A phony populism is denying Americans the joys of serious thought

Steve Wasserman writes: The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

The fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. [Continue reading…]

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What does it mean to be fully human?

“The problem today, is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They are protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers.”Jean Vanier

Toronto Globe and Mail: Jean Vanier, the Canadian humanitarian who spent the past half-century working with people with intellectual disabilities, has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy work and his reflections on the importance of helping the vulnerable.

Last year, Maggie Fergusson talked to the former naval officer: [A]s the second world war drew to an end, it became clear to Jean Vanier that the navy was not his ultimate vocation. Shortly after the liberation of Paris, in January 1945, he spent some leave at the Gare d’Orsay helping the Canadian Red Cross receive survivors from Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains—like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps, their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me; that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.” A committed Catholic, he imagined he would probably become a priest.

While many of his contemporaries were getting married and settling down, Vanier resigned his commission and spent a number of years living in a community near Paris, combining a life of prayer with manual work and the study of philosophy. Following this, on the strength of a thesis on Ari­stotelian ethics, he was offered a post at the University of Toronto. He discovered that he had a gift for teaching, a gift that he retains in old age: an ability to hold large audiences rapt as he spoke without notes or hesitation, and with minimal amplification. But still he did not feel he was following his true star.

Then, in 1963, when Jean was 35, a Dominican priest, Père Thomas Philippe, chaplain to Le Val Fleuri, an institution for mentally disabled men, invited him to visit. It was a terrible place—“The men had a little work, but the doors were locked”—yet, despite an atmosphere of noise, depression and violence, Jean found it “beautiful”. “This is my experience of having been in many dark places—prisons, psychiatric wards, slums, leper colonies. There’s something frightening, but also something beautiful, a sense of wonderment. It’s mysterious. Maybe it’s the discovery that amidst all the chaos, these people are human beings. I saw anger and pain in the faces of these men, but also great tenderness. And each one of them, 30 in a constricted space, was saying, ‘Will you come back?’”

“They were literally saying this, or you felt that’s what they wanted?”

“They were literally saying, ‘Veux-tu revenir?’ And behind those words I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”

For several months, Jean devoted himself to finding out more about the treatment of those with mental disabilities. “I visited psychiatric hospitals and institutions, I spoke with families. And I discovered a whole world of suffering: these were perhaps the most oppressed and humiliated people of the world. They were called stupid, mad, imbeciles, foolish, idiots…All these words were used about them. They were not considered really human—so as long as you gave them food and lodging, you were doing a good act.” In Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, an asylum east of Paris, 80 men lived locked in a building made of cement blocks. They had no work, and spent most of their days walking around in circles. And those who remained with their families were not necessarily treated with more compassion. On a farm, Jean met a teenager who was kept chained in a garage.

Outraged by these discoveries, many people would have thrown themselves into pressing for reform. Jean’s background meant that he was used to mixing with people in positions of influence. Why didn’t he go straight to the top, I ask. Why didn’t he launch a campaign? “It’s good to campaign. But I could only do what I felt. All that I saw made me sad, maybe a bit angry, and all that I felt I could do was to start living with some of these people; to take a risk, and see what happened.” [Continue reading…]

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The former death squad fighters who are now training as yoga teachers

Lila MacLellan writes: In New York or L.A., it’s pretty common to learn that a yoga teacher used to be a dancer, an actor, or even a former Wall Street banker. In Bogota and Medellin, the same is true. Except that here, the teacher may also be an ex-member of a Colombian death squad.

Since 2010, a local organization called Dunna: Alternativas Creativas Para la Paz (Dunna: Creative Alternatives for Peace) has been gradually introducing the basic poses to two groups for whom yoga has been a foreign concept: the poor, mostly rural victims of Colombia’s brutal, half-century conflict, and the guerilla fighters who once terrorized them.

Hundreds of ­ex-militants have already taken the offered yoga courses. A dozen now plan to teach yoga to others.

To stay calm, yoga-teacher-in-training Edifrando Valderrama Holguin turns off the television whenever he sees news broadcasts about young people being recruited into terror groups like ISIL. Valderrama was 12 when he was recruited into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was given a gun, basic training and a heavy dose of leftist ideology. “In the mountains, if I saw someone who was not part of our group, I had to kill him,” he says. “If I had questioned the ideology of the FARC, they would have called me an infiltrator and killed me.”

