At no point in history has the written word been required more than in present times: Fahmida Riaz

Amar Sindhu in Herald:

Fahmida-Riaz-by-Tahir-Jamal-WS-1024x682Fahmida Raiz, writer, human rights activist and the author of more than 15 books on fiction and poetry, has always remained at the centre of controversies. When Badan Dareeda, her second collection of verse, appeared, she was accused of using erotic and sensual expressions in her poetry. The themes prevalent in her verse were, until then, considered taboo for women writers. The feminist scholarship and women’s movement, however, not only acknowledged her expressions but welcomed them with applause. Riaz was also faced with challenges due to her political ideology. More than 10 cases were filed against her during General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. She was forced into exile during the same regime, only to return to Pakistan after Haq’s death in 1988. The poems from her collection Apna Jurm Sabit Hae are politically charged and reflect the torment her homeland experienced under dictatorship. In terms of using creative expression for political discourse, Riaz stands among literary greats such as Nazim Hikmet, Pablu Neruda, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Following are excerpts of a conversation she had with Herald on her literary journey and issues confronting Pakistan’s literati.

Amar Sindhu: Does creativity need ideology?
Fahmida Riaz: Once creativity expands beyond the very personal, almost biological paradigms, it seeks some ground to stand upon. Creativity is very often rooted in some idea. Our folk songs and stories do not seem to be ideological but they seem to have ideas, when looked at closely. The question of ideology is raised mostly in the context of progressive literature that sees individuals in a web of external circumstances and class conflicts. Literary creativity does not have to emanate from this consciousness, nor does this consciousness hamper creativity. In the 20th century, great writers such as Pablo Neruda, Paul Nizan, Nazim Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Gabriel García Márquez declared themselves to be Marxists. An artist like Pablo Picasso, who revolutionised the world of painting, was a member of the Communist party of France. On the other hand, two literary giants before these writers, Leo Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, saw the individual and the society in the context of Christian teachings and sought the answers of all human problems in Christ. You may notice, though, that too was a kind of ideology.

More here.

Teaching kids about religion: Where to start and what to say

Mary Beth McCauley in The Christian Science Monitor:

ObamaGallup polls report that 86 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Thirty nine percent say they attended worship services in the past week. So while God may not be dead, religion struggles. And why shouldn’t it? Religion has awful PR: unrelenting sectarian wars abroad, political infighting over morality at home, scandal, shopping to be done and football to be watched on the Sabbath, high profile competition from secular ideology, and a worldview that can seem out of step with popular culture.

Krista Tippett, host of the award-winning public radio show and podcast “On Being,” which takes up questions of religion and meaning, is alarmed. This, she says, is “the first generation of humans in any culture who didn’t inherit a religious identity.” But even while parents who have distanced themselves from their faith traditions are hesitant to pass that religion on to their children, science seems to take up the cause, as it unearths a host of practical benefits of religious practice. Everything from the physical effects of a heightened immune response to social benefits like closer interpersonal ties and better behavior in teens, is linked to the state of being religious. Is there a way parents can overcome their personal ambivalence about religion in order for their children to have its benefits?

More here.

Sunday Poem

October, Month Without Gods

The Japanese think this is the month-without-gods.
They celebrate it this way. They don’t alliterate October
with gold falling from the fragile trees,
or with revolutions that changed history.
October, like a truce. Like an absence of everything
that exceeds limits. May it be for us
liberation. Because now they don’t exhibit
the relentless naked gods of summer,
the too many gods, and so much remains
for the child of winter to be born,
and our sight doesn’t reach any further, from this
month of distances, month of far aways,
imperfect, attained, fortuitous. If only it would be
like this for us. Without the eight million
gods that hide in the city or in the forest,
the scales coincide with our statures.
Let us be carried away by our premonitions.
Let us write things with small letters.
Let us celebrate October for its absence of gods.
Let us enjoy its name because it is only a number
in a truncated series. And forgotten. It is October.
We have thirty days all to ourselves.

