Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech" (2016): A Review

When I learned that Tom Wolfe -- yes, the Tom Wolfe, of "Radical Chic" and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame -- had resurfaced in 2016, of all improbable years, with the even more improbable claim that he had managed to upend all of modern linguistics and -- as if incidentally -- the Darwinian theory of evolution to boot (others have tried, Tom, others have tried) -- and all in a squib of only about 170 generously large font-ed pages, I knew that this was something I had to see. Plainly, this was an "episode" of literary history in the making -- a minor one, to be sure, a curiosity -- but a curious one for all that. Wolfe, after all -- while he may not be everyone's idea of America's greatest writer -- has played no small or unnoticeable part in American letters over the last half-century, first as exponent and practitioner of the "New Journalism" -- indeed, he christened the thing -- later as the attempted reviver of the long, Zolaesque naturalistic novel, and finally as the "literary intellectual" (if that is still the right term for him) who was always most keen on sticking his finger in the eye of the left-wing pieties of the other "literary intellectuals."

To hear that he had emerged now from the mists of all those remote cultural touchstones of yesteryear that one associated with him (Panthers! Ken Kesey! LSD! Vietnam! Astronauts!), and with a new crank scientific theory in tow, was sort of like finding out that Norman Mailer wasn't dead after all and instead was busy as we speak on an effort to finally synthesize the theories of particle physics and General Relativity. This was plainly to be an act of authorial chutzpah and genre-defying (and odds-defying) intellectual bravado that we don't see much of these days, now that so many of Wolfe's contemporaries have departed for the pure lands. It was to be a last hurrah of the stylistically-gifted but mathematically-challenged non-specialists-- the revenge of the literary journalists and generalists -- who insist on believing that verbal talent confers on them the right to wade into highly esoteric domains of thought in the same way that a press pass gets you behind the scenes at a convention.

Wolfe's new book turns out to be all that and then some -- and all so much more egregiously so than I could have anticipated. Wolfe rests his entire indictment of Darwinian evolution and Chomskeyan Universal Grammar on such wild ad hominem lines of attack, such deliberately malicious and misleading caricatures of the relevant scientific literature, that one feels it would be missing the point to set down and actually try to "refute" his "arguments" -- since this would seem to imply that Wolfe means anything he says, believes anything he says, or cares about the truth or falsehood of any of his claims. He does not. The book is an effort at satire, of a sort utterly leaden in it's heavy-handedness and humorless in its crudeness, not a scientific treatise. It is a pamphlet-length exercise in épater-ing les intellectuels, nothing more -- an obscenely public scratching of a long-standing psychological itch of Wolfe's to prove that he is not only more demotic, more bluff, more down-home-among-the-ordinary folks than all those Ivory Tower, New York Review of Books types, but that he is actually smarter than all of them too, and could make quick hash of all of their theories in a handful of pages if he ever stooped to the effort, just by pointing out some patent truth that they've all deliberately obscured behind their webs of theories and equations.

That this is what Wolfe is really about comes clear within the first few pages. Ostensibly writing of another work of armchair science -- this one from the 19th century (The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation), Wolfe claims that “the book caught high-IQ hell from the ranks of established naturalists in general. They found it journalistic and amateurish; which is to say, the work of an unknown outsider and a threat to their status." As should be obvious by a couple words into this sentence, we are, of course, not really talking about Robert Chambers here -- the otherwise little-known author of the Vestiges -- we are talking about Wolfe, who is hereby preempting all the "high-IQ hell" that his own book is likely to attract. It's not because Wolfe's whole style of argumentation is wildly off-base, you see, that people are criticizing it -- it's because of the status anxieties of the critics, those pampered Ivy Leaguers, who would be forced to confront the poverty of their own theories if they engaged meaningfully with Wolfe's arguments and so have to resort to making crude personal attacks to get him off the trail. (Never mind that Wolfe's writing is far more ill-tempered than the most arch and smug sallies that ever went forth from the Ivory Tower -- resting almost entirely as his book does on descriptions of the allegedly mean personal motivations of Darwin, Chomsky, and the rest).

Likewise, Wolfe's assault against Chomsky (and --for more obscure reasons -- Darwin) is supposedly undertaken not in his own defense, but on behalf of Daniel Everett -- an anthropologist best known for studying the Piraha language and culture in the Amazon -- yet Wolfe's immediate inflation of Everett's controversial critique of Chomskyan Universal Grammar into a mythic contest between the democratic David and the self-righteous, patronizing faculty lounge Goliath epitomized by Chomsky reveals rather unsubtly Wolfe's identification with the former. In Wolfe's telling, Everett's findings among the Piraha utterly overthrow not only Universal Grammar, but the whole edifice of linguistic theory as we know it, effectively forcing Chomsky and his peers to admit, in 2014, without ever acknowledging Everett by name, that forty years of their own work had been “a colossal waste of time," rendering them all "abject failures" (these are -- it will not surprise you to learn -- Wolfe's "paraphrases" of what they meant to say, not anything Chomsky or the others actually said).

