Tom Wolfe, failed would-be giant slayer

In the August 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine (subscription required) there was a long article by Tom Wolfe titled The Origins of Speech that discussed the challenge raised to the currently dominant theories of linguistics that have been associated with Noam Chomsky. I read the article because I am interested in the subject and was aware of the challenge that Daniel Everett had purportedly made, based on his fieldwork among the Pirahã community who live in the Amazon rain forests.

I was appalled by the article, so strongly that I felt compelled to send a letter to the editor. But since I am not a linguist and thus do not have the expertise to write a detailed and authoritative rebuttal, I wrote a mere one-sentence letter that took aim at the objectionable tone and said, “It is too bad that what could have been an interesting and informative article about important issues in linguistics was ruined by the relentlessly snide, in places juvenile, tone adopted by Tom Wolfe”, knowing that more qualified people would respond. Sure enough, the October issue had two letters that took apart Wolfe’s ridiculous claims and show that Wolfe simply does not know what he is talking about and repeatedly sets up and knocks down straw men.

One was by David Pesetsky, professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT.

There is so much to object to in Wolfe’s narrative. There is the name-calling and over-the-top rhetoric (“Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky”). There are the many passages in which Wolfe purports to know my private thoughts and those of my colleagues, despite having made no effort to contact us for interviews.

But the most important shortcoming of Wolfe’s essay is his misrepresentation of the scientific issues at stake. In a 2005 paper, Everett argued that the Pirahã language lacked subordinate clauses (“Mary said that it is raining”) and the ability to nest possessors inside of other possessors (“Mary’s canoe’s motor is big”), along with a few other properties. He further maintained that these “gaps” contradicted a theory about language that he attributed to Chomsky. Puzzled by the apparent weakness of the evidence presented for these claims and the significance alleged for them, Andrew Nevins, Cilene Rodrigues, and I decided to investigate. In his own previous papers, we found blatant counterexamples to Everett’s claims, which he had left not only unexplained but unmentioned, and we argued that many of the supposedly unique properties of Pirahã had precedents in other languages of the world.

Crucially, we also pointed out that even if Everett’s new factual claims about Pirahã were correct, they would have no bearing whatsoever on the issues that he believed his work addressed — because he misrepresented those issues. Chomsky has never proposed that every language must have subordinate clauses, nested possessors, or any other specific grammatical construction. All linguists know that languages vary in the constructions they allow and disallow, and the principles that underlie this variation constitute one of the main topics of our field. In the Science paper that Everett cited repeatedly for the assertion that every language must have subordinate clauses, Chomsky and his coauthors actually said nothing of the sort, mentioning subordinate clauses only as an illustrative example in a broader discussion of the human capacity for hierarchically organized phrase structure.

One limitation of our paper was its reliance on the published record for its data. Over the past few years, however, exciting new field research on the Pirahã language has emerged, which supports our conclusions from fresh angles. Uli Sauerland, the coordinator of Berlin’s Centre for General Linguistics, has shown with an ingenious set of on-site experiments that Pirahã speakers do in fact use and understand subordinate clauses. Raiane Salles, a Brazilian graduate student, discovered in the course of her thesis research that, contrary to Everett’s claims, speakers in the Pirahã villages have no trouble at all with nested possessor constructions.

Now, thanks to PZ Myers, I learned that Wolfe’s essay was extracted from an entire book, god help us, that Wolfe has written titled The Kingdom of Speech where Wolfe takes aim at not only Chomsky but also Charles Darwin, trying to kill two giants with the stone of a single book.

PZ links to a wonderful detailed, point-by-point critique of the main arguments of the book by E. J. Spode that I highly recommend. The review is long but has all the features that make for worthwhile reading. It is funny and biting in a way that only a savagely negative review can be, and I learned a lot of new things about Darwin and evolution and linguistics by reading it, even though I follow those topics fairly closely.

Spode begins:

Tom Wolfe’s most recent book – The Kingdom of Speech – is nothing if not iconoclastic. And the icons he has chosen to smash are impressive: Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky! I have no problem with smashing icons, but this effort is an embarrassment for Wolfe, for his publisher, and, because of its largely positive reception, for our broader culture. It is a literary Sharknado of error and self-satisfaction, with borderline racism and anti-Semitism mixed in. It careens between being hilariously bad and tragically bad. It is irredeemable.

In the middle, he goes into the details of why Wolfe is wrong, wrong, wrong and provides many fascinating insights into both evolution and linguistics, and he attacks the anti-intellectual strain in American life that people like Wolfe and Donald Trump encourage and then exploit, and many in the media simply cannot recognize it for the rubbish it is.

But the book and Wolfe’s unintentional auto-iconoclastasy aren’t the tragic part of this. The real tragedy is in what this tells us about our anti-intellectual facts-to-the-flames culture. We now live in the wake of George W. Bush “I go by my gut” anti-intellectualism, which has subsequently given way to Trumpian super-duper anti-intellectualism, which is like the Bush variety except that the false claims are Yuuuuuger! Joshua Leach, writing in the blog Six Foot Turkey, also saw more than a little bit of Trump in Wolfe’s new book:

“…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.”

Leach is onto something here, for if you think about it, Wolf is the long form master of the techniques that Trump has managed to distill into tweets.

