Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why can we talk? ‘Humanized’ mice speak volumes

Mice carrying a “humanized version” of a gene believed to influence speech and language may not actually talk, but they nonetheless do have a lot to say about our evolutionary past, according to a report in the May 29th issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication.

“In the last decade or so, we’ve come to realize that the mouse is really similar to humans,” said Wolfgang Enard of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “The genes are essentially the same and they also work similarly.” Because of that, scientists have learned a tremendous amount about the biology of human diseases by studying mice.

“With this study, we get the first glimpse that mice can be used to study not only disease, but also our own history.”

Enard said his team is generally interested in the genomic differences that set humans apart from their primate relatives. One important difference between humans and chimpanzees they have studied are two amino acid substitutions in FOXP2. Those changes became fixed after the human lineage split from chimpanzees and earlier studies have yielded evidence that the gene underwent positive selection. That evolutionary change is thought to reflect selection for some important aspects of speech and language.

“Changes in FOXP2 occurred over the course of human evolution and are the best candidates for genetic changes that might explain why we can speak,” Enard said. “The challenge is to study it functionally.”

For obvious reasons, the genetic studies needed to sort that out can’t be completed in humans or chimpanzees, he said. In the new study, the researchers introduced those substitutions into the FOXP2 gene of mice. They note that the mouse version of the gene is essentially identical to that of chimps, making it a reasonable model for the ancestral human version.

Mice with the human FOXP2 show changes in brain circuits that have previously been linked to human speech, the new research shows. Intriguingly enough, the genetically altered mouse pups also have qualitative differences in ultrasonic vocalizations they use when placed outside the comfort of their mothers’ nests. But, Enard says, not enough is known about mouse communication to read too much yet into what exactly those changes might mean.

Although FoxP2 is active in many other tissues of the body, the altered version did not appear to have other effects on the mice, which appeared to be generally healthy.

Those differences offer a window into the evolution of speech and language capacity in the human brain. They said it will now be important to further explore the mechanistic basis of the gene’s effects and their possible relationship to characteristics that differ between humans and apes.

“Currently, one can only speculate about the role these effects may have played during human evolution,” they wrote. “However, since patients that carry one nonfunctional FOXP2 allele show impairments in the timing and sequencing of orofacial movements, one possibility is that the amino acid substitutions in FOXP2 contributed to an increased fine-tuning of motor control necessary for articulation, i.e., the unique human capacity to learn and coordinate the muscle movements in lungs, larynx, tongue and lips that are necessary for speech. We are confident that concerted studies of mice, humans and other primates will eventually clarify if this is the case.”

2009. "Why can we talk? ‘Humanized’ mice speak volumes". SciCornwall. Posted: June 1, 2009. Available online:

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ancient Tomb Could Explain Maya Collapse

Mexican archaeologists have found an 1,100-year-old tomb from the twilight of the Maya civilization that they hope may shed light on what happened to the once-glorious culture.

Archaeologist Juan Yadeun said the tomb, and ceramics from another culture found in it, may reveal who occupied the Maya site of Tonina in southern Chiapas state after the culture's Classic period began fading.

Many experts have pointed to internal warfare between Mayan city states, or environmental degradation, as possible causes of the Maya's downfall starting around A.D. 820.

But Yadeun, who oversees the Tonina site for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, said artifacts from the Toltec culture found in the tomb may point to another explanation. He said the tomb dates to between A.D. 840 and 900.

"It is clear that this is a new wave of occupation, the people who built this grave of the Toltec type," Yadeun said Wednesday. "This is very interesting, because we are going to see from the bones who these people are, after the Maya empire."

The Toltecs were from Mexico's central highlands and apparently expanded their influence to the Maya's strongholds in southern Mexico. They are believed to have dominated central Mexico from the city of Tula -- just north of present-day Mexico City -- between the 10th and 12th centuries, before the Aztecs rose to prominence.

Archaeologists not connected with the dig expressed caution about drawing conclusions from one site, noting the Maya empire covered a wide area, with a varied and complex history.

"One tomb, even if it is very fancy, isn't going to answer big things about the trajectory of Maya history all over the place ... maybe locally," said David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist at the University of Florida, said that "the whole idea of a migration of people from Tula to the Maya area has been abandoned."

The jungle-clad site is dotted with temples and platforms left by the classic Maya. The newly uncovered tomb -- first detected during maintenance work in December, and later excavated and shown to reporters Wednesday -- is dug into the earth at the foot of one of the older temples.

