The Kingdom of Speech

BOOK: The Kingdom of Speech
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With a deep bow,

the author thanks

CHRISTINA VERIGAN

for such a big slice

of her erudition

One bright night
in the year 2016, my face aglow with godknows how many Milli
GAUSS
of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading:

THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION
a

It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists
b
—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists—had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works.

“The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” they concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of
ever
finding the answer. Oh, we'll keep trying, they said gamely…but we'll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. “In the last 40 years,” he and the other seven were saying, “there has been an explosion of research on this problem,” and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia.

Now, that was odd…I had never heard of a group of experts coming together to announce what abject failures they were…

Very
odd, in fact…so I surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon the only academic I could find who disagreed with the eight failures, a chemist at Rice University…
Rice
…Rice used to have a big-time football team…the Rice Owls…wonder how they're doing now? I moused around on the Rice site some more, and
uh-oh
…not so great last season, the Owls…
football
…and I surfed to
football concussions
…exactly as I thought! There's a regular epidemic of concussions raging! They're busy beating each other into clots of early Alzheimer's!…
concussions
…surfing surfing surfing, but look at this! Football is nothing compared to
ice hockey
…without at least two concussions under your skull you aren't even ready for the NHL—

—and all the while something else was so caught on my pyramids of Betz that not even an NHL enforcer's head check could have dislodged it: they can't figure out what language
is
. One hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced, and they had learned…
nothing
…in that same century and a half, Einstein discovered the speed of light and the relativity of speed, time, and distance…Pasteur discovered that microorganisms, notably bacteria, cause an ungodly number of diseases, from head colds to anthrax and oxygen-tubed, collapsed-lung, final-stage pneumonia…Watson and Crick discovered DNA, the so-called building blocks genes are made of…and 150 years' worth of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and people from every other discipline discovered…
nothing
…about language.

What is the problem? Speech is not one of man's several unique attributes—speech is the attribute of all attributes! Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can't do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.

What is the story? What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech? For half that time, as we will see, they formally and officially pronounced the question unsolvable and stopped trying. What is it they still don't get after a veritable eternity?

  

Our story begins inside the aching, splitting head of Alfred Wallace, a thirty-five-year-old, tall, lanky, long-bearded, barely grade-school-educated, self-taught British naturalist who was off—alone—studying the flora and the fauna of a volcanic island off the Malay Archipelago near the equator…when he came down with the dreaded Genghis ague (rhymes with “bay view”), today known as malaria. So here he is, in not much more than a thatched hut, stretched out, stricken, bedridden, helpless…and another round of the paroxysms strikes with full force…the chills, the rib-rattling shakes…the head-splitting spike of fever followed by a sweat so profuse it turns the bed into a sodden tropical bog. This being 1858 on a miserable, sparsely populated speck of earth somewhere far, far south of London's nobs, fops, top hats, and toffs, he has nothing with which to while the time away except for a copy of
Tristram Shandy
he has already read five times—that and his own thoughts…

One day he's lying back on his reeking bog of a bed…thinking…about this and that…when a book he read a good twelve years earlier comes bubbling up his brain stem:
An Essay on the Principle of Population
by a Church of England priest, Thomas Malthus.
c

The priest had a deformed palate that left him with a speech defect, but he could write like a dream. The book had been published in 1798 and was still very much alive sixty years and six editions later. Left unchecked, Malthus said, human populations would increase geometrically, doubling every twenty-five years.
1
But the food supply increases only arithmetically, one step at a time.
2
By the twenty-first century, the entire earth would be covered by one great heaving mass of very hungry people pressed together shank to flank, butt to gut. But, as Malthus predicted, something
did
check it—namely, Death, unnatural Death in job lots…starting with starvation, vast famines of it…disease, vast epidemics of it…violence, mayhem, organized slaughter, wars and suicides and gory genocides…to the cantering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen culling the herds of humanity until but a few, the strongest and the healthiest, are left with enough food to survive. This was precisely what happened with animals, said Malthus.

Ahura!
It lights up Wallace's brainpan with a flash—
It!
—the solution to what naturalists called “the mystery of mysteries”: how Evolution works! Of course! Now he can see it! Animal populations go through the same die-offs as man. All of them, from apes to insects, struggle to survive, and only the “fittest”—Wallace's term—make it. Now he can see an inevitable progression. As generations, ages, eons go by, a breed has to adapt to so many changing conditions, obstacles, and threats that it turns into something else entirely—a
new
breed, a new
species!
—in order to survive.

For at least sixty-four years British and French naturalists, starting with the Scotsman James Hutton
3
and the Englishman Erasmus Darwin
4
in 1794 and the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1800,
5
had been convinced that all the various species of plants and animals of today had somehow evolved from earlier ones. In 1844 the idea had lit up the sky in the form of an easy-to-read bestselling book called
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,
a complete cosmology of the creation of earth and the solar system and plant and animal life from the lowliest forms up through the transmutations of monkeys into man. It transfixed readers high and low—Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Gladstone, Disraeli, Schopenhauer, Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill; and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who read it aloud to each other)…as well as the general public—in droves. There was no author's name on the cover or anywhere in its four hundred pages. He or she—there were those who assumed a writer this insidious must be a woman; Lord Byron's too-clever-by-half daughter Ada Lovelace was one suspect—apparently knew what was coming.
6
The book and Miss, Mrs., or Mr. Anonymous caught Holy Hell from the Church and its divines and devotees. One of the pillars of the Faith was the doctrine that Man had descended from Heaven, definitely not from monkeys in trees. Among the divines, the most ferocious attack was the Reverend Adam Sedgwick's in the
Edinburgh Review
.
7
Sedgwick was an Anglican priest and prominent geologist at Cambridge. If words were flames, Sedgwick's would have burned the anonymous heretic at the stake. The miserable creature gave off the stench of “inner deformity and foulness.”
8
His mind was hopelessly twisted with “gross and filthy views on physiology,”
9
if indeed he still had a mind. The foul wretch thought that “religion is a lie” and “human law a mass of folly, and a base injustice,” and “morality is moonshine.” In short, this disgusting apostate thought “he can make man and woman far better by the help of a baboon” than by the mercies of the Lord God.
10

