau is mentioned a couple different times as the person who coined the word "the intellectuals" and Anatole France and Emile Zola are mentioned as examples of "the intellectuals". The Dreyfus case is mentioned as the background against which the term was coined.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are mentioned among the readers of the 1844 book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.
Alfred Wallace spent a lot of time doing his research in Malaya, and apparently was quite popular with James Brooke and did a lot of entertaining at James Brooke's dinner parties.
Video review here and embedded below.
This was another review when I rambled on to long. My camera has a 30 minute time limit on videos, so I got cut-off mid sentence again. But I figured 30 minutes was all a man really should be allowed to ramble for, so I decided it was just as well and I left it as it was.
Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky 2017 - US, a top terrorist state