Inside, a stone bowl-type sarcophagus lies inside a narrow burrow, topped by a heavy stone lid. While such lids often bore inscriptions, this one does not; the Maya apparently began to abandon their elaborate writing system in the twilight of their culture.

Archaeologists also found a pottery urn and the bones of what they believe is a woman. Her skull appears to have been intentionally deformed, a practice common among the Maya. Physical anthropologists are now studying the bones, hoping to identify which group she came from.

The tomb does bear evidence that at least one other pre-Hispanic group took over the site after the collapse of the Maya.

The institute said the woman's bones were displaced by boiled bones in another pottery urn, apparently put there by Tzeltal chieftains sometime in the late 1400s, just before the Spanish conquest.


Cruz, Manuel De La Cruz and Stevenson, Mark. 2010."Ancient Tomb Could Explain Maya Collapse". Discovery News. Posted: January 28, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lost Roman Law Code Discovered in London

Part of an ancient Roman law code previously thought to have been lost forever has been discovered by researchers at University College London's Department of History. Simon Corcoran and Benet Salway made the breakthrough after piecing together 17 fragments of previously incomprehensible parchment.

The fragments were being studied at UCL as part of the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded "Projet Volterra" -- a ten year study of Roman law in its full social, legal and political context.

Corcoran and Salway found that the text belonged to the Codex Gregorianus, or Gregorian Code, a collection of laws by emperors from Hadrian (AD 117-138) to Diocletian (AD 284-305), which was published circa AD 300. Little was known about the codex's original form and there were, until now, no known copies in existence.

"The fragments bear the text of a Latin work in a clear calligraphic script, perhaps dating as far back as AD 400," said Dr Salway. "It uses a number of abbreviations characteristic of legal texts and the presence of writing on both sides of the fragments indicates that they belong to a page or pages from a late antique codex book -- rather than a scroll or a lawyer's loose-leaf notes.

"The fragments contain a collection of responses by a series of Roman emperors to questions on legal matters submitted by members of the public," continued Dr Salway. "The responses are arranged chronologically and grouped into thematic chapters under highlighted headings, with corrections and readers' annotations between the lines. The notes show that this particular copy received intensive use."

The surviving fragments belong to sections on appeal procedures and the statute of limitations on an as yet unidentified matter. The content is consistent with what was already known about the Gregorian Code from quotations of it in other documents, but the fragments also contain new material that has not been seen in modern times.

"These fragments are the first direct evidence of the original version of the Gregorian Code," said Dr Corcoran. "Our preliminary study confirms that it was the pioneer of a long tradition that has extended down into the modern era and it is ultimately from the title of this work, and its companion volume the Codex Hermogenianus, that we use the term 'code' in the sense of 'legal rulings'."

This particular manuscript may originate from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and it is hoped that further work on the script and on the ancient annotations will illuminate more of its history.


University College London. 2010. "Lost Roman Law Code Discovered in London". Science Direct. Posted: January 28, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You, yourself and you: Why being self-centered is a good thing

Caspar Hare would like you to try a thought experiment. Consider that 100,000 people around the world tomorrow will suffer epileptic seizures. "That probably doesn't trouble you tremendously," says Hare, an associate professor in MIT's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Now imagine that one those 100,000 people will be you. "In that case you probably would be troubled," observes Hare, speaking in his office. If this is your reaction, he says, "You regard you own pleasures and pains as being especially significant." Which seems natural, Hare adds. "We have a tendency to think that what we care about is important in and of itself."

Yet this tendency creates an apparent inconsistency. You cannot claim your own well-being is uniquely meaningful, more important than the well-being of others, and expect anyone else to regard that notion as an objective fact, something that could be part of a universally acceptable morality.

How should we reconcile these differing perspectives? In recent decades, many philosophers have dismissed our self-interest as a kind of illusion. Indeed, a major current of contemporary thinking has questioned whether a stable "self" exists at all. "We are not what we believe," the British philosopher Derek Parfit has written. Rather, this view holds, we are nothing more than ever-shifting collections of mental and physiological states, lacking a definite, lasting identity.

The joy of solipsism

Hare has leaped into this philosophical fray with a distinctly different view, which he outlines in his new book, "On Myself, and Other, Less Important Subjects," published this fall by Princeton University Press. The fact that we care so much about ourselves, Hare thinks, tells us something deep about the world: It is correct after all, he believes, to regard our pleasures and pains as uniquely important among all pleasures and pains in the universe.

