For five decades Tom Wolfe has remained a fixture atop the nation’s literary world—helping establish the “new journalism,” publishing essays and novels, credibly claiming to discern the pulse and diagnose the condition of America. His most recent work, The Kingdom of Speech (New York: Little, Brown and Company, c. 2016), finds him entering (with his customary wit) the somewhat arcane worlds of biological evolution and linguistics, finding therein much to question and pillory while educating us in the process. He was prompted to research the subject when he read of a recent scholarly conference where “eight heavyweight Evolutionists—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists” had given up trying to answer “the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works” (#18). It’s “as mysterious as ever” they declared! Amazingly, one of the eight luminaries was Noam Chomsky, for 50 years the brightest star in the linguistics’ firmament! Now for academics such as Chomsky this is no small admission, for: “Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes—speech is the attribute of all attributes” (#36). When the regnant Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution fails to explain language it fails to explain virtually all that matters!
To put everything in historical context, Wolfe guides us through some fascinating developments in evolutionary theory, including deft portraits of Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin (who maneuvered to co-opt Wallace as the singular architect of the theory of biological evolution of species through natural selection). While styling himself an empirical scientist, Darwin subtly propounded a cosmogony that closely resembles the creation stories of many American Indians. In fact, Darwin’s story, with its “four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere” developing into a world teeming with remarkable creatures was, rightly understood, a “dead ringer” for that of the Navajos! “All cosmologies, whether the Apaches’ or Charles Darwin’s faced the same problem. They were histories, or, better said, stories of things that had occurred in a primordial past, long before there existed anyone capable of recording them. The Apaches’ scorpion and Darwin’s cells in that warm pool were somewhere were by definition educated guesses” (#281). They were all “sincere, but sheer, literature” (#293).
While telling his story, however, Darwin recognized that speech “set humans far apart from any animal ancestors.” Other traits he might passably explain, but he utterly failed to show how “human speech evolved from animals” (#205). “Proving that speech evolved from sounds uttered by lower animals became Darwin’s obsession. After all, his was a Theory of Everything” (#215). Critiquing this theory was England’s most prestigious linguist, Max Muller, who insisted there is radical difference in kind between man and beast—and that difference is language. “Language was the crux of it all. If language sealed off man from animal, then the Theory of Evolution applied only to animal studies and reached no higher than the hairy apes. Muller was eminent and arrogant—and made fun of him” (#860). And then, just when Darwin mustered up the nerve to publish The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, declaring apes and monkeys evolved into human beings, the pesky Alfred Wallace (who had been busily writing trenchant biological treatises) wrote an article, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” pointing out certain uniquely human traits, including language, impossible to explain through natural selection. “No said Wallace, ‘the agency of some other power’ was required. He calls it ‘a superior intelligence,’ ‘a controlling intelligence.’ Only such a power, ‘a new power of definite character,’ can account for ‘ever-advancing’ man” (#694). But this Darwin could not allow! All must be the result of purely material, natural processes! “He had no evidence,” Wolfe says, but he told a good “just so” story that captured much of the public mind. Yet his followers, for 70 years, gave up trying to explain the origin of language and turned to simpler evolutionary matters, upholding the Darwinian standard and insisting, with Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” But not even Dobzhansky ventured to suggest precisely how speech evolved!
Then came Noam Chomsky, who (as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania) set forth a revolutionary theory of linguistics, a “radially new theory of language. Language was not something you learned. You were born with a built-in ‘language organ’” (#1000). Along with your heart and liver, you’re given it—a biological “language acquisition device” (routinely referred to as the LAD in the “science” of linguistics). Chomsky summed it all up in his 1957 Syntactic Structures and thereby became “the biggest name in the 150-year history of linguistics” (#1012). But what, precisely was this LAD? Was it a free-standing organ or an organ within the brain? Like all else in the evolutionary scheme, it had to be something material. But where could it be found? Take it by faith, Chomsky said—in time empirical scientists would find it!