Now 28, Valderrama lives in the city of Medellin. He works afternoon shifts for a supplier to one of Colombia’s major meat companies, and practices yoga at home in the mornings. Until the program stopped last year, he attended Dunna’s yoga classes, rolling out his mat with former members of both the FARC and Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) — a paramilitary army he once fought against. Although initially surprised that he could feel so much peace lying in corpse pose, Valderrama now hopes to become a yoga teacher, so that he can introduce the healing asanas to ex-militants in Colombia, or even overseas.

Samuel Urueña Lievano, 46, was raped and then recruited into the rival AUC by a relative when he was 15. “They used my anger and hatred to get me to join. I have so much remorse for the things I did during that period,” he tells me as he begins to cry.

Urueña, now a law student in Bogota, takes medications to manage his anxiety and still has nightmares. He calls yoga his closest friend. Practicing the poses every day for two hours has made it possible for him to handle occasional feelings of panic, impatience and frustration, he says. “It has helped me identify who I am. It has given me myself back.” [Continue reading…]

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The great acts of vandalism by ISIS are by no means unique

George Monbiot writes: Journalists are meant to be able to watch and read dispassionately: to face horror with equanimity. I have never acquired this skill, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s true that we seek out bad news, but there is some news that many of us find hard to confront.

This is why I write about extinction less often than I should: most of the time I just don’t want to know. It’s one of the reasons why I have turned my gaze away from the Middle East. I’ve been unable to watch, or even to think very much about the bombing of Gaza, the war in Syria or the slaughter of hostages by Isis. But, reluctantly, I’ve forced myself to read about the destruction of the ancient wonders at Nimrud and Hatra.

The war Isis is waging against difference has many fronts. Just as this rebarbative movement is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the peoples whose lands it has occupied, it is also involved in the cultural cleansing of the pre-Islamic past. Anything that deviates from its narrow strictures must be destroyed.

The magnificent buildings at Nimrud and Hatra and the precious sculptures and friezes they held were, to Isis, nothing more than deviance. Marvels that have persisted for thousands of years were leveled in hours with explosives and bulldozers. These people have inflicted a great wound upon the world.

But while this destruction, as Isis doubtless intends, is shocking, for me it is also familiar. Almost every day, I find in my inbox similar stories of the razing of priceless treasures. But they tend to involve natural marvels, rather than manmade ones.

The clearing of forests and savannas, the trawling or dredging of coral reefs and seamounts and other such daily acts of vandalism deprive the world of the wonders that enhance our lives. A great global polishing is taking place, eliminating difference, leaving behind grey monotonies of the kind that Isis appears to love. But while the destruction of those ancient citadels in northern Iraq has been widely and rightly denounced as a war crime, the levelling of our natural wonders is treated as if it were a sad but necessary fact of life. [Continue reading…]

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Media hacking

John Borthwick writes: 2014 certainly ended up as the year of the media hack. The Sony incident and the ham handed response by the company and theatrical distributors, pushed the hacking of a media company and its ransoming into the mainstream. The entire incident was surreal, partially because it was both an example of a media company getting hacked and media hacking. There has been a lot of attention on the former; we want to dig into the latter — media hacking.

Media Hacking refers to the usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame. Individuals, states, and non-state actors are increasingly using Media Hacking techniques to advance political agendas. Over the past year we’ve seen a number of such incidents occur — where both social media and mainstream media were manipulated to advance a particular agenda. Two examples follow, one which I tracked and one Gilad tracked.

Open your browser and search for ISIS France. The first recommendation that Google offers is “ISIS France support”. Why is the most sophisticated algorithm in the world prompting me that the most frequently used search term about ISIS and France relates to French support? The answer has nothing to do with the tragic murders at the French satirical magazine. It’s a hack. Google search algorithm was effectively hacked to produce this result.

On August 26th Vox ran a story with the title “One in six French people say they support ISIS”. The headline is disconcerting — the article highlights that in the 18–24yr old bracket, 27% of French youth surveyed support ISIS. I remember seeing this in my Twitter feed and thinking this makes no sense, 10M people in France, a quarter of French youth, support ISIS? A bit of digging yielded some perspective.

