Civilization and its discontents

If you took a planet and a handful of genes, you could pose some great questions about human nature and then run experiments to answer them. Instead of asking how much altruism, cooperation, creativity, or any other human trait is hard-wired, you could adjust the wiring yourself. First, you would work out how tightly behaviors and abilities could be programmed into the genome. Then you would create many societies with starkly different predispositions and compare their progress. In one country... Slate.


How to talk about English in English

In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are "witnesses.") They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a "social energy.") English is an object of trade. (It was "imported.") It is an animal. (It has a "pedigree.") It is a human professional. (It has a "career.") It is a space ("a place of strange meetings"). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it's not just "promiscuous"; it's a "whore"... Slate.


Human Dissolution

The Bengalese finch is an aviary bird, bred over centuries for its attractive plumage. It comes in various combinations of white, black and brown. One particularly pretty version is silver. It is also prized for its gregarious and easy-going nature and its complex warbling song. Which is strange because the finch's closest wild relative, the white-rumped munia has a simple, predictable song as well being incredibly shy and easily upset. How could the finch, bred for its colour, have evolved these other elaborate traits as well?

Solving the puzzle of the Bengalese finch promises to throw light on a much larger question in biology: how nature creates complex things.


How do cannibals insult one another?

It's not like pork. That misunderstanding about the taste of human flesh is attributable to one of those linguistic mix-ups between explorers and locals: Apparently Pacific Islanders called human meat "long pig" because wild pig was the only other large animal whose meat they ate. According to Carole Travis-Henikoff's "Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo" (Santa Monica Press, 333 pages, $24.95), humans taste more like beef, only better. At least for some folks, she writes, the meat of people is the best they've ever had... New York Sun.


More on less uniqueness

Now that we're shaking off the old-fashioned idea of human uniqueness, we must be wary of any suggestion that what makes humans human can be explained by a single thing. If that 'thing' feels intuitively right, we must be doubly suspicious. The one conclusion we can safely consider unequivocal in all of our observations of gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, crows, dolphins, monkeys and humans is that our basic intuitions in this matter are not just bad, they are wrong. A follow-up on some of the experiments from The First Word in this week's New Scientist cover story.

Human uniqueness is not what it used to be

Ever since Galileo argued that the sun was the center of the solar system, the idea of Earth as the universal hub has been the classic example of scientific arrogance. It's certainly a foolproof example of the way humans consider themselves the rule by which everything else should be measured, but when we use it, there's a sense that we don't make that kind of mistake anymore. Yet even today scientists are swayed by the notion that humans stand at the center of the biological universe, especially when it comes to what we care about most: our minds.