by Juan Antonio González-Iglesias
from Circumference Magazine

translated from Spanish by Curtis Bauer

Why we love to hate Martin Amis

Sam Leith in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_765 Aug. 23 16.26Around the time his novel The Pregnant Widow came out in 2010, an interviewer asked Martin Amis whether the book constituted a return to form. “What's this return shit?” he shot back. “I don't know how this will go down, but my talent seems to me to be perfectly vigorous.” You can almost hear the voice, the italics, the roll-your-own rasp: part surly, part amused. A little bit more surly.

This is Amis in combat stance, the position he has occupied for as long as most of us can remember. There is no living British writer who garners as much attention as Amis; so much of it hostile; and so much of that hostility, circularly, arising from the attention itself. He pushes back.

With a new novel coming – this month's heavily embargoed Auschwitz book The Zone of Interest – the circus starts up again. Amis occupies a really peculiar position in our national life. He is the object of envy, contempt, anger, disapproval, theatrical expressions of weariness – but also of fascination. Has there in living memory been a writer whom we (by which I mean the papers, mostly) so assiduously seek out for comment – we task him to review tennis, terrorism, pornography, the state of the nation – and whom we are then so keen to denounce as worthless? In recent years his public interventions on everything from Islamist terror to population demographics have caused mini shitstorms; and critics seem to take a particular, giant-killing glee in slamming his fiction. Setting out to write a retrospective essay on his work and reputation, the implied title you find yourself reaching for is “in defence of … “

It's as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is. He has spoken in the past – surly/amused – of an “eisteddfod of hostility”, as if his detractors were the excitable participants in a provincial arts festival.

Why the eisteddfod? Why him? I think it has to do with the way we have positioned him, and – to an extent – with the way he has positioned himself.

More here.

The Islamic State is destroying the greatest melting pot in history

Tom Holland in The Spectator:

ScreenHunter_764 Aug. 23 16.23As the fighters of the Islamic State drive from village to captured village in their looted humvees, they criss-cross what in ancient times was a veritable womb of gods. For millennia, the Fertile Crescent teemed with a bewildering variety of cults and religions. Back in the 3rd Christian century, a philosopher by the name of Bardaisan was so overwhelmed by the sheer array of beliefs to be found in Mesopotamia that he invoked it to disprove the doctrines of astrology. ‘It is not the stars that make people behave the way do but rather the diversity of their customs.’

Bardaisan himself was a one-man monument to Mesopotamian multiculturalism. A Jewish convert to Christianity, a Platonist fascinated by the wisdom of the Brahmins, an inhabitant of the border zone between the Roman East and the Iranian empire of the Parthians, he stood at the crossroads where antiquity’s most potent traditions met and intermingled. Just how far the process of blending rival faiths could be taken was best illustrated by a man born in Mesopotamia a few years before Bardaisan’s death: a soi-disant prophet called Mani. Brought up within a Christian sect that practised circumcision, held the Holy Spirit to be female, and prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, he fused elements of Christianity with Jewish and Zoroastrian teachings, while also claiming, just for good measure, to be the heir of the Buddha. Although Mani himself would end up executed by a Persian king, his followers were nothing daunted. Cells of Manichaeans were soon to be found from China to Carthage. Syncretic as their religion was, and global in its ambitions, Manichaeism was a classic Mesopotamian export of the age.

More here.

‘It’s Only a Matter of Time’: Scientists Consider Geoengineering a Cooler Planet

Brian Merchant in Motherboard:

ScreenHunter_763 Aug. 23 16.13Geoengineering—basically, hacking the planet's climate system to cool it off—is a touchy subject. So touchy that some argue it shouldn't be touched at all. Yet 300 scientists, policymakers, legal experts, and NGOs have traveled to Berlin precisely to discuss it, in its biggest public forum yet.

