Tag Archives: The Kingdom of Speech

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 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/book-review-the-kingdom-of-language-part-i/).

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 http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/79/just-so-stories/. 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 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/hoisting-steven-j-gould-by-his-own-petard/

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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Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part I

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.