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The Kingdom of Speech
By Tom Wolfe
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Tom Wolfe, whose legend began in journalism, takes us on an eye-opening journey that is sure to arouse widespread debate. The Kingdom of Speech is a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.
From Alfred Russel Wallace, the Englishman who beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection but later renounced it, and through the controversial work of modern-day anthropologist Daniel Everett, who defies the current wisdom that language is hard-wired in humans, Wolfe examines the solemn, long-faced, laugh-out-loud zig-zags of Darwinism, old and Neo, and finds it irrelevant here in the Kingdom of Speech.
The Beast Who Talked
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 EVOLUTIONa
It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionistsb—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, final-stage 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?
Our story begins inside the aching, splitting head of Alfred Wallace, a thirty-five-year-old, tall, lanky, long-bearded, barely grade-school-educated, self-taught British naturalist who was off—alone—studying the flora and the fauna of a volcanic island off the Malay Archipelago near the equator…when he came down with the dreaded Genghis ague (rhymes with “bay view”), today known as malaria. So here he is, in not much more than a thatched hut, stretched out, stricken, bedridden, helpless…and another round of the paroxysms strikes with full force…the chills, the rib-rattling shakes…the head-splitting spike of fever followed by a sweat so profuse it turns the bed into a sodden tropical bog. This being 1858 on a miserable, sparsely populated speck of earth somewhere far, far south of London’s nobs, fops, top hats, and toffs, he has nothing with which to while the time away except for a copy of Tristram Shandy he has already read five times—that and his own thoughts…
One day he’s lying back on his reeking bog of a bed…thinking…about this and that…when a book he read a good twelve years earlier comes bubbling up his brain stem: An Essay on the Principle of Population by a Church of England priest, Thomas Malthus.c
The priest had a deformed palate that left him with a speech defect, but he could write like a dream. The book had been published in 1798 and was still very much alive sixty years and six editions later. Left unchecked, Malthus said, human populations would increase geometrically, doubling every twenty-five years.1 But the food supply increases only arithmetically, one step at a time.2 By the twenty-first century, the entire earth would be covered by one great heaving mass of very hungry people pressed together shank to flank, butt to gut. But, as Malthus predicted, something did check it—namely, Death, unnatural Death in job lots…starting with starvation, vast famines of it…disease, vast epidemics of it…violence, mayhem, organized slaughter, wars and suicides and gory genocides…to the cantering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen culling the herds of humanity until but a few, the strongest and the healthiest, are left with enough food to survive. This was precisely what happened with animals, said Malthus.
Ahura! It lights up Wallace’s brainpan with a flash—It!—the solution to what naturalists called “the mystery of mysteries”: how Evolution works! Of course! Now he can see it! Animal populations go through the same die-offs as man. All of them, from apes to insects, struggle to survive, and only the “fittest”—Wallace’s term—make it. Now he can see an inevitable progression. As generations, ages, eons go by, a breed has to adapt to so many changing conditions, obstacles, and threats that it turns into something else entirely—a new breed, a new species!—in order to survive.