And why was it, do you think, that Daniel Everett never received proper credit for effecting this purportedly fundamental sea-change in linguistics? -- it was, of course, our old friends snobbery and status anxiety. "Everett was still the flycatcher non grata," says Wolfe. Yet, nobody though he was, non-entity from the perspective of the imperious lecture halls of MIT, Everett had stumbled by simple observation upon the most revolutionary breakthrough in linguistic theory for the past sixty years, maybe ever, according to Wolfe. "Everett’s decades-long experience with the Pirahã cast the first light on the answer to Chomsky’s question after sixty years of studying language: What is it?" says Wolfe. Do you hear? The first light!

We're not, once again, really talking about Everett here, are we? For, by the end of the book, Wolfe has revealed that actually Everett's insights don't matter much either, next to the shaft of light with which he himself, i.e. Wolfe, has now pierced the clouds of obfuscation and lies that have surrounded linguistic theory since its earliest beginnings. Writes Wolfe:
"One bright night it dawned on me—not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech."
This epiphany that so overwhelmed Wolfe, this thing that "no licensed savant" had ever before noticed, not even once -- namely, that language is a distinctly human capacity that undergirds the capacity for abstract thought that has made possible all the singular achievements of our species -- is in fact, of course, one of the oldest and most fundamental insights of linguistic theory. It is one of the deepest guiding beliefs of the very "licensed savants" Wolfe most deprecates -- Chomsky most notably of all, whose theory of Universal Grammar hinges, for reasons we will come to below, on precisely this claim about the distinctive human capacity for language, and whose paeans to the extraordinary and totally unique "generative" quality of human language preface just about every set of remarks he has ever made on the subject. It helps, I guess, not to actually read the licensed savants in question, if one is to arrive at the conclusion that they have never come up with anything like one's own brilliant thoughts.


Having gotten even this far, it may seem a valid question why I should bother reading and reviewing Wolfe's book at all, when it doesn't even seem to make an argument that is tied to any sort of scholarly engagement with our existing knowledge on the subjects on which it fulminates. And I can come up with at least a few public-spirited reasons for doing so. One would be the fact that Wolfe's book is a best-seller -- bizarrely enough -- and has thrust an already poorly understood linguistic controversy back into the limelight, where a series of mean-spirited myths about linguists, Darwin, Chomsky, and science in general will be perpetuated, if left unchallenged.

It was bad enough when the popular press got hold of Daniel Everett about ten years ago, and began portraying his theories as exactly the sort of epochal revelation that Tom Wolfe still believes them to be. Everett's book was "the final nail in the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely influential theory of universal grammar," as the New Scientist notoriously put it. Never mind that Everett's work made nowhere near the splash in professional linguistic circles that the journalists think it did. Never mind that Everett's claims about the Piraha have been called into question by other linguists and don't seem to be taken all that seriously by other specialists. All that proves, of course, is that linguists are a cabal of co-conspirators, of self-satisfied Chomsky acolytes, who feel that their status is imperiled by this upstart Everett and that he therefore must be crushed. It is a logical circle in which those with the most knowledge on the subject of linguistics are -- for that very reason -- least trusted to speak to it with honesty. It is a kind of Trumpianism come to the study of language. Who would have thought that our present pseudo-populist national mood would have spread to such seemingly inhospitable terrain as academic linguistic theory?

Yet Wolfe's affinities for the casually demagogic style, the indifferent bombast and boasting of the Trumpian national (and perhaps global) mood, is evident throughout the book. We have seen that Wolfe's anti-intellectualism is, like Trump's, founded in the belief not only that he is a man of the people, but also that he could be -- nay, is -- smarter than all the effete intellectual toffs anyways. Wolfe's fact-dumping, as well as the dismissiveness of his account of those "perfectly obvious" insights at the end of the book -- the ones that no educated dunce had ever managed to perceive before -- is a slightly higher-browed version of Trump's insistence that he is his own best foreign policy advisor, because, as he memorably put it, "I have a very good brain."

Then there is the casual chauvinism, which Wolfe and Trump also have in common. Among the stale cruelties that Wolfe can't seem to resist putting into his book include describing the Piraha people as "the most primit—er, indigenous—tribe known to exist on earth." Likewise, Wolfe can't get by using the word "Inuit" in his text without reflexively noting that this is "the new 'politically correct' name for Eskimos." One of his illustrations at the close of the book of the supposed extraordinary power of speech, meanwhile, involves the following joke about women, worthy of the wall of a bait shop or a tacky calendar, rather than the final chapter of a book that has some pretensions (however unrealized) to intellectual heft: "[A] weak man might get drunk one night," writes Wolfe, "and say something romantic to a pretty girl. [...] She has no trouble putting him in a box and tying it with a ribbon and giving him to herself as a wedding gift …the kickoff of sixty-two years during which he has a chance to find out just how stupid she is and how lovely she isn’t—all of it the result of a little drunk speech he uttered back in another century.”