The article is based on a survey of random phone interviews conducted by a British marketing agency called ICM. ICM randomly dialed 1,001 people in France. This seems like a small sample, but 1,000 randomly selected callers is statistically significant for a population the size of France. While the overall sample is relevant the sub samples aren’t — the sample size that yielded the 27% number was based on a sample size of 105 people. That’s not meaningful. And the questions in the survey were oblique — if you look at the source data, it’s possible that people who were interviewed thought this was a general statement of support of Iraq, not ISIS and while the survey refers to ISIS the French have several other words they use. Finally the survey data indicated only 2.7% of people had a very favorable view — most people grouped into the unfavorable group (62%) or the “don’t know” group (23%) so methodology wise, it’s a mixed bag, at best.

Beyond the methodology, the survey was commissioned by Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya. The trail of the media breadcrumbs seem to be as follows: Rossiya Segodnya commissioned a survey to test support or opposition to the admissions of Georgia and the Ukraine into the EU, the ISIS question was secondary. On August 18th Russia Today ran the story with the headline: “15% of French people back ISIS militants, poll finds.” Over the following week the Russia Today story was reposted, in particular the summary infographic (above) propagated around the internet, mostly on French sites. A Tinyeye search for the URL of the image for the infographic shows some of the sites who ran it.

The Vox story ran a week later. In an email exchange Max Fisher (author of the Vox post) said he thought he saw the data in Tweet. The Vox story combined two surveys (the one by ICM and one by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion), sources were cited (including that Rossiya Segodnya commissioned the survey) and they included an infographic from Russia Today. With the headline — “One in six French people say they support ISIS” — the story started to circulate on social media, in particular on Twitter. Media hacks take advantage of the decontextualized structure of real time news feeds — you see a Tweet from a known news site, with a provocative headline and maybe the infographic image included — you retweet it. Maybe you intend the read the story, might be you just want to Tweet something interesting and proactive, maybe you recognize the source, maybe you dont. [Continue reading…]

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A deficit in patience produces the illusion of a shortage of time

Chelsea Wald writes: Not long ago I diagnosed myself with the recently identified condition of sidewalk rage. It’s most pronounced when it comes to a certain friend who is a slow walker. Last month, as we sashayed our way to dinner, I found myself biting my tongue, thinking, I have to stop going places with her if I ever want to … get there!

You too can measure yourself on the “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” a tool developed by University of Hawaii psychologist Leon James. While walking in a crowd, do you find yourself “acting in a hostile manner (staring, presenting a mean face, moving closer or faster than expected)” and “enjoying thoughts of violence?”

Slowness rage is not confined to the sidewalk, of course. Slow drivers, slow Internet, slow grocery lines — they all drive us crazy. Even the opening of this article may be going on a little too long for you. So I’ll get to the point. Slow things drive us crazy because the fast pace of society has warped our sense of timing. Things that our great-great-grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend. Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the Twitter age.

Once upon a time, cognitive scientists tell us, patience and impatience had an evolutionary purpose. They constituted a yin and yang balance, a finely tuned internal timer that tells when we’ve waited too long for something and should move on. When that timer went buzz, it was time to stop foraging at an unproductive patch or abandon a failing hunt.

“Why are we impatient? It’s a heritage from our evolution,” says Marc Wittmann, a psychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. Impatience made sure we didn’t die from spending too long on a single unrewarding activity. It gave us the impulse to act.

But that good thing is gone. The fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough — or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer even plays tricks on us, stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay. [Continue reading…]

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Ruins of the ‘City of the Monkey God’ discovered in Honduran rain forest

Douglas Preston writes: The ruins were first identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, a vast region of swamps, rivers, and mountains containing some of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth.

For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the jungle foliage. Indigenous stories speak of a “white house” or a “place of cacao” where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores — a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned.

Since the 1920s, several expeditions had searched for the White City, or Ciudad Blanca. The eccentric explorer Theodore Morde mounted the most famous of these in 1940, under the aegis of the Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian Institution).

