Chomsky, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Bill Henderson
Tom Wolfe Mark Seliger

“The Kingdom of Speech”
Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown, $26

My problem with Tom Wolfe is that he has too much fun. Are we supposed to take him seriously when he hilariously skewers the greedy class in his “Bonfire of the Vanities,” or the art crowd in “The Painted Word”? Mr. Wolfe specializes in satire sure to offend everybody. We worry that he will be roundly attacked by the humorless. Does he know this? 

Does he know when he attacks mainline Christians in “The Kingdom of Speech” as moo-cows that he will arouse a bit of miff? Has he thought of the consequences of laughing at the godfathers of evolution theory (Wallace and Darwin) and the progenitor of language notions (Noam Chomsky)? One wants to race to our neighbor in Southampton and offer protection to this dapper spewer of raucous observations. 

That said, I’m glad he wrote “The Kingdom of Speech.” Somebody had to stand up and say this whole evolution business is worth a second look. Myself, I prefer the curious Eve with the apple, the dopey Adam who takes her bait. It seems to be true, as only fiction can be — and let’s face it, the Bible is 90 percent historical fiction that needs a good editor. But it is true in a way that nonfiction never can be.

So, what’s this “Kingdom of Speech” all about? Once upon a time there was a self-taught Englishman named Alfred Russel Wallace, the “flycatcher” who labored in distant jungles and came up with a theory of evolution, but Charles Darwin, a gentleman of the top drawer, beat him into print and got credit, or blame, for this most upsetting idea — that we were not created by God but journeyed from lower forms by a procesof natural selection.

Today that popularly means “every day in every way we are getting better and better,” which on the face of it should cancel the theory right off. Think about the natural selection process that delivered the atomic bomb, global warming, the babble of the internet, and Donald Trump.

Then consider my dog Sedgwick, an intelligent fellow who wishes nobody harm and enjoys fellowship at the Springs Dog Park, where every sort of canine — tiny, huge, black, white, brown, spotted, old, young — gets along just fine. Sedgwick is definitely of a higher order than me and my fellow clever baboons that strut around grasping for happiness, renown, and more stuff and consider themselves superior.

That should finish off the theory of natural selection rather quickly. 

But Tom Wolfe has another sharp angle in this evolution business — language, where does it come from? Alfred Wallace could not explain language and renounced natural selection. In the 20th century Noam Chomsky cooked up his idea of “a language organ” that accounts for the unique speech ability of all humans. Poor Chomsky — who is featured in half this slim volume — is obliterated by the howling Wolfe. 

Conclusion: The theory of evolution is “baggy, boggy, soggy, and leaking all over the place,” as Mr. Wolfe so brightly dismisses it. My theory that Sedgwick is better than most sapiens holds up much better. So does the Genesis tale in my church down the road in Springs.

Bill Henderson is the publisher of the Pushcart Press in Springs and author most recently of the memoir “Cathedral.”