After 50 years of absolute preeminence in the field of linguistics, however, Chomsky suddenly faced an antagonist! Daniel L. Everett, having spent 30 years living with a small tribe in the Amazon jungle—the Piraha, arguably the most primitive tribe on earth—dared to challenge the Master! He declared Chomsky’s theory falsified by the Indians he studied. They “had preserved a civilization virtually unchanged for thousands . . . many thousands of years” (#1313), and no “language organ” or “universal grammar” could explain how they spoke. When Everett presented his findings to the public a decade ago—declaring they provided “the final nail in the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely influential theory of universal grammar” (#1393)—a “raging debate” ensued. In fact, it was total war, with Chomsky and his epigones determined to destroy Everett! They questioned his integrity, discounted his credentials, and schemed to ostracize him from the academic community.
Fighting back, in 2008 Everett published Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, summarizing his 30 years among the Piraha. Amazingly, for a linguistics treatise, it became something of a best-seller! “National Public Radio read great swaths of the book aloud over their national network and named it one of the best books of the year” (#1637). Dismissing Chomsky’s celebrated theory, Everett argued: “Language had not evolved from . . . anything. It was an artifact” (#1631). He followed this up with Language: The Cultural Tool, insisting “that speech, language is not something that had evolved in Homo sapiens, the way the breed’s unique small-motor-skilled hands and . . . or its next-to-hairless body. Speech is man-made. It is an artifact . . . and it explains man’s power over all other creatures in a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to” (#1675). Soon he found some distinguished defenders, including Michael Tomasello—co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. In an article entitled “Universal Grammar Is Dead,” Tomasello opined: “‘The idea of a biologically evolved, universal grammar with linguistic content is a myth’” (#1663). Then Vyvyan Evans published The Language Myth and simply dismissed the innate “language instinct” notion. Still others soon joined the growing condemnation of the Chomsky thesis!
Chomsky of course responded, defending himself—but subtly retracting some of his earlier hypotheses. Then, in a long, convoluted article, we find him confessing: “‘The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma’” (#1734). An enigma, no less! Fifty years of feigning The Answer! (It seems Chomsky knows less than Aristotle, who concluded that humans have a “rational soul” enabling them to function in uniquely human ways.) And to Tom Wolfe, this at least became crystal clear: “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech” (#1890). He thinks: “Soon speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom of Earth.” In addition to the mineral, vegetable, and animal worlds, there is “regnum loquax, the kingdom of speech, inhabited solely by Homo Loquax” (#1938). How interesting to find Wolfe affirming what an earlier (and deeply Christian) literary giant, Walker Percy, identified (in Lost in the Cosmos) as the “delta factor”—the symbolic language unique to our species. There’s an immaterial dimension to language, rendering it impossible to reduce to (or explain by) mere matter.
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While practicing their craft, scientists cannot but ask philosophical questions. The empirical details of their discipline may very well prove interesting to certain scholars, but the deeper philosophical implications of their findings constantly press for examination and explanation. Thus, in Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life Is Designed (New York: HarperOne, c. 2016), Douglas Axe, a highly-credentialed biologist (degrees from Cal Tech and Cambridge University; research articles published in peer reviewed journals) notes: “The biggest question on everyone’s mind has never been the question of survival but rather the question of origin—our origin in particular. How did we get here?” (#195). We cannot but wonder: “What is the source from which everything else came? Or, to bring it closer to home: To what or to whom do we owe our existence? This has to be the starting point for people who take life seriously—scientists and nonscientists alike. We cannot rest without the answer, because absolutely everything of importance is riding on it” #275).
Axe mixes many enlightening personal anecdotes—struggling to survive within an antagonistic academic establishment while entertaining serious questions concerning the dogmas espoused therein—with an expertise honed in laboratories (most notably Cambridge University) and through interactions with both eminent biologists and cutting-edge publications. But he urges us to rely not upon prestigious authorities. We should trust our common sense, believing what we see and intuitively know rather than what we’re told to see and believe. He shares St. Paul’s probing conviction that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Ro 1:18-22).
