Forget the flak catchers, Tom Wolfe is mau-mauing the naturalists

Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky (inset) and Charles Darwin (inset)
Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky (inset) and Charles Darwin (inset)

We all owe something to Tom Wolfe. The high-collared literary fop may have well saved non-fiction as a genre from the dungeons of academia. He gave us sharp social criticism that was playful and irreverent, non-fiction that had the narrative weight of a novel.

But Wolfe, now 86, has finally started missing his targets.

One of Wolfe’s magic tricks is his ability to spot cultural trends and give them catchy brand names, like “new journalism” or “radical chic.” Now, four decades past his prime, Wolfe has spotted a new trend to sink his impish fangs into: evolution.

Wolfe’s new book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” is a small work on a big topic, the origins of language. It’s a lot to bite off, but no worries, Wolfe doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating the topic scientifically. Instead he rambles from topic to topic, spending most of his energy making wildly unfounded speculations that in some cases actually defy scientific evidence – see anthropologist Barbara J. King’s examples.

The crux of his argument is that language didn’t evolve, but was sort of breathed into existence. He spends much of his book trying to bend linguist and left-wing anarchist Noam Chomsky – who demonstrated half a century ago that language is an innate part of humanity —  over for a spanking. He also claims that Charles Darwin “offered nothing at all” of value to science.

An 1871 caricature following publication of "The Descent of Man" of Darwin
An 1871 caricature following publication of “The Descent of Man” of Darwin

“’The heart of my thinking is that language is man-made,” Wolfe says. “It’s not a result of evolution, and it is only language that enables human beings to control nature.” He even told CBS that he considers evolution “a myth.”

That’s right, the esteemed atheist and writer of “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff” understands the science of evolution about as well as a sunburnt Kentucky preacher.

“Wolfe joins those creationists who, if they can’t personally and immediately see how evolution could produce something complex, declare that the problem is insoluble and that an entire scientific edifice has crumbled,” said Jerry Coyne, in the Washington Post. “But in fact Wolfe doesn’t even understand the theory he so despises.”

Naturally, there has been much eye rolling in Wolfe’s direction of late. If he wasn’t already a relic, he certainly has nominated himself for candidacy. His daughter even felt the need to step forward and defend her father in the Wall Street Journal:

“When I share these ideas [her father’s belief that language couldn’t have evolved] with others, they often give me a look that says, ‘Is he crazy?’ and then ask, ‘Is he a creationist?’ He’s neither of those things, but he does like to make trouble, especially by poking fun at cultural gatekeepers,” Alexandra Wolfe writes. “His targets over the years have included liberal political posturing (“Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”), pretentious modern art (“The Painted Word”) and harsh modern architecture (“From Bauhaus to Our House”).”

Taking on Noam Chomsky as a cultural gatekeeper is one thing – although surely his politics are easier game than his work in linguistics. Chomsky has a bit of a cult surrounding him and from time to time someone like the late, great Christopher Hitchens or the philosopher Slovaj Zizek (whom Chomsky once described to me as a “clown” and “completely not serious”) has semi-successfully taken him on.

But attacking Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution the same way one might attack Jeff Koons or champagne socialist deserves nothing but ridicule and contempt.

And here’s the nail in the coffin: not even Wolfe is willing to take his indefensible stance seriously.

“What does he want to achieve now by attacking evolutionary theory?” Wolfe’s daughter Alexandra continues in her Journal piece. “Is he just spoiling to cause trouble again? ‘I’m not trying to pick fights,’ he says. He knows that he will catch a lot of flak for the book, and then adds with a smile, ‘It’s a lot better than not being noticed at all.’

If attention was all Wolfe really wanted, slithering out of one of his signature white suits in the middle of Fifth Avenue would have worked about as well.