The very grossness and extravagance of Wolfe's performance, however, is also a kind of guard against its having any too significant impact on the public's understanding of the scientific issues at stake. I think most readers are smart enough, in short, not to be talked out of their Darwinism by Wolfe's fervid non-arguments -- they are too obviously unserious. To give you a small taste of what he's up to in the Darwin chapters, here is Wolfe's account of what Darwin had to say about the origins of the first life forms:
"[Darwin's students] wanted to know some small but fundamental details about the moment Evolution got under way and how exactly, physically, it started up—and from what? Darwin had apparently never thought of it quite that way before. Long pause…and finally, “Ohhh,” he said, “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.” One student pressed him further. He wanted to know where the cells came from. Who or what put them in the pool? An exasperated Darwin said, in effect, “Well, I don’t know…look, 'isn’t it enough that I’ve brought you man and all the animals and plants in the world?'"
You will note that Wolfe has quotation marks around these utterances that he places into the mouth of this fictional character "Charles Darwin." He cites only the first of the two, the "four or five cells" line, with a footnote averring that "Darwin used similar language in a letter to J. D. Hooker." How "similar," exactly, one wonders? We can look up the letter in question rather quickly, the Darwin correspondence being mostly available online, and check Wolfe's reference. The letter reads, in part:
"It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed."
This is, to repeat, the language that Wolfe has glossed -- using quotation marks -- as “Ohhh [...] probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.”

As for the second "quotation" from "Darwin"-- the "look, isn't it enough..." line, Wolfe provides no citation at all. But this is, after all, only what Darwin said in effect, according to Wolfe. What a raft of outright falsifications can be fit through that "in effect"!

To dwell for a bit longer on the Darwin subject, I should add that Wolfe's chief point in including the section is to suggest that Darwin's insights were at least partly filched from Alfred Wallace, to whom Darwin only ever gave a condescending kind of credit (in Wolfe's highly partial telling). And thus Wallace becomes, like Daniel Everett, yet another object for Wolfe's psychic identification-- a further avatar of the eternal demotic truth-teller that has existed in former lives as Wallace and has now been reincarnated in Wolfe himself, as made manifest by this book. Never mind that the tale of the Darwin-Wallace friendship has been told countless times before, and Wolfe's version of it is, to say the least, not the most "even-handed." This is all exceedingly well-trod ground, and while a case might be made that Darwin did not behave toward Wallace with perfect honor, throughout their correspondence, the fact remains that he acknowledged Wallace's priority, helped to see the other man's work into print, and contributed mightily, through his friendship and collegial support, toward advancing Wallace's long and esteemed career as a naturalist. The only evidence that Wolfe provides for the insinuation that the relationship between the two men was not actually as cordial and mutually beneficial as it outwardly appears comes from the thoughts Wolfe eagerly fits into the minds of his historical actors, with total indifference to whether either man would have owned anything like the sentiments he makes them express. To give one of many possible examples:
"Wallace’s reply, a letter to Hooker, [who had just told him that Darwin was going to publish both his and Darwin's first expositions of the theory of natural selection together] got straight to the sore point. 'I was very much surprised to find that the same idea had occurred to Darwin.' But then he gave up. He knew nothing at this juncture about exactly how it had 'occurred' to Darwin, and he didn’t have the nerve to insist on finding out. He realized there was no way that he, all by himself on the wrong side of the class divide, was going to prevail against the Gentlemen. He was a flycatcher. He might as well be content to keep his mouth shut and salvage what he could from the wreckage of his plans and let them dress him up in their flattery and pluck him up from obscurity and put him on the Big Stage. He couldn’t have sounded more grateful."
In short, the only things that Wallace actually said in his letter that Wolfe is able to cite is that he was "surprised" to hear that Darwin was working along similar lines, and that he was grateful to him, Lyell, and the others for publishing his work alongside their own. Was Wallace also a bit disappointed by the news? Probably. Miffed? Probably. Left feeling snubbed? Quite possibly. Yet the historian or biographer has to be cautious about making such inferences about what was going on in the minds of their subjects too boldly and insouciantly, and the elaborate fantasy Wolfe conjures about about class antagonism and status anxiety -- it should be obvious -- wheels stratospherically out of sight of any claim that could actually be grounded in the documentary evidence he cites.

Not that Wolfe seems to care, of course.

Wolfe's book is, in case I have not said it already or made it sufficiently clear through the passages I have quoted, a work of unrelenting and totally deliberate silliness. It has all of the tropes of the old Wolfean New Journalism, but blown up now into virtual self-parody. It all reads less like Tom Wolfe than like somebody "doing" Tom Wolfe. We have the unnecessarily autobiographical opening with its stylistic flourishes, for starters (Wolfe can't just tell us that he read an article in linguistics, in the first pages -- he has to tell us how he "moused" his way over to it on the internet; then he must recount the other irrelevant sites he visited afterward). The first sentence of the book includes the unmistakably Wolfean phrase "godknows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation" and from then on through the final pages we are caroming through Wolfe's frenetic prose in familiar fashion.