That paradox is central to understanding the concept of climate engineering, which scares just about everybody who actually works on it. But so does the prospect that humanity might not reduce its carbon emissions in time to stave off catastrophic global warming.

“We have to decide what it would mean if humans were to try to take control of the world's climate,” said Dr. Mark Lawrence, the scientific director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, who delivered the opening remarks.

As such, the first two days of the Climate Engineering Conference 2014 offers what we could plausibly consider an accurate snapshot of the current state of geoeningeering: Interested scientists are calling for more research and proposing new ideas for climate control; public institutions and politicians are weary of getting too involved; humanitarian groups are worried about the ramifications; and legal scholars are already declaring the most ambitious geoengineering proposals “ungovernable.”

And a few staunch advocates want to put the pedal down, hard.

Regardless, more parties than ever are taking seriously the notion that geoengineering may become a reality.

More here.

Is There Something About Islam?


Kenan Malik in Eurozine (image source: Shutterstock):

Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on “Why I am an atheist”. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn't.

My response is to say: “Yes, that's true. But it is true also of believers.” I point out to my students that in the Bible, Leviticus sanctifies slavery. It tells us that adulterers “shall be put to death”. According to Exodus, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. And so on. Few modern day Christians would accept these norms. Others they would. In other words, they pick and choose.

So do Muslims. Jihadi literalists, so-called “bridge builders” like Tariq Ramadan (“bridge-builder”, I know, is a meaningless phrase, and there are many other phrases that one could, and should, use to describe Ramadan) and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur'an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women's rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.

I'm making this point because it's one not just for believers to think about, but for humanists and atheists too. There is a tendency for humanists and atheists to read religions, and Islam in particular, as literally as fundamentalists do; to ignore the fact that what believers do is interpret the same text a hundred different ways. Different religions clearly have different theologies, different beliefs, different values. Islam is different from Christianity is different from Buddhism. What is important, however, is not simply what a particular Holy Book, or sacred texts, say, but how people interpret those texts.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations.

More here.

How Plagues Really Work

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Wendy Orent in Aeon (Photo by Stefano Rellandini/Reuters):

It was the great Australian virologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet who argued that the deadliest diseases were those newly introduced into the human species. It seemed to make sense: the parasite that kills its host is a dead parasite since, without the host, the germ has no way to survive and spread. According to this argument, new germs that erupt into our species will be potential triggers for pandemics, while germs that have a long history in a host species will have evolved to be relatively benign.

Many health experts take the notion further, contending that any coming plague will come from human intrusion into the natural world. One risk, they suggest, comes when hungry people in Africa and elsewhere forge deep into forests and jungles to hunt ‘bushmeat’ – rodents, rabbits, monkeys, apes – with exposure to dangerous pathogens the unhappy result. Those pathogens move silently among wild animals, but can also explode with terrifying ferocity among people when humans venture where they shouldn’t. According to the same line of thought, another proposed risk would result when birds spread a new pandemic strain to chickens in factory farms and, ultimately, to us.

But there’s something in these scenarios that’s not entirely logical. There is nothing new in the intimate contact between animals and people. Our hominid ancestors lived on wildlife before we ever evolved into Homo sapiens: that’s why anthropologists call them hunter-gatherers, a term that still applies to some modern peoples, including bushmeat hunters in West Africa. After domesticating animals, we lived close beside them, keeping cows, pigs and chickens in farmyards and even within households for thousands of years. Pandemics arise out of more than mere contact between human beings and animals: from an evolutionary point of view, there is a missing step between animal pathogen and human pandemic that’s been almost completely overlooked in these terrifying but entirely speculative ideas.

According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people – from person to person to person.

More here.

Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison


Alex Tabarrok in Marginal Revolution:

A new report from Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization, shows that the Ferguson municipal courts are a stunning example of these problems:

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of:

For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.

More here.

