Tom Wolfe: Chomsky, Everett and the Evolution of language

Tom Wolfe’s new book ‘Kingdom of Speech’ has been almost universally dismissed by both linguists and evolutionary theorists alike for its misrepresentation of the respective subjects. The book has been slammed as a poorly researched hatchet job on intellectual giants Chomsky and Darwin. I find myself in agreement with a lot of the criticisms of Wolfe’s book. But before proceeding to criticise him I have to confess (guiltily) that I enjoyed the book. If it were a work of fiction I would recommend it. I thought it was well written; some people have a problem with Wolfe’s style of writing, but I enjoyed it. The book had drama, excitement, and flowed well. Unfortunately however the book was not a work of fiction; it was a work on intellectual history; in particular the history of the theory of evolution, and the history of attempts to explain the evolution of language. As a scholarly work it failed completely.

Wolfe’s book was filled with bad misrepresentations of the subjects he discussed (Darwin, Chomsky, and Everett), and he showed little understanding of the theories that any of these theorists held. Even when he was sympathetic to people; like he was to Everett, he still managed to misrepresent their views.

Wolfe isn’t the first artist[1] to try his hand at intellectual history and be burned. Years ago Yeats and Goldsmith tried their hand at intellectual history and biography when writing about the life and thought of philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley scholar Luce dismissed Yeats biography of Berkeley as fantasy. Some could argue that Wolfe is guilty of similar fantasies. When discussing Yeats and Goldsmith’s biographies of Berkeley; David Berman made the following point:

There can be little doubt that Berkeley sat for Luce’s biographical portrait, given its judicious use of his correspondence and other hard evidence. Goldsmith was well known for mixing truth and fantasy. Similarly Yeats’ judgements are often based on intuition, as when he asserts that with Berkeley ‘we feel perhaps for the first time that eternity is always at our heels or hidden from our eyes by the thickness of a door’- an assertion which must prompt the question: is this biography or poetry? And yet for all that, more than a suspicion remains, as I have tried to show, that there was a deeper Berkeley which neither Latham nor Luce has captured. But of whom Goldsmith and Yeats have caught a glimpse”  (David Berman ‘Berkeley: Idealism and the Man’)

When reading Wolfe, the challenge is to disentangle where he is engaging in fantasy, and where he has perhaps caught a deeper glimpse than the scholars. The idea of an artist capturing a deeper glimpse of a person’s nature probably seems like mysticism. But it is not really that wild. We read fiction because of the insights it gives into how people behave. There is even evidence that reading fiction can increase empathy Chomsky admits as much himself:

It is quite possible-overwhelmingly probable, one might guess- that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology” (New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind)

It is not I submit, implausible that a writer of literary fiction may have insights into a person’s personality that more straight biographers lack. We accept this fact readily enough with psychotherapists. We understand that their hours of emphatic work with patients for months on end may result in an understanding of the human condition that goes deeper than the average person’s. It is for this reason that psycho-biographies are widely read.

Wolfe as brilliant literary writer uses his talents to try to reconstruct the inner worlds of his subjects on issues where there is scant documentary evidence. Much has been made about Wolfe’s discussions of Darwin’s feelings of guilt, and his rage when he received Wallace’s letter. Unlike a lot of critics, I think his account of Darwin’s feelings when he received Wallace’s letter has a certain degree of plausibility to it. In an age where scientists are sometimes portrayed as super human saints, a suggestion that Darwin may not have been happy that another guy had written up his theory of evolution before he published his seems almost sacrilegious. In the popular press we regularly see comments like the following one by Krauss “Scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means there is more to learn” This pretence that scientists don’t have human emotions and are rational saints is just silly. Science has good institutions to keep its practitioners straight; and they usually work well. But there is no reason to think scientists themselves are above normal human ambitions and behaviour. There are times in the book where Wolfe is speculating about the motives and thoughts about Darwin, and Chomsky in ways that seem somewhat plausible. The truth is we don’t truly know what Darwin felt when received Wallace’s letter. Wolfe’s, speculation on Darwin’s feelings have a degree of plausibility to them, and at least may prompt people to think in a new way about the history of thought.

