May 15, 2008


In which we revisit some earlier posts and see what's new. This is partly because now that classes are over, I have time to catch up on old issues of the New Yorker and New Scientist, leading to some blog bits.

Last July, I wrote about the intelligence of crows and scrub-jays. In March, "hacker and writer" Joshua Klein spoke at TedTalks about crows and how he taught them to use a specially-created crow vending machine.

As Klein leads up to the vending machine (truly amazing), he shows some fascinating videos which nicely illustrate how crows learn, specifically a shot of a crow bending a wire to pick up food in a lab, and another shot of a crow using cars to crack her nuts -- then waiting for the light to change so she can collect the nut bits in safety. I won't spoil the vending machine story for you, as it's really fascinating.

Politics, Emotion, and ... Genes?
I've written occasionally about politics and the brain, and I read an article in an early February issue of New Scientist about some studies that suggest "political positions are substantially determined by biology." Jim Giles summarizes recent studies in various journals, and the findings are startling: twin studies suggest that political orientation is genetic (American Political Science Review, 2005); there may be a connection between fear of death, art preference, and one's political leaning (American Psychologist, 2003), and "there is probably a set of genes that influences openness, which in turn may influence political orientation" (Journal of Research in Personality, YEAR). Giles cautions, however, that "there is no shortage of critics who question the whole idea of linking politics with biology." For more, check out the article, or read some of the articles that Giles summarizes.

The Pirahã
I summarized a New Yorker article about the Pirahã about a year ago; in January, New Scientist interviewed the linguist Daniel Everett, who, along with his family, are the only non-Pirahã who speak that language. If you're interested in the story of the language of the Pirahã, and what it says for language acquisition (including a conflict with Noam Chomsky), the interview is a good read.

For More Information
  • Klein, Joshua. The Amazing Intelligence of Crows. TedTalks, March 2008.
  • Giles, Jim. "Born That Way." New Scientist, Feb. 2, 2008. Not available for free online, but full-text may be available @your library, in Academic Search Premier and other databases.
    • Alford, John, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing. Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted? (pdf) American Political Science Review. Vol. 99(2), May 2005, 153-167.
    • Jost, John T. The End of the End of Ideology (abstract). American Psychologist. Vol 61(7), Oct 2006, 651-670. Full-text may be available @ your library in PsycARTICLES.
    • "Heritabilities of Common and Measure-Specific Components of the Big Five Personality Factors" Journal of Research in Personality, vol 32 (4), April 1998, p. 431. Not available for free online, but full-text may be available @your library, in ScienceDirect.
  • Else, Liz and Lucy Middleton. "Interview: Daniel Everett." New Scientist Jan 19, 2008, p42-45. Subtitle: "Out on a limb over language: linguist Daniel Everett went to Brazil as a young Christian missionary to work with the Piraha indigenous people. Instead of converting them, he told Liz Else and Lucy Middleton, he lost his faith and his family, and provoked a major intellectual row." Not available for free online, but full-text may be available @ your library, in Academic OneFile.

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