For at least sixty-four years British and French naturalists, starting with the Scotsman James Hutton3 and the Englishman Erasmus Darwin4 in 1794 and the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1800,5 had been convinced that all the various species of plants and animals of today had somehow evolved from earlier ones. In 1844 the idea had lit up the sky in the form of an easy-to-read bestselling book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a complete cosmology of the creation of earth and the solar system and plant and animal life from the lowliest forms up through the transmutations of monkeys into man. It transfixed readers high and low—Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Gladstone, Disraeli, Schopenhauer, Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill; and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who read it aloud to each other)…as well as the general public—in droves. There was no author’s name on the cover or anywhere in its four hundred pages. He or she—there were those who assumed a writer this insidious must be a woman; Lord Byron’s too-clever-by-half daughter Ada Lovelace was one suspect—apparently knew what was coming.6 The book and Miss, Mrs., or Mr. Anonymous caught Holy Hell from the Church and its divines and devotees. One of the pillars of the Faith was the doctrine that Man had descended from Heaven, definitely not from monkeys in trees. Among the divines, the most ferocious attack was the Reverend Adam Sedgwick’s in the Edinburgh Review.7 Sedgwick was an Anglican priest and prominent geologist at Cambridge. If words were flames, Sedgwick’s would have burned the anonymous heretic at the stake. The miserable creature gave off the stench of “inner deformity and foulness.”8 His mind was hopelessly twisted with “gross and filthy views on physiology,”9 if indeed he still had a mind. The foul wretch thought that “religion is a lie” and “human law a mass of folly, and a base injustice,” and “morality is moonshine.” In short, this disgusting apostate thought “he can make man and woman far better by the help of a baboon” than by the mercies of the Lord God.10
Then the book caught high-IQ hell from the ranks of established naturalists in general. They found it journalistic and amateurish; which is to say, the work of an unknown outsider and a threat to their status. The boy wonder of the “serious” scientific establishment, Thomas Henry Huxley, then twenty-eight, wrote what was later described as “one of the most venomous book reviews of all time”11 when the tenth edition came out in 1853. He called Vestiges “a once attractive and still notorious work of fiction.”12 As for its anonymous author, he was one of those ignorant and superficial people who “indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”13 Everyone in the establishment was happy to point out that this anonymous know-it-all couldn’t begin to explain how, through what physical process, all this transmutation, this evolution, was supposed to have taken place. Nobody could figure it out—until now, a few moments ago, inside my brain! Mine! Alfred Russel Wallace’s!
He is still in his wet, reeking bed, trying to endure the endless malarial paroxysms, when another kind of fever, an exhilarating fever, seizes him…a fervid desire to record his revelation and show the world—now! For two days and two nights14…during every halfway tranquil moment between the chills, the rattling ribs, the fevers, and the sweats…he writes and he writes writes writes a twenty-plus-page manuscript entitled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”15 He has done it! His will be the first description ever published of the evolution of the species through natural selection. He sent it off to England on the next boat…
…but not to any of the popular scholarly publications, such as the Annals and Magazine of Natural History and The Literary Gazette; and Journal of Arts, Belles Lettres, Sciences, &c., where he had published forty-three papers during his eight years of field work in the Amazon and here in Malay. No, for this one—for It—he was going to mount the Big Stage. He wanted this one to go straight to the dean of all British naturalists, Sir Charles Lyell, the great geologist. If Lyell found merit in his stunning theory, he had the power to introduce it to the world in a heroic way.
The problem was, Wallace didn’t know Lyell. And on this primitive little island, where was he going to get his address? But he had corresponded a few times with another gentleman who was a friend of Lyell’s, namely, Erasmus Darwin’s grandson Charles. Charles had happened to mention in a letter two years earlier, in 1856, that Lyell had praised one of Wallace’s recent articles (probably “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” also known as the “Sarawak Law” paper, 1855).16 By early March of 1858, Wallace’s manuscript and a letter were on the ocean, 7,200 miles from England, addressed to Charles Darwin, Esq. Exceedingly polite was that letter. It all but cringed. Wallace was asking Darwin to please read his paper and, if he thought it worthy, to please pass it along to Lyell.
So it was that Wallace put his discovery of all discoveries—the origin of species by natural selection—into the hands of a group of distinguished British Gentlemen. The year 1858 was on the crest of the high Victorian tide of the British Empire’s dominion over palm and pine. Britain was the most powerful military and economic power on earth. The mighty Royal Navy had seized and then secured colonies on every continent except for the frozen, human-proof South Pole. Britain had given birth to the Industrial Revolution and continued to dominate it now, in 1858, almost a century later. She controlled 20 percent of all international trade and 40 percent of all industrial trade. She led the world in scientific progress, from mechanical inventions to advances in medicine, mathematics, and theoretical science.
To give a face to all that, she had at her disposal the most highly polished aristocrat in the West…the British Gentleman. He might or might not have a noble title. He might be a Sir Charles Lyell or a Mr. Charles Darwin. It didn’t matter. Other European aristocrats, even some French ones, lifted their forearms before their faces to shield their eyes in the British Gentleman’s presence. The gleam and refinement of the usual frills—manners, dress, demeanor, tortured accent, wit, and wit’s lacerating weapon, irony—were the least of it. The most of it was wealth, preferably inherited.