At an early age children (even if reared in atheist homes) prove St. Paul’s point, sensing there’s an ultimate God-like source responsible for a world that seems to function in accord with certain regularities and principles. This Axe labels the universal design intuition that recognizes an intelligent dimension to all that is. Thus children “innately know themselves to be the handiwork of a ‘God-like designer,’” only to suffer schools wherein they’re generally “indoctrinated with the message that they are instead cosmic accidents—the transient by-products of natural selection” (#843). To refute that materialistic dogma, philosophical rather than scientific, Axe to presents in-depth scientific information pointing to intelligent design as the answer to our deepest questions. He’s particularly adept at showing how the latest findings in molecular biology (in particular the tiny and incredibly complex proteins he examines in the laboratory) and cosmology make purely naturalistic explanations truly improbable. Fortunately, for the general reader, Axe explains things in simple, intelligible ways while demonstrating his mastery of the materials. And he insists: “What is needed isn’t a simplified version of a technical argument but a demonstration that the basic argument in its purest form really is simple, not technical” (#898). We don’t need a Ph.D. in science to understand the common sense science basic to the question of origins.
Axe’s argument actually takes us back to Aristotelian metaphysical tradition (though he doesn’t overtly align himself with it), for the world we observe contains real beings (what he calls “busy wholes) innately orientated to discernible ends. There’s more to Reality than mindless matter—there’s information, reason, a Logos giving shape to that matter. “When we see working things that came about only by bringing many parts together in the right way, we find it impossible not to ascribe these inventions to purposeful action, and this pits our intuition against the evolutionary account” (#1264). Consider such amazingly complex creatures as spiders, salmon, and whales, each of which “is strikingly compelling and complete, utterly committed to being what it is” (#1117). The utter inescapability of the material, formal, efficient, and final causes necessary to understand and explain them cannot be denied! Thus life doesn’t just happen as a result of atoms randomly bouncing through space. And to imagine life originated in a primordial pond of inorganic compounds violates both the empirical evidence of science and the laws of thought. To anyone with eyes to see, “life is a mystery and masterpiece—an overflowing abundance of perfect compositions” that cannot be explained in accord with Darwin’s natural selection (#1129).
Having presented his case, Axe says: “The truth we’re arrived at is important enough that we have a responsibility to stand up for it. Think of this is a movement, not a battle. When a good movement prevails, everyone wins” (#2835). He further believes that Darwinian devotees are now on the defense, retreating on many fronts. They know Darwin himself understood his theory’s vulnerability, admitting: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” But though he credibly described the survival of the species he simply failed—as have his successors—to explain their arrival! A century of intensive research leaves unanswered the truly fundamental questions: how did organic life (e.g. the first cell containing proteins providing genetic instruction for making proteins) arise from inorganic materials? why are humans uniquely conscious and marked by distinctively non-utilitarian traits such as altruism?
Unlike many advocates of Intelligent Design, who insist they are not making an argument for the existence and power of God, Axe forthrightly moves from his scientific data and philosophical arguments to “naming God as the knower who made us. I see no other way to make sense of everything we’ve encountered on our journey” (#3096). The material world can only be—and be understood—because of an immaterial world, the spiritual and supernatural world. “In the end,” he says, “it seems the children are right again. The inside world is every bit as real as the outside one. Consciousness and free will are not illusions but foundational aspects of reality, categorically distinct from the stuff of the outside world. Following the children, if we allow ourselves to see the outside world as an expression of God’s creative thought, everything begins to make sense” (#3190).
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An electrical engineer by training and profession and fully immersed in cutting-edge computer developments, Perry Marshall’s consuming interest in evolutionary theory has prompted him to publish Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design (Dallas: Benbella Books, Inc., c. 2015) in hopes of bringing about a rapprochement between folks primarily committed to Scripture and those strongly rooted in evolutionary Science. Neither a “God of the Gaps” young earth creationism nor a mindless matter-in-motion Old School Darwinism will suffice, given the best available evidence. Reared in young-earth creationist milieu but educated as a scientist, Marshall long struggled with seemingly unanswerable questions. But: “One day I had a huge epiphany: I suddenly saw the striking similarity between DNA and computer software. This started a 10-year journey that led me down a long and winding road of research, controversy, and personal distress before I discovered a radical re-invention of evolution” (#333). This combination of a divinely-engendered creation and evolutionary process he calls Evolution 2.0 and urges it upon his readers.