On Level Five


Whitney Mallet in n+1 (image by Mari Eastman):

Around the time video games were to coming to define the memory of Operation Desert Storm, Chris Marker made a movie about a video game that depicted a forgotten battle of a well-remembered war. The heroine in Marker’s 1997 film Level Five is working on a Macintosh, writing a game to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa,at the tail end of World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was dizzying in its loss of human life, but in the West today, hardly anyone knows it happened. In Level Five, Marker’s subject is as much the conflict as our technologies of remembering it. The focus might be predictable from the experimental filmmaker, who is best-known for his meditations on memory in La Jetée and Sans Soleil—though Level Five is structured more like the latter, an essay film that challenges easy categorization as either fiction or non-fiction. Nearly two decades after the film was made and two years after Marker’s death, Level Five is having its first theatrical release at a moment when wars are not just being remembered in digital arenas, but are increasingly being fought in them too.

In Level Five’s fictional frame, Laura, played by Catherine Belkhodja, is making a video game to tell the true story of the U.S. Army’s invasion into the Japanese island and of the subsequent mass suicide that claimed a huge portion of civilian life. Together with the casualties of war, 150,000 men, women, and children died in the battle, roughly a third of the island’s entire population. Before killing themselves, many of them killed loved ones who were too weak to take their own lives. The tragedy meant husbands killed wives. Parents killed children. Sons killed mothers. Marker’s film includes docu-style interviews and verité footage, sandwiched within the game-writer protagonist Laura’s monologues. The juxtaposition suggests that shared histories are impossible to parse from subjective, lived experience. Laura has chatroom run-ins; survivors describe the violence they witnessed in unforgettable and specific detail.

More here.

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy

Mona Siddiqui in The Independent:

BookThere aren't many books on Islam where the Prophet Muhammad and Martin Scorsese appear together. But Jonathan Brown's book is about recounting history, multiple interpretations and making sense of legacies; religious traditions and Hollywood films have these tensions in common. Both want to convey particular stories to a diverse range of audiences, and to convince them of certain metaphysical truths.

Brown's inspiration for the book comes from the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's bestselling Misquoting Jesus, a work which looks at the accidental or intentional textual variations of the Bible. Brown explains that his own focus is more on the challenges of interpreting the Prophet's legacy rather than “unveiling Islamic origins”. He explores the rich interpretative history of Islam and how the faithful continue to be challenged. Much of what Brown is really exploring is the status of the sayings or traditions of the Prophet – hadiths. These were compiled in their thousands and form the basis of much of Islamic dogmatic, legal and theological thinking from the earliest times. They are second only to the Koran as a source of authority. But how many of them are reliable, and why do Muslims continue to be guided by them when so many are disputed even rejected by scholars? The book tries to get to the bottom of these debates.

More here.

A Unified Theory: connections between these two worlds of art and technology

James Gleick in The New York Times:

ArtFor the last half-century we’ve had a popular notion that our intellectual culture is sundered in two — the literary and the scientific. “The two cultures” is the bumper-sticker phrase for this view. It dates back to a hugely influential 1959 lecture, also published in book form that year, by C. P. Snow — “a moderately able research chemist who had become a successful novelist,” in the historian Lisa Jardine’s not very adulatory description. According to Snow, on one side were the humanists, on the other the scientists, and between them lay a shameful “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Which side are you on? Snow offered a litmus test: If you can’t describe the second law of thermodynamics, you’re just as illiterate as any boffin who can’t quote Shakespeare. In the 21st century, the two cultures are still with us, but the fault lines have shifted. Plenty of people can talk about thermodynamics and Shakespeare with equal facility; for that matter, no one has ever explained the second law better than Tom Stoppard in “Arcadia” (“You cannot stir things apart”). You’re probably comfortable with scientific expressions like “litmus test.” The question now is, can you explain a hash table? A linked list? A bubble sort? Maybe you can write — but can you code?