The British Gentleman, better known in ages past as a member of the landed gentry, typically lived on inherited wealth upon a country estate of one thousand acres or more, which he rented out for farming by the lower orders.17 He went to Oxford (Lyell) or Cambridge (Darwin) and might become a military officer, a clergyman, a lawyer, a doctor, a prime minister, a poet, a painter, or a naturalist—but he didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t have to work a day in his life. Sir Charles Lyell’s ascension to the status of British Gentleman had begun the day his grandfather, also Charles Lyell, converted a naval career into enough money to buy an estate with endless acres and a palatial manor house in Scotland and retire as a high-living lairdly sort who was no longer hobbled socially by the need to work. His erstwhile naval career, which had been a necessity at the time, cast a bit of a shadow upon him, but his son (another) Charles was born free of that curse, and in due course his grandson became Sir Charles Lyell (third Charles in a row),18 thanks to his achievements in geology.d The Darwin line went back much further than that, some two hundred years, to the mid-1600s, to Oliver Cromwell and his serjeant-at-law—i.e., lawyer—one Erasmus Earle.19 Erasmus parlayed his position into a small fortune and huge landholdings, and never again did a gentleman in the ensuing eight or so Earle-Darwin generations have to work.
Charles Darwin’s father, Robert Darwin, was a doctor—like his father, Erasmus Darwin. His true passion however, was investing, lending, brokering, betting, and otherwise dealing in the Industrial Revolution’s money markets. He made an absolute fortune…then multiplied it by marrying a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, one of the early giants of industry. Wedgwood was a potter, a craftsman, who had created factories that produced chinaware finer than any plain potter ever dreamed of. Robert Darwin’s arena was London and its financial district, the City. But like most great British Industrial Revolutionaries, he chose to live in the countryside on a large and largely irrelevant estate—his, in Shropshire, was called the Mount—to show that he was as grand as the landed gentry of yore.20 He paid for his son Charles to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh (the boy dropped out), then sent him to Christ’s College at Cambridge to become a clergyman (the boy dropped out), then had to settle for the boy dropping down to the bottom at Cambridge and barely getting a bachelor of arts degree (without honors or the vaguest idea of what to do with his life), and then begrudgingly paid for the boy to enjoy a five-year voyage of exploration, or sightseeing, or something, aboard a boat named for a dog, His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, to prepare him for a career in the field of—as far as Dr. Darwin could tell—nothing. Once the boy was finished with that nonsense, Dr. Darwin, who himself had married a Wedgwood relative, nudged the boy, who was twenty-nine, into marrying in 1839 his perfectly nice, if plain, thirty-year-old spinster first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and in 1842 bought them a country place, Down House, southeast of London, and settled enough money on him for the boy to live well forever and ever. Living well included eight or nine servants—a butler, a cook, a manservant or two, a parlor maid, a lady’s maid, and at least one nanny and a governess—from day one.e
Where did this, the eternally Daddy-paid-for life of a British Gentleman, leave someone like Alfred Russel Wallace? His father, a lawyer, had undertaken a legal career and a business career—and a family and a half, namely, a wife and nine children (Alfred was the eighth)—and wound up swindled and bankrupt, utterly wiped out. The Wallaces were the very picture of what is known today as a downwardly mobile family. They didn’t have the money for Alfred’s education beyond grade school. Years later, to pay for his explorations in the Amazon and Malay, Wallace had to ship stupendous loads of (dead) snakes, mammals, shells, birds, beetles, butterflies—lots of flamboyant butterflies—moths, gnats, and no-see-um bugs to an agent in England…who sold them to scientists, amateur naturalists, collectors, butterfly lovers, and anyone else intrigued by exotic oddments from the underbellies of the earth. A single shipment might contain thousands of items. The kind of mortal willing or forced by Fate to go out into ankle-sucking muck, brain-frying heat, clouds of mosquitoes, ague-ghastly nightscapes…on terrains slithering with poisonous snakes…to harvest hundreds of curiosities at a time21…was called a flycatcher. Gentlemen like Lyell and Darwin didn’t think of flycatchers as fellow naturalists but as suppliers on the order of farmers or cottage weavers.
