For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.
Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.
On a cool Sunday evening in March, a geochemist named Sun Weidong gave a public lecture to an audience of laymen, students, and professors at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, the capital city of the landlocked province of Anhui in eastern China. But the professor didn’t just talk about geochemistry. He also cited several ancient Chinese classics, at one point quoting historian Sima Qian’s description of the topography of the Xia empire — traditionally regarded as China’s founding dynasty, dating from 2070 to 1600 B.C. “Northwards the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers,” wrote Sima Qian in his first century historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian. “Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea.”
In other words, “the stream” in question wasn’t China’s famed Yellow River, which flows from west to east. “There is only one major river in the world which flows northwards. Which one is it?” the professor asked. “The Nile,” someone replied. Sun then showed a map of the famed Egyptian river and its delta — with nine of its distributaries flowing into the Mediterranean. This author, a researcher at the same institute, watched as audience members broke into smiles and murmurs, intrigued that these ancient Chinese texts seemed to better agree with the geography of Egypt than that of China.
Here Wolfe’s victims are two renowned scholars, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, whom he considers the most vocal exponents of the “hardwired” school of language. But Wolfe’s argument ultimately backfires, for the book grossly distorts the theory of evolution, the claims of linguistics and the controversies about their connection. Finally, after misleading the reader for nearly 200 pages, Wolfe proposes his own theory of how language began — a theory far less plausible than the ones he mocks. [...]
But in fact Wolfe doesn’t even understand the theory he so despises. Evolution, he argues, isn’t a “scientific hypothesis” because nobody’s seen it happen, there’s no observation that could falsify it, it yields no predictions and it doesn’t “illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science.” Wrong — four times over. We’ve seen evolution via real-time observations and ordered series of fossils; evolution could be falsified by finding fossils out of place, such as that of a rabbit in 400 million-year-old sediments; and evolution certainly makes predictions (Darwin predicted, correctly, that human ancestors evolved in Africa). As for evolution’s supposed failure to solve biological puzzles, Wolfe might revisit Darwin’s description of how evolution not only unlocks enigmas about embryology and vestigial organs, but clarifies some perplexing geographic ranges of animals and plants. Or he could rouse himself to read recent biology journals, which describe multitudes of evolutionary riddles being solved.
Like all of Koch’s novels, Dear Mr M works ultimately through the deliberate withholding of information: it is a book, like all his books, with a final and magnificent twist. Whether or not readers will have the patience and interest to wait for the final twist depends rather on whether they are interested in all the little swerves and sleights along the way.
In the late 1920s when the British poet Robert Graves asked Gertrude Stein to recommend somewhere to live that was not England, she advised him to move to Majorca. “It’s paradise,” she said, “if you can bear it.” He could bear it and made the mountain village of Deia, 22 miles northwest of the capital, Palma, his home for the rest of his life.
I often think about Stein’s cryptic comment when I recall my first vacation in this same village 30 years ago. I was 27 and living in London, and my new English boyfriend was approaching 40. I was excited about getting to know more about him in paradise for two weeks, but it would have been wiser to know less.