There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.
‘Speech,’ I said to myself, ‘gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool for communication. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon!’
Speech was the first artifact, the first instance in which a creature, man, had removed elements from nature… in this case, sounds… and turned them into something entirely new and man-made… strings of sounds that formed codes, codes called words. Not only speech is an artifact, it is the primal artifact. Without speech the human beast couldn’t have created any other artifacts, not the crudest club or the simplest hoe, not the wheel or the Atlas rocket, not dance, not music, not even hummed tunes, in fact not tunes at all, not even drumbeats, not rhythm of any kind, not even keeping time with his hands.
Speech, and only speech, gives the human beast the ability to make plans… not just long-term but any plans, even for something to do five minutes from now. Speech, and only speech, gives the human beast the power of accurate memory and the means to preserve it in his thoughts for now or indefinitely in print, in photographs, on film, or in the form of engineering and architectural diagrams. Speech, and only speech, enables man to use mathematics. (Doubters need only try to count from one to ten without words.) Speech, and only speech, gives the human beast the power to enlarge his food supply through an artifice called farming. Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary for survival, but also the evolution of animal.
Today the so-called animal kingdom is an animal colony, and we own it. It exists only at our sufferance. If we were foolish enough and could get the cooperation of people all over the earth, in six months we could exterminate every animal that sticks up more than a half inch above the ground. Already all cattle, chickens and sheep in the world and the vast majority of pigs, horses, and turkeys – we hold the whole huge gaggle of them captive, all of them… to do with as we wish.
In short, speech, and only speech, has enabled us, we human beasts, to conquer every square inch of land in the world, subjugate every creature big enough to lay eyes on, and eat up half the population of the sea.
And this, the power to conquer the entire planet for our own species, is the minor achievement of speech’s great might. The great achievement has been the creation of an internal self, an ego. Speech, and only speech, gives man the power to ask questions about his own life – and take his own life. No animal ever commits suicide. Speech, and only speech, gives us the urge to kill others on a massive scale, whether in war or other campaigns of terror. Speech, and only speech, gives us the power to exterminate ourselves and render the planet uninhabitable just like that in a matter of thirty-five or forty nuclear minutes. Only speech gives man the power to dream up religions and gods to animate them… and in six extraordinary cases to change history – for centuries – with words alone, without money or political backing. The names of the six are Jesus, Muhammad (whose military power came only after twenty years of preaching), John Calvin, Marx, Freud – and Darwin. And this, rather than any theory, is what makes Darwin the monumental figure that he is.
The human beast does not require that the explanation offer hope. He will believe whatever is convincing. Jesus offered great hope. The last shall be the first and the first shall be the last. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The meek shall inherit the earth and ascend to the right hand of God. This, from the Sermon on the Mount, is the most radical social and political doctrine ever promulgated. Its soldiers were thousands, millions, of the meek, and it took the better part of three centuries for the Word to build up such a following that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Calvin offered less hope than Jesus; Muhammad, more and less; Marx, more and more. The meek – ‘the proletariat’ he called them – shall inherit the earth now!… here!… and never mind waiting for Heavenly pie in the sky. Freud offered more sex. Darwin offered nothing at all. Each, however, has left an enduring influence.
Jesus is the Rock of Ages for both Marxism and its less vulgar child, Political Correctness in American colleges and universities, today, even though Jesus’s latter-day ducklings would gag on the very thought. There was a seventy-two-year-old field experiment in Marxism, 1917-1989, that failed gruesomely. But Marx’s idea of one social class dominating another may remain with us forever. In medical terms, Freud is now considered an utter quack and a dotty old professor. But his notion of sex as an energy like the steam in a boiler, which must be released in an orderly fashion or the boiler will blow up, remains with us, too. At this moment, as you gaze upon these pages, you can be sure that there are literally millions of loin spasms and convulsions taking place throughout the world that would not be occuring were it not for the words of Sigmund Freud.
And this, the power of one person to control millions of his fellow humans – for centuries – is a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for… or abide. Muhammad’s words have enthralled and ruled the daily lives of 35 percent of the people on earth since the eighth century. And that rule has only grown stronger in our time. Jesus’s words held sway over a comparable percentage of the world’s population for one and a half millennia before weakening in Europe during the last half of the twentieth century.
Words are artifacts, and until man had speech, he couldn’t create any other artifacts, whether it was a slingshot or an iPhone or the tango. But speech, the font of all artifacts, had a life no other artifact would ever come close to. You could lay aside a slingshot or and iPhone and forget about it. You could stop dancing the tango and it would vanish forever… or until you deigned to dance again. But you couldn’t make speech lie down once it left your lips. The same remark could make your nieces and nephews crack up with mirth and laughter and make your brothers and sisters loathe you forever. Mighty men could say the wrong thing, and tens of thousands of little men might lose their lives in the war that followed right after the words came out of his mouth. Or a weak man might get drunk one night and say something romantic to a pretty girl. He wakes up in the morning with a terrible hangover, kneading his forehead and consumed with guilt because of the sweet possessive looks she’s giving him. She has no trouble putting him in a box and tying it with a ribbon and giving him to herself as a wedding gift… the kickoff of sixty-two years during which he has a chance to find out just how stupid she is and how lovely she isn’t – all of it the result of a little drunk speech he uttered back in another century.
Soon speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom of Earth. We have regnum animalia, regnum vegetabile, regnum lapideum (animal, vegetable, mineral) – and now regnum loquax, the kingdom of speech, inhabited solely by Homo loquax. Or is ‘kingdom’ too small a word for the eminence of speech, which can do whatever it feels like doing with the other three – physically and in every other way? Should it be Imperium loquax, making speech an empire the equal of Imperium naturae, the empire of Nature? Or Universum loquax, the Spoken Universe… this ‘superior intelligence,’ this ‘new power of a definite character’?
Last night I was riffling through the pages of a textbook on Evolution. I came upon a two-page spread with a picture on the left-hand page of a chimpanzee and her baby settling in for the night upon a three-pronged fork in a tree. On the right-hand page was a picture of a troop of gorillas stamping down a stretch of underbrush into crude nests for the night. I looked up from the book and out the window upon two rather swell hotels, just a few blocks from where I live in New York City, the Mark and the Carlyle, which is thirty-five stories high… two air-conditioned, centrally heated, room-serviced, DUX-mattressed, turned-down-quilted, down-lighter-lit, Wi-Fi-wired, at-screen-the-size-of-Colorado’d, two-basin-bathroomed, debouched-silk-draped, combination-safed, School-of-David-Hicks-carpeted, Bose-Sound-systematic, German-brass-ficture-showered hotels… full of God knows how many humans who expect at least that much for their $750 per night and up… and in the distance the peaks of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Citicorp Building, and the very tip of the top of the new Freedom Tower… and in between, a steel field of towers 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 stories high.
It occurred to me that the two bedtime scenes, Apeland’s on the one hand and Manhattan’s on the other, were a perfect graph of what speech hath wrought. Speech! 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.
The kingdom of speech, Tom Wolfe
Ik probeer de fenomenale gedachte tot me door te laten dringen: taal (spraak) maakt evolutie overbodig. Met taal kun je – ondanks je naakte, haarloze rug, je miniscule snijtanden, je lachwekkende klauwtjes, je weerloze lichaam – de wereld domineren.