Morde returned from Mosquitia with thousands of artifacts, claiming to have entered the City. According to Morde, the indigenous people there said it contained a giant, buried statue of a monkey god. He refused to divulge the location out of fear, he said, that the site would be looted. He later committed suicide and his site—if it existed at all—was never identified.

More recently, documentary filmmakers Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson launched a search for the lost city.

They identified a crater-shaped valley, encircled by steep mountains, as a possible location.

To survey it, in 2012 they enlisted the help of the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston. A Cessna Skymaster, carrying a million-dollar lidar scanner, flew over the valley, probing the jungle canopy with laser light. lidar — “Light Detection and Ranging” — is able to map the ground even through dense rain forest, delineating any archaeological features that might be present.

When the images were processed, they revealed unnatural features stretching for more than a mile through the valley. When Fisher analyzed the images, he found that the terrain along the river had been almost entirely reshaped by human hands. [Continue reading…]

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25 maps that explain the English language

Vox: English is the language of Shakespeare and the language of Chaucer. It’s spoken in dozens of countries around the world, from the United States to a tiny island named Tristan da Cunha. It reflects the influences of centuries of international exchange, including conquest and colonization, from the Vikings through the 21st century. Here are 25 maps and charts that explain how English got started and evolved into the differently accented languages spoken today. [Continue reading…]

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Jawbone’s discovery sheds light on early human ancestor

ASU News: The earliest evidence of our human genus – Homo – was found in Ethiopia by a team of Arizona State University scientists and students during field research in 2013.

The fossil, the left side of a lower jaw with five teeth, has been dated to 2.8 million years ago, which predates the previously known fossils of the Homo lineage by approximately 400,000 years.

The discovery is being published for the first time in the March 4 online version of the journal Science.

For decades, scientists who study the origins of modern-day humans have been searching for fossils documenting the earliest phases of the Homo lineage.

Researchers have found fossils that are 3 million years old and older. The most famous example of those human ancestors is the skeleton of Lucy, found in northeastern Africa in 1974 by ASU researcher Donald Johanson. Lucy and her relatives, though they walked on two feet, were smaller-brained and more apelike than later members of the human family tree.

Scientists have also found fossils that are 2.3 million years old and younger. These ancestors are in the genus Homo and are closer to modern day humans.


But very little had been found in between – that 700,000-year gap had turned up few fossils with which to determine the evolution from Lucy to the genus Homo. Because of that gap, there has been little agreement on the time of origin of the Homo lineage.

With this find, that mysterious time period has gotten a little clearer. [Continue reading…]

The Los Angeles Times adds: The significance of this discovery, according to some researchers, is that it firmly fixes the origins of Homo in East Africa and fits the hypothesis that climate change drove key developments in a variety of mammals, including our early forebears.

When Lucy roamed Ethiopia roughly 3.2 million years ago, the region enjoyed long rainy seasons that supported the growth of many trees and a wide variety of vegetation, according to researchers.

By the time of Homo’s first established appearance in the Horn of Africa, however, things had become much drier and the landscape had transformed into a vast, treeless expanse of grasslands with a few rivers and lakes — a scene very similar to today’s Serengeti plains or Kalahari.

It was an unforgiving climate when it came to survival.

But the hallmark of the genus that includes Homo sapiens is resourcefulness. Larger brains, the ability to fashion stone tools, and teeth suited to chewing a variety of foods would have given our early ancestors the flexibility to live in an inflexible environment, researchers say. [Continue reading…]

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How music takes possession of our perception of time

Jonathan Berger writes: One evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.

It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes. Although I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I still stand in awe of Schubert’s unparalleled power. Nearly two centuries ago, the composer anticipated the neurological underpinnings of time perception that science has underscored in the past few decades.

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective — and an integral part of our lives. “For the time element in music is single,” wrote Thomas Mann in his novel, The Magic Mountain. “Into a section of mortal time music pours itself, thereby inexpressibly enhancing and ennobling what it fills.” [Continue reading…]

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Your gut tells your mind, more than you may imagine

Charles Schmidt writes: The notion that the state of our gut governs our state of mind dates back more than 100 years. Many 19th- and early 20th-century scientists believed that accumulating wastes in the colon triggered a state of “auto-intoxication,” whereby poisons emanating from the gut produced infections that were in turn linked with depression, anxiety and psychosis. Patients were treated with colonic purges and even bowel surgeries until these practices were dismissed as quackery.