And do we enjoy ourselves along the way? Sure. Do we actually still sort of like Wolfe as we read it, in spite of everything? Yes. That image of him at his keyboard surfing the web -- the one I just made fun of -- actually, if I am being honest-- it manages to be endearing. Tom Wolfe, that cultural fixture of so many decades' standing, does, just like you or I, get lost down rabbit holes of internet browsing. (This degree of genuine cuteness about the book, however, is not quite enough to excuse such egregious cutesinesses as the following: "When he received the manuscript and the letter, in June of 1858—and please forgive an anachronism, namely, a verb from almost exactly one century later—Mr. Charles Darwin freaked out.")

If people are wise enough, then, to read the Darwin sections of the book in the spirit of teasing, and not grant a single sentence of it the slightest validity as history, as science, or as biography, then Wolfe's book might not actually do all that much harm in that department, and readers might simply have a good time with it. Darwin has, after all, defeated other and bigger comers. He can plainly handle himself.

The book's more genuinely problematic sections, however, are those that relate to the Chomsky/Everett pseudo-debate, because the educated reader, even if she or he is well-informed enough about Darwin not to take too seriously what Wolfe says on the subject, may swallow much more readily the legend he tells of Daniel Everett, who had already become, long before Wolfe's book, a figure that Wolfe accurately describes (revealing in the process a whiff, perhaps, of self-awareness as to his own mythologizing tendencies) as a "folk hero." Wolfe writes that "in the [New Yorker's] eyes [Everett] was an instant folk hero…Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky." Wolfe then of course goes on, as we have seen, to puff Everett up into even more mythic dimensions (and to demonize Chomsky far more than the New Yorker did). Here is Wolfe's cod intellectual history of the development of linguistics as a field in the twentieth century, for instance:
"Language—what is it? What is it? [...] A parade of certified geniuses had spent lifetimes trying to figure it out—and failed. The first breakthrough, leading at last to the answer, was Everett’s thirty-year study of the Pirahã in their remote and forgotten malarial jungle."
You hear that? Everett in the Amazon was the first breakthrough. The first in several "lifetimes"! And this is a lurid claim that even the reflexively Darwinian popular press -- quick to spring to the defense of the great scientists in matters biological -- is quite wiling to believe when it comes to the far less familiar subject of linguistics.

A case in point would be Barbara King, writing for NPR. While she has no patience -- rightly -- for Wolfe's take on Darwin, she is a true believer when it comes to Daniel Everett, the dragon-slayer. "Everett is challenging a dominant discourse," writes King, and surely this, not any flaws in his methodology or interpretations or argumentative leaps, is what accounts for the minimal role he plays in contemporary debates within linguistics. Once again, we see that the very fact that other linguists do not take Everett's work seriously is a mark against them, not a mark against Everett's theorizing.

And Everett, it would seem -- whose personal website opens with an enormous picture of his own face and a quote from -- you guessed it -- Daniel Everett himself -- is plainly willing to play into this role, when necessary. Everett apparently told King, as she quotes him: "Over the years, [...] because of my 'traitorous' turn against Chomsky, I have been accused of racism, of mining uranium, of stealing the Pirahãs' teeth, of fathering children with Pirahã women, of 'stealing their language' and on and on and on."

Who exactly, I ask, has accused Everett of these things? Everett, I am pleased to see, enjoys a flourishing academic career, so this ostensible -- and unsourced -- witch hunt doesn't seem to have been too successful, at any rate, if it happened at all.


The most substantial case against Everett's claims about the Piraha is to be found in the article "Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment," by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky, and Cilene Rodrigues, as well as in the authors' reply to Everett's reply that followed. At no point in the article, you will find, does the authors' critique rest on any insinuations about Everett harvesting teeth from his research subjects, or mining radioactive material. Nor do they use the epithet "racist"; in fact, they go out of their way to cite Everett's own words of admiration for the Piraha people. From a scholarly standpoint, however, they do call into question Everett's rather absolutist claims about the limitations of Piraha language and culture, and ask whether these claims perhaps point up a bias on Everett's part toward "exoticizing" -- and, it is implied, primitivizing -- the Pirahas.

Everett's foundational claim -- and the reason for all the hullabaloo about him supposedly refuting Chomsky -- is that the Piraha are the first people ever to be studied who lack "recursion" or "embedding" in their spoken language -- i.e., the rudiments of the "universal grammar" that is supposed to undergird all human languages, in Chomskyan theory, and to be inborn in every member of our species. Unlike all other known linguistic communities, Everett claims, the Piraha practice no form of "embedding" at all. That is to say, their language is made up of discrete, present-tense thoughts that cannot be embedded into longer sentences. Why is this a big deal? Because there is a finite number of individual, non-embedded clauses, in any given language, because there are a finite number of words. But the fact that we can embed clauses within larger sentences of (potentially) infinite length, in all known languages, means that these finite linguistic units can recombine into an infinite number of possible -- and all fully intelligible -- sentences. It is this capacity for constructing "embedded" sentences, this "recursive" aspect, that Chomsky and others had flagged as the distinguishing characteristic of human language, as well as the source of those languages' incredible power, a power called by Chomsky, Hauser et al. the "discrete infinity" of human language. This is, to repeat, the feature of language that allows us to use words and phrases we all have heard before (like "we all have heard before") to construct an infinite variety of sentences that no one has ever heard before, but that will still be understood by the reader (like this whole sentence). But the Piraha, ostensibly, don't have it, according to Everett.

