Here’s a formula for seeming wise: take two complex, deep topics that are individually the domain of specialists, and that may be unfathomable to the general public. Combine them in some arcane way; you can trust that the set of experts who understand both topics will be minuscule, so you’ll be able to get away with a lot of nonsense, because experts in A will be impressed with your knowledge of B while thinking you don’t know squat about A, while experts in B will be vice versa. The classic example of this strategem is Velikovsky, who blended expertise in Middle Eastern mythology with astrophysics. Astrophysicists thought his flying, colliding planets that ignored conservation of energy were ludicrous nonsense, while gosh, there sure are a lot of provocative ancient texts talking about astrophysics, while classical scholars were shocked at all the liberties he was taking with history, but gee whiz, that physics stuff is impressively daunting. Meanwhile, the people who nothing about either were applauding him as a genius.
We have another example, and unfortunately, it’s the brilliant writer Tom Wolfe. He has taken his dilettante’s understanding of two subjects to attempt to fuse them: in this case, linguistics and evolution. One would think those two would complement each other nicely, but not when the author’s preconceptions are simply stuck in human exceptionalism, and his arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.
There’s absolutely nothing like it [speech], and I think it’s time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.
He’s also not worried that creationists will love this, because, he says, there’s
there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. Ah. So intelligent design creationism it is, then.
You might want to take a look at this wonderfully entertaining review of the book. It’s an ahistorical mess — Wolfe claims that Darwin was obsessed with proving that human speech was derived from animal sounds, for instance, and that the whole idea of examining the evolution of speech was discarded after Darwin, until Chomsky. He not only gets the history of evolution wrong, he mangles the history of linguistics.
Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”
And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution? Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.
It’s all very sad. Wolfe will use his considerable talents at writing to successfully peddle nonsense to the public, doing harm to public education, giving me yet another line of babble to refute which will be smugly thrown at me for the next several years, and the only gain will be that Mr Wolfe will be able to buy a few more white suits while his bullshit rises on the NY Times bestseller lists.
Man, maybe I ought to do some retirement planning. What two subjects do I know very little about (that part’s easy, most of the subjects), but can profitably merge to sound innovative and insightful? Everyone goes for the obvious one, quantum physics, so I think that’s played out. Hmm. Photonics and immunology? Gravity and time travel? Indian cooking and renewable energy? I’m sure all I have to do is find the right catchy combo, and then I’ll be on all the talk shows.