The ongoing exploration of the human microbiome promises to bring the link between the gut and the brain into clearer focus. Scientists are increasingly convinced that the vast assemblage of microfauna in our intestines may have a major impact on our state of mind. The gut-brain axis seems to be bidirectional — the brain acts on gastrointestinal and immune functions that help to shape the gut’s microbial makeup, and gut microbes make neuroactive compounds, including neurotransmitters and metabolites that also act on the brain. These interactions could occur in various ways: microbial compounds communicate via the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the digestive tract, and microbially derived metabolites interact with the immune system, which maintains its own communication with the brain. Sven Pettersson, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has recently shown that gut microbes help to control leakage through both the intestinal lining and the blood-brain barrier, which ordinarily protects the brain from potentially harmful agents.

Microbes may have their own evolutionary reasons for communicating with the brain. They need us to be social, says John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, so that they can spread through the human population. Cryan’s research shows that when bred in sterile conditions, germ-free mice lacking in intestinal microbes also lack an ability to recognize other mice with whom they interact. In other studies, disruptions of the microbiome induced mice behavior that mimics human anxiety, depression and even autism. In some cases, scientists restored more normal behavior by treating their test subjects with certain strains of benign bacteria. Nearly all the data so far are limited to mice, but Cryan believes the findings provide fertile ground for developing analogous compounds, which he calls psychobiotics, for humans. “That dietary treatments could be used as either adjunct or sole therapy for mood disorders is not beyond the realm of possibility,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Neurological conductors that keep the brain in time and tune

Harvard Gazette: Like musical sounds, different states of mind are defined by distinct, characteristic waveforms, recognizable frequencies and rhythms in the brain’s electrical field. When the brain is alert and performing complex computations, the cerebral cortex — the wrinkled outer surface of the brain — thrums with cortical band oscillations in the gamma wavelength. In some neurological disorders like schizophrenia, however, these waves are out of tune and the rhythm is out of sync.

New research led by Harvard Medical School (HMS) scientists at the VA Boston Healthcare System (VABHS) has identified a specific class of neurons — basal forebrain GABA parvalbumin neurons, or PV neurons — that trigger these waves, acting as neurological conductors that trigger the cortex to hum rhythmically and in tune. (GABA is gamma-amniobutyric acid, a major neurotransmitter in the brain.)

The results appear this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is a move toward a unified theory of consciousness control,” said co-senior author Robert McCarley, HMS professor of psychiatry and head of the Department of Psychiatry at VA Boston Healthcare. “We’ve known that the basal forebrain is important in turning consciousness on and off in sleep and wake, but now we’ve found that these specific cells also play a key role in triggering the synchronized rhythms that characterize conscious thought, perception, and problem-solving.” [Continue reading…]

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The genetic code is less like a blueprint than a first draft

Nessa Carey writes: When President Obama delivered a speech at MIT in 2009, he used a common science metaphor: “We have always been about innovation,” he said. “We have always been about discovery. That’s in our DNA.” Deoxyribonucleic acid, the chemical into which our genes are encoded, has become the metaphor of choice for a whole constellation of ideas about essence and identity. A certain mystique surrounds it. As Evelyn Fox Keller argues in her book The Century of the Gene, the genome is, in the popular imagination at least, the secret of life, the holy grail. It is a master builder, the ultimate computer program, and a modern-day echo of the soul, all wrapped up in one. This fantasy does not sit easily, however, with geneticists who have grown more aware over the last several decades that the relationship between genes and biological traits is much less than certain.

The popular understanding of DNA as a blueprint for organisms, with a one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits (called phenotypes), is the legacy of the early history of genetics. The term “gene” was coined in 1909 to refer to abstract units of inheritance, predating the discovery of DNA by forty years. Biologists came to think of genes like beads on a string that lined up neatly into chromosomes, with each gene determining a single phenotype. But, while some genes do correspond to traits in a straightforward way, as in eye color or blood group, most phenotypes are far more complex, set in motion by many different genes as well as by the environment in which the organism lives.

