The Columns

Tom Wolfe ’51 on the Gift of Gab

— by on September 2nd, 2016

Tom Wolfe poses an interesting question in his newest book, “The Kingdom of Speech”: Why can’t science explain the origins of human language?

The 1951 graduate of Washington and Lee University noted that speech is what sets us apart from all other living creatures, yet “eight heavyweight Evolutionists — linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists — had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech — language — comes from and how it works.”

Tom continued, “Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.”

Reviews are popping up all over. The New York Times describes the book as a “whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution, which he finds to be less scientific certainty than ‘a messy guess — baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,’ to put it in the words he inserts into the mouths of past genetic theorists.”

You can read an excerpt from “The Kingdom of Speech” on The Daily Beast’s website. There’s also an interview with the author on NPR.