However despite the book being well written, and offering more than the standard scientists are hyper rational gods trope, there is much that is badly wrong in his account of the history of ideas. Firstly his discussion of Chomsky and Everett gives a misleading picture of the state of play in linguistics. Wolfe portrays Linguistics as a field dominated by Chomsky; and Everett as a lone warrior fighting against this hegemony. This is a false picture. There are lots of theorists who strongly disagree with Chomsky on the language faculty. There is evidence from a variety of sources which contradict Chomsky’s postulation of a language faculty. As we learn more and more about performance data ( Pullum and Schulz 2002, Hart and Risley 1995, Sampson 2002, Choinard and Clark 2002, Everett 2016, Tomasello 2015), and more and more about domain general computational procedures ( Pefors 2016, Lappin and Clark 2013),  key claims made by Chomsky are being undermined. So Wolfe goes badly wrong in portraying this as a battle between two scientists. Many many scientists disagree with Chomsky’s views on language acquisition. In the 80’s there was a schism in linguistics known as the linguistic wars where Chomsky’s students e.g. Paul Postal and George Lakoff development of generative semantics split the subject apart. Today people who agree with Chomsky about the existence of a language faculty disagree with Chomsky about its architecture and how it evolved e.g. Pinker and Jackendoff. Philosophers like Fiona Cowie who partially support Chomsky’s linguistic Nativism have criticised many aspects of his theory. The list goes of disagreements could go on forever. So Wolfe’s tale of a two man battle for the soul of linguistics is over simplistic to say the least. Wolfe is not however incorrect to note that Chomsky has got an unusual amount of sway within linguistics. Nor is Wolfe wrong to document the disgraceful behaviour of Chomsky’s inner circle towards Everett. For a discussion of this angry war of words see . I think Wolfe does a good job of characterising the sometimes aggressive and dismissive tone Chomsky takes towards those he disagrees with:

“As Chomsky grinds through Skinner for twenty thousand words, he uses the expressions “empty,” “quite empty,” “quite false,” “completely meaningless,” “perfectly useless,” and the like repeatedly…plus “vacuous…complete retreat to mentalistic psychology”…”mere paraphrases for the popular vocabulary” (appears on the same page as “perfectly useless,” “vacuous,” and “likewise empty”…”serious delusion”… “of no conceivable interest”… “play acting at science”…This is simply not true”…no basis in fact”…”very implausible speculation”… “entirely pointless and empty…As for any random figure of note who persisted in challenging his authority, Chomsky would summarily dismiss him as a “fraud” a “liar,” or a “charlatan”. He called B. F. Skinner, Elie Wiesel, Jacques Derrida, and “the American intellectual community” frauds. He called Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Hitchens, and Werner Cohn liars. He pinned the charlatan tag on the famous French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan…and he would pin another later on…” ( The Kingdom of Speech p. 97)

Wolfe discusses these aspects of Chomsky’s sometimes authoritarian attitude accurately. But the whole discussion is marred by his misrepresentation of the history of the discipline.

Possibly the strangest aspect of the book is that Wolfe attacks both Chomsky and Darwin as though they were two sides of the same coin. Darwin and Chomsky couldn’t be more different in terms of their approaches to science. Chomsky is a pure theorist in the mould of a theoretical physicist while Darwin was very much a data driven scientist. They would seem to have little in common other than being responsible inventing a new discipline.

While, Wolfe’s understanding of the intellectual history of both generative grammar and evolutionary theory could be considered a bit sloppy, with an occasional insight every now and then, his discussion of the science of evolutionary theory is wildly inaccurate. In an interview for NPR he actually said that Humans should not be considered animals and that language did not evolve. This is a bizarre statement, one that flies in the face of pretty much all empirical evidence. And in case one thinks that it was a throw away comment that doesn’t reflect Wolfe’s actual views as expressed in the book here is a direct quote from ‘The Kingdom of Speech’:

“There were five standard tests for a scientific hypothesis. Had anyone observed the phenomenon-in this case, Evolution-as it occurred and recorded it? Could other scientists replicate it? Could any of them come up with a set of facts that, if true, would contradict the theory (Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” test)? Could scientists make predictions based on it? Did it illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science? In the case of Evolution…well…no…no…no…no…and no.” (Tom Wolfe ‘The Kingdom of Speech’ p. 27)

These bizarre claims strain credulity; it is hard to believe that Wolfe believes them, this is the type of logic one sees from creationists and flat earth proponents. Your average school child who is unencumbered by blind ideology would see the falsehood of these statements immediately. In his piece for the Washington Post Jerry Coyne attacks these four claims noting that we have seen evolution in real time and via observation and by looking at the order of fossils. Evolutionary theory could be falsified by finding a rabbit in 400 hundred million year old sediments.  Coyne goes on to note that evolution does make predictions (he points to Darwin’s prediction that humans originated in Africa). And he notes that obviously evolutionary theory does help to solve biological problems in subjects like embryology.

