Tom Wolfe discovers language

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"In Tom Wolfe's 'Kingdom,' Speech Is The One Weird Trick", NPR Weekend Edition Saturday 8/27/2016:

One of America's most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, imaginative, deliberate, destructive, and complicated beings who invented the slingshot and the moon shot, and wrote the words of the Bible, Don Quixote, Good Night Moon, the backs of cereal boxes, and Fifty and Shades of Grey [sic].  

The Kingdom of Speech is Tom Wolfe's first non-fiction book in 16 years. Wolfe tells NPR's Scott Simon that speech is "the attribute of attributes," because it's so unrelated to most other things about animals. "We've all been taught that we evolved from animals, and here is something that is totally absent from animal life," he says.

There seem to be several different ideas all mixed up together here.

One is the notion that "speech is special": not just a modest re-purposing of anatomical structures, physiological capacities, and behavioral dispositions that we share with other animals, but rather a qualitatively different sort of thing. This is not exactly a new idea, to say the least, though it remains  controversial, in large part because it's far from clear how to interpret it.

And then there's a (different) claim, that whatever is special about speech and language is such a large change from the pre-human situation that theories of evolution have nothing interesting to say about it — and maybe can't have anything to say about it even in principle. This is also not a new idea, and remains even more controversial, again in large part because the answer is so dependent on questions of definition. And there's very little in the way of relevant data about certain aspects of the question: there's evidence to support a plausible story about the evolution of the vocal tract, and perhaps also about the evolution of some relevant parts of acoustic perception, but there's little that bears on the evolution of "theory of mind", and nothing at all that bears directly on the development of phonology, syntax, and semantics.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background are all sorts of issues about nature vs. nurture and culture vs. genetics and variation vs. universality and so on.

I still haven't read Wolfe's new book, but what I've gleaned from reading about it suggests that the NPR headline writer's sly joke — "one weird trick" — nails it: The Kingdom of Speech is linguistic clickbait. So, good for Wolfe: we can only hope that this is early evidence for the emerging trend I've been predicting since 2005, even if the evidence turns out to be links in "Around the Web" sections rather than headlines in supermarket tabloids …

Since I'm in the process of preparing my lecture notes for the fall's edition of LING001, I'll point you to the page for "A Biological Perspective", which takes up some of the same issues. This page hasn't changed in relevant ways since I first put the course together almost 20 years ago, and the ideas in it were not new then.  For a shorter version, here are the slides for the associated lecture.

And a few relevant LLOG posts:

"Signs or symbols? Words or tools?", 6/15/2004
"Chomsky testifies in Kansas", 5/6/2005
"A new idea about the evolution of language", 6/11/2005
"The elephant fights back", 7/2/2005
"JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF", 8/25/2005
"Finch phrase structure", 10/1/2007
"Ask Language Log: Sounds and meanings", 3/9/2008
"Creole birdsong?", 5/9/2008
"Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited", 2/12/2009
"Bickerton on Fitch", 2/15/2009
""Silence on the Savannah!" On Bickerton's Yodeling Australopithecines and Missing the Point of Musical Protolanguage", 2/20/2009
"The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009
"Gene/Culture co-evolution", 6/13/2013
"Ideas and actions", 6/22/2014
"Modeling repetitive behavior", 5/15/2015
"Commentary on the 'The Mystery of Language Evolution", 11/3/2015




  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    Not only did he discover language, he also took on linguistics:

    "Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics" (7/24/16)

    [(myl) And did just as accurate a job… The good side of the supermarket-tabloid/internet-clickbait approach to a subject is that it raises awareness. The bad side is that the content of the resulting awareness can be a bit warped …]

  2. Nicholas Keller said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    Did you see his execrable Harper's article?

    [(myl) Victor just linked to it in the previous comment.]

  3. maidhc said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    One of America's most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the …

    How would speech develop if not from evolution? An encounter with a black monolith?

  4. Viseguy said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    Tom Wolfe discovers language! (FTFY :-))

  5. David L said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    The idea that speech cannot be explained by evolution seems like little more than another go-round of the old watchmaker argument or the creationist claim that evolution can't explain our sense of sight because eyeballs are, like, super complicated.