So if we think our self-interest is singularly significant, we are not being fooled. Instead, the fact that we know ourselves best reinforces our sense of individuality over time; we do have stable identities, and our minds are more than a shifting kaleidoscope of impressions. Our ability to make moral judgments flows from this fact.

On the other hand, Hare asserts, our minds are independent enough from the rest of the world that, when other people state their pleasures and pains are present, we should not regard their statements as true. Instead, Hare writes, we should regard those claims as "false, but rightly so."

In so arguing, Hare is reviving the philosophical concept of solipsism — the notion that one's own self has a special status in the world. More specifically, Hare claims in his book that we exist in a mildly solipsistic state he calls "egocentric presentism." To make sound moral judgments despite this condition, Hare asserts, just takes an act of imagination.

Thus Hare states that of course he would rather that he suffer a hangnail than that someone else's leg be crushed, even knowing the other person's pain would not be present. "For an egocentric presentist," writes Hare, "empathizing with an unfortunate [person] involves imagining that the unfortunate has present experiences."

Other philosophers note that Hare's ideas appear counterintuitive. "The argument seems controversial on the surface because it goes against common sense," says Berit Brogaard, an associate professor of philosophy at the Australian National University and the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "There is something eyebrow-raising about it," says Benj Hellie, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Hare, however, does not think his own theory is radical. "One way to be a solipsist is to insist that other people don't have inner lives," explains Hare. "Another is that there are no other people. But I'm not saying either of these things. I'm not denying that other people exist, are fully conscious, and have brains and minds like my own."

Is universal morality possible?

For this reason, asserts Hare, solipsism need not lead us down a slippery slope into a world where, say, violence toward others could be tolerated. "Even if we give special significance to our own pleasures and pains," says Hare, "we don't go about ruthlessly trying to maximize our own pleasure and others' pain." He calls that "a crude caricature of human psychology," popularized by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

We may be self-centered, Hare argues, but not solely moved by self-interest: "It's certainly possible to think your self-interest is important without thinking it's the most important thing in the world." Still, Brogaard, for one, thinks Hare's ideas "are even more extreme" than Hare believes they are. By accepting that we are solipsistic, she believes, we may sacrifice the idea that there is an objective universal morality.

If so, the modestly solipsistic state Hare describes — in which we are still social and moral creatures — represents a trade-off. We may lose our ability to define an objective moral system. But we do have stable selves that can craft moral judgments. "My book is putting perspectival questions back into the ontology, into our picture of the way the world is," says Hare.

That still leaves the task of squaring our recurring self-interest with the common good, day after day. But that is at least a task for which we can each take responsibility, as distinct selves. "Caspar is pointing to a problem we have to come to terms with," says Hellie.


Anonymous. 2009. "You, yourself and you: Why being self-centered is a good thing". PhysOrg. Posted: October 26, 2009. Available online:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Three of a kind: Revealing language’s universal essence

On the surface, English, Japanese, and Kinande, a member of the Bantu family of languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have little in common. It is not just that the vocabularies of these three languages are vastly different; many of their rules of grammar diverge too.

Consider that in English, verbs must agree with their subject: We say, “I write,” or “he writes.” But Japanese has no need for such agreement, while in Kinande, agreement rules spread beyond subject-verb couplings to objects of a verb as well.

Despite such differences, English, Japanese, and Kinande share deep and previously unrecognized similarities pertaining to the way sentences are formed, says Shigeru Miyagawa, the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture, and a professor in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Miyagawa describes these commonalities in a new book, “Why Agree? Why Move?” published by MIT Press this fall.

The existence of similar structures in such otherwise disparate languages, Miyagawa asserts, provides strong evidence that all human languages have a common origin. Miyagawa believes we have an innate faculty for language that shapes the form all languages take, an argument MIT’s Noam Chomsky developed in his theory of Universal Grammar, in the 1950s.

In this view, we do not invent languages from scratch. Rather, their eye-catching variation — from English to Japanese to Kinande — has evolved historically within specific limits. “Languages have this wonderful diversity,” says Miyagawa, who is also head of the Foreign Languages and Literatures section at MIT. “But language is a biological system. It doesn’t vary in some wild way. It cannot just be anything. Language is diverse within a highly defined pathway.”