Coyne’s replies are largely correct. But I would question his (and Wolfe’s) naive falsification views. If a rabbit was supposedly found in 400 million year old sediments I don’t think people would necessarily consider evolutionary theory refuted. There is such an incredible amount of evidence for the theory of evolution that one observation simply wouldn’t be enough to refute it. In the case of such an incredible find; the scientist’s credibility would be questioned; and variety different explanations would be offered. But it is doubtful an entire theory would have been dismissed because of an anomaly. This is common place in the history of science. So, for example, George Berkeley had legitimate criticisms of Newton’s notion of absolute space[2], and of the calculus of the day[3]. But scientists didn’t respond by rejecting Newton’s theory; how could they? The theory was the only theory at the time which could explain the relevant facts. They just had to live with certain anomalies until a better theory came along. Chomsky himself never tires of noting that Galileo didn’t drop his theory because it couldn’t account for the reason people didn’t fly off the surface of the earth. The same would be true of the theory of evolution it has incredible explanatory scope and despite what Coyne claims one observation wouldn’t be sufficient to refute it. Contrary to what Wolfe seems to think this is no real objection to evolutionary theory; in fact no scientific theory is refuted in such a clear cut manner by a single observation.

Coyne correctly noted that we have seen evolution in real time. He also should have noted that Wolfe implying that a failure to observe evolution directly is a refutation of the theory is ridiculous. Even if we could not directly observe evolution it would not hurt the theory in the slightest. We don’t directly observe Dark Matter, but we have good theoretical reasons to justify the postulation of it. It is just obvious that explanatory theories don’t need to have every aspect of them observed directly in order for us to say that on balance of evidence we are justified in believing that the theory is true. Wolfe seems to be operating on some kind of crude kind of positivist conception of science; that there is no real reason take seriously. Ultimately I think Coyne does a good job of critiquing this aspect of Wolfe’s views, not that a professor of biology is needed to refute Wolfe’s strange views on evolutionary theory.

Wolfe is a hugely popular writer whose sales will probably eclipse those of all other popular expositions of linguistics. In the popular mind because of the work of Tom Wolfe people may associate criticism of Chomsky; with denial of the truth of evolution. Wolfe has in a sense lined up Chomsky’s critics with crypto creationists. This is a disaster, and in the long run I think Wolfe’s book will likely win more supporters for Chomsky’s theory of linguistics; which is a pity because the evidence is badly at odds with Chomsky’s speculations.

In a sense Wolfe’s strange and completely unsupported views on Darwin and the theory of evolution have reversed the usual dialectic in the debate. It is typically Chomsky and his followers who have been perceived as having a problem with Darwin. Pre 1990 Chomsky was always sceptical about explaining the evolution of language. The quotes below give an inkling of his views pre 1990:

“In the case of such systems as language or wings it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them” ( Chomsky 1988 p.167)

“It is perfectly safe to attribute this development (of innate language structures) 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 (Chomsky 1972, p. 97)

Chomsky’s views at the time were extremely sceptical about whether natural selection could account for the evolution of language. As his theories about the structure of the language faculty became less clunky and awkward he began writing more and more about the evolution of language. But at one point of his views on the evolution of language were so sceptical sounding that Dennett devoted a substantial portion of his “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (a section titled Chomsky contra Darwin) to a criticism of Chomsky’s views on the prospects of explaining the evolution of language. Likewise in his The Language Instinct Pinker critiqued Chomsky’s sceptical views on explaining the evolution of language. Circa 1995 Chomsky was known as a scientist who had serious problems with the theory of evolution.