This lack of a capacity for embedding linguistic units, Everett argues further, has the effect of severely restricting the range of their cultural repertoire. Everett claims that the Piraha have no myths, creation stories, or even a concept of a past before the present generation was born. Nevis et. al. wonder, in response, whether Everett has engaged sufficiently with an entire work, written by a Brazilian anthropologist, that has been devoted solely to the study of Piraha cosmology. Everett replies that the book is based on Piraha informants who were raised in the Portuguese -speaking dominant Brazilian environment, and who therefore are mischaracterizing the culture they are describing.

Similarly, Everett claims that the Piraha are "monolingual." Nevins et al. point out that by Everett's own account, he interacted with multiple Portuguese-speaking Piraha informants, as have other scholars (like the one mentioned above); it was through their help, indeed, that he was able to learn the Piraha language in the first place. It is not clear, therefore, what "monolingual" could mean in this context.

Furthermore, Everett claims that the Piraha lack various kinds of terms -- including color terms -- that are generally thought to be linguistic universals. Barbara King naively cites his evidence for this assertion, as if it made sense: "They have no color words," she writes, "but instead deploy phrases such as 'it is temporarily being immature' for green." Nevins et al. offer the obvious retort to this line of thinking -- namely, that a phrase that may literally read -- if translated word for word-- "It is temporarily being immature," but which means, in context, "green," for the Piraha, simply is a color term. As they point out, to translate Piraha words in such a way as to literally reproduce their etymology, but not their current meanings, is needlessly to "exoticize" the language. Citing another scholar (Anna Wierzbicka), they argue that this is rather like a hostile learner of English reporting back to their non-English-speaking compatriots that the English are so silly, they have no word for "understand," and in order to express the concept they have to put together the words "under" and "stand."

Similarly, I can well imagine a member of an Amazonian tribe returning from a visit to New York City to tell their friends that Americans have such a strange and primitive tongue, they have no single word meaning "tall building." Can you believe it? Instead, they have to literally say "sky scraper" to get the point across. Imagine! As if it scraped the sky! Indeed, one of their myths tells of their ancient ancestors building a tower so tall that it was an affront to God, and....


Everett is not much helped in resisting the charge of bias -- by the way -- by Wolfe's book. Not only does Wolfe, as we have seen, sprinkle his little jokes about "primit -er... indigenous" people throughout the text, he also reproduces in a wholly unselfconscious way the old "living fossil" fallacy that once bedeviled anthropology -- namely, the belief that some peoples had been "frozen in time," and that by studying them we can discern something about the original form of our own culture and societies. "In the Pirahã," writes Wolfe, "Everett could see that he had before him the early history of speech and visual deciphering and, miraculously, could study them alive, in the here and now." The delight Wolfe takes in his own contempt for the Piraha, meanwhile, is evinced by passages such as this:
"Everett was careful and a half. He had come upon the simplest society in the known world. The Pirahã thought only in the present tense. They had a limited language; it had no recursion, which would have enabled it to stretch on endlessly in any direction and into any time frame. They had no artifacts except for those bows and arrows. Everett bent over backwards to keep the Pirahã from sounding the least bit crude or simpleminded. Their language had its limits—but it had a certain profound richness, he said."
Whether this characterization of Piraha culture (and the characterization of Everett's words of admiration for that culture as mere rhetorical prettification and face-saving) ever bothered Everett himself is not clear. It has not, at any rate, prevented him from promoting Wolfe's book on his website. The brief note about it on Everett's site begins: "In August 2016, author Tom Wolfe published a book, The Kingdom of Speech, in which he discusses the work of four major figures in the history of the sciences of evolution and language. These are Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Noam Chomsky and myself." Not the slightest blush on Everett's part about describing himself as a "major figure in the history of the sciences of evolution and language." No embarrassment either, at least not any in evidence here, about Wolfe's open mockery in the book's pages of the Amazonian people whom Everett has spent his life living among and studying.