There you had Alfred Wallace…a flycatcher. The very thought of having to make a living at all, much less as a Malaysian bugmonger, was enough to set any gentleman to itching and scratching all over…and in the mid-nineteenth century, the Gentlemen ran every major area of British life: politics, religion, the military, the arts and sciences. Wallace was well aware that he was about to get in touch with a social stratum far above his own. But he wasn’t writing Lyell, via Darwin, seeking social acceptance. All he sought was professional recognition by some eminent fellow naturalists.
How very naive of him! The British Gentleman was not merely rich, powerful, and refined. He was also a slick operator…smooth…smooth…smooth and then some. It was said that a British Gentleman could steal your underwear, your smalls and skivvies and knickers, and leave you staring straight at him asking if he didn’t think it had turned rather chilly all of a sudden.
When he received the manuscript and the letter, in June of 1858—and please forgive an anachronism, namely, a verb from almost exactly one century later—Mr. Charles Darwin freaked out. He delivered the manuscript to his good friend Lyell, all right…along with a bleating yelp for help. In twenty pages this man Wallace had forestalled his life’s work—his entire life’s work! “Forestalled” was the 1858 word for “scooped.”
Darwin had achieved a solid reputation among naturalists with a series of monographs about coral reefs, volcanic islands, fossils, barnacles, the habits of mammals…he had written an engaging and highly praised book, Journal of Researches, about his five-year (1831–36) voyage aboard His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, one of England’s many government-sponsored worldwide explorations in the nineteenth century. He had been elected not only to the Geological Society but also to the most prestigious scientific body in England, the Royal Society of London, whose membership was restricted to eight hundred, namely, the eight hundred leading scientists in the world. Fine: and all that meant nothing to him in light of his Theory of Evolution, his very much secret life’s work.
He had started thinking about evolution—“transmutation” was the term for it at the time—when he was on the Beagle. By 1837, a year after the expedition had ended, he was convinced that all plant and animal life on earth was the result of the transmutation, i.e., evolution, of all the various species over millions of years. And not just plants and animals…the Beagle explorers spent long intervals on land, and Darwin kept coming upon natives so primitive they struck a British Gentleman like himself as closer to apes than to humans…particularly the Fuegians. The Fuegians (pronounced “Fwaygians”) were natives of Tierra del Fuego, an Argentine and Chilean province so far south that the tip at the bottom is part of Antarctica. The Fuegians were brown and sun-wrinkled and hairy. The hair on their heads was as wild as a howling…a howling…well, as a howling hairy ape’s. Their hairy legs were too short and their hairy arms too long for their hairy torsos. In Darwin’s eyes, the only thing that distinguished the Fuegians from the higher apes was the power of speech, if you could call theirs a power. The Fuegian vocabulary was so small, and their grunt-sunken grammar was so simple and simpleminded, it was a rather lame distinction, to Darwin’s way of thinking.22 He had no idea yet that speech, whether grunted by brutes in the middle of nowhere or intoned by toffs in London, was by far—very far—the greatest power possessed by any creature on earth.
It was after laying eyes on these and other hairy apes below the equator that a blasphemous, mortally sinful, absolutely exciting, fame-flirting, glory-glistening notion stole into Darwin’s head. What if people like the Fuegians weren’t really people but rather an intermediate stage in the transmutation, the evolution, of the ape into…Homo sapiens? That God created man in his own image was a centerpiece of Christian belief. In 1809, when Lamarck had dared to suggest (in Philosophie Zoologique) that apes had evolved into man, it was widely assumed that only his legendary heroism during the Seven Years’ War saved him from serious grief at the hands of the Church and its powerful allies. (Artillery fire had killed more than half of a French infantry company’s men and all its officers. A short, skinny, seventeen-year-old enlisted man, a Private Lamarck, stepped forward and through sheer force of personality assumed command and held the company’s position until reinforcements arrived…)
Darwin was petrified by the prospect of condemnation but aflame with ambition. Seven years later, in 1844, the author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation felt the same way: so he hid behind the byline Anonymous and never came out. Not even the prospect of fame was enough to overcome his fear. His name was not revealed until the twelfth edition of Vestiges was published in 1884, the book’s fortieth anniversary…thirteen years after the author’s death. Then, at last, the title page bore a byline: Robert Chambers. For all their snobbery, the Gentlemen naturalists proved to have been right. Chambers was not a Gentleman but a journalist, cofounder with his brother, William, of Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal and Chambers’s Encyclopaedia…and an amateur one-shot naturalist.