    But just as with vision, a little bit of communication is an evolutionary advantage over no communication, and more communication is a greater advantage still.

    {(myl) As I've been arguing for many years, the real mystery is not how human language could have evolved, but why it only evolved once. It's clear that many animals can learn to make many different vocal or manual signals, can learn to distinguish many vocalizations or gestures, can learn referential associations for many such signals, etc. So what's been holding them back?

    One plausible idea is that the barrier exists because a primitive declarative communications system is NOT better than no communication system at all, and might actually maladaptive in various ways, say by spreading confusion and frustration.

    Another way to approach the question is to observe that elephants' trunks are obviously a big win, so why don't all mammals have them?]

  6. Robert said,

    August 28, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    "Fifty Shades of Grey" is spelt that way however, referring to a character not a colour. No dishonour in not having read it from what I hear, perhaps that list is in order of literary worth.

    [(myl)The [sic] is because of the extra and in "Fifty and Shades of Grey".]

  7. Nathalie said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 3:49 am

    FWIW "Fifty and Shades of Grey" sounds like a story about ageing.

  8. JPL said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 4:24 am

    "… speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, …"

    This reminds me of an earlier era, when people used the term 'speech' to refer to this uniquely human ability, rather than the term 'language'. The term 'speech' refers to an overt behaviour, sort of like 'talking', but what we want to account for is what is behind this ability, what makes it possible. Chomsky, for example, uses the term 'language faculty' to broadly identify the object of evolutionary explanations. The relevant question would be something like, what developments on the biological or ethological level reached the threshold that created, opened the possibility of the future development of language for the human species? Further, what cognitive or intellectual capacities on the pre-human level are involved in continuities with the human level of language activity, and what is the novel phenotypic trait that makes a difference (for a species) between no language and language? Chomsky identifies the latter as a property he calls variously "merge" and "discrete infinity"; but I would like to include as a novel phenomenon the explicit expressibility of knowledge of the world and the construction of what we can call the logical level of analysis as a part of the natural world. It is weird, as maidhc points out, that Wolfe opposes "speech" and "evolution", as if talking animals just appeared out of the blue one day; and saying that it's language, as opposed to "speech", that makes possible all those great things that humans can do is clearly not original.

  9. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    This is exactly an Intelligent Design argument. The neurosurgeon who caused the coinage of the word "egnorance" weighed in with a post on an ID site, Jeffrey Shallit fisked him:

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    There are non-evolution-based potential explanations for how humans came to use language that are still naturalistic (if for some reason you have an axiomatic bias against non-naturalistic explanations), such as the intriguing hypothesis that "language is a virus from outer space." (Usually attr. W.S. Burroughs, further popularized by L. Anderson.)

    [(myl) Though of course viral DNA modification is a normal and even widespread aspect of biological evolution. And that leaves aside the obvious question of whether "language evolution" was biological or cultural — to which the obvious answer is "yes".]

  11. david said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    On the link and in the audio at that link Wolfe declares himself an atheist and says he is not pushing creationism. In the audio it sounds like "and Fifty Shades of Grey".

    The whole article reminded me of John 1:1 which I sometimes think of as being a reference to the origin of speech (or language, etc.) although I know that's not the orthodox interpretation.

  12. Hermann Burchard said,

    August 29, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

    This somehow connects to Daniel Everett, although not mentioned here, in that Tom Wolfe cites him as having proved Chomsky wrong: The Piraha language has a finite grammar, so it's not a recursive grammar. This is a simple misunderstanding, any finite function (finite domain & range) is a recursive function. Finite grammars are merely the simplest recursive grammars. So, Dan's argument against Noam is mute, it has no substance. Tom Wolfe's "kingdom" erected upon Everett's theory hangs in the air, void of its foundation.

    This confusion among linguists & others may be due in part to a bit of a sloppy habit, the actual wording in Chomsky-Hauser-Fitch (CHF) was "recursion," instead of a reference to the mathematical theory of recursive = Turing computable functions. The official terminology: "partial recursive functions," Rosser, Kleene (1935-1953), two of Alonzo Church's long list of Ph.D. students, with Turing being #5. Prior to CHF the works of Noam Chomsky did not ever refer to recursive functions, to my knowledge. The term was coined by Kurt Gödel (1931), but he only defined primitive recursive functions by today's standards.