Let us not even touch Nevins et. al.'s argument for why we have good reason to believe -- based on Everett's own dissertation on the Piraha language -- that the Piraha do in fact have a form of embedding in their language after all. This stage of the argument is highly technical, and I probably would not do it justice. Better to just read the article, which is, while dense, not wholly inaccessible to the non-specialist. Wolfe doesn't go near this argument anyways, and mostly prefers to engage with the Nevins et. al. paper only long enough to caricature it as the defeated whimper of the thoroughly routed Chomskyite team -- and to make fun of it for its length. Here is Wolfe's description of the article: “Nevins was already at work with two other linguists, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues, on an article so long—31,000 words—that it was the equivalent of well over 110 pages in a dense, scholarly book. They fought Everett point by point, no matter how dot-size the point." and later: "The Great Rebuttal just lay there, a swollen corpus of objections—cosmic, small-minded, and everything in between."

Wolfe does not seem to feel the need to consider whether any of those "objections" that filled so many pages might actually have been sound, or whether apparently "dot-size[d]" points of disagreement might not be of some consequence in a scholarly work. He is content merely to assume that anything over fifty pages must be a mass of pretension and obfuscation and leave it at that.

But the important point, after all this, is that it doesn't actually matter that much whether the Piraha have the quality of "embeddedness" in their language or not, since they are plainly able to acquire other languages -- like Portuguese -- that do have this feature. Wolfe quotes Chomsky himself making just this point toward the end of his book, but does not seem to grasp its significance. Everett's work may therefore be fascinating as ethnography, but it doesn't have the revolutionary implications he and Wolfe claim for it, because the Piraha are plainly not exceptions to the Chomskyan rule that all human beings have the ability to engage in "recursive thinking," as part of their "language faculty," since they can do this just fine when speaking other languages.


Fascinatingly, Wolfe is profoundly attracted to Everett's notion of language as a pure cultural artifact, none of whose rules or character has an inborn genetic basis. If this were true, however, and human beings do not in fact have a "language faculty" at birth that is distinct from that of animals -- then wouldn't this seem to rather erase the "sheer dividing line" between human and animal, the existence of which is the great epiphany that awaits Wolfe -- and the reader -- at the end of his book? Chomsky has in fact found such a dividing line, of the sort Wolfe seeks, and it is generative grammar. If Everett is correct, by contrast, then we should be able to find a near relative in the animal kingdom that is able, with sufficient training, to learn a language that has the infinitely generative property of human language, and this is precisely what we have not yet found. Chomsky's argument is that there must therefore be some switch that was flipped, at some moment in our species' evolution, that confers upon us an ability that no other species seems to have -- namely, the mysterious ability I have to put these sentences on paper that I have never written before, and that you have never read before -- that no one has ever read before, unless I am an unwitting plagiarist -- and yet still trust that you, the reader, will be able to understand them. Chomsky is the great defender of this near-miraculously prolific quality of language that Wolfe seems to think he is the first ever to intuit, and that he perversely turns into the central plank of his argument against Chomsky.


None of this, of course, is to say that Chomsky's formulation of the essential characteristics of the language faculty has not been or could never be seriously challenged. Believe it or not, professional linguists -- even the corrupt, non-Daniel Everett ones -- do actually disagree with one another -- and with Chomsky. If they didn't-- if they merely parroted one another's thoughts -- they would hardly be doing much credit to the generative, infinitely creative human capacity that is their field of study, and they probably would long since have had their research funding stripped.

I'm sure, then, that no linguistic theory is final -- and indeed, none of the sciences is (or should be) pretentious enough to claim finality. Indeed, while we're on the subject, I confess that I find one of the core a priori arguments for the existence of the universal grammar a bit hard to wrap my head around, and therefore, to swallow.

As I understand it, based on a reading of Hauser, Chomsky et al.'s "The Faculty of Language" (which first introduced the theory of "recursion"), the basic idea is as follows: a child, in the ordinary course of learning a language, can only ever be exposed to a finite number of example sentences from their parents, caregivers, and larger cultural environment. The riddle, then, is how these children ever manage to construct a basic grammar -- the rules by which sentences are constructed -- that they can use to begin creating new intelligible speech or sign language themselves, purely on the basis of this finite set of instances. After all (the authors assume we understand), "It is immediately obvious that given a finite array of data, there are infinitely many theories consistent with it but inconsistent with one another." This means that a child, in theory, could construct an infinite number of possible grammars out of the limited number of sample sentences that they encounter. The fact that they do, in nearly all cases, eventually settle on the correct grammatical understanding that allows them to use and understand the language of their community must mean, therefore, that there is an innate "universal grammar" in the human mind, which, in its most basic features -- or feature (and Hauser, Chomsky et. al. float "recursion" for what that lowest common denominator feature might be)-- is shared across all possible human languages.

Now, here is my question: is that stage of the argument about the infinitely many possible varieties of grammars being constructible out of a finite number of example sentences in fact something that is "immediately obvious"? It sounds to me an awful lot like Quine, and underdetermination, and thoughts of these always fill me with a sense of deep despair and depression and a desire to curl up in a ball under the covers. Not that that makes Quine wrong, mind you, but if he was right, it would seem to wreak a lot of havoc with our intuitive understanding of empiricism and of the way we construct inductive theories on the basis of limited evidence-- just as Quine thought it did. I guess I had not realized we had all bitten the bullet on this and become Quineans. When did this happen? Fifty years ago, and I missed it?