Vikram Chandra is a wonderful novelist and apparently knows his way around an algorithm, too. His new book is an unexpected tour de force, different from anything he has done before. It has the oddly off-putting title “Geek Sublime,” which disguises its ambition: to look deeply, and with great subtlety, into the connections and tensions between the worlds — the cultures — of technology and art. The book becomes an exquisite meditation on aesthetics, and meanwhile it is also part memoir, the story of a young man finding his way from India to the West and back, and from literature to programming and back.

More here.

What Indian soldiers in the First World War wrote home about

To commemorate the centenary of India’s service in the First World War, the British historian David Omissi collected the letters of Indian soldiers away from home in Indian Voices of the Great War, published this year by Penguin. These eloquent letters offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of these Indian soldiers, whom history forgot.

David Omissi in The Caravan:

A wounded Sikh to his father
Brighton Hospital
18th January 1915

Tell my mother not to go wandering madly because her son, my brother, is dead. To be born and to die is God’s order. Some day we must die, sooner or later, and if I die here, who will remember me? It is a fine thing to die far from home. A saint said this, and, as he was a good man, it must be true.

Ram Prasad (Brahmin) to Manik Chand (c/o Sikander Ali, Bamba Debi Bazar, Marwari Water Tank, Bombay)
Kitchener’s Indian Hospital, Brighton
2nd September 1915

And send me fourteen or fifteen tolas of charas [hashish], and understand that you must send it so that no one may know. First fill a round tin box full of pickles and then in the middle of that put a smaller round box carefully closed, so that no trace of the pickles can enter. And send a letter to me four days before you send the parcel off. [Letter withheld]

Ser Gul (Pathan, 129th Baluchis) to Barber Machu Khan (57th Rifles, serving at the front)

Indian Hospital, Rouen
13th September 1915

I have no need of anything, but I have a great longing for a flute to play. What can I do? I have no flute. Can you get me one from somewhere? If you can, please do, and send it to me. Take this much trouble for me. For I have a great desire to play upon the flute, since great dejection is fallen upon me. You must, you simply must, get one from somewhere. I have no need of anything else. But this you must manage as soon as you can.

More here.

Birds Lost Their Sweet Tooth, Hummingbirds Got Theirs Back

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Hummingbird-990x618In 2004, the chicken became the first bird to have its genome fully sequenced. Its DNA revealed something odd—or rather, an odd lack of something. It was missing a gene called T1R2, which we and other mammals need to taste sweet foods. Chickens, it seemed, can’t taste sweets.

They aren’t alone. Maude Baldwin from Harvard University and Yasuka Toda from the University of Tokyo looked at the genomes of 10 different birds, from falcons to finches and ducks to doves. None of them had T1R2. Alligators do, and they’re some of the closest living relatives of birds. So at some point, as birds evolved from small dinosaurs, they lost their sweet tooth.

What about hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds feed largely on nectar, the sweet liquid that flowers produce. They love the stuff and the sweeter the better; they’ll actually reject flowers whose nectar isn’t sweet enough. They lack the T1R2 gene, but they can clearly taste sugar.

Baldwin and Toda have now discovered their workaround: they repurposed two other taste genes that are normally responsible for detecting savoury tastes. On a hummingbird’s tongue, these savoury sensors are sugar sensors too.

More here.

Can the Crowd Solve Medical Mysteries?

Carrie Arnold at PBS:

ScreenHunter_760 Aug. 22 20.49The Loops found themselves in purgatory. They had a diagnosis they didn’t believe, treatments that weren’t working, and a son that had been completely subsumed by his illness. If they could find out what was really wrong with their son, they believed, they could get him the help he so desperately needed. But no one could properly diagnose their son.

Jared Heyman knows the Loops’ frustration all too well. Several years ago, his younger sister was debilitated by an illness that no one could diagnose. Two years, nearly unspeakable agony, and half a million dollars in tests later, his sister finally got a diagnosis and treatment. “I knew there had to be a better way,” he says.