Linguistic layer cake

Miyagawa’s book argues that a linguistic phenomenon known as “movement” reveals language’s universal nature. Think of a simple sentence, such as “John ate a pizza.” We have numerous ways to manufacture more complex variations of that sentence. For example: “Which pizza did John eat?” The subject, verb, and object remain the same. However, the word order changes; that movement helps provide the new meaning of the new sentence.

“If there were no movement in human language, you could not ask questions,” says Miyagawa. “We would go around all day just making statements: ‘I drink coffee. It is a nice day.’ Movement happens so that human language has this rich expressive power, like asking questions, or giving orders. Without movement, human language would be just a shadow of itself, impoverished.”

Movement provides the same general function across languages. “When you look closely at sentences in any human language, there is a hierarchical structure, like two layers of a cake,” Miyagawa explains. The bottom layer is the “argument structure” of a sentence, and contains its core meaning (the fact that John ate a pizza). The top layer is the “expression structure” and adds complexity (as in, “Which pizza did John eat?”). Movement is one way sentences can distinctively express those more complex ideas.

As a basic rule, says Miyagawa, where there is movement, there are also changes in agreement. In English and Kinande (and the Indo-European and Bantu language families they represent), shifts in agreement are an essential part of a sentence’s movement toward greater complexity. For instance, note the way the verb changes from “ate” to “did eat” in our pizza example. In Kinande, the sentence “Abakali ba-ka-gul-a esyongoko” means, “The women buy chickens.” But an alternate version, Esyongoko si-ka-gul-a bakali,” introduces movement, and a slightly altered Kinande verb (the middle word in both sentences). This means “the WOMEN buy the chickens.” By emphasizing “women,” the second version adds information: The person forming the sentence finds it especially important to note who is buying chickens.

That leaves a question: If movement is universal and almost always enabled by agreement, how does movement occur in Japanese, which has no agreement? In a novel argument, Miyagawa claims that although agreement does not exist in Japanese, movement occurs through two alternate facets of the language, “topic-marking” and “focus-marking.” Topic-marking is the mechanism by which a phrase is placed at the head of a sentence; focus-marking uses intonation to do the same thing. These tools allow for greater sentence complexity in Japanese, as agreement does in English or Kinande.

Take the Japanese sentence “Taroo-mo hon-o katta,” which means, “Taro also bought a book.” In this case, mo is a focus-marking word, emphasizing that it is Taro who bought the book. (“Hon” means book, and “katta” means bought. Verbs come last in Japanese.) An alternate version of the sentence, however, is “Taroo-ga hon-mo katta.” Here, mo comes after “book” and changes the sentence’s meaning to, “Taro bought a book, too.” In this case the alternate construction adds complexity in Japanese by telling us Taro bought a book in addition to other activities.

While topic-marking and focus-marking have long been recognized parts of the Japanese language, other linguists have regarded them as optional parts of sentence composition. Miyagawa believes they are essential in order to generate the full complexity of Japanese, a hypothesis he developed after realizing that topic-marking and focus-marking are considered necessary for movement in Hungarian, too. So although “Japanese seems to be out in left field,” as Miyagawa puts it, by lacking the link between agreement and movement, it also has a “core computational system” that generates movement in other ways.

A case for universalism

Colleagues say “Why Agree? Why Move?” is a significant contribution to comparative linguistics. “What I particularly liked is the three-way comparison,” says Mark Baker, a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University. “He’s one of the leading experts on Japanese syntax, and it’s the first time somebody like that has looked at the Bantu languages in such depth.”

If Miyagawa is right, his argument would provide more evidence in support of the Universal Grammar theory. That position has been fiercely debated in recent years, following claims by linguist Daniel Everett of Illinois State University, who contends the Piraha people of Brazil have a uniquely impoverished language, lacking numbers and other standard attributes. The Piraha language, in Everett’s view, stems from a unique culture, not a universal language facility. In a 2007 paper, MIT linguist David Pesetsky, along with the linguists Andrew Nevins of Harvard and Cilene Rodrigues of Emmanuel College, disagreed with Everett’s claims, arguing many features of Piraha exist elsewhere.

Miyagawa says he thinks the response to Everett “is quite compelling and convincing.” Still, he acknowledges, “Science is such that we’re always challenged. And whatever we say about the Universal Grammar has to be provisional, with more and more research that we must do with other languages.”