Praise for The Kingdom of Speech:
"The author's own prose is, as ever, a marvelous mix of gleeful energy and whip-around-the-neck control, and his book is a gas to read."
—Charles C. Mann, Wall Street Journal
"....a hundred years from now, the one whose work will still be read - whose work will remain imperishable in the face of any new discoveries - is Wolfe. In the long game, the kingdom belongs to him."
—Caitlin Flanagan, New York Times Book Review
"Tom Wolfe aims his unparalleled wit at evolution, arguing that complex language is the singular superpower that allows humans to rule the planet."
"This being Tom Wolfe, the ponderous debate over language and evolution takes on a kind of pop-art pizzazz....A curiously entertaining little book."
—James Sullivan, Boston Globe
"Mr. Wolfe, now 85, shows no sign of mellowing. His new book, The Kingdom of Speech, is his boldest bit of dueling yet. It's a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution....a provocation rather than a dissertation. The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time, and enjoying the scent of its own cold-brewed napalm in the morning."
—Dwight Garner, New York Times
"(Wolfe's) trademark rich reporting is unmistakable throughout.... he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.... You'll find here the same manic prose, the hip rhythms and cleverly crafted arguments of the genius Tom Wolfe. Which you must read."
—Don Oldenburg, USA Today
- "In this mettlesome, slyly funny takedown, Wolfe spotlights two key scientific rivalries, each pitting a scrappy outsider against the academy....Wolfe's pithy and stirring play-by-play coverage of compelling lives and demanding science transforms our perception of speech....As always, white-suited Wolfe will be all over the media...stirring things up and sending readers to the shelves."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
- "A fresh look at an old controversy, as a master provocateur suggests that human language renders the theory of evolution more like a fable than scientific fact....Wolfe throws a Molotov cocktail at conventional wisdom in a book that won't settle any argument but is sure to start some."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In lively, irreverent, and witty prose, Wolfe argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of humankind's complex achievements....Wolfe's vibrant study manages to be clever, funny, serious, satirical, and instructive."—Publishers Weekly
"With his usual sharp wit and style, Wolfe's return to his roots is a thrilling journey into the who, what, where, when, why, and how of speech that will undoubtedly provoke stimulating conversations."
"Wolfe, still a master at using language, is another claimant for the throne. The Kingdom of Speech is best read, then, with Wolfe not just as a narrator-historian but as a character. One who, after critiquing theorists who rule from insulated rooms, depicts himself in that exact setting for his book's final vision."
—Nate Hopper, Time
"Stimulating, clever and witty, Wolfe's little book is sure to provoke discussion about the role language plays in making us human."
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage
"Barely a dull sentence."
—John McWhorter, Vox
"An entertaining and informative romp, thanks to Wolfe's patented stylistic hijinks. It may raise more questions than it answers, but that may well be its greatest virtue....very funny."
—Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Come for the big ideas, stay for the terrific stories. Wolfe's bracing and witty style redeems a subject that in other hands might have you hitting the snooze button."
—Clarke Crutchfield, Richmond Times-Dispatch
- "Head-hopping nonfiction....slick narrative storytelling alongside heaps of documentary evidence."—Mark Lundy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"The most savage and entertaining of all "new journalists" has found one of the most unlikely subjects to stimulate his lifelong penchant for mocking naked emperors whom the world considers the epitome of regal splendor. Of eminent B.S. in this world, there will always be a surplus. Which is why we always need Wolfe."
—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News
"Linguistics is famously boring, but Tom Wolfe is fun....beautifully written."
—Chris Knight, Counterpunch
"Wolfe doesn't mince words, and his comments are convincing and captivating."
—Ina Hughs, Knoxville News Sentinel
If you thought every question pertaining to evolution has been solved, think again: Wolfe explains in his typically high-energy prose how the development of speech is still an area in which science has far more questions than answers."
—New York Post
- On Sale
- Aug 30, 2016
- Page Count
- 160 pages
- Little, Brown and Company