So Heyman set out to create that better way and started CrowdMed in 2013. The site allows patients to submit their cases to the site to be solved by a cadre of medical detectives from around the world. Heyman’s background in economics and the decade he spent as the head of a startup had given him an appreciation for the wisdom of crowds, which states that a large group of people tends to be smarter and more accurate than any single expert. What tricky diagnoses needed, Heyman realized, was a crowd of people doing their best to solve medical mysteries. Which is exactly what CrowdMed provides. He tested the concept by submitting his sister’s symptoms. Within three days, the site’s medical detectives had correctly identified her condition.

In the year since it began, CrowdMed has soared in popularity, with users in 21 countries around the world. Investors have also flocked to the project, including actor Patrick Dempsey (aka “Dr. McDreamy” on the television show Grey’s Anatomy), who recently pledged $1 million. The site’s promise, however, is tempered by concern from bioethicists and physicians alike, who worry about everything from privacy to medical errors.

More here.

Hashim Khan, Patriarch of a Squash Dynasty, Is Dead

William Yardley in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_759 Aug. 22 15.05Hashim Khan, who learned to play squash when he was a boy, retrieving stray balls for British military officers in Pakistan, and went on to become a champion and the patriarch of a family dynasty in the sport, died on Monday in Denver. He was believed to be 100.

His death was confirmed by his son Mohammad.

Pakistan was not yet an independent nation when Khan began working as a ball boy at a British officers’ club near Peshawar where his father, Abdullah, was the head steward. When he was not fetching balls hit over walls — courts used to be roofless — young Hashim watched game after game.

When the officers cleared the courts, he went out to practice, barefoot. Sometimes he traded his lunch for lessons. The hard work eventually got him a job teaching squash at the club and led to the belated break that made him a star.

He was in his 30s and a national champion in his homeland when a player he regularly defeated, Abdul Bari of Bombay, made it to the final of squash’s British Open. Khan had not played internationally, but Bari’s success prompted Khan’s supporters to raise money to send him to the tournament in 1951. There were concerns that he was too old, but with Pakistan having just become independent from India, it was a matter of national pride.

He was at least 36 — and possibly several years older — when he played for the first time in the Open, squash’s most celebrated tournament. Khan made an impressive debut, vanquishing an array of international stars on his way to the final, where he defeated the man presumed to be world’s best player, the four-time champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt, 9-5, 9-0, 9-0.

Khan won the Open for six straight years. In 1956, he defeated his cousin Roshan in the final. Roshan was 26 at the time. Khan was in his 40s.

The next year, he lost to Roshan in the final. Although it was a defeat for Khan, it enhanced his family’s fame.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

Was the Human Brain Unleashed?

Courtney Humphries in Harvard Magazine:

BrainCompare humans to other mammals and a distinguishing feature stands out: our large, cavernous craniums, and the densely folded brains stuffed into them. The human brain is more than triple the size of the brain of chimpanzees, our closest relatives. In particular, it’s the cerebral cortex—the wrinkled outer layer of the brain—that sets us apart. Whales and elephants also have big brains, but they can’t match our cortex in the sheer number of neurons and billions of connections among them. It’s obvious that our big brains are responsible in some way for enabling the unique things that humans do: developing languages, music, and art; using sophisticated tools and technologies; forming complex societies. But what is it about a bigger brain that makes these feats possible?

Randy Buckner, professor of psychology and of neuroscience, and his former student Fenna Krienen, Ph.D. ’13, have proposed a hypothesis to explain how the evolution of a large cortex may have enabled the distinct cognitive skills that humans display. The key is not just size but organization. As the human brain swelled, they argue, the cells in newly evolved areas were increasingly freed from constraints that patterned the simpler connections in other areas, and thus able to connect to each other in more complex ways that enabled new kinds of thinking.

More here.