Then the book caught high-IQ hell from the ranks of established naturalists in general. They found it journalistic and amateurish; which is to say, the work of an unknown outsider and a threat to their status. The boy wonder of the “serious” scientific establishment, Thomas Henry Huxley, then twenty-eight, wrote what was later described as “one of the most venomous book reviews of all time”
11
when the tenth edition came out in 1853. He called
Vestiges
“a once attractive and still notorious work of fiction.”
12
As for its anonymous author, he was one of those ignorant and superficial people who “indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”
13
Everyone in the establishment was happy to point out that this anonymous know-it-all couldn't begin to explain how, through what physical process, all this transmutation, this evolution, was supposed to have taken place. Nobody could figure it out—until
now,
a few
moments
ago, inside
my
brain!
Mine!
Alfred Russel Wallace's!

He is still in his wet, reeking bed, trying to endure the endless malarial paroxysms, when another kind of fever, an
exhilarating
fever, seizes him…a fervid desire to record his revelation and show the world—
now!
For two days and two nights
14
…during every halfway tranquil moment between the chills, the rattling ribs, the fevers, and the sweats…he writes and he writes writes writes a twenty-plus-page manuscript entitled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”
15
He has done it! His will be the first description ever published of the evolution of the species through natural selection. He sent it off to England on the next boat…

…but not to any of the popular scholarly publications, such as the
Annals and Magazine of Natural History
and
The Literary Gazette; and Journal of Arts, Belles Lettres, Sciences, &c.,
where he had published forty-three papers during his eight years of field work in the Amazon and here in Malay. No, for this one—for
It
—he was going to mount the Big Stage. He wanted this one to go straight to the dean of all British naturalists, Sir Charles Lyell, the great geologist. If Lyell found merit in his stunning theory, he had the power to introduce it to the world in a heroic way.

The problem was, Wallace didn't know Lyell. And on this primitive little island, where was he going to get his address? But he had corresponded a few times with another gentleman who was a friend of Lyell's, namely, Erasmus Darwin's grandson Charles. Charles had happened to mention in a letter two years earlier, in 1856, that Lyell had praised one of Wallace's recent articles (probably “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species,” also known as the “Sarawak Law” paper, 1855).
16
By early March of 1858, Wallace's manuscript and a letter were on the ocean, 7,200 miles from England, addressed to Charles Darwin, Esq. Exceedingly polite was that letter. It all but cringed. Wallace was asking Darwin to please read his paper and, if he thought it worthy, to please pass it along to Lyell.

So it was that Wallace put his discovery of all discoveries—the origin of species by natural selection—into the hands of a group of distinguished British Gentlemen. The year 1858 was on the crest of the high Victorian tide of the British Empire's dominion over palm and pine. Britain was the most powerful military and economic power on earth. The mighty Royal Navy had seized and then secured colonies on every continent except for the frozen, human-proof South Pole. Britain had given birth to the Industrial Revolution and continued to dominate it now, in 1858, almost a century later. She controlled 20 percent of all international trade and
40
percent of all industrial trade. She led the world in scientific progress, from mechanical inventions to advances in medicine, mathematics, and theoretical science.

To give a face to all that, she had at her disposal the most highly polished aristocrat in the West…the British Gentleman. He might or might not have a noble title. He might be a Sir Charles Lyell or a Mr. Charles Darwin. It didn't matter. Other European aristocrats, even some French ones, lifted their forearms before their faces to shield their eyes in the British Gentleman's presence. The gleam and refinement of the usual frills—manners, dress, demeanor, tortured accent, wit, and wit's lacerating weapon, irony—were the least of it. The most of it was wealth, preferably inherited.

The British Gentleman, better known in ages past as a member of the landed gentry, typically lived on inherited wealth upon a country estate of one thousand acres or more, which he rented out for farming by the lower orders.
17
He went to Oxford (Lyell) or Cambridge (Darwin) and might become a military officer, a clergyman, a lawyer, a doctor, a prime minister, a poet, a painter, or a naturalist—but he didn't
have
to do anything. He didn't have to work a day in his life. Sir Charles Lyell's ascension to the status of British Gentleman had begun the day his grandfather, also Charles Lyell, converted a naval career into enough money to buy an estate with endless acres and a palatial manor house in Scotland and retire as a high-living lairdly sort who was no longer hobbled socially by the need to work. His erstwhile naval career, which had been a necessity at the time, cast a bit of a shadow upon him, but his son (another) Charles was born free of that curse, and in due course his grandson became Sir Charles Lyell (third Charles in a row),
18
thanks to his achievements in geology.
d
The Darwin line went back much further than that, some two hundred years, to the mid-1600s, to Oliver Cromwell and his serjeant-at-law—i.e., lawyer—one Erasmus Earle.
19
Erasmus parlayed his position into a small fortune and huge landholdings, and never again did a gentleman in the ensuing eight or so Earle-Darwin generations have to work.

BOOK: The Kingdom of Speech
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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