Codes provide patterns for both computers and biological organisms. Though we struggle to understand mysterious powers such as gravity and thermodynamics, we fully understand how to create computer codes. And we absolutely know that codes do not write themselves! Codes exist because minds devise them! Without intelligent coders the there could be no codes! He supports both creationists (believing God encodes creation) and Darwinists (believing much of the evolutionary account). Independently wealthy, Marshall even offers a multi-million dollar prize to the “first person who can discover a process by which nonliving things can create code” (#416). But: “Nobody knows how you get life from nonlife. Nobody knows how you get codes from chemicals. So nobody gets to assume life just happens because you have some warm soup and a few billion years; we want to understand how and why” (p. 178). He stresses, in bold print: “Codes are not matter and they’re not energy. Codes don’t come from matter, nor do they come from energy. Codes are information, and information is in a category by itself” (p. 187).
Marshall begins this very personal book by confessing that his childhood cosmological beliefs were seriously challenged by the data he faced as a scientist. He sincerely wanted to discover the truth and resolved to find it, whatever the cost. “At the core of my being, I knew I could not live apart from integrity; I could no somehow make myself believe something that was demonstrably untrue” (p. 6). Trusting his engineering training, he resolved let it guide him, fully aware it might lock him into atheism. The electrical engineering he’d mastered is highly mathematical—everything works precisely. And as he delved into biological science he found tiny living organisms working just as precisely, following sophisticated instructions. He also found that evolutionary theory nicely explained much that is evident in living creatures, confirming Darwin’s insights. But one of the Darwinists’ core beliefs—that random mutations fully explain the information necessary for living beings—he found untenable. There must be some intelligent source for the information markedly present in all that lives.
It soon dawned on him that computer codes and biological DNA are remarkably alike. It’s information that enables them both to work in such wonderful ways. Prior to any evolving organisms there must be information, precisely coded in the DNA, that enables them to function. “The pattern in DNA is a complex, intricate, multilayered language. And incredibly efficient and capable language at that” (p. 165). It’s not “natural selection” but “natural genetic engineering” that best explains the living world. Marshall carefully discusses important things such as “transposition,” “horizontal gene transfer,” “epigenetics,” “symbiogenesis,” and “genome duplication,” to illustrate the wonderful ways cells function. “One cell can hold a gigabyte of data; plant and animal tissues have a billion cells per cubic centimeter” (p. 102). A simple cell has information equivalent “to about a hundred million pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica” (p. 106). Indeed: “As amazing as Google is, a single cell possesses more intelligence than a multibillion-dollar search engine” (p. 235). And within each cell there are the true building blocks of all organisms—tiny, information-laden proteins that enable to cell to thrive. “No human programmer has ever written software that does anything even close to this. Could randomness do it? No chance” (p. 142)
Only God could have written the software evident in our world. That many of the the greatest scientists of the past—Newton, Kepler, Kelvin, Mendel, Planck—believed in such a God should encourage us to follow their example. For himself, Marshall says: “after years of research, expense, scrutiny, and debates, my conclusion is: Not only is Evolution 2.0 the most powerful argument for a Designer that I’ve ever seen (!), but people of faith were on the cutting edge of science for 900 or the last 1,000 years. The rift between faith and science might heal if everyone could see how evolution actually works” (p. 270). Marshall has read widely and provides helpful bibliographic materials. Though not a trained philosopher, he clearly understands sophisticated arguments and logic, and his scientific preparation enables him to both grasp and explain current data. While not as conclusively persuasive as he might like, he does provide a valuable treatise on this absolutely crucial issue.