Tuesday, August 30, 2016

More Wrong Stuff from Tom Wolfe

An excerpt from Wolfe's book appears in the Daily Beast. His starting point is a paper by a few students of Speech (including Chomsky). My take is that he both misunderstands and sensationalizes the paper. Also, he has no clue as to how science works.

One bright night in the year 2016, my face aglow with godknows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading: THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION.1 It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists2—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists—had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works.

“The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” they concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we’ll keep trying, they said gamely… but we’ll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. “In the last 40 years,” he and the other seven were saying, “there has been an explosion of research on this problem,” and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia.

The conclusion, of course, was his own invention. As to the cited paper, I think it would be fairer to say that the research had not answered the questions Chomsky wanted answered - at least not in the way he wanted them answered. They concern the way syntax and grammar are generated in the brain. Of course there are innumerable questions about the brain which cannot yet be answered.

This isn't one of them, but I am surprised that a genius like Wolfe can be so ignorant of the most fundamental facts of civilization.