Perpetually white-suited Tom Wolfe is a both a novelist and “new journalism” pioneer who applies fictional techniques to non-fiction with trademark florid verbiage. He gladly punctures elitist pomposity, as in the famed “Radical Chic” satire from long-ago 1970 or later take-downs of modern art and architecture.
At age 85, he’s again rousing the rabble with “The Kingdom of Speech” (Little, Brown). The Religion Guy confesses he has not yet read the book so the following relies on media coverage. There’ve been vigorous responses over recent weeks but, oddly, little from religious commentators.
Whatever the odds that “natural selection” of advantageous physical mutations produced countless new species across eons of time, religious thinkers often contend that Charles Darwin’s evolution theory cannot explain the origins of humanity’s self-consciousness, love, moral sense, creativity, artistry, or even Darwin’s own mind. So, does the origin of species ultimately and logically require a Creator? Are humans unique divine creations or mere mammals with special tricks, “trousered apes,” in Duncan Williams’ memorable phrase? Obviously, hot theological stuff.
Wolfe, a professed atheist, takes aim at Darwinism, also a target of many religious conservatives, because it fails to explain the origin of human language. One Wolfe hero is linguistics professor Daniel Everett, who theorized about the origin of language years ago as a Bible translator in the Amazon jungles. The book also champions the oft-forgotten Alfred Russel Wallace, who simultaneously came up with the natural selection concept while the upper-crust Darwin won the celebrity sweepstakes.
Wallace later broke with Darwin, figuring that evolution explains much, but not human attributes like language, which implies some higher power beyond nature.
David Klinghoffer writes that his own “intelligent design” movement says exactly that, but Wolfe “does not pull the obvious trigger.” Like Wolfe, Klinghoffer carps that Darwin “was left to speculate absurdly about speech being an extension of bird song.” Neuroscientist Michael Egnor likewise scoffs that chirping birds or “grunts and grimaces” of lower primates could ultimately produce Cicero or Shakespeare: “Evolutionary theorizing about language has been a colossal waste of time” and lacks “any real scientific basis.”
Though Wolfe is apparently as entertaining as ever, defenders of conventional science are not amused. In fact, they’re aghast at the pretensions of this popularizer and scientific amateur. In a Washington Post review, noted ecologist Jerry Coyne said the book suffers from “ignorance” and “grossly distorts” Darwinism and the theories of M.I.T. linguistics star Noam Chomsky.
Might be time for a journalist or two to do some heavy intellectual liftingand develop the religious aspect for a general readership. Customary sources would be those devout Darwinians and “intelligent design” proponents, plus “young earth” and “old earth” creationists and “theistic evolutionists” at biologos.org.
However, The Guy’s first interview requests would go to:
(1) Leon R. Kass of the University of Chicago’s high-powered Committee on Social Thought (who shares a birthday with Darwin!), a natural scientist, ethicist and Jewish author of a Genesis commentary.
(2) Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, an eminent Protestant philosopher who objects to some claims by evolutionary scientists on empirical and metaphysical grounds.