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The Kingdom of Speech Hardcover – August 30, 2016
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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
About the Author
Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back to Blood. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. He received the National Book Foundation's 2010 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in New York City.
Top Customer Reviews
That’s us. The gabby human. Wolfe wonders why it is taking the Great Men of Science so long to recognize what is obvious -- that “speech, language, the Word” is not a product of evolution or of an organ in the skull but is a tool invented by man, like “a light bulb or a Buick.”
Once again, Wolfe, now 85, mocks cultural sacred cows -- this time Darwinism and linguistics. In the past he has skewered modern art, the radical chic crowd and literary lions such as John Updike. His prose is as Wolfean as ever – meandering, breathless, exclamatory and punctuated with sound effects (“OOF!”)
Two heroic outsiders dominate the 185-page essay. One is Alfred Russell Wallace, a self-taught nobody who beat the wealthy and connected Charles Darwin to the Theory of Evolution but received scant credit because he was not a British Gentleman. He later renounced natural selection for failing to explain human speech.
The other is Daniel Everett, a modern-day anthropologist who spent 30 year studying a primitive – er, indigenous – society deep in the Amazon. Its speech was so undeveloped that the people had no concept of tomorrow.
Wallace was ignored by the scientific establishment, which had become Darwinist. Everett was ignored by the linguistic establishment, which was (and is) ruled by Noam Chomsky, who insisted that a language organ was lodged somewhere in every human’s brain. Wolfe showers contempt on “Noam Charisma” – known beyond the world of linguistics for his radical left-wing politics – as someone who prefers doing research on his computer in an air-conditioned office at MIT to getting dirty in the field.
“The Kingdom of Speech” is dizzying at times. But the trip is enlightening and -- “Bango!” -- fun.
In this case, the old-school Darwinists and the linguists are livid.
As linguistics is not my field, I’m not qualified to judge Wolfe’s claims concerning Noam Chomsky. Nonetheless Wolfe’s suggestion that for decades, hardly anyone bothered to seriously research the origin of human language, and that still today we have made discouraging progress on solving the problem… does give one pause.
As for Darwinism, I did write a book about it (Evolution 2.0) which took ten years of research. Kingdom of Speech isn’t so much a critique of evolution itself as it is an expose on how much credit Darwin took for work not his own.
One weakness of this book is Wolfe does not adequately address what Darwin did or did not accomplish on the HMS Beagle. One gets the impression from Wolfe that Darwin did a lot less science on the Galapagos than most people think. In any case the true story simply is not clear.
One bridge Wolfe does not cross (and I’d be surprised had he done so as this is still not well known) is that cells themselves are linguistic. When confronted with stress, they mutate in linguistic patterns.
Readers should search for a TED talk by Bonnie Bassler called “How Bacteria Talk” where she shows how organisms send messages to each other and communicate by exchanging molecules built from syntactical modular elements.
There is an entire field in biology called biosemiotics (semiotic = “signs and language”). The field has two dedicated peer reviewed journals. Notable researchers include Howard Patee, Sungchul Ji and Gunther Witzany. This field goes back many decades. Ji of Rutgers authored an excellent paper “Linguistics of DNA.”
The 1984 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Niels Jerne, used Noam Chomsky’s linguistic model to describe behavior of the human immune system. Another linguist, Gerald McMenamin, devotes an entire section in his book Forensic Linguistics to the language of DNA.
Bacteria under stress re-arrange and exchange DNA with each other in linguistic patterns, rapidly adapting to threats. This is why you have to take antibiotics and finish the bottle - you either kill those suckers dead or they come back with a vengeance. They’re not just passively mutating, they’re actively searching for ways to defeat the antibiotic. See James Shapiro, “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century.” Another good title is COSMOSAPIENS by John Hands.
Knowing honeybees communicate via waggles that closely mimic something in quantum physics called the flag manifold, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to suggest that human capacity for language may draw on something that is deeply cellular.
To me the genius of Wolfe’s book was linking the deficiencies of Darwinism in explaining human language with theoretical attempts in linguistics which, Wolfe argues, are similarly lacking in empiricism.
An interesting parallel to Wolfe’s linking of these two fields is the eerie symmetry between the Darwinists - who fail to teach you how evolution actually works (you’ll learn almost nothing useful or accurate from Richard Dawkins or Bill Nye on this matter) - and Intelligent Design advocates, who outright deny that evolution is possible. Also failing to teach you how evolution works, by default.
Neither Dawkins’ books, nor Stephen Myer’s book “Darwin’s Doubt,” tell you anything useful about cellular linguistics or the actual mechanics of evolutionary mutations. But in fact most empirical, real-time evolutionary events are triggered by semantic changes in the genome. Not “random” mutations.
Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for discovering transposition, which is the cell re-arranging its own genome; Lynn Margulis, ex-wife of Carl Sagan, popularized Symbiogenesis, the theory that new species come from cellular mergers. Both of these phenomena are driven by linguistic capabilities of cells.
Kingdom Of Speech is a very fun and easy read. Wolfe does not indulge in showing off his verbal prowess; rather he exercises all his faculties in constructing a rollicking read.
If you’ve always suspected that science is far from settled, read this book. It will provoke you with old questions, new questions, and an exciting sense of the unknown.
However, if you’re confident that the major operating principles of the universe are well understood, and if you believe science exploration from here on out is just a cleanup exercise, this book will make you furious.
Like Longitude (the book about timekeeping and navigation), Wolfe's book is about human scientific progress and the people who make it. Like Wolfe's Radical Chic, Kingdom is a critique of pompous, posturing elites. Wolfe demolishes Darwin's and Chomsky's theories of Everything... don't expect Wolfe to tie the demolition up nicely with a theory of Everything ending or even middle. Darwin, in to addition having his Theory of Everything (Evolution) run aground on the problem of Speech, is exposed as an almost plagiarist who uses his upper-class British connections to take credit for the theory of evolution when a "commoner" beat him into print. Chomsky's theory of Everything (the Language Organ) gets demolished too, but what Wolfe says about Chomsky the man is more intriguing. Chomsky is exposed as nasty and vindictive, a closed-minded and petty anarchist, overcompensating for not being able to fight in the Spanish Civil War, who is more interested (very nastily) in protecting his reputation than advancing humankind's understanding of where we came from and where we're going.