A decade ago Tom Wolfe delivered the Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. His talk was called ‘The Human Beast’ and much of it consisted of an assertion that around 11,000 years ago speech took over from evolution the job of shaping the human future. It was the faculty of speech, Wolfe argued, that brought forth religion, farming and everything else that constitutes human exceptionalism and gives our species dominion over nature. For all really important human activities, verily in the beginning was the word.
Wolfe’s lecture ended with a public challenge to the Academy, a call for a ‘proper study of Homo loquax’, noting that no less a figure than Noam Chomsky had pointed out that we have no satisfactory evolutionary account of the origins of speech itself. ‘He maintains that there