Furthermore some of Chomsky’s close colleagues shared his sceptical views on whether evolution through natural selection could explain the origins of language. Two close colleagues of Chomsky’s; Jerry Fodor and Massimo-Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a book ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’, that erroneously argued that natural selection is an incoherent concept that doesn’t do the work evolutionary theorists think it does. Furthermore in his ‘Mind and Cosmos’ Chomsky’s fellow Mysterian Tom Nagel view used his Mysterianism  about consciousness as premise in his argument that the Neo Darwinian conception of life is almost certainly false. Given the sceptical views on evolution held by some of Chomsky’s fellow Mysterians, and the claims that natural selection is an incoherent concept by Chomsky’s close colleagues, along with Chomsky’s early comments on evolution, a naive critic could be forgiven for holding the false view that Chomsky has some problem with the theory of evolution.

Any critic who actually reads Chomsky’s will know that Chomsky has no problem with evolutionary theory, and has been working for the last 15 years or so to develop an evolutionary account of language. He has authored and co-authored many peer reviewed papers on the evolution of language since 2002, and recently co-authored a book on the topic. So despite superficial appearances to the contrary Chomsky’s linguistic project is entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.

The important point to note is that as a result of popular science books like ‘The Language Instinct’, and ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, in the eyes of the general public Chomsky is often viewed as having serious problems with evolutionary theory. Wolfe though may have turned this popular narrative on its head. Wolfe’s book will probably out sell either Pinker’s or Dennett’s and there is a danger that his bizarre views on evolutionary theory will be attributed to Dan Everett. Wolfe peddles the line that Everett has shown that language is an artefact something culturally constructed and hence something non-biological. Wolfe argues that because language is an artefact it is non biological and represents a hard and fast line between man and beast. None of these conclusions follow on Everett’s picture. Saying that language is culturally constructed is not to deny that biology plays a role. Furthermore, contrary to what Wolfe thinks, far from presenting some hard and fast gap between man and beast, Everett’s gradualist picture of the evolution of language offers no hope to those who want to deny that humans are animals.

Early in ‘The Kingdom of Speech’ Wolfe recollects how he stumbled upon a paper co-authored by Chomsky[4] ‘The Mystery of Language Evolution’ where Chomsky spoke about how aspects of the evolution of language remained mysterious to this day. Wolfe seized upon this. The fact the best researchers into language since Darwin were not able to explain the evolution of language must mean something. To Wolfe what this meant was that language was special; it couldn’t be explained in evolutionary terms; it was the thing that set humans above all other animals. This mode of reasoning is absurd. Chomsky pointing out that there are some aspects of the evolution of language that we don’t understand is not as Wolfe puts it a white flag; it is a call to work harder in developing your theory. And of necessity any theory that you develop won’t be complete.

Dan Everett’s paper ‘Grammar Came Later’ (2016) is clear evidence that Everett disagrees with Wolfe’s view that language cannot be accounted for in evolutionary terms. Everett, like Chomsky, has an evolutionary account of how language evolved. His views on the evolution of language differ from Chomsky’s in that Everett thinks that language developed over a much longer period than Chomsky does. Chomsky places the evolution of language at around 50,000 years ago when a random mutation gave us merge, whereas Everett thinks that language developed over a much longer period.

Everett notes some key facts about our evolutionary history. Over 3 million years ago a new type of ape arrived on earth called Australopithecus. According to Everett (ibid p. 30) Australopithecus could recognise iconicity. To support the claim that they recognised iconicity, Everett pointed out that they collected pebbles shaped like a human face, he cites the example  of Makpansgat Manuport. Everett goes on to note that up to 2.7 million years ago we have evidence of an icon shaped like a phallus called the Erfoud Manuport. (ibid p. 38).

Everett, following Peirce, notes that the movement from index, to icon, to symbol, is one of the key features of our linguistic capacities (ibid p.17). So the fact that Australopithecus was using icons 3 million years ago is clear evidence of the beginnings of linguistic tools being developed. Obviously the use of an icon is not a linguistic practice but it is evidence of cognitive capacities which may have offered an entering wedge into language.

According to Everett there is evidence that language of some sort has been around for 1 million years. 2.6 million years ago Homo-Erectus used crude tools Oldowadan tools (Language Came Later: p. 38) Acheulean tools were developed around 1.76 million years ago (ibid. 39). Homo Erectus immigrated from Africa to Europe around 900,000 years ago, Everett is surely correct that it very unlikely that such a feat would have been possible without some kind of language. Surely some kind of complex communication would have been necessary in order for boats to be built.

