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The Kingdom of Speech

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  1,794 ratings  ·  393 reviews
The maestro storyteller and reporter provocatively argues that what we think we know about speech and human evolution is wrong.

Tom Wolfe, whose legend began in journalism, takes us on an eye-opening journey that is sure to arouse widespread debate. The Kingdom of Speech is a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech—not evolution—is responsible for humanity's com
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 30th 2016 by Little, Brown and Company (first published 2016)
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Mackenzie Your rebuttal would be compelling if it weren't just an appeal to authority. I'm not sure that I disagree - I'll wait until I've read the book to dete…moreYour rebuttal would be compelling if it weren't just an appeal to authority. I'm not sure that I disagree - I'll wait until I've read the book to determine that - but for now this seems - quite ironically - no better than the drivel you accuse Wolfe's book of being. (Have you even read the book?)(less)
Ted Burke Perhaps more along the lines that those who gave the book one star are defenders of scientific protocols for verification of proof. Remember that scie…morePerhaps more along the lines that those who gave the book one star are defenders of scientific protocols for verification of proof. Remember that scientific theories are coherent statements of verified, measured and replicated facts that are related in an effort to find out how things work. No where in any credible theory of scientific endeavor does it say that the interpretation of the facts is final. Protocol requires if new evidence emerges that credibly challenges established conclusions, scientists reexamine the issue at hand and alter theories as required to accommodate new data. This applies across the board , in all areas of research endeavor, whether biology, astrophysics, or linguistics. Chomsky would be the first to insist that his frameworks need to under go the same rigorous challenges as theories in other disciplines do. Scientific investigation leaves itself room to be modified in deal with new input as a matter of course. That is how they do things in the disciplines that are interested in facts that can be measured. Wolfe , of course, is a former journalist, a novelist who overrates his worth, and a clever ironist who can catch the flaws and contradictions in the statements of other creative writers. His world , though, is literary, not scientific, not one predicated on hard facts, which means that its one thing to eviscerate a Mailer, an Updike or a John Irving on the basis of having a quicker, snarkier tongue and quite another to put on the gloves and climb into the ring to take on science. Poor Wolfe simply cannot dissect what he thinks he understands.(less)

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Dec 15, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
Not having read any Tom Wolfe before, I was riveted by the prose style of this book, with its ellipses, colloquial asides, and multiple exclamation marks. I am sure it is possible to write a great book with this technique and perhaps Tom Wolfe has already done it, but this one is unfortunately a complete mess.

I say ‘unfortunately’ because as a matter of fact I agree with his basic position. What Wolfe is trying to do is summarise the internecine fighting of the linguistics world that followed Da
Jason Merchant
Sep 03, 2016 rated it did not like it
If you ever wanted to read a book about a scientific field or two (in Wolfe's trademark flamboyant prose) that was utterly innocent of any understanding of science, here's your chance. This vapid piece of preening ignorance will stand as a pointless landmark (or better yet, sink like a witless stone) to sturm-und-drang self-regard. As an erstwhile colleague of mine put it in his review of the book in the Washington Post (here), the book is "unsullied by research."

You don't have to be an evolutio
Douglas Wilson
A great entertaining read. Wolfe gets off some magnificent and irreverent lines, aimed at the neo-Darwinian hand-wavers. Moreover, he is largely invulnerable to any counter attack from them because the one place he does his own hand-waving is a place where none of them can go. I hope to write more about this later.
Valerie Horner
Sep 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing

When getting my Master’s degree in English, I discovered the fascinating world of linguistics. With my emphasis in English as a Second Language, I took classes in Psycholinguistics (which is the physical and neurological aspects of language acquisition). I was especially intrigued by how language functions similarly to the genetic code, and I loved Modern Grammar which can be used with any language using the principles of Universal Grammar. Universal Grammar, postulates Noam Chomsky (the founde
L.A. Starks
May 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
After Wolfe's death I looked for books he authored that I hadn't read. This is one.

The Kingdom of Speech is short (170 pages) and leans more on research than reporting. However, like all Tom Wolfe books it is a fun read, extremely clear, and non-obvious as he dissects the way in which human language has been treated in evolutionary theory--by, among others, Darwin, Chomsky, and Everett. Wolfe's discussion of Everett's field work with the Piraha is not to be missed.

While The Kingdom of Speech is
Bob Kohn
Jul 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Tom Wolfe one day stumbled across a 2014 essay by eight "heavyweight Evolutionists," the famed-linguist Noam Chomsky being notability among them, and was startled by their conclusion that, after 150 years of scientific research and academic speculation, what we know about speech and language remains "as mysterious as ever." A "poverty of evidence," they wrote, leaves us with "no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved."