Anonymous. 2009."Three of a kind: Revealing language’s universal essence". PhysOrg. Posted: November 20, 2009. Available online:

Monday, January 25, 2010

British Museum in battle with Iran over ancient 'charter of rights'

The discovery of fragments of ancient cuneiform tablets – hidden in a British Museum storeroom since 1881 – has sparked a diplomatic row between the UK and Iran. In dispute is a proposed loan of the Cyrus cylinder, one of the most important objects in the museum's collection, and regarded by some historians as the world's first human rights charter.

The Iranian government has threatened to "sever all cultural relations" with Britain unless the artefact is sent to Tehran immediately. Museum director Neil MacGregor has been accused by an Iranian vice-president of "wasting time" and "making excuses" not to make the loan of the 2,500-year-old clay object, as was agreed last year.

The museum says that two newly discovered clay fragments hold the key to an important new understanding of the cylinder and need to be studied in London for at least six months.

The pieces of clay, inscribed in the world's oldest written language, look like "nothing more than dog biscuits", says MacGregor. Since being discovered at the end of last year, they have revealed verbatim copies of the proclamation made by Persian king Cyrus the Great, as recorded on the cylinder. The artefact itself was broken when it was excavated from the remains of Babylon in 1879. Curators say the new fragments are the missing pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle.

Irving Finkel, curator in the museum's ancient near east department, said he "nearly had a coronary" when he realised what he had in his hands. "We always thought the Cyrus cylinder was unique," he said. "No one had even imagined that copies of the text might have been made, let alone that bits of it have been here all along."

Finkel must now trawl through 130,000 objects, housed in hundreds of floor-to ceiling shelving units. His task is to locate other fragments inscribed with Cyrus's words. The aim is to complete the missing sections of one of history's most important political documents.

The Iranians have been planning to host a major exhibition of the Cyrus cylinder ever since MacGregor signed a loan agreement in Tehran in January 2009. I was in Iran with the museum director, reporting for BBC Radio 4 on his mission of cultural diplomacy.

Six months before pro-democracy protests were met with violence in the wake of the presidential election, tea and sweet pastries were offered to the British guests at the Iranian cultural heritage ministry. MacGregor was there to meet Hamid Baqaei, a vice-president and close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their friendly discussion was a significant diplomatic breakthrough at a time when tensions between Britain and Iran had been strained to breaking point after the expulsion of British Council representatives from Tehran. The recent launch of the BBC Persian television service had also been interpreted as a provocation by London.

With even the British ambassador in Tehran struggling to maintain a dialogue, MacGregor was the sole conduit of bilateral exchange in January 2009. The sight of a miniature union flag standing alongside the Iranian flag on the table between the British Museum boss and his Iranian counterparts boded well for an amicable meeting. In previous weeks, the only British flags seen in public in Tehran were those being burned on the streets outside the embassy.

MacGregor's objective was to secure the loan of treasures from Iranian palaces, mosques and museums for the museum's exhibition on the life and times of 16th-century ruler Shah Abbas. Discussions over the loan of treasures relating to one great Persian leader prompted the suggestion that another – Cyrus – could play a part in a reciprocal deal.

MacGregor may have been put on the spot by Baqaei, but he agreed to a three-month loan by the end of 2009. A year later, Baqaei's tone towards MacGregor is not so friendly. Quoted by the Fars news agency in Iran, he accused the museum of "acting politically". Further "British procrastination" would result in a "serious response" from Iran.

The Cyrus cylinder remains a compelling political tract more than two and half millennia after its creation. Accepting her Nobel peace prize in 2003, the Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi cited Cyrus as a leader who "guaranteed freedoms for all". She hailed his charter as "one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights".

In 2006, the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw contrasted the freeing of Jewish slaves by Cyrus with Ahmadinejad's "sickening calls for Israel to be wiped from the face of the map".

David Miliband, the current foreign secretary, has yet to reflect on the contemporary resonance of Cyrus in a country in which human rights have been violently curtailed of late. But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: "It is a shame that the British Museum has felt compelled to make this decision." She added that "we share the British Museum's concern that this would not be a good time for the cylinder to come to Iran" owing to the "unsettled" situation in the country.

Last week MacGregor presided over a launch, at the British Museum, of the History of the World in 100 Objects, his collaborative project with the BBC. The director is presenting a 100-part series on Radio 4, in which the story of mankind is told through individual artefacts. The Cyrus cylinder was considered for inclusion, but did not make the final hundred.