There is evidence that symbols were invented 550,000 years ago (ibid. p. 37). 300,000- 400, 000 years ago Homo-Heidbergensis used spears (ibid. p.35); this is evidence for culture. According to Everett compositionality was created by language use, and compositionality preceded recursion.

Everett’s picture of how we developed language begins with all animals having Indexes, Icons first emerged 3 million years ago with Australopitheicus, while we have evidence for Symbols up to 550,000 years ago. Everett notes that because symbols are arbitrary they require culture. This is because the meaning of the symbol must be stipulated by convention. And conventions are only possible within a culture.

With the capacity to use indexes, icons and symbols we have the beginning of language but it is not a real language until we add grammar into the mix. Hockett (1960) famously argued that language involved a duality of patterning involving. The duality involves (1) Syntagmatic: Linearity of symbols (which are constructed culturally through conventions) and (2) Paradigmatic: Using symbols for events and things initially to fill analogous positions in different syntagmemes. Everett goes further and argues that language is a triality of patterning because gesture plays a key role in the evolution of language. One of the key concepts in relation to gesture is the influence of ‘growth points’. Growth points are the points where speech and gesture are (a) synchronized (b) co-expressive (used at the same time in gesture and speech), (c) Jointly form a ‘psychological predicate’ (by psychological predicate he means when news worthy content is differentiated from context), (d) present the same idea in opposite semiotic modes (by opposite dynamic modes he means that the gestures are dynamic, created adlib and not conventionalised). (ibid p. 55).

Everett argues that if we add to the concept of growth point the theory of Meads loop we can explain how gesture would have contributed to developing language. He defines Meads Loop as follows:

 “One’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that mirror neurons respond to the actions of others. Thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to a development of a theory of mind-being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that they have minds like we do, and think according to similar processes” ( ‘Grammar Came Later’ p. 58)

Growth Point’s evolution from Mead’s Loop is the prerequisite for compositionality (ibid p. 58). Thus on this picture we get compositionality from communication not from a mutation which gives us recursion that we use to develop compositionality. So utterances combined with gestures are originally holophrastic and through reuse and gestural focusing on specific components of the holophrastic phrase get analysed into more detail leading to grammatical rules. (ibid p.60)

Everett notes that gestures, prosody, body positioning, eyebrow raising, have the joint effect of pointing out what aspects of the holophrastic utterance are salient, less salient and non-salient. With the utterance thus decomposed (as well as other utterances previously decomposed) people can take these components and associate meaning to them. It is a short step to construct novel new sentences once these various meanings are decoded. Hence you derive compositionality from social utterances, and gesturing.

He goes on to show how beginning with this basic process we can explain how morphology, phonology and syntax developed. I will not here go into the finer details of Everett’s theory, as my goal here is a description not to outline every aspect of his theory. Even after as brief a description as I have sketched here it should be obvious that Everett’s theory of the evolution of language is at odds with everything Wolfe proposes about language. Despite Wolfe treating Everett as the hero of his book there is nothing in common with their views on language evolution. Everett has a theory that purports to show how language has evolved; Wolfe on the other hand thinks that no such theory is possible, Wolfe is even sceptical about the truth of the theory of evolution.

In some respects Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language should be more congenial to someone like Wolfe who wants a hard and fast line to distinguish man from beast. Everett gives us a gradualistic approach that moves from capacities that all animals share to human specific capacities.  He takes us through a slow process where our linguistic capacities are developed through a long cultural process; Chomsky, on the other hand, gives us a nice cut off point where a mutation gives humans a computationally perfect linguistic capacity that provides concrete barrier that separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Now obviously Chomsky’s position which postulates random mutations which created merge approx 50,000 years ago (the faculty of language narrow), and a faculty of language broad which is an adaptation created by the tinkering processes of natural selection provides no real comfort to Wolfe. Ultimately evolution does the job of the “creation” of language.  Whether Chomsky is correct, or Everett (or the many other theorists), there is no theory in the offing that is non-evolutionary. Wolfe let wishful thinking dictate how he interpreted the data.

[1] Wolfe has spent as much of his life writing journalism as he has writing literary fiction. But even his journalistic writing has an artistic feel to it.

[2] See Berkeley ‘De Motu’ and Karl Popper’s ‘Berkeley as a precursor to Mach and Einstein’.

[3] See Berkeley ‘The Analyst’.

[4] Chomsky et al (2014) ‘The Mystery of Language Evolution’.


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