Wolfe looked askance at this concl
Maxwell Hansen
Sep 07, 2016 rated it did not like it
Maybe Tom Wolfe should be commended for diving headfirst into a complicated, even esoteric, debate raging inside linguistics and exposing it to a far larger audience than ever before. But praise for this book should really end there.

As someone with some formal training in linguistics and more extensive exploration of the field as a hobby, I read Wolfe's prose in the voice of a supremely confident, almost entirely uninformed brat. In dealing with the fraught, hotly debated question of the origin
Sep 03, 2016 rated it did not like it
I normally enjoy Tom Wolfe, but this takedown of modern linguistics is simply a rant. His "new journalism" style was completely unsuited to persuading me of the validity of some of his rather specious scientific arguments. Despite the fairly copious footnotes, there was little evidence that Wolfe's understanding of either evolution or linguistics had any depth. ...more
Lukas Evan
Sep 02, 2016 rated it did not like it
Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky with baffling (and terrible) results. Alternate title: "The Wrong Stuff." ...more
Sep 05, 2016 rated it liked it
This book forms a loose trilogy with "The Painted Word," Wolfe's dissection of art and art criticism, and "From Bauhaus to Our House," his similar evisceration of architectural theory. This book is different in that Wolfe has ventured into scientific theory - or actually, holy writ, i.e. Darwinian evolutionary theory. Those two books also dealt with a smaller topic - the conflict between American independent thought and the tendency of American intellectuals to follow European "isms," one of Wol ...more
Mikey B.
I generally enjoy Tom Wolfe, but this is an exception.

This is a diatribe, a rant.

He goes after two, I feel, very, unrelated individuals – Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Wolfe’s main theme is language – the premise being that this distinguishes us(humans) from all others on the planet. I have no argument with this.

He blasts Darwin for not acknowledging this. But Darwin was a naturalist. He was not a speech linguistic researcher. Was Wolfe trying to discredit evolution? This seems a tall order.

Jake McAtee
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5. Wolfe demonstrates how Speech is the silver bullet for Darwinism. He shows that Chuck D himself felt it then, and how Chomsky grants it today. The disrespect is delicious.
Rex Fuller
Dec 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Surprisingly, for me at least, Wolfe careens between wildly engaging works, think Bonfire of the Vanities, to the near tears boredom inducing, A Man in Full. This one you figure, try it, maybe? Well...!

He first takes on no less than the god Darwin. He makes two basic points. One, Darwin may have stolen his theory of evolution (Alfred Russell Wallace beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection and sent his paper to Darwin for review). And two, speech—not evolution—is responsible for humanity's
Apr 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
I'd forgotten what a rambunctious, eloquent, mentally-arresting writer Tom Wolfe is. And here he's thumbing his nose at one of modernity's most sacred Golden Cows: the Theory of Everything. Of all the nerve.

Well worth reading, if only for the part where Darwin's work is praised as more imaginative than Kipling's. I was almost in tears.
Nov 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
I normally would give this a 4 star rating, but I noticed there are a lot of pained 1 star reviews, so I upped my rating to a 5 to bring back some balance to the total average.

Wolfe is generally in good standing with the liberal defenders of evolution who are for the most part all for his criticism of investment bankers (The Bonfire of the Vanities) or big business (A Man in Full). When he decided to tear down liberal icons Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, the reaction has been less than kind.

Sep 16, 2016 rated it did not like it
Imagine you're at a party and off in the corner is an enigmatic man dressed in white talking to a large group. He has them eating out of his hand as he loudly, and drunkenly, has a one sided debate about language, Darwinism, and his own wit.

From your view across the room, you're uncertain about this man. But as you get closer - out of curiosity, of course - you listen in and can't help but find him mildly entertaining. Maybe you'll listen a little more. His story takes form as David vs. Goliath
Sep 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Wonderful to have Tom Wolfe back and setting fire to sacred cows. This is a bit like his classic attacks on pretentious flim flammery From Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word but it also shares a lot of characteristics with snappy popular history like The Right Stuff or even popular science histories like Longitude. The language is crackling and playful throughout, even more so than his usual in order to make a "the medium is the message" point about the subject of the book. Thoroughly ...more
Sep 08, 2016 rated it did not like it
This book is, simply put, the heresy of an uneducated washed-up author. Wolfe's logic is completely lacking and shows how not arrive at a theory through proper scientific method. He makes several claims in the book that show how uneducated he is. This is not because he disagrees with the standard theory, but because his arguments consist of claiming there is no proof. A senior highschool student could come up with stronger arguments FOR his claims. This is the type of rhetoric that damages the p ...more
May 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is a Chestertonian take-down of Darwin and Chomsky. Excellent. Very fun.
Valerie Kyriosity
Dec 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks
I was scrolling through thousands of my library's digital offerings when I saw this and thought, "Hmmm...I've never read any Tom Wolfe; maybe I should give him a try." I now want to read everything he's written. He's got a remarkable gift with words, so it is not remarkable that he would turn is attention in this book to the subject of how we got them. First, he rounds up the usual emperors in their usual new clothes, parades them before us, and pokes them with sticks that wouldn't hurt so bad i ...more
Aug 30, 2016 marked it as to-read
Humorous NYT review here: "[T]his 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."

