In Tom Wolfe's 'Kingdom,' Speech Is The One Weird Trick

Aug 27, 2016

One of America's most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, imaginative, deliberate, destructive, and complicated beings who invented the slingshot and the moon shot, and wrote the words of the Bible, Don Quixote, Good Night Moon, the backs of cereal boxes, and Fifty and Shades of Grey.

The Kingdom of Speech is Tom Wolfe's first non-fiction book in 16 years. Wolfe tells NPR's Scott Simon that speech is "the attribute of attributes," because it's so unrelated to most other things about animals. "We've all been taught that we evolved from animals, and here is something that is totally absent from animal life," he says.


Interview Highlights

On animal communication

There are no traces of any evolution of language through the sounds that apes make, or dolphins, for that matter. It is something that is completely new, and the reason for that is, it's an invention, invention by human beings, who are the only creatures who are able to perform this trick. And the trick is, you convert sounds into codes. And the code may be t-r-e-e "tree," or it could be "typhoon," there's no telling. But it enables this creature, man, to remember things ... as a result, human beings rule every other creature in the world.

Physically, we are really pretty pathetic ... our dominance in the world is all thanks to this trick of coming up with these codes.

On Darwin and speech

He could not figure out what it was. He assumed, because of his theory, that everything evolved from animals. And didn't even include it in his theory, language, until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it's misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals — actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs, aside from the general resemblance of apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.

On whether he's worried that creationists will begin to cite his work as scientific proof

I wouldn't think so, because there's not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. In fact, I hate people who go around saying they're atheists, but I'm an atheist.

On what speech enables us to do

It's enabled us to think up strategies, to head off what you think might be about to happen. And strategies depend upon memory, and speech is a fantastic memory device. There's absolutely nothing like it, and I think it's time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of America's most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, imaginative, deliberate, destructive and complicated beings who invented the slingshot and the moonshot and wrote the words of the Bible, "Don Quixote," "Goodnight Moon," the backs of cereal boxes and "Fifty Shades Of Grey."

"The Kingdom Of Speech" is Tom Wolfe's first nonfiction book in 16 years, and Tom Wolfe, the author of many honored books, including "The Right Stuff" and "The Bonfire Of The Vanities" and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM WOLFE: Delighted to be here.

SIMON: Why do you call speech the attribute of attributes?

WOLFE: It's because it's - speech is so unrelated to most things about animals. We've all been taught that we evolved from animals. And here is something that is totally absent from animal life. There are no traces of any evolution of language through the sounds that apes make or dolphins, for that matter. It is something that is completely new, and the reason is it's an invention, invention by human beings who are the only creatures who are able to perform this trick. And the trick is you convert sounds into codes. One code may be T-R-E-E tree, or it could be typhoon. There's no telling. But it enables this creature, man, to remember, to remember things. You can establish - you could - it's so easy to remember the code as compared to remembering an entire event. As a result, human beings rule every other creature in the world.

SIMON: And you suggest that in the animal kingdom, if we're judging human beings by the attributes other animals do, we're not very impressive at all.

WOLFE: No, physically, we're - really pretty pathetic. Offhand, I cannot think of an animal which, if your size, let's say 150 pounds, that could not absolutely obliterate you in hand-to-hand or tooth-to-incisor combat. And our dominance in the world is all thanks to this trick of coming up with these codes that enable us to remember what happened yesterday or years ago. And it has a permanence that has a tremendous advantage (laughter). It has nothing to do with the theory of evolution.

SIMON: Yeah. But you say that speech bedeviled Darwin as a matter of fact.

WOLFE: It did. He could not figure out what it was. He assumed because of his theory that everything evolved from animals, and he didn't even include it in his theory language until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it's misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals. I mean, actually nobody knows whether they did or not. And there are very few physical signs, except for the general resemblance between apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.

WOLFE: Are you concerned, Mr. Wolfe, or are you resolutely not concerned that people who don't believe in evolution for religious reasons, not scientific ones, are going to begin to cite your work as some kind of scientific proof?

WOLFE: I wouldn't think so because there's not a shred of whatever (ph) that depends at all on faith, on belief in a extraterrestrial power. In fact, I hate people going around saying they're atheist, but I'm an atheist (laughter).

SIMON: And in the end, what has speech enabled us to do as a species?

WOLFE: It's enabled us to think up strategies to head off what you think might be about to happen, and the strategies depend upon memory. And speech is a fantastic memory device. There's absolutely nothing like it, and I think it's time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only - only to animals.

SIMON: Tom Wolfe - his book - "The Kingdom Of Speech." Thanks so much for being with us.

WOLFE: My pleasure, thank you very, very much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.