Even if we leave aside this Quinean a priori argument, however, there are still the a posteriori facts to contend with, all of which do conform rather well to the universal grammar hypothesis, even if Everett's claims about Piraha grammar are proven true. In the realm of the empirical, the Chomskyan "language faculty," distinguished by its capacity for recursion, is still on totally solid ground. That doesn't mean it won't be refuted in the future, just that it hasn't yet been. After all, we have not yet found an animal that could learn human language (in either its signing or spoken varieties) in the infinitely generative fashion that humans can. And by the same token, we have not yet found any human population that could not learn recursive languages, if exposed to them as children. Even if the Piraha language doesn't have the recursive feature -- and this is doubtful -- it is still the case that Piraha people can learn recursive languages as easily as other people can. To repeat Chomsky's point above, the Piraha evidently have the "language faculty," even if the implausible case could be proven that they for some reason do not make use of this faculty in their native speech.

In fact, I would add, if it could be shown that their native cultural environment does not involve any recursion, yet they plainly are able to learn recursive languages (like Portuguese) through contact with surrounding populations, then this is, if anything, even more evidence that recursive language is not a cultural artifact, but an inborn capacity that is the birthright of every human, whether their own cultural environment makes use of it or not.


What, then, is all this harrying of Chomsky and of linguistics -- by Wolfe most strikingly and remorselessly, but also by Everett and his followers in the popular press -- actually about? I hinted at the solution above already, of course. Wolfe's book finds us, after all, in the midst of a distinct cultural moment. To avoid giving Trump any more attention, let us call this moment, rather more grandly, the revolt of the laity.

2016 is an anti-intellectual year, perhaps the most anti-intellectual year on record since the end of the McCarthy era, and eggheads are once again coming in for a drubbing from the most diverse and seemingly unrelated quarters -- from Glenn Greenwald, to, to popular articles on debates within linguistics. And Tom Wolfe, who was a kind of Trumpian populist avant la lettre, has now, toward the end of a long career, finally found his appropriate cultural moment. And the reason that he, Daniel Everett, and the rest aren't being treated with more skepticism by the popular press in the process, is that many of us actually want to see them win. We want to see the idols dragged down and ourselves, the "little man," the laity, elevated to the status of experts in their place. I know as much as any of them, we like to think. All those complex edifices of abstract thought -- those theoretical apparati that have been centuries, if not millennia, in the making -- they are really nothing but houses of cards that could be upended with a slight puff of wind. All that linguistic theory, for instance, it was demolished, Wolfe and Everett want to assure us, by a single observation -- by something that any damn fool could have seen with their own eyes, down in the Amazon, if they'd bothered to get off their pampered academic keister.

Wolfe works this latter theme like a maestro. Speaking again of the New Yorker article about Everett, he writes:
"In the heading of the article was a photograph, reprinted many times since, of Everett submerged up to his neck in the Maici River. [...] It became the image that distinguished Everett from Chomsky. Immersed!—up to his very neck [...] No linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span…he never looks down, only inward. He never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees…more than forty at last count…and remain unmuddied by the Maici or any of the other muck of life down below."
Here we see a particular demagogic style of thinking in action that was first noted by Multatuli, in his Max Havelaar. He notes that "all men are rivals"-- resistant therefore to admitting that any other person is better at anything else, if we can help it -- but that -- says Multatuli -- it is perhaps less embarrassing for each of us to grant superior knowledge to someone (like Everett) who has "experienced" things directly, who has "seen" things -- and therefore is only possessed of knowledge that we might have had as well, if we had been lucky enough to be in the same place, and used our own eyes and ears. By the same token, it is much more galling to acknowledge the possibility that Chomsky -- who has done most of his work indoors, where we also find ourselves -- might actually have stumbled upon some important insights not because of anything he saw, and that we never saw, but because he is -- at least in one field of speculation -- actually smarter than us. Perish the thought!

It takes a more than usually magnanimous personality to be able to admit that there are in fact people in the world who know more -- and are more intelligent -- than we are. And still harder is it for people who are quite gifted in some one particular area to grant that this talent does not give them the right to speak as experts in every other possible area. Lord save us all, for this reason -- you will know what I mean -- from the engineers, the Silicon Valley technocrats, and the brilliant surgeons when they weigh in on the subjects of politics, religion, and the proper ordering of human societies.

The same effect seems to extend to talented littérateurs, including but not limited to Wolfe himself. There is of course no obvious connection between a facility with the English language -- indeed, stylistic brilliance -- and a command of the natural sciences, for instance. Yet that didn't stop Nabokov from offering his critique of the Theory of Relativity in Part Four of Ada or Ardor, in the character of Van Veen, though in his case he at least had the good sense to admit "I think I had better back out of this passage" when he had come to the end of it. Wolfe, by contrast, never backs out of anything.