    CHF appeared November 2002. When I saw it at the time, it seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to parts of an early draft of a paper that I had sent to CF von Weizsaecker in June 2002, on the occasion of his 90th birthday. He replied that he was too old to read it hmself but had given it to someone else. Possibly Hauser got hold of it this way. In a rush and near-panic, I sent my draft to Diederik Aerts, editor FOS, who gave it to a friend to read, who liked it and said it was well-written. Aerts then let my MS go through peer review, and after a delay due to Springer acquiring the journal, it eventually appeared in June 2005 (93 pages). The introductory section ends with a lengthy comment on CHF, doi: 10.1007/s10699-004-3068-9.

    Since then, I have published three more articles on the same theme: How language allows humans to cross the metaphysical gap between the biological organism and its environment. An earlier form of language is pictorial image language, which we know from our dreams, a precursor to verbal language, that we have in common with animals. There is a vast capacity in the right brain for storing images of external objects and scenes. The left brain works with imaginary scenes. Briefly, the Kantian outer, spatial & inner temporal senses are now understood to be related to left/ right brain lateralization, with neuroscientists on the trail of this story from long ago: Brenda Milner and her students Mary Lou Smith and Patricia Frisk (Milner, 1971; Smith & Milner, 1989; Frisk & Milner, 1990), Igloi K., Doeller C. F., Berthoz A., Rondi-Reig L., & Burgess N. (2010).
    Kant's visionary discovery is fully confirmed esp. in the hippocampus, with serial, sequential, temporal function in the left hippocampus & spatial geometric in the right hippocampus (October 2016 Mentoring Conference paper, UNM; also doi: 10.4236/ojpp.2016.61002).

  13. Robert said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 4:00 am

    Oops. Curse you neurological autocorrect!

  14. leoboiko said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    Wait, am I getting this right? Tom Wolfe has come out as pro-Everett, anti-Chomsky, and simultaneously supports Chomsky's (to borrow Everett's term) X-men theory of the origin of language?

    [(myl) This seems to be true. But it may give Wolfe too much credit for understanding the issues involved.]

  15. Ross Bender said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

    In a book excerpt in today's Daily Beast, Tom Wolfe describes finding the following article online in Frontiers in Psychology: Language Science. His own inimitable conclusion is that

    "It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists—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….Now, that was odd… I had never heard of a group of experts coming together to announce what abject failures they were…"

    Don't count Wolfe out until you read the book. My copy arrives today.

    Front. Psychol., 07 May 2014 |
    The mystery of language evolution

    Marc D. Hauser1*, Charles Yang2, Robert C. Berwick3, Ian Tattersall4, Michael J. Ryan5, Jeffrey Watumull6, Noam Chomsky7 and Richard C. Lewontin8

    "Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language's origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward."

    [(myl) Readers who are interested in the ideas involved, rather than the World Wrestling Entertainment version, might want to take a look at "Commentary on 'The Mystery of Language Evolution'", 11/3/2015, or some of the other 16 links in the original post.]

  16. un_malpaso said,

    August 30, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

    Thoth did it.

  17. Stan Carey said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 5:39 am

    Not so much a virus from outer space, perhaps, as a symbiont from inner space.

  18. Hermann Burchard said,

    September 1, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    There are neuroscience reports of primate precursors of human language functions. Hand gestures and accompanying vocalizations in the genera Pan & Gorilla go with activity in Brodmann area 44 (Broca's). The area is enlarged left-hemispherically in these hominins. (See here: Nature 2001)

  19. Ross Bender said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

    Just finished Tom Wolfe's delightful book, whose theme is that nobody really knows how human life originated, much less language.

    He has a nice shout-out to the late Alvin Liberman of Yale:

    "One of the most revealing examples of Chomsky's power was the linguist Alvin Liberman's presentation of his motor theory, concerning the visual interpretations that affect face-to-face speech. Liberman didn't buy Chomsky's "language organ" for a moment. It took him several years to work up the nerve to say publicly what he really thought."* pp. 97-98, and footnote p. 98.

    It should be noted that a leitmotif of Wolfe's rant is that, as we all know, MIT really sucks. Boolah boolah.

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