Saturday, September 10, 2016

Brief review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech"

I really wanted to like this book, for the simple reason that any book that the obnoxious fruifly geneticist Jerry Coyne is that contempuous of, can't be all bad. But sadly, it really is all bad.

Tom Wolfe's new book is indeed as bad as advertised, but it isn't creationist. His big idea is taken from linguist Daniel Everett (Language: The Cultural Tool), that language isn't a biological autapomorphy, like eyebrows or valgus knees, but a discovery or invention, like bifacial handaxes. The possibility that the dichotomy might be a false one apparently occurs to neither of them.

If it were not in some sense a biological feature, then it is difficult to explain why our vocal tract differs from a chimpanzee’s; and why you can’t teach a chimp to talk, as psychologists from Robert Yerkes on down have tried and failed to do.  And if it were not a cultural feature, then it is difficult to explain why people speak so many different more-or-less equivalent languages, rather than just one really good language

The first half of the book is a child’s romp through the career of Charles Darwin, written in an overtly anachronistic, and frankly sophomoric, style. The second half of the book leaps to savage Noam Chomsky. You can get distracted by Wolfe giving Ian Tattersall a post at MIT (p. 149), or awarding Joseph Dalton Hooker a knighthood 20 years before Queen Victoria did (p. 32), or his antiquated use of “man” as a generic term for the species, but it really isn’t even worth the time.  “Even the smartest apes don’t have thoughts, “ he writes on p. 162, “so much as conditioned responses to certain primal pressures.”  Who knew there were any real Cartesians left?

What ties the two halves of this short book together is not so much the history of linguistics (no Saussure, and a passing mention of Edward Sapir), but the foregrounded information that science is a social activity, with rhetoric, persuasion, and alliance as components. Somebody really ought to write a book about that.

Wolfe’s rhetoric is mainly deployed to boost the work of Everett, who seems to be rather a better linguist than ethnographer.  He says that the Pirahã language lacks the feature of recursion, which Chomsky believes that all languages have.  This ought to be little more than classic “Bongo-Bongoism” – the ethnographic demonstration that the mythical people of “Bongo-Bongo” lack whatever facet of human behavior all people are supposed to have, as first-generation ethnographers aggressively liked to point out a century ago.   But when Everett writes about the overall simplicity and primitiveness of the Pirahã language and lifeways, Wolfe notes that the published comments in Current Anthropology were dubious. “They all had their reservations about this and that,” Wolfe writes (p. 119). But “this and that” were actually the articulated doubts about the basic competence of Everett’s ethnography.  That is serious, because it means that the stuff being said about the Pirahã is not quite reliable enough to be considered as anthropological data. They “had preserved a civilization virtually unchanged for thousands, godknew-how-many-thousands, of years” (p. 113). When Wolfe calls them “the most primit – er, indigenous – tribe known to exist on earth” (p. 142), the sophisticated reader may be forgiven for reading it as romanticized pseudo-anthropological nonsense.  

After all, every sophisticated reader knows that the most primit - er, indigenous tribe known to exist on earth are really the KhoiSan
Oh shit, maybe these guys really are!

Anyway, without differentiating between (vocal) speech and (cognitive) language, Wolfe eventually deduces that speech is what made us significantly different from other animals, something that “no licensed savant had ever pointed ... out before”.  So you had better not look too hard for licensed savants pointing it out.

Wolfe concludes with a radical taxonomic proposition: that humans are cognitively so distinct that we should be alone in a higher taxonomic category.  If you don’t know that Julian Huxley said as much in the 1950s, and Terry Deacon (1997) more recently – at the subkingdom and phylum levels, respectively – then you might find the suggestion original or threatening. It’s actually neither. It’s just a matter of how much or how little you choose to privilege phylogeny when classifying. 

All in all, the wrong stuff. 

1 comment:

  1. My impression is that Everett was suggesting that the Pirahã don’t use recursion. I don’t think Chomsky ever said that human language HAS to have recursion, rather that recursion is among the bag of tricks in MOST human languages. We don’t need some physical module in the brain to code for that bag of tricks, though. we only need a capacity to symbolize, and to learn a collective cognitive niche (as Augustin Fuentes might say). Anyone who has learned more than one language knows that different languages can convey very similar concepts, feelings, and observations; despite the usual screw-ups from any kind direct mechanical translation. Language capacity is biological and evolved, like throats and tongues and knees and immune systems and guts. The specific uses we put our throats, tongues, knees, immune systems, and guts to tend to vary quite a bit around the world; and they tend to vary as much because of something we learn as part of our local bioculture (specific language, sexual foreplay, forms of prayer and sports, common virus and bacterial exposures, and dietary habits).

    Did anyone seriously ever say that you must have recursion to qualify as a human language? Wouldn’t that be like implying you need to have tongue-kissing or anal penetration to qualify as human mating behaviour? Isn’t it like saying you need to see evidence of use of more than three numerals to qualify a group as having human counting behaviour? In fact... might all of this be about drawing lines in the sand between “primitive” and “modern” humans?

    Everett is no more drawing such lines than is Chomsky.

    But there are people who might like to do that, people who might be willing to see humans as evolved animals, but who also see our species as some kind emergent thing, detachable from the planetary ecosystem, a special new kind of being for whom life without Gaia is somehow ...survivable. Anyone who persuade themselves that humans not only are still evolving , but that they are evolving most rapidly in industrial techno-deserts, becoming more and more intelligent, healthy, and cosmopolitan, would love Wolfe’s take on this.