Books / Pluralistic World

Darwinism falters over language

If you have never read Tom Wolfe, you will have to take my word for it that he loves language. As a journalist, novelist and essayist Wolfe doesn’t just use words, he relishes them, brandishes them, piles them up, fills sentences with ellipsis and exclamation marks to turn words into weapons, and makes certain you imagine what he wants you to imagine.

Throughout the voyage of the Beagle … way back when … Darwin had been in his twenties, enjoying the heedless animal health of youth. Today, in October of 1818, going on twenty-two years later, he was almost fifty … and afflicted with what his doctors told him was dyspepsia. But very likely their real diagnosis was hypochondria… referring to some recurring imaginary malady unlikely to kill you even if it were real. In Darwin’s case it consisted of sudden, uncontrollable vomiting and every sort of pain in his distended belly and bowels, every known belch, retch, heave, gas-pass, watery rush, and loathsome gush, plus foul wind erupting from one end of his digestive tract and foul sounds erupting grrrrekkk from the other. [p. 41-42]

I rest my case.

In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe turns his attention to Darwinism and asks why, if it is true, it is unable to account, why it is completely incapable of accounting for human language. And he tells the story of this failure in prose that only Tom Wolfe could pen.

Christians need to be careful with this book. For one thing, it is not an argument for creation and should not be mistaken as such—Wolfe is not a theist. It is true that the Christian doctrine of creation adequately accounts for human language but Darwinism’s failure to account for it does not prove the biblical position will be credible to those who are committed Naturalists. The God of scripture is triune, and communication is therefore part of the very nature of ultimate reality. The members of the Godhead communicated from eternity past, God spoke to create, and has spoken in human language, so creatures that bear his likeness should wonder at but need not be surprised at the grace of language. Still this position is only plausible when a series of assumptions are first accepted, about God, his nature as triune, the scriptures, creation, and the nature of humankind. Besides, one common response to Wolfe’s argument will be that though no account of language has been developed by evolutionists, one will be proposed eventually. We must remember that no one enjoys being shown that their world view is inadequate. Arguing for truth is a high and noble calling but it is sin if done with the sordid glee of triumphalism. If we wish to point out the flaws in the thinking of non-Christian friends, we must welcome the same from them and demonstrate we take such things seriously by living a lifestyle of repentance. One more thing: check out reviews of the book—many are very critical, and the criticisms need to be considered with care.

Speech!” Wolfe writes in the final lines of the book. “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved in to Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine” (p. 169). Yes. And from where I sit, that homage does not merely float in a silent cosmos but one whose very existence rests on the gracious word of the God who speaks.


The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2016) 169 pages + notes