See here for comments on the kudzu of "settled science," and see here for Cheaney's article on how "Darwinism hasn't been able to e
Sep 27, 2016 rated it it was ok
Depending on how much Wolfe's writing style irritates you, most of this book is a readable but disjointed and superficial narrative trying but mostly failing to connect two largely separate fields. Combining the vagueness of informal language with the pomposity of formal language, Wolfe's style is grating and awkward for non-fiction writing, but this book is short enough that it didn't accumulate into intolerable for me. The text, while clearly under-researched, still touches on enough important ...more
Marcus Speh
Jul 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding. Enjoyed this enormously, especially the intelligent polemics. Slaughters holy scientific cows left, right and center. The style sticks to the middle ground between journalism and the best, most entertaining fiction. Superficially, this book is about linguistics but not really. It is written at breathtaking speed, motivated by the power of language, with some great protagonists and antagonists, showing that science is also, but not only, a social affair. I used it as additional ammun ...more
Oct 07, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Tom Wolfe wrote a book on a subject where he has no knowledge. He also appears unable to meaningfully back/cite/logically argue any of his lofty claims. This is one of the worst books I've ever read. I hated his writing style which came across as pompous, over confident, and rude. He also used way too many ellipses and said "solar plexus" an unreasonable number of times in such a short book. This book is poorly argued, makes no sense, and is generally extremely annoying. Another key shortfall: s ...more
Asher Littlefield
Jan 09, 2018 rated it did not like it
It had its funny parts and interesting moments, but it barely seemed to touch the topic of speech, spending the first half on evolution’s history, the second on the wars over language, and the last chapter focused on speech. Most troublesome of all, Wolfe acted like an annoyed child each time he had to “correct” himself with the “new politically correct” terms for indigenous people, making it partway through the word “native” EVERY TIME. It was obnoxious.
Sep 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you have always been suspicious of the Chomsky hagiography gang, you will enjoy this book. If you are or were part of the gang, you should probably read it.
Ehhhh I dunno, 4 stars for the prose and maybe like 2.5 for the content; still good, but certainly not Wolfe at his best. With that said, I was happy to find that I had not yet read all of Wolfe's non-fiction (thanks to VOL), which, taken as a whole, is a national treasure.

Wolfe is quite right that Darwinist theory is not and should not be treated as a 'theory of everything', insofar as it cannot explain intentionality or language, despite the claims of those who take Darwinism to be a metaphysi
Oct 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: cultural-studies
Five stars for making fun of Darwin (for the despicable way he double-crossed Alfred Wallace) and Chompsky (for being an armchair intellectual nincompoop). (I mean, these gods are worshipped so devotedly so as to make you ill). Hearing Darwin's little tree of life sketch being described as 'abortive' makes me laugh even now, because my lecturers were so sanctimonious about it in class... I laughed so much that I don't think I'll ever be able to read anything by those two too seriously (actually, ...more
Mark Taylor
Sep 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Yes! Tom Wolfe is back!!! The sharply-dressed wordsmith returns with The Kingdom of Speech, his first non-fiction work since his 2000 collection of essays, Hooking Up. But you have to go back to 1981 and From Bauhaus to Our House to find Wolfe’s last extended, book-length piece of non-fiction. That seems fitting, because The Kingdom of Speech fits in well with From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s scathing critique of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, his 1975 lambasting of the modern art ...more
LAPL Reads
Oct 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
Satirist Tom Wolfe is back with another contrarian broadside against sacred cows. In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe takes on two scientific icons, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. In this slim, provocative volume, Wolfe risks the scorn of the scientific establishment by criticizing the self-importance of these legendary figures.

Wolfe contrasts the patrician Darwin, whose theories were always backed up by other English gentleman scientists, such as Charles Lyell, with the “flycatcher,” Alfred Russe
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Wolfe was educated at Washington and Lee Universities and also at Yale, where he received a PhD in American studies.

Tom Wolfe spent his early days as a Washington Post beat reporter, where his free-association, onomatopoetic style would later become the trademark of New Journalism. In books such as The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe delves into

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