For example, Wolfe tries to communicate to us that he is the friend of the common man (defending poor Wallace against that elitist Darwin) even though the reality is that Wolfe is more of a class elitist than Darwin could ever be. Wolfe, like Trump, is a man that SAYS WHAT’S ON HIS MIND and you know this because he says “Eskimos” instead of “North Pole Inuits” and he says “Indians” and not “the North American Native-born” and he thereby shows that he STANDS UP to political correctness. Like Trump, Wolfe drops little orthogonal disparaging remarks into the discussion (hmmm, Darwin’s wife was plain looking?), just so that weighs in the background as you process everything. And in the spirit of Trump’s negative-connotation naming strategy, “Crooked Hillary” and “Low Energy Jeb” give way to Wolfe’s “Smooth Smooth Darwin” and “Noam Charisma.” Finally there is the othering of his targets. Just as Obama is possibly deep down really a Kenyan, Chomsky is stuck in a perpetual state of Ruskie shtetl Jewyness, even though he was born and raised in Philadelphia. For sure Chomsky is not like you and me and that red-bearded son of a cowboy that is Dan Everett.

The Trumpiest undercurrent of it all is the idea that the empirical evidence and logical argumentation is an invention of the elites — designed to bamboozle you into believing what your guts tell you is wrong. And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well. Ignore those pointy-headed intellectuals and listen to your gut my friends, because your gut is telling you the obvious truth that man’s higher faculties did not evolve from the ape and we have the super-duper-primitive people to prove it.

As I said, this anti-intellectualism is a cultural tragedy, but there are layers of tragedy and the top layer (or bottom, I guess) is that our alleged liberal media, which rightly recoils in horror at Trump’s nonsense, cannot contain their squeals of delight when Everett and Wolfe hand them a similarly constructed shit sandwich. They eat it up.

The list is long and depressing here, but we can begin with Barbara King at NPR, who uncritically parrots the nonsense about Pirahã having no color terms or embedded clauses (see Everett’s own counterexample above) and then salutes Everett for “challenging a dominant discourse.”

Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.

As for The Kingdom of Speech and the fine scientific reasoning therein, Dwight Gardner, in the New York Times informs us that Wolfe’s book successfully “tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.” What? Just in case that wasn’t enough Wolfe boosterism, the Times added a second review of Wolfe’s book – this by Caitlin Flanagan – in which we are assured that Wolfe has “shank[ed]” Chomsky “with characteristic wit and savage precision.”

Parenthetically and weirdly (even more weird than the image of a witty shanking), Flanagan uses her review to completely invert Chomsky’s point in “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” saying Chomsky argued intellectuals were “people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion.” That is, of course, the exact opposite of Chomsky’s point in that essay, as he claims intellectuals don’t have special insights into morality and accuses intellectuals of pseudo-scientific justification for the crimes of the state. Did the New York Times fire all its fact checkers?

Meanwhile we have those journalists that recognize the Everett/Wolfe stuff is all a bunch of hokum but simply don’t care. Why? Because, in this day and age, it isn’t about finding the truth; it’s about winning the news cycle. This attitude is pristinely reflected in a review of the book in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

“Wolfe is a reporter and an entertainer, an opinionated raconteur rather than a scientist, and that is why we will always report on his jocular provocations. And if they serve as an excuse to explain what universal grammar was in the first place – as it has done – then Chomsky should be thrilled.”

Right. Because what could thrill Chomsky more than to have the media fraudulently misrepresent his theory using a facts-be-damned line of anti-intellectual argumentation that exoticizes another human culture? Chomsky must be “thrilled” about that, because, my God, his whole life he has been complaining that the media is too serious and too concerned with getting the facts right, when it should be, you know, writing about the Kardashians and otherwise using misinformation to bring eyeballs to advertisers. THRILLED I tell you!

And Spode ends with a dark reflection about what the largely uncritical or indulgent media acceptance of Wolfian nonsense about Chomsky says about us.

I’m not worried about Chomsky, however, no more than I’m worried about Darwin’s position in future histories of science. Chomsky’s position too will be just fine. I do worry about how we will look in those histories, however. Because from where I sit the rampant anti-intellectual responses and the failures to distinguish nonsense from solid science in the attacks on Chomsky’s work look more like harbingers of a new dark age, one that rejects thoughtful scientific probes into human nature and levels charges of a new kind of apostasy– the apostasy of using one’s mind instead of gut instinct. And I suspect that, from the perspective of future intellectual historians, Chomsky’s ability to produce this last great piece of work against the backdrop of our new dark age will make his achievements seem all the more impressive.

I hope that with these longer than usual excerpts, I have given you enough incentive to read the full piece by Spode. It is well worth your time. It is clear that Wolfe fancies himself as a truth-telling, giant slayer, championing the little guy against the big, bullying intellectual giants who are trying to force their dogmas onto the public, running roughshod over their opponents. But the reality is that Wolfe is an ignorant and pretentious writer, living off his past fame, and tackling topics that he has little knowledge of and seems to make little effort to really understand.


  1. V. Amarnath says

    Conscience can not be explained by evolution. Therefore, god (Nagel)
    Language can not be a product of evolution. Therefore, god (Wolfe)
    Ability to watch FOX news had no survival value and therefore must be god-given for man only. (Author wanted.)

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    The Spode piece could use a bit more copy-editing. Search it for “then then” for example.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Given the length of the piece, I was surprised that there were so few errors.

    Wolfe saying that he is an atheist while criticizing other atheists and atheism is all of a piece with his portrayal of himself as an iconoclast. Also people love that. In the early days when I thought there might be something to intelligent design (yes, I did!), the religious people loved me and would court me and invite me to their events. When I concluded that it was nonsense and said so unequivocally, they dumped me unceremoniously.

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