Some guests at the launch, when told how the discovery of the new fragments had delayed the loan of the Cyrus cylinder, were suspicious. "Fancy that, what a stroke of luck," said one. "That gets Neil out of a jam for now."

The director himself says he is determined that the cylinder will eventually be lent to Tehran, along with the newly discovered fragments, to tell a better story about Cyrus. He says he can understand the frustration and anger in Tehran, but it will be worth their wait.

They may well be getting more than they bargained for. To the Ahmadinejad regime, the cylinder is an iconic object, one that fuels collective pride in national heritage. But to those who are fighting for freedom of expression in Iran in the face of violence, the return of Cyrus could offer a potent new rallying point.

Wilson, John. 2010. "British Museum in battle with Iran over ancient 'charter of rights'". Guardian. Posted: January 24, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Live Your Life Twice

Elliot Jacques coined the term "mid-life crisis" 40 years ago, when the average lifespan was 70 and "mid-life" came at age 35. Individuals could expect their quality of life to decline from that point forward, Jacques argued, so some extreme reactions to encroaching mortality were to be expected, such as having extra-marital affairs and buying a Corvette.

Not any more, says Prof. Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology. In an article co-authored with the Israeli researcher Arie Ruttenberg for the Harvard Business Review last year, and another in the journal Psychoanalytic Psychology, Prof. Strenger posits that the mid-life years are the best time of life to flourish and grow.

Citing research based on empirical evidence and studies from the field, Prof. Strenger says that adult lives really do have second acts.

"Somehow this line has been drawn around the mid and late 40s as the time for a mid-life crisis in our society," says Prof. Strenger. "But as people live longer and fuller lives, we have to cast aside that stereotype and start thinking in terms of 'mid-life transition' rather than 'mid-life crisis.'" He dismisses the prevailing myth that reaching the years between the 40s and the early 60s means adapting to diminished expectations, both internally and from society.

Thirty-five years of learning

"If you make fruitful use of what you've discovered about yourself in the first half of your life," Dr. Strenger argues, "the second half can be the most fulfilling."

Most people make many of their most important life decisions before they really know who they are, he says. By age 30, most Americans have already married, decided where to live, bought their first home, and chosen their career. "But at 30, people still have the better part of their adult years ahead of them," Prof. Strenger says.

The good news is that extended life expectancy, better health practices, education, and a greater emphasis on emotional self-awareness and personal fulfilment have reversed the chances that one will have a mid-life crisis. Neurological research has also disproved the notion that the brain deteriorates after 40. "A rich and fruitful life after 50 is a much more realistic possibility," he says.

Four tips to avoid a mid-life crisis

How can you transition smoothly through the best years of your life?

"First, and most important," Prof. Strenger suggests, "invest some sincere thought in the fact that you have more high-quality adult years ahead of you than behind you. Realize what that means in planning for the future."

Second, he says, think about what you've learned about yourself so far. Consider what you've found to be your strongest abilities and about the things that most please you, not what your parents or society expected of you when you were young.

Third, don't be afraid of daunting obstacles in making new changes. "Once you realize how much time you have left in this world, you will find it is profoundly worth it to invest energy in changing in major ways. A new career choice is not an unreasonable move, for example," Dr. Strenger advises. And you may now have a better chance of succeeding, because your choices will be based on knowledge and experience, rather than youthful blind ambition.

Finally, Prof. Strenger says it is absolutely necessary to make use of a support network. Individuals should discuss major life changes with their colleagues, friends and families. The people who know you best will best be able to support you in the new directions you want to take, he advises, and a professional therapist or counsellor can also be helpful.

Prof. Stenger's 2004 book on the subject is The Designed Self, published by The Analytic Press. His latest book, Critique of Global Unreason: Individuality and Meaning in the Global Age, will be published by Palgrave this year.


American Friends of Tel Aviv University. 2010. "How to Live Your Life Twice". Posted: January 21, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

2 sides of the same coin: Speech and gesture mutually interact to enhance comprehension

Your mother may have taught you that it's rude to point, but according to new research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, gesturing may actually help improve communication.

Psychological scientist Spencer Kelly from Colgate University, along with Asli Özyürek and Eric Maris from Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands) were interested in the interaction between speech and gesturing and how important this relationship is for language. In this study, volunteers watched brief videos of common actions (e.g., someone chopping vegetables, washing dishes) followed by a one-second video of a spoken word and a gesture. In some of the trials (congruent trials), the speech and gestures were related (e.g., "chop," chopping gesture), while during other trials (incongruent trials), what was said did not match the gesture (e.g., "chop," twisting gesture). The volunteers had to indicate whether the speech and gesture were related to the initial video they watched.