Moreover, Nabokov's scientific maunderings have at least the saving grace of self-satire. "There is that awful moment in popular books on cosmic theories," he writes in Ada -- describing an experience that has been shared no doubt by every humanist who ever tried to wade too deeply into quantitative domains where she or he does not belong -- "(that breezily begin with plain straightforward chatty paragraphs) when there suddenly start to sprout mathematical formulas, which immediately blind one's brain." Wolfe has a similar redemptive moment when, faced with an impenetrable paper in linguistics, he speaks of the sudden appearance of "mathematical symbols—[...] such as the sigma, with its sharp angles and bladelike lines impaling the unwary human brain."

For the most part, however, Wolfe is not willing to entertain the most obvious explanation as to why he, I, and Nabokov, feel "impaled" by the sight of a mathematical formula: namely that, at least in the field of pure mathematics, we are not all that bright -- at least not compared to people who have devoted their entire lives to the subject. Wolfe wants to nurse the fantasy, instead, that the fact that he is so overwhelmed by all the verbiage and symbolic logic and jargon and formulae he finds in linguistics is that it is all a smokescreen. There is nothing behind it. The real insights about language are all "perfectly obvious" -- so obvious only an intellectual could miss them.

There is, of course, often an excellent case to be made against intellectuals -- against the "tyranny of the experts" and the like. It has been made, it occurs to me, by no one as forcefully and as well as by Noam Chomsky himself. But the chief problem with intellectuals -- the root of the danger they often pose to other people -- is the same peril at the heart of Wolfe's book and of our whole contemporary populist mood: the awful temptation of hubris. The trouble with "experts," intellectuals and the like, after all, is the arrogant overextension of their proper domain -- their implicit belief that a talent in one field or aspect of human life gives them the right to rule in all others -- that a strong capacity for language or mathematics or the arts, say, grants them superiority in all respects over people whose gifts are non-intellectual, but no less real or substantive. It is this delusion of the experts that -- as Chomsky has never tired of pointing out -- has allowed them to appoint themselves the effective masters of modern society. This is the phenomenon of technocratic state capitalism, of the military industrial complex, in nuce.

The present mood of the revolt of the laity, however, is grounded in an exaggeration of the same delusion, and therefore is no less dangerous -- indeed it may be a great deal more so. It lends credence to the tempting delusion that there is no such thing as specialized thinking, or specialized knowledge; that there is nothing anyone can do better than I can; that there is nothing anyone else knows that I don't know already, by sheer "intuition," by business sense, by common sense. This takes the much-parodied arrogance of the intellectual to a new extreme. If the expert, after all, is tempted to cruelly discount the value of the distinctive capacities of other people, simply because they happen not to be his distinctive capacities, what then are we to make of a worldview that encourages us to think that no one ever had a talent or capacity that distinguished them from anyone else (or at least not from us) -- that everything that appears to be such is mere pretension, cobwebs of obfuscation.

It should be clear what such a doctrine begins to imply about the value of other people, relative to oneself. It should also be clear what it leads us to believe about people who are different from us, in any respect -- namely, that they must be "showing off " (the very accusation that the horrid aunt is forever hurling at the child protagonist in Rudyard Kipling's poignant story, "Baa Baa Black Sheep," every time she sees him daring to read a book, and thereby flirt with obtaining for himself a distinguishing talent), that they must be faking it, that they must be up to no good.

The enormous potential for unchecked violence latent in this kind of populist mood should, by this point in history, be clear. The intellectuals may always be the first to be denounced when the revolution comes, the first to be lined against the wall, but, let it recalled -- they are rarely the last.


  1. Excellent review. I have taken the liberty of advertising it on the blog Thx.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words and for sharing the review -- it really means a lot to have the kind feedback of people who are much better informed on this subject than I am -- my sincere gratitude.

  2. A fascinating and a little frightening analysis.

  3. i love the article and the overall analysis a LOT a LOT. But I think you have one thing slightly wrong about Everett's claims; his claim as I understand it is that the Pirahã don't have recursion because of their culture, not the other way around. The idea is that there are strong cultural conventions against hearsay, invention, etc, and these conventions are so strong that the very grammar of the language conforms to them, thereby preventing non-local temporal reference and clausal embedding. Says he, anyway. I wonder if Wolfe got it backwards in his appalling little book?

    but as I say, overall, I find your piece takes just the right tone and tack and engages with the text in the most effective and hilarious and debunking way possible. And the excerpts! I haven't read Wolfe's stupid book and I'm not going to but the bits you excerpt make your points so perfectly that I was kind of at a loss for words reading them. Not serious indeed. yeek.

    1. Thank you for the kind words and for clarifying the point about Everett's claims as to the causal relationship between Piraha grammar and culture. I will defer to your reading as it makes more sense. It will probably not surprise you to hear that Wolfe's book isn't much help either way on this or any other question of interpretation. His chapters about Everett are mostly devoted to summarizing tales of jungle derring-do lifted from Everett's books and to making the familiar jokes about Chomsky's personality. Thanks for elucidating the point and for reading my review!