With little fanfare Tom Wolfe has released another of his non-fiction narratives, this time dealing with the history of the Theory of Evolution and the problem of the origin of human speech. Wolfe, surprisingly, flirts extensively with the idea of Intelligent Design, particularly evolution’s inability to explain certain properties of human beings.
The overall theme of Wolfe’s book is that we severely underappreciate human ability in relation to animals, the huge gulf between the simplest human and the most advanced apes, and all of this is enabled by human language. Wolfe claims language is an artifact of humanity, not an instinct, and emerged as a type of mnemonic to help our early ancestors remember the things around them. I find this a little fuzzy, and he avoids the biological issue of the necessity of the human brain to produce such an artifact. The obvious question is if speech is the artifact that enables all other artifacts
Wolfe took a lot of chances with this book, and his takedown of Noam Chomsky is particularly rich. His summary of Daniel Everett’s experiences with a primitive Amazon tribe that lacked any concept of time, complex sentences and produced no artifacts beyond the bow and arrow, and constructed no permanent dwellings is a treat for connoisseurs of human biodiversity. Everett’s field work destroyed Chomsky’s Freud-like pseudoscience in linguistics, and the tension between them (Everett being a highly goyish outdoorsman, former Christian missionary from a flyover town) is particularly rich.
The first half of the book includes some critiques of evolution that are never quite taken to a conclusion, likely because Wolfe either doesn’t want to think about their implications or doesn’t want to “out” himself as a theist in his old age.
I would rate the book a 3/5 but Wolfe is such a damn good writer it’s a 4/5.