The results revealed that the volunteers performed better during congruent trials than incongruent trials — they were faster and more accurate when the gesture matched the spoken word. Furthermore, these results were replicated when the volunteers were told to pay attention only to the spoken word and not the gesture. Taken together, these findings suggest that when gesture and speech convey the same information, they are easier to understand than when they convey different information. In addition, these results indicate that gesture and speech form an integrated system that helps us in language comprehension.

The researchers note that "these results have implications for everyday communicative situations, such as in educational contexts (both teachers and students), persuasive messages (political speeches, advertisements), and situations of urgency (first aid, cock pit conversations)." They suggest that the best way for speakers to get their message across is to "coordinate what they say with their words with what they do with their hands." In other words, the authors conclude, "If you really want to make your point clear and readily understood, let your words and hands do the talking."


Kelly, Spencer D. 2010. "2 sides of the same coin: Speech and gesture mutually interact to enhance comprehension". EurekAlert. Posted: January 5, 2010. Available online:

Friday, January 22, 2010

Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure, Says Penn Psychology Study

Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Memphis have released a new study on linguistic evolution that challenges the prominent hypothesis for why languages differ throughout the world.

The study argues that human languages may adapt more like biological organisms than previously thought and that the more common and popular the language, the simpler its construction to facilitate its survival.

Traditional thinking is that languages develop based upon random change and historical drift. For example, English and Turkish are very different languages based upon histories that separate them in space and time. For years, it has been the reigning assumption in the linguistic sciences.

The recent report, published in the current issue of PLoS ONE, offers a new hypothesis, challenging the drift explanation. Gary Lupyan, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, and Rick Dale, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Memphis, conducted a large-scale statistical analysis of more than 2,000 of the world’s languages aimed at testing whether certain social environments are correlated with certain linguistic properties.

The researchers found striking relationships between the demographic properties of a language — such as its population and global spread — and the grammatical complexity of those languages. Languages having the most speakers — and those that have spread around the world — were found to have far simpler grammars, specifically morphology, than languages spoken by few people and in circumscribed regions. For example, languages spoken by more than 100,000 people are almost six times more likely to have simple verb conjugations compared to languages spoken by fewer than 100,000 people.

Larger populations tend to have simpler pronoun and number systems and a smaller number of cases and genders and in general do not employ complex prefixing or suffixing rules in their grammars. A consequence is that languages with long histories of adult learners have become easier to learn over time. Although a number of researchers have predicted such relationships between social and language structure, this is the first large-scale statistical test of this idea.

The results draw connections between the evolution of human language and biological organisms. Just as very distantly related organisms converge on evolutionary strategies in particular niches, languages may adapt to the social environments in which they are learned and used.

“English, for all its confusing spelling and exceptions — if a baker bakes, what does a grocer do? — has a relatively simple grammar,” Lupyan said. “Verbs are easy to conjugate and nouns are mostly pluralized by adding ‘s.’ In comparison, a West African language like Hausa has dozens of ways to make nouns plural and in many languages — Turkish, Aymara, Ladakhi, Ainu — verbs like ‘to know’ have to include information about the origin of the speaker’s knowledge. This information is often conveyed using complex rules, which the most widely-spoken languages on earth like English and Mandarin lack.”

Lupyan and Dale call this social affect on grammatical patterns the "Linguistic Niche Hypothesis.” Languages evolve within particular socio-demographic niches. Although all languages must be learnable by infants, the introduction of adult learners to some languages (for example, through migration or colonization) means that aspects of a language difficult for adults to learn will be less likely to be passed on to subsequent generations of learners. The result is that languages spoken by more people over larger geographic regions have become morphologically simpler over many generations.

A remaining puzzle is why languages with few speakers are so complex in the first place. One possibility, explored by researchers, is that features such as grammatical gender and complex conjugational systems, while difficult for adult learners to master, may facilitate language learning in children by providing a network of redundant information that can cue children in on the meanings of words and how to string them together.

The results and theory proposed by Lupyan and Dale do not aim to explain why a specific language has the grammar it does. Because the findings are statistical in nature, many exceptions to Lupyan and Dale’s theory can be identified. Their work, however, provides a comprehensive analysis of how some social factors influence the structure of language and shows that the relationships between language and culture is far from arbitrary.

