Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Everybody Gets Senile Sometime?

If they live long enough. Tom Wolfe is 85, and has just published a book attacking Darwin and Chomsky. Darwin is the ultimate hard target, and Chomsky is more than a bit softer, but if this NYT review is a guide, Wolfe is equally off base against him.

Secondarily [besides dissing Chuck D], this book is a rebuke of the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, whom Mr. Wolfe refers to as “Noam Charisma.” Rebuke is actually too frivolous a word for the contumely Mr. Wolfe looses in his direction. More precisely, he tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.

Mr. Wolfe does not complain about evolution on religious grounds; in fact, he is an atheist. He begins by declaring the notion of the big bang to be vaguely ridiculous, and likens it to a mythopoetic bedtime story. Everything came from nothing?

Most essentially, Mr. Wolfe employs new research from the controversial anthropologist Daniel Everett to argue that the power of speech — man’s signal attribute — is not the product of evolution at all but rather a tool that man created. “Bango!” Mr. Wolfe writes. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal.” He wonders how airtight the theory of evolution can be if it does not account for such a thing. “What is it,” he asks, “that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech?”

I'm very unlikely to read this book, mostly because I'm confident that there is little likelihood of finding anything of value in it, but also because I find it vaguely disrespectful to delve into the ravings of a genius who has gone nuts.

I'm reminded of a story that I think was told by Sam Trieman, the longtime editor of PRL. He and another physicist attended a lecture by Eddington in which Eddington espoused some of the theories of his old age. Appalled, he turned to the other guy (Ulam?) and asked: "Oh my God, is that going to happen to us?" Ulam replied, "Don't worry Sam. A genius like Eddington may go nuts, but guys like you just get dumber and dumber."

UPDATE: A much more intelligent review of the book is here in the WSJ. The author, Charles C Mann, actually knows enough to point out some of Wolfe's nonsense:

All histories of evolution sing this song, but Mr. Wolfe’s version adds weird notes. Darwin’s “real dream,” he claims, was to show the world that “man was just an animal himself.” This, he writes, was “the central point of his entire theory from the beginning.” What makes humans human? Speech and language, says Mr. Wolfe. Thus “proving that speech evolved from sounds uttered by lower animals became Darwin’s obsession.”

Obsession? By this point, I was scribbling “???” in the margins. Darwin did mull over the place of humankind in general and speech and language in particular. If speech and language, our defining features, were produced by natural selection, how, exactly, was the trick performed? There is an enormous gap between animal sounds—baboons barking and beagles baying—and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Invoking natural selection to explain the origins of speech can seem like claiming that F-16s evolved from toy balloons by the accumulation of chance variations. But Darwin appears to have been anything but obsessed by the puzzle. His musings about speech occupy fewer than 20 of the more than 1,000 pages of his evolution notebooks, all from the late 1830s, according to an exhaustive study by historian Stephen Alter.

Quickly, and with no evident doubt, Darwin concluded that language and the human brain had probably “coevolved.” The slow development of the one fed the development of the other, and vice versa—a positive feedback loop. But because Darwin didn’t know how to flesh out this intuition, because talking about human evolution risked angering the forces of Christianity, and because, above all, he was most interested in his general ideas on evolution, he left all discussion of speech out of his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species” (1859, the year after Wallace’s letter).

And of course this final stupidity:

“Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”