It turns out that the genetic code is less like a blueprint and more like a movie script, subject to revision and reinterpretation by a director. This process is called epigenetic modification (“epi” meaning “above” or “in addition to”). Just as a script can be altered with crossed-out words, sentences or scenes, epigenetic editing allows entire sections of DNA to be activated or de-activated. Genes can be as finely tuned as actors responding to stage directions to shout, whisper, or cackle. [Continue reading…]

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How to rewild our language of landscape

Robert Macfarlane writes: Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?” [Continue reading…]

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Darwin learned more about evolution from plants than Galapagos Finches

Henry Nicholls writes: When the HMS Beagle dropped anchor on San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the Galapagos archipelago, in September 1835, the ship’s naturalist Charles Darwin eagerly went ashore to gather samples of the insects, birds, reptiles, and plants living there. At first, he didn’t think much of the arid landscape, which appeared to be “covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood…as leafless as our trees during winter” But this did not put him off. By the time the Beagle left these islands some five weeks later, he had amassed a spectacular collection of Galapagos plants.

It is fortunate that he took such trouble. Most popular narratives of Darwin and the Galapagos concentrate on the far more celebrated finches or the giant tortoises. Yet when he finally published On the Origin of Species almost 25 years later, Darwin made no mention of these creatures. In his discussion of the Galapagos, he dwelt almost exclusively on the islands’ plants.

By the early 19th century, there was increasing interest in what we now refer to as biogeography, the study of the distribution of species around the globe. Many people still imagined that God had been involved in the creation of species, putting fully formed versions down on Earth that continued to reproduce themselves, dispersing from a divine “center of creation” to occupy their current habitats. To explain how the plants and animals reached far-flung places such as the isolated Galapagos, several naturalists imagined that there had to have been land bridges, long-since subsided, that had once connected them to a continent. But in the wake of the Beagle voyage, the collection of Galapagos plants suggested an alternate scenario.

Even if there had once been a land bridge to the islands, it could not account for the fact that half of the plant species Darwin collected were unique to the Galapagos, and that most of them were particular to just one island. “I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted,” wrote Darwin in his Journal of Researches. His observations could be best explained if species were not fixed in nature but somehow changed as the seeds traveled to different locations. [Continue reading…]

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DNA contains no information

Regan Penaluna writes: When we talk about genes, we often use expressions inherited from a few influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists, including Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins. These expressions depict DNA as a kind of code telling bodies how to form. We speak about genes similarly to how we speak about language, as symbolic and imbued with meaning. There is “gene-editing,” and there are “translation tables” for decoding sequences of nucleic acid. When DNA replicates, it is said to “transcribe” itself. We speak about a message — such as, build a tiger! or construct a female! — being communicated between microscopic materials. But this view of DNA has come with a price, argue some thinkers. It is philosophically misguided, they say, and has even led to scientific blunders. Scratch the surface of this idea, and below you’ll find a key contradiction.

Since the earliest days of molecular biology, scientists describe genetic material to be unlike all other biological material, because it supposedly carries something that more workaday molecules don’t: information. In a 1958 paper, Crick presented his ideas on the importance of proteins for inheritance, and said that they were composed of energy, matter, and information. Watson called DNA the “repository” of information.

Less than a decade later, George Williams, an influential evolutionary biologist, elaborated on this idea. He described genes to have a special status distinct from DNA, and to be the message that the DNA delivers. In a later work, he likened genes to ideas contained in books. A book can be destroyed, but the story inside is not identical to the physical book. “The same information can be recorded by a variety of patterns in many different kinds of material. A message is always coded in some medium, but the medium is really not the message.” In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins gives perhaps the most forthright description of this view: “airborne willow seeds… are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves… It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.”

But do genes truly contain information in the same sense as words, books, or floppy discs? It depends on what we mean by information. If it’s the meaning represented by the words, books, or floppy disks, then no. Many philosophers agree that this kind of semantic information requires communication: an agent to create the message and another to interpret it. “Genes don’t carry semantic information, though. They weren’t made as part of an act of communication. So genes don’t literally represent anything, as people sometimes say,” explains Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy at CUNY. [Continue reading…]

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The mystery of flying kicks

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Oliver Sacks on his approaching death

A few weeks ago, Oliver Sacks learned that he has terminal cancer: Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands. [Continue reading…]

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