The study was funded by an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training award to the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at Penn and by the National Science Foundation.

University of Pennsylvania. 2010. "Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure, Says Penn Psychology Study". Office of University Communications. Posted: January 21, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Remains of Alfred the Great's granddaughter returned

The granddaughter of Alfred the Great came back to England yesterday – or at least fragments of a body returned, more than 1,000 years after the Wessex ­princess was packed off by her brother as a ­diplomatic gift to a Saxon king.

Tests in Bristol are expected to ­provide further proof that Eadgyth (roughly ­pronounced Edith) was indeed the woman found wrapped in silk and sealed in a lead coffin, inside a magnificent stone sarcophagus at Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany.

"Her brother Athelstan was the first king of a unified England, her husband became the first Holy Roman Emperor and her blood runs in the veins of every royal family in Europe," said Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University.

"Alfred's body disappeared long ago, bones of other members of her family are all jumbled up in Winchester Cathedral after [Thomas] Cromwell got his hands on them, so this may prove to be the oldest complete remains of an English royal."

There is no contemporary portrait of Eadgyth and few insights into her life. She was born in Wessex in 910 into one of the most powerful families in ­England, daughter of Edward the Elder, and half-sister to Athelstan, well on his way to being recognised as the first king of all England.

In 929 he sent her and her sister, Adiva, off to Otto and invited him to take his pick, sealing an alliance between two of the rising stars of the Saxon world: Otto chose Eadgyth. They had at least two children before she died in 946.

She was devoted to the cult of Saint Oswald, the 7th-century warrior king of Northumbria, and a scattering of ­monasteries and churches dedicated to St Oswald in Saxony may also map Eadgyth's lasting influence.

The monument in the soaring Gothic cathedral built centuries after her death was known as her tomb, but historians believed it was empty.

Then in 2008 it was opened by archaeologists during work on the building, revealing to their astonishment the beautifully preserved coffin. An inscription recorded that it was the body of Eadgyth, reburied in 1510.

"We know she was reburied," Horton said, "but the sarcophagus could have held nothing at all, or a few bits and pieces scooped up from roughly the area of her original grave. Instead we have the remains of one woman, of the right age. The smoking gun is what the tests tell us of where she came from." He hopes isotope tests on enamel from her teeth, and tests on bone fragments, will reveal a woman born and brought up in Wessex and ­Mercia, where her family moved between different ­palaces and strongholds. The water drunk or contained in food eaten in childhood laid distinctive traces which last for life and centuries beyond. Scientists will be measuring the bone and teeth fragments looking for strontium and oxygen isotopes which if strong enough should locate precisely the princess's first years.

The sarcophagus also held soil fragments and beetles, all being studied with the silk and the coffin itself by scientists, archaeologists and art historians, hoping to tease out more details of Eadgyth's history in life and death. Initial results are being presented at an international conference at Bristol University today.

Eadgyth's bones are believed to have been moved at least once before being reinterred in Magdeburg Cathedral in 1510.

The project to study them was led in Germany by Professor Harald Heller of the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Saxony-Anhalt. He said: "We are still not completely certain that this is Eadgyth, although all the scientific evidence points to this interpretation. In the Middle Ages bones were often moved about, and this makes definitive identification difficult."Other members of her family have proved remarkably elusive. Her spurned sister Adiva was later married off to another European ruler but the place of her death and burial are unknown and indeed the identity of her husband is uncertain.

Athelstan was buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. A tomb believed to be his survives, but there is no record of it being opened in centuries, and it is thought most probably to be empty.

Excavations were mounted some years ago in Winchester to find Alfred but although quantities of stonework were uncovered from the lost Hyde Abbey no trace of him was found.


Kennedy, Maev. 2010. "Remains of Alfred the Great's granddaughter returned". Guardian. Posted: January 20, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pashtun clue to lost tribes of Israel

Genetic study sets out to uncover if there is a 2,700-year-old link to Afghanistan and Pakistan

Israel is to fund a rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

Historical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a connection, but definitive scientific proof has never been found. Some leading Israeli anthropologists believe that, of all the many groups in the world who claim a connection to the 10 lost tribes, the Pashtuns, or Pathans, have the most compelling case. Paradoxically it is from the Pashtuns that the ultra-conservative Islamic Taliban movement in Afghanistan emerged. Pashtuns themselves sometimes talk of their Israelite connection, but show few signs of sