USA today gives Tom Wolfe’s book three stars out of four

August 30, 2016 • 8:30 am

This is what happens when a book reviewer is assigned a book in which he has no expertise whatsoever. Over at USA Today, Don Oldenburg reviews Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech. I’ve read the book, and its thesis is that human language is not in any way a product of biological evolution. Indeed, Wolfe has said that not only are humans not a product of biological evolution, but that only animals evolve and humans aren’t animals! (In an NPR interview with Wolfe, Scott Simon didn’t challenge him on that fatuous assertion.) Over the last decade, Wolfe has flirted with Intelligent Design creationism, and that’s clearly evident in the book. Insofar as Americans who read this book come to it with ignorance about evolution or its history, they will be not only let down, but deceived.

Further, Wolfe distorts the data and history of linguistics—at least the part of linguistics concerned with what aspects of humans’ ability to speak, and their ability to use semantic language, may have a biological origin—and whether that origin involves natural selection. I’ll have more to say on that later this week; let’s just say that we have data addressing that.

Sadly, Mr. Oldenburg seems to have missed every flaw in Wolfe’s argument, and produces instead a puff piece, giving the book three stars out of four. Oldenburg has only minor quibbles, which explains the missing fourth star, but simply doesn’t address Wolfe’s solution to Big Problem: Where did language come from?

Here’s a bit of USA Today‘s puff piece:

And so begins Wolfe’s provocative and winding tale that attempts to demystify the mystery that has baffled the world of linguistics and, arguably, makes what we think we know about the origins of speech and human evolution wrong.

Arguably? That implies there’s a counterargument. Sadly, Oldenburg doesn’t give one.

[Wolfe] presents that intriguing case in his inimitable, casual-chatty, captivating storytelling style. His trademark rich reporting is unmistakable throughout his first non-fiction endeavor in 16 years, since Hooking Up, his 2000 essay collection. But The Kingdom of Speech is much more a legacy of his brilliant 1981 lambasting of modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, and his fascinating 1975 assault on modern art, The Painted Word.

I’ve read Bauhaus and The Painted Word. I found both books gratuitously nasty and show-offy, and the critics found them ignorant as well.  They show neither the absorbing narrative of Radical Chic and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test nor the research that went into what I consider Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (highly recommended). As for this book, Oldenburg simply hasn’t done his homework in either evolution or linguistics, enabling him to emit stuff like this:

Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution [sic] from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace. Going forward, he identifies many rogue evolutionaries gone wild, from anti-Darwinian Robert Chambers to the Darwin-cheerleader Thomas Huxley, to the first-geneticist Gregor Johann Mendel.

Wolfe’s diversions include everything from Apache cosmology to “gestural theory” (the standing man’s freed-hand gestures evolving into speech). The second half of the book focuses on pompous, nasty, but conversation-changing Noam Chomsky versus mosquito-bitten, neck-deep-in-Amazon-primitiveness, anthropologist Daniel Everett, whose life story is a splendidly cinematic read.

Seriously? Huxley and Mendel are “rogue evolutionaries gone wild”? Huxley defended Darwin, but he was in no sense a “rogue,” nor did he “go wild.” As for Mendel, does Mr. Oldenburg realize that Mendel was not an “evolutionary” but a geneticist who didn’t have an inkling about evolution?  The main lacuna here is that Oldenburg doesn’t address the book’s claims seriously. Even in the restricted space of USA Today one can call attention to the fact that there are serious problems with both the evolutionary and linguistic parts of the book. Nor does he apparently have the expertise to review the book properly (I don’t know Mr Oldenburg’s background, but if he had that expertise, he should have used it.)

Instead, Oldenburg’s quibbles are stylistic ones:

Sure, Wolfe-ish annoyances persist. Too-many repeated words (“talk talk talk it was, and endless theory theory theory”) and slam-bang semantics (“Bango!” and “OOOF!”). One of his detours — where he lists historic oddball charismatic leaders just to prove that, like Chomsky, many were in their 20s — makes you want to say, “Stop it, Tom.”

Still, he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — without the trippy, ‘60s, Merry Prankster craziness. You’ll find here the same manic prose, the hip rhythms and cleverly crafted arguments of the genius Tom Wolfe. Which you must read.

I wouldn’t follow the advice of that last sentence. If you want to read more incisive reviews of The Kingdom of Speech, see Charles Mann’s at the Wall Street Journal, Harry Ritchie’s at The Spectator (he calls Wolfe’s thesis “bollocks”), or Tom Bartlett’s analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Bartlett is far too credulous and uncritical about the evolutionary parts of Wolfe’s book, his fact-checking of Wolfe’s claims about Noam Chomsky (claims that, in effect, Bartlett calls “bollocks” as well) is instructive.

37 thoughts on “USA today gives Tom Wolfe’s book three stars out of four

  1. That’s USA Today… As Homer Simpson said, it’s “the only paper in America that’s not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine.”

    Apparently, that includes Wolfe’s crackpot new book.

  2. Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution [sic] from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace.

    Absolutely a baldfaced lie. Darwin first started considering the theory of Natural Selection in 1844, long before Wallace had an inkling. Far from filching the Theory of Evolution from Wallace, Darwin and Lyell went out of their way to give proper credit to him. The paper that was presented to the Linnean Society in 1858 was effectively co-authored by Darwin and Wallace.

  3. I am not sure if Wolfe’s latest is really disappointing or to be expected. He clearly feels the need to keep writing even if he has nothing left to say. His phenomenal early output may have drained him. In math and physics, most great theoretical advances come before the age of 30. Maybe we should go back to the 60s adage – don’t trust anyone over 30.

    Why it is so disappointing is because of how good The Right Stuff is – both the book and movie. Philip Kaufman’s movie is just as brilliant as the book. In many ways, they are complements. The dread of the Soviet Great Designer is palpable in the book. The American answer – the Mercury astronauts – was highlighted better in the movie (power of cinema). At the press conference introducing these seven men, the euphoria surrounding them was palpable – including among the press corps. These men would lead us to victory (or at least survival) against the godless commies.

    I may be biased because I was born in 1956 and grew up with this. I was obsessed with space. And Wolfe captured that era so well. I also became a Grateful Dead fan so I had to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. So I am willing to cut him some slack. Not too much.

    1. It’s true that great theoretical advances in math and physics tend to be made by those on the near side of 30. But that hasn’t been the case in literature, where many writers — if they avoid the dissolute lifestyle that tends to be an occupational hazard — have maintained a quality output into their dotage.

      Take for example Philip Roth, Wolfe’s near coeval, and his bête noire in their long-running dispute over the merits of writing socially realistic fiction.(Compare Roth’s essay Writing American Fiction with Wolfe’s “manifesto,” Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.)

      Roth had perhaps the best run of his career after age 65, turning out novels like American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America and winning awards including a Man Booker, two Pen/Faulkners, and a Pulitzer. (We Roth fans are waiting to hear from you, Alfred Nobel Committee!) Roth has continued his prolific production of fiction (albeit in more slender volumes contemplating his own mortality) until recently announcing his retirement. (We’ll see if it lasts this time!)

      I agree that Wolfe appears to have gone radically wrong with his latest book. But I think we need to look for an etiology beyond old age and burn-out.

      1. I too really like Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, but he did distort things quite a bit. I also like the movie, but it distorts reality even more. Some say completely distorted. In the case of how Grissom was portrayed, to the extent that law suits were filed.

        The negative critics have some very relevant points. But, like you I still like both the book and the movie. I just keep firmly in mind that they are not documentaries and grind my teeth on occasion.

        1. Distortion was a key component of Wolfe’s writing as well as all of “New Journalism.” Look at The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Ken Kesey is the central figure – some critics called him Christ like. If you talk to those who were actually there, the driving force to the Merry Pranksters was Neal Cassady. What Kesey brought to the table was the money he made from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.

          Cassady was the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as well as Cody Pomeray in his later writings. But Cassady would not talk to Wolfe and Wolfe probably preferred a literary figure as the hero.

          The Grateful Dead mention Cassady but not Kesey in their song The Other One which “covers” the events of the Acid Tests:
          The bus came by and I got on
          That’s when it all began
          There was cowboy Neal
          At the wheel
          Of a bus to never-ever land.

          1. Neal Cassady was the “driving force” of the Pranksters in the sense he drove Kesey’s bus, “Further,” on the eastbound leg of the Pranksters’ cross-country trip to New York to attend the ’64 World’s Fair (the same one where Jerry saw Mic’s Pietà). Cassady, known for his stamina and whip-fast reflexes behind the wheel, and the prototype for Dean Moriarity, the character who did most of the cross-country driving in On the Road, introduced the Pranksters to the Beats in NY (although the meeting didn’t go particularly well since Kerouac was deep into the alcoholism that would eventually kill him, at age 47, a few years later).

            In this sense, Cassady played a key role with the Pranksters. But I’ve never before heard it claimed that Cassady was somehow more central — or somehow more the animating force for the Prankster zeitgeist — than was Ken Kesey (or than Ken Babbs was, for that matter). The Pranksters’ activity was centered out of Kesey’s spread in La Honda; when Kesey went on the lam to Mexico, after his pot bust, the Pranksters followed him there. In the Pranksters’ overall scheme of things, Neal Cassady was an interesting novelty, but a comparatively minor figure.

              1. You’re right; I stand corrected (although Kesey’s replacement bus had the conventional “Further” spelling).

                Agreed, too, regarding Cassady. He was a force of nature.

  4. Wolfe puffs and extracts from his book have appeared in the British press as well – the interviewers (arts graduates all) did not question in any way the garbage he has produced.

    1. The Times review by Oliver Kamm was pretty hard on it:
      “Sadly, readers who pick up The Kingdom of Speech imagining that it’s a popular exposition of big ideas will be misled. It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky.”
      “… brings us back to Wolfe, who lacks imagination and derides science. The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.”

      1. I had actually missed the Oliver Kamm review (away for a day). Having now found it in the pile of newspapers it has made my day. Wonderful job – even if I do not agree with everything Kamm writes on grammar.

  5. Still, he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

    Ffs, you don’t bring knives to a gun fight.

    There’s not an academic debate on whether humans evolved. I haven’t read all Wolfe’s books critiquing modern architecture, art, and fashionable postures, but if he’s treating science like just another fashionable posture, then he hasn’t thought it through. Or he’s still on acid.

    Maybe someone can come out with an irreverent, entertaining book explaining to the general public how the moon landing was faked — and we’ll see if the author of The Right Stuff still thinks this is the right stuff.

    1. On that last request, Donald Trump would write the book but he is busy right now. He is huge on conspiracies. Sorry, couldn’t help throwing that in.

      1. THEY want him kept busy, of course. Trump’s whole “rise to power” is part of the plan, a distraction set up for the one guy who might figure out what’s going on and do something about it.

        And we’ll both be sorry enough if the Conspiracy gets wind of our realizing this, my friend, so mum’s the word. I mean, we’re joking, haha.

  6. I don’t know Mr Oldenburg’s background,

    Neither do I, but it shouldn’t be hard to find out.
    Hmmm, no Wikipedia page. LinkedIn (for a person who was

    director of publications/editor, National Italian American Foundation, 2011 – Present
    reporter/columnist, The Washington Post
    November 1984 – June 2006

    (sounds credible) gives a (self-declared) education of

    Yale University, B.A., Political ScienceUniversity of Virginia, M.A., Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy

    Sounds a normal career path for a journalist-ish.
    Doesn’t the title “political science” (and even more dismally, “economic science”) grate? Like shredding garlic on a cheese grater without chain-mail gloves.

  7. I have emailed NPR Weekend Edition Saturday to express my outrage at Scott Simon’s abysmal interview with Tom Wolfe, and urge all readers of WEIT to write NPR to voice their concerns, and demand (or more politely, request) that Weekend edition Saturday invite(s?) Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker on the show to offer their correctives.
    Here is the email address It’s a contact form. I used the box “Contact and NPR show or blog.” Given that Faith Vs. Fact recently came out in paperback, that’s reason enough he should be a guest on the show.

    1. I did the same 2 minutes after it aired. Hopefully they present a countering viewpoint this week. But as we know, NPR, in effort to be fair to all sides, sometimes has high tolerance for crap.

  8. Mendel probably did have an inkling of evolution, but not Darwinian evolution. Lamarck’s theories published about 20 years before Mendel was born, and were well known and widely discussed when he was a student.

  9. So we know for sure you don’t need to know what you are talking about to write a book and the same is true for reviewing a book. Had no idea I was so qualified.

  10. Just saw the very brief interview this morning on NBC. The interview spent most of its time on how Wolfe dresses and did not discuss counter-arguments to his uninformed thesis.

  11. One problem with the reviews attending the release of any new Tom Wolfe book is that so many are written in a faux-Wolfe style.

    I understand the impulse. Take your nose out of a new Wolfe book, it’s hard not to see the world as he skewers it with his sharp eye and gimlet tongue. Sit at a keyboard and it’s harder still not to ape the Wolfe style, with its odd rhythms and prosody, its complex yet playful syntax, its idiosyncratic orthography. This is, however, an impulse best resisted; Wolfe pastiche is so seldom done well.

    Unfortunately, in his USA Today review, Mr. Oldenburg succumbs to this sirens’ call (notwithstanding his slim penultimate paragraph criticizing the excesses of Wolfe’s style). Worse, Oldenburg seems not to have done his homework, either as to Wolfe’s oeuvre or the history of linguistics and evolutionary biology.

    Most egregious (as colnago80 observes in comment #2 above) is Oldenburg’s calumny of Darwin for “filch[ing]” Alfred Wallace’s theory of natural selection. From what I’ve read of the dealings between the two, Darwin’s conduct could serve as a model for academic probity.

    Wolfe’s new book, however manifest its faults, may yet hold some reward for the reader; Oldenburg’s review does not.

    1. “Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution [sic] from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace. Going forward, he identifies many rogue evolutionaries gone wild, from anti-Darwinian Robert Chambers to the Darwin-cheerleader Thomas Huxley, to the first-geneticist Gregor Johann Mendel.”

      I thought that was just bloody insulting to all those mentioned, aside from being a tissue of blatant distortions. I was going to say I don’t know if that’s down to Oldenburg or if he was just reflecting Wolfe – from Ken’s comment maybe the latter.

      I suddenly feel quite Victorian – both bounders should be horsewhipped.


      1. What beats me is that so many of the networks and cable news channels have even paid attention to Wolfe’s anti-evolution work. U guess they are way less selective about what they cover than they want us to think. (Or maybe they just don’t want us to think at all !) CBS this morning paid much more attention to what he was wearing than to any of the issues he was trying to raise. I don’t think the book is intellectually worth reviewing in an serious manner.

  12. Great coverage of Wolfe’s misconceptions.

    However, I think that Mendel had read Darwin’s Origin of Species in the German edition and thought it was great.

    See here

  13. There should be a moratorium on journalists’ use of the word “baffled.” As a linguist I’d have to say I’m not at all baffled, and neither are any of the other linguists I’m aware of.

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