If you’re interested in evolution, its history, English social and intellectual history, language, Chomsky and the origins of the journal Nature then Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Language” is the book for you. Fellow blogistas will be awed by the clarity and elegance of his writing, and how he easily carries the reader easily along. It’s very funny and sardonic as well. The review will be split into several parts because there’s so much in the book.
One caveat: I’ve made no attempt to check any of the historical statements in the book. Hopefully they are all true. If you think any of it is incorrect, please post a comment.
Although the book has a lot to say about language, it doesn’t get into this until nearly 1/3 of the way through. It starts with Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858 lying in a sickbed with Malaria in the Malay peninsula coming up with the idea of natural selection, survival of the fittest (his term) and the origin of species. He writes an essay of 20+ pages and sends it off to Darwin, in the hopes that Darwin will pass it to Sir Charles Lyell (who Wallace didn’t know) who might find it worthy enough to publish.
Darwin gets it in June and is floored. The ideas that he’s been working on since 1838 (in silence for fear of what the religious establishment will say) are all laid out by what was called a ‘flycatcher’, someone making their living by going off to the colonies and sending back exotica for British Gentleman back home.
Tom Wolfe has always been fascinated by social class and distinctions between them (about this much more in part II).
British Gentlemen were landed gentry, who inherited land and wealth (if not noble titles). Darwin’s history went back to Erasmus Earle who was an attorney for Cromwell in the mid 1600’s. He made so much money, that no one in the succeeding EIGHT generations had to work. Robert Darwin, Charles’s father) nonetheless did — he was an M. D. but was more a businessman. He also attained even more money by marrying Wedgewood’s daughter.
Fortunately Robert had lots of money, as Charles was something of a slacker. He started by studying medicine at Edinburgh, but dropped out. He then went to Christ’s College Cambridge to become a clergyman — he dropped this as well, graduating eventually from Cambridge without an honor to his man. So Robert paid to have Charles to on a 5 year voyage of exploration on the Beagle. On return, Robert bought Charles a amLL pied a terre in the country (Down House) with 8 – 9 servants. (Did you know any of this).
The idea of species change was not new. Erasmus Darwin (Darwin’s grandfather) in 1794 and Lamarck in 1800 thought present day species had evolved from earlier ones.
Lamarck’s rather blasphemous thinking was saved by his heroics in battle at age 17 (as a private). His unit was decimated, all officers killed, Lamarck took command somehow and held their position until reinforcements arrived.
There’s a lot in the book about how Darwin Lyell and Hooker screwed out of the priority of thinking of evolution and natural selection first. Here Wolfe gets things seriously wrong, while Wallace was first into print, his thinking lagged Darwin’s by 20 years. However, Darwin, not wishing to be attacked by the clergy kept things to himself, only telling Lyell about is in 1856.
Most of the readership is probably fully engaged with work, family career and doesn’t have time to actually read “The Origin of Species”. In retirement, I did,and the power of Darwin’s mind is simply staggering. He did so much with what little information he had. There was no clear idea of how heredity worked and at several points he’s a Lamarckian — inheritance of acquired characteristics. If you do have the time I suggest that you read the 1859 book chapter by chapter along with a very interesting book — Darwin’s Ghost by Steve Jones (published in 1999) which update’s Darwin’s book to contemporary thinking chapter by chapter.
Wolfe also gets evolution wrong, saying there is no evidence for it. E.g. no one has seen a species change, etc. etc. Perhaps, but the biochemical evidence is incontrovertible for descent with modification, otherwise you couldn’t replace a vital yeast protein gene with the human homolog and have it work.
Do you know what the X club is? It was a group of 9 naturalists (including Thomas Huxley and Hooker) who met monthly to defend Darwin’s ideas. They also created the journal we know today as Nature.
This actually explains a lot of stuff there that I’ve read over the years — the correct interpretation of evolutionary doctrine receives a great deal of space — punctuated evolution, group selection, kin selection, what is the proper unit of selection etc. etc.
The attacks that bothered Darwin the most, were those about language. That’s the subject of the next part of the review.