Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part II

Although Darwin held off writing up his ideas for 20 years, fearing the reaction he knew would come from the church, the criticisms that really bothered him the most were those of fellow intellectuals about the evolution of language. They began immediately after the Origin of Species came out in 1859, by linguists and later by Wallace himself. Even worse, one critic mocked him. The idea that language evolved from animal sounds was called the bow wow theory, or language arose from sounds that things made (the ding dong theory).

This is all detailed in pp. 54 – 87 of The Kingdom of Speech, about which I knew very little. If any real experts on the early history of evolutionary theory are out there and reading this and disagree, please post a comment. I am assuming that the facts as given by Wolfe are correct (I’ve already disagreed with him about his interpretation of some of them —

The real attack on Darwin’s ideas is that man’s mental capacities were so far above those of animals, that there was no missing link (particularly since there were lots or primates still around). By this critique man was so special, that a special act of creation (not evolution) was called for.  It’s theology getting in the back door, but of course this is essentially the claim of all theologies — special creation by a superior being(s).

In his later book “The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man” – 1871 (which I’ve not read), according to Wolfe Darwin made up all stories (many involving his beloved dog) to show the antecedents of all sorts of things in animal behavior — Darwin actually said that language originated with the songs birds sang during mating. Female protolanguage persists today in mothers cooing to their babies. Darwin spent a lot of time discussing his dog — how it recognized other dogs as a sign of intelligence. Religion came from the love of a dog for his master (Wolfe claims that Darwin said this in the book– I haven’t read the Descent of Man).

Darwin’s second book didn’t get much response. Postive reviews avoided his reasoning, and negative reviews said it was thin. In 1872 the Philological Society of London gave up on trying to find out the origin of language, and wouldn’t accept patpers about it. The Linguistic Society of Paris did this even earlier (1866).

Evolutionists basically stopped talking about language from 1872 to 1949.

As soon as Mendel’s work on genetics was discovered, evolution went into scientific eclipse. Here was something that wasn’t just armchair speculation about things happening in the remote past, something on which experiments could be done.
Mendel’s experiments with green peas took 9 years and involved 28,000 plants.

In a fascinating aside, Wolfe notes that Mendel actually sent his work to Darwin. Tragically it was found unread with its pages uncut in Darwin’s papers after his death. In all fairness to Darwin, he and his peers had no idea how heredity worked and there are parts in The Origin of Species in which Darwin appears to accept the inheritance of acquired characteristics (the blacksmith’s large muscles passed on to his son etc. etc.). I don’t think you can read the Origin without being impressed by the tremendous power of Darwin’s mind, and how much work he put in and how far he got with how little he had to go on.

Wolfe says Darwin’s ideas about the origin or language were mocked by Gould  one hundred years later (1972) as “Just So Stories”, fantastic bizarre explanations for why animals are the way they are — see I’m not so sure, the citation for this gives an article  Sociobiology which Gould and Lewontin (see later) relentlessly attacked. Gould himself saw what he wanted to see in his book “The Mismeasure of Man” — for details see —

As you can see,The Kingdom of Speech is full of all sorts of interesting stuff, and I’m not even halfway through talking about it.

Next up, linguistics, to include Noam  Chomsky and his admission that he doesn’t understand language or where it came from.

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  • Handles  On October 10, 2016 at 12:04 am

    As far as I can tell, the historians of both evolution and linguistics both agree that “The Kingdom of Speech” is dreadful; heres one such negative review:

  • luysii  On October 10, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Handles — thanks. The review cited makes some of the points I do. I haven’t read all of it, particularly the parts on language (which is the subject of an upcoming post), the only misstatement of fact that the review turned up was how well Darwin actually did at Cambridge 10th out of 170.

    I certainly hadn’t realized how crucial the development of language was to Darwin’s whole project. There was absolutely nothing about it in the Origin of Species –which everyone who has the time should read cover to cover, to see just how much work Darwin put in on his ideas, and the power of his thought

    Are you aware of any reviews of Wolfe’s book in Nature or Science? Also I’d like pointers to other reviews of Wolfe’s book (critical or not).

    Chomsky and his ilk love polemics, and here are two books for you to read about their adventures in same “The Linguistics Wars” by Harris, and “Defenders of the Truth” by Segerstrale.

  • Handles  On October 10, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Havent seen a review in Science or Nature, but there was one in the WSJ that might interest you. If you dont have a subscription you will need to bypass the paywall: search “taking on chomsky and darwin” in Google and click the first link

  • luysii  On October 10, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Handles — again thanks — I’ve read the WSJ review by Mann, who is a journalist, and a good one — I’ve got two of his books — but not a biologist. I’m going to talk about language etc. in the 3rd installment, but Chomsky et. al. and Darwin were very interested in how language came about. Wolfe’s book opens with a reference to and an extensive quote from an article by Chomsky, Lewontin + 6 more saying (in part) — “The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever” — clearly over 100 years later Chomsky and company are still committed to the idea that language evolved from something, as was Darwin. So I disagree with Mann’s review on this point.

  • Melchizidek  On October 11, 2016 at 9:49 pm

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    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on PNT — Palatin Technologies.

    They have a phase three asset — Bremelanotide, a MC4 agonist, I think, in Phase 3 for Female Hyposexual Desire Disorder. Results will be forthcoming quite soon.

    It’s performed quite well in all previous clinical trial. But the intranasal administration resulted too swift of an uptake and induced acute hypertension.

    Instead of Erectile Dysfunction, this time they’re doing FHDD and they’ve reformulated it for subcutaneous administration.

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    PS I was just back at Old Nassau Hall and roamed around the campus. Is there a lovelier college town on God’s green earth than Princeton? How lucky you are to have been there back in the good ol’ days 🙂

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