I have said for years that as much as I objected to Chomsky's politics, I thought his reputation as a linguist was deserved. I counted myself a believer in his Universal Grammar and even his later Minimalist Program, though I later learned that everything I thought I knew about the latter was inaccurate.
Misunderstanding Chomsky is not new for me. I encountered Transformational Grammar and Universal Grammar as an undergraduate and thought they had something to do with a new hippie way of understanding things and how we are all so much alike, despite our different cultures. Likely, I was getting muddled by associating them with his leftist politics somehow. Also, reading the textbooks would have helped. Still, somewhere in the 1970's I understood the basic concept that the human brain is hardwired for language, and that there are pieces already in place, a basic toolbox, used to acquire language. I have maintained it solidly for years. So has nearly every other linguist until recently.
I caught wind of some of his opposition from Collier and Horowitz's The Anti-Chomsky Reader, which came out in 2004, but I didn't pay much attention to it. I was more interested in the political arguments. Plus, the concept of a hardwired Language Acquisition Device is such a cool idea. It would be so great if it were true. So I was not much motivated to hear anything against it at the time, despite the association with Chomsky. There was also Steven Pinker, a Chomskyite disciple, who I also liked. Only recently has he been able to say even mildly negative things about his work. Over the last decade this opposition has intensified, yet I still wasn't much interested. I picked up Wolfe's book knowing that he had supposedly undermined Chomsky, but I doubted he could do it. A talented amateur may have something useful to contribute to any field, but he is likely to slip up in areas beyond his expertise. Still, I like Wolfe and I like linguistics.
Wolfe does not himself undermine Chomsky. He reports on the other linguists who have left the theory of Universal Grammar in ruins. In particular, he tells us about Daniel Everett, who lived among the Piraha in the Amazon, learned their language, and found it emphatically did not fit what a dedicated Chomskyite (which he was) would expect. It was a solid enough counterexample to the idea of Universal Grammar as to be a disproof. Larry Trask of the University of Sussex was happy to tell The Guardian
I have no time for Chomskyan theorising and its associated dogmas of 'universal grammar'. This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge attracts so much attention outside linguistics, so much so that many non-linguists believe that Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics, that this is what linguistics has to offer, and that UG is now an established piece of truth, beyond criticism or discussion. The truth is entirely otherwise.You can get more of Trask's argument against the whole enterprise here, in his review of Chomskyite disciple Mark Baker's book. He notes that one of the weaknesses of Chomsky's theorizing is that it was largely based on English and some related languages. (There has been some work to broaden this, but not so much as you'd think. Apparently.) Even committed leftists are going to have trouble with that these days. Trask, an expert on Basque, was always well-placed to see the holes.
Part of Wolfe's (also vicious) fun is in recording how vicious and unprofessional Chomsky has been in response. I admit I did not know what many linguists have long known, that Noam Chomsky flat-out lies, evades direct questions with person insults, and will work behind the scenes in linguistic journals and departments to destroy reputations. "...a deep contempt for the truth, descents into incoherence, and verbal abuse of those who disagree with him." Tom opens and closes the book with the dreadful irony of Chomsky and others having to admit in a 2014 paper "The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever."
For the record, I had read some negative reviews of Wolfe's book but am not persuaded. Those I read reasonably point out that Wolfe makes very great claims, not well supported, for his own ideas of what speech is and how it comes to be. But that does not alter the fact Wolfe is drawing on the work of other linguists, and his attacks on Chomsky's character, however intensified by dramatic language, is based on Chomsky's words and actions, not mind-reading, as Tom Siegfried does of Wolfe.
Wolfe's book is recommended on other grounds. He details how Charles Darwin jobbed Alfred Russel Wallace out of credit for the theory of natural selection, and gives enough gripping detail from Daniel Everett's adventures in the Amazon Don't Sleep, There are Snakes to sell a few more copies for Dr. Everett.
A note on Dan Everett, unrelated. He was a teenage convert to Christianity and married the daughter of the Methodist missionaries who pulled him from his LSD-soaked wandering in 1968. He soon went to Moody Bible Institute and their language program, was revealed to be exceptionally good at learning languages, and was sent to work with the Piraha - the language of which had eluded even talented others - in order to bring the gospel, not study them. His faith began falling apart "influenced by the Piraha's concept of truth." I have to say, that sounds like any exit would have looked good enough. I don't accuse of him of dishonesty, but perhaps not so much insight into his own motivations. Still, he has done much that I have not, and I don't want to criticise too glibly.