Book review of The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)
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The Kingdom of Speech lives up to its blurb summary as “an eye-opening journey that is sure to arouse widespread debate. The Kingdom of Speech is a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.”
Tom Wolfe, whose work I have not read before, is a journalist-turned-novelist legend. This 2016 work of his, apparently off the beaten path of his typical work, was recommended to me by a friend. Thankfully, I was able to get it through inter-library loan due to the diligent care of our wonderful small-town librarian (thanks, Wendy!).
Short, only 169 pages, this facinating books reads very easily, very fast-paced. The author’s history as an investigative journalist is evident is the stream of facts and details which are presented with minimal fleshing-out — although there are fifteen pages of biographical notes with links to sources. Having just completed Brother Francis’ Philosophy course on the History of Philosophy (Part II: Medieval to Modern), I was well prepared for some of the names and -isms that go flying by as Mr. Wolfe gives his overview of the history of the Theory of Evolution.
The jacket blurb continues,
From Alfred Russel Wallace, the Englishman who beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection but later renounced it, and through the controversial work of modern-day anthropologist Daniel Everett, who defies the current wisdom that language is hard-wired in humans, Wolfe examines the solemn, long-faced, laugh-out-loud zig-zags of Darwinism, old and Neo, and finds it irrelevant here in the Kingdom of Speech.
I have only one criticism. The ending, for me, fell flat. Having shown the behind-the-scenes workings of the very faulty theory of evolution as so many proofs of Mr. Wolfe’s central thesis — that speech is an artifact of man, not the result of evolution — the book comes to its denoument without a clear conclusion. Mr. Wolfe seems, after having torn the theory apart, to accept evolution — so long as its not applied to speech. If speech is, as Wolfe says, “a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff” (page 163) — with which conclusion I agree, by the way — where does the ability to speak, the power of language, come from? This is a question Mr. Wolfe doesn’t even raise. As close as Tom Wolfe was to getting at the truth, he seems to have suffered from an intellectual myopia. As a “lapsed Presbyterian” who considered himself an atheist (but could not stand people who called themselves atheists), he evidently lacked the necessary perspective from which to critique Darwinism and answer the question of language more thoroughly. The quote about his religious non-affiliation, by the way, comes from an article that quoted him praising Catholic education!
I would recommend the book, which I enjoyed immensely, but I do encourage readers to ask the deeper questions. There are answers!
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Following up on the idea of the importance of language, here is a very recent presentation givien on March 9, 2023, entitled The A.I. Dilemma. It is well worth watching. The answer to these problems is good philosophy, solid faith, and a life rooted in reality.