From Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True:
This weekend, National Public Radio (NPR) host Scott Simon interviewed renowned author Tom Wolfe about Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech. You can hear the five-minute interview here. I just now listened to it, but several exercised readers emailed me yesterday complaining about Wolfe’s criticisms of evolution—criticisms that weren’t called out by Simon.
Oh dear. “Anti-science” strikes again.
Jerry treats us to a long rant about the facts of “evolution” (as he understands them). But if interviewers like Simon derailed the discussion by stopping for demands for fidelity to same we would never get to hear what Wolfe has to say on the subject of The Kingdom of Speech, language.
Wolfe briefly describes his thesis, that “language had “nothing to do with the theory of evolution”. Yet we have plenty of evidence that language in humans does have some evolutionary basis, and I’ll talk about that in a few days. Clearly language is heavily influenced by culture as well: if it wasn’t, everybody would speak the same language. But there is substantial morphological, behavioral, and neurological evidence that the ability to use semantic language, which is something unique to humans, is based on our genes, and probably evolved by natural selection.
Wolfe’s alternative “mnemonic” theory has its own problems, for the claim that language is a way to help us remember the names of things leaves no space for its primary function: communication with others.
It’s shameful that NPR is, in effect, promoting creationism and a shoddy theory of language. More.
Coyne has offered to be interviewed by NPR, which might be interesting if he can stick to the subject of language.
Wolfe’s theory would make sense for Wolfe because he probably coined all those terms, like “radical chic” and the Me Decade, to help himself think, which he would need to do first in order to communicate with others. He would first need something to communicate with.
See also: NPR’s interview with Tom Wolfe on his new book: It’s hardly surprising that Wolfe was attracted to this topic because his specialty is debunking pretensions, and Darwinism is ripe for debunking. Efforts to pretend that orangutans sort of speak are ridiculous but people are forced to take them seriously, or anyway, pretend to.
Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness
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