Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Explaining illness with belief in evil

Live Science reports: Where did the spiritual concept of evil originate? One possible explanation might be people’s attempts to understand and cope with infectious diseases. Linking diseases and their symptoms to mysterious evil forces is a practice that emerged in traditional belief systems prior to the mid-19th century, when germ theory was introduced, scientists wrote in a new study. Germ theory revealed that microscopic pathogens, rather than malevolent spirits, were

We live in a one track world but anyone can become a polymath

Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying

How cultural anthropologists redefined humanity

Louis Menand writes: Not that long ago, Margaret Mead was one of the most widely known intellectuals in America. Her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” published in 1928, when she was twenty-six, was a best-seller, and for the next fifty years she was a progressive voice in national debates about everything from sex and gender to nuclear policy, the environment, and the legalization of marijuana. (She was in

The ‘warspeak’ permeating everyday language puts us all in the trenches

It’s a linguistic battlefield out there. Complot/Shutterstock.com By Robert Myers, Alfred University In a manifesto posted online shortly before he went on to massacre 22 people at an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius cited the “invasion” of Texas by Hispanics. In doing so, he echoed President Trump’s rhetoric of an illegal immigrant “invasion.” Think about what this word choice communicates: It signals an enemy that must be beaten back, repelled

The Boomers’ mistakes are fast creating a crisis for younger Americans

Lyman Stone writes: The Baby Boomers ruined America. That sounds like a hyperbolic claim, but it’s one way to state what I found as I tried to solve a riddle. American society is going through a strange set of shifts: Even as cultural values are in rapid flux, political institutions seem frozen in time. The average U.S. state constitution is more than 100 years old. We are in the third-longest

The myth of the eight-hour sleep

Stephanie Hegarty writes: We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. It

Could a lack of humility be at the root of what ails America?

What happens when everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else? Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock.com By Frank T. McAndrew, Knox College There are a lot of reasons behind the political polarization of the country and the deterioration of civic discourse. I wonder if a lack of humility is one of them. In his recent book, “The Death of Expertise,” national security expert Tom Nichols described a type of person each of us probably

Muslims lived in America before Protestantism even existed

Sam Haselby writes: Muslims came to America more than a century before the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants, but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas. The popular misunderstanding, even among educated people, that Islam and Muslims are recent additions to America tells us important things about how American history has

Do you see what I see?

Nicola Jones writes: In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the

How culture works with evolution to produce human cognition

Cecilia Heyes writes: The conventional view, inside and outside academia, is that children are ‘wired’ to imitate. We are ‘Homo imitans’, animals born with a burning desire to copy the actions of others. Imitation is ‘in our genes’. Birds build nests, cats miaow, pigs are greedy, while humans possess an instinct to imitate. The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides,

Global WEIRDing is a trend we can’t ignore

By Kensy Cooperrider For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining

The empathetic humanities have much to teach our adversarial culture

By Alexander Bevilacqua, Aeon, January 15, 2019 As anyone on Twitter knows, public culture can be quick to attack, castigate and condemn. In search of the moral high ground, we rarely grant each other the benefit of the doubt. In her Class Day remarks at Harvard’s 2018 graduation, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the problem of this rush to judgment. In the face of what she called ‘a

The hidden resilience of ‘food desert’ neighborhoods

Barry Yeoman writes: Even before Ashanté Reese and I reach the front gate, retired schoolteacher Alice Chandler is standing in the doorway of her brick home in Washington, D.C. She welcomes Reese, an anthropologist whom she has known for six years, with a hug and apologizes for having nothing to feed us during this spontaneous visit. Chandler, 69 years old, is a rara avis among Americans: an adult who has

The steward of Middle-earth

Hannah Long writes: Around the time Christopher [Tolkien] was commissioned an officer in the RAF in 1945, [J.R.R.] Tolkien was calling his son “my chief critic and collaborator.” Christopher would return from flying missions to pore over another chapter of his father’s work. He also joined the informal literary club known as the Inklings. At 21, he was the youngest—and is now the last surviving—member. The band of friends—J.R.R. Tolkien,

China has placed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in cultural extermination camps

The New York Times reports: On the edge of a desert in far western China, an imposing building sits behind a fence topped with barbed wire. Large red characters on the facade urge people to learn Chinese, study law and acquire job skills. Guards make clear that visitors are not welcome. Inside, hundreds of ethnic Uighur Muslims spend their days in a high-pressure indoctrination program, where they are forced to

Remembering 1968

Jackson Lears writes: The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government