Wolfe has of course made a name for himself over the years as a social contrarian, poking holes particularly in the various chimera of cultural elitism. And Kingdom of Speech is no different. Happily, the piñata of choice this time round is Darwinism, at least that form of Darwin’s theory of evolution that is propped up by elite snobbishness and pretension, and by extension, every form of scientism that is impervious to critique by virtue of personality cult (and the like).
The particular tale that Wolfe weaves in KOS concentrates on the nagging question of language and speech. It begins with the self-taught British naturalist Alfred Wallace who initially hypothesized a form of natural descent and survival of the fittest alongside Charles Darwin, but who later raised criticisms of the all-encompassing theory based on questions about the human soul and spirituality and in particular the problem of human language. Wolfe tells the story through the extant correspondence between the scientific celebrities of Britain, Charles Lyell, the established icon, and Charles Darwin, the rising star and soon-to-be darling of cultural agnosticism of every sort. And what becomes apparent is a fair bit of handling, PR-stunting, packaging, framing, and attempts at controlling the narrative. The point is searingly obvious: even when a nobody naturalist studying flora and fauna on a volcanic island off the Malay Archipelago puts forward a theory that resembles what Darwin had been sluggishly pattering around for nearly a decade, the fretting and frenzy of recognition, honor, defensiveness, and spin — all set in (with appropriate Victorian detachment).
Wolfe’s point, his real damning point, is that Darwin and Lyell and their many accomplices have always had commitments deeper than a pure, honest search for truth. There were objections to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection from the get-go, some based on religious, Scriptural grounds, some based on moral, ethical grounds, and still others based on more empirical grounds, one of the latter being, Max Muller’s (should have an umlaut over the “u”) scathing assaults on Darwin’s theory for it’s failure to reckon with the most distinctive elements of human beings, namely all the artifacts, everything that is so patently unnatural about man: algebra, Shakespeare, castles, liturgy, Rembrandt, freedom, and the “mother of all artifacts” the Word. It would be Stephen Jay Gould in 1978 who would finally label Darwin’s theory as a feat beyond Kipling’s Just-So Stories, and Gould was no evolution-denier, he just didn’t mind pointing out a fact when he saw one.
But this was the nagging question unaccounted for in Darwin: the chasm separating human beings from the animal kingdom. Sure, there might be some superficial similarities between the chimpanzees and orangutans, but the divide yawns ever wider: Augustine, Aquinas, Bach, Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Larry Bird, Steve Jobs — creativity, choice, language, beauty, technology, self-awareness, morality, justice, mercy, love. It was Noam Chomsky who took up the elitist baton in the 20th century proposing a theory of language grounded in a particular part of the brain that he theorized would be discovered and confirmed very soon, very, very soon, any minute now… establishing a universal origin and template for human language, thus bridging the gap. Until… Daniel L. Everett came along, a pesky evangelical Methodist missionary turned linguist, cultural anthropologist, who began publishing contrary findings from his field work with members of a tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pee-da-Hannh), isolated deep in the Brazilian Amazon. And the story of frantic narrative spin and academic bullying repeats itself again. Like a theme.
Of course the deep irony is that the limb the Darwinists are desperate to protect depends upon the freedom of language. In other words, what the naturalists are demanding, insisting upon is that the herds of the uninitiated fall into line, in the name of… Natural Selection? Here, let us demand that you think the thoughts and say the words that we think are natural. You don’t agree? Shut up. Of course on the one hand there is a fair bit of Survival of the Fittest being exercised in the attempted coup, but on the other hand it’s being propped up with a veneer of Truth. But you can’t keep insisting on truth and not expect people to actually believe you and then question the emperor’s new clothes.
Where Wolfe lands is perilously close to a fully coherent rebuttal to Darwinism. As it stands it’s a wonderful takedown and a well-aimed missile. Darwinism, scientism, elite-ism are worthy foes, and well-armed Anakim deserving of every smooth stone we can find. Cut off their heads and lift them up for all to see. Yet, this is a bit like assassinating dictators in third world countries: they’ll grow a new one in two years. Wolfe sees through the fog of postmodernity (and modernity) more clearly than most, but he doesn’t seem to reckon with one of the other most obvious artifacts of human existence: evil. If we are to take the Kingdom of Speech seriously, let’s face the six-fingered giant-demon at the heart of all our elitist pomposity. It’s the arrogant bitch inside every son of Adam. It’s the grandiose self-worship and self-protection that drives all the cover-ups, all the spin jobs, all the mincing of words, all the fretting letters. What will we do about that problem, Mr. Wolfe? What will we do about sin? That’s the real nagging question, that’s the deepest ache: guilt, shame, regret — what every last human being is most painfully self-aware of, that we are responsible creatures who have done wrong. How will we wash our hands of that? How will we tell the Truth about that? Unless we do, unless we tell that truth, we are still complicit in the Darwinian game.
Wolfe is right though… In the beginning was the Word. I pray that very soon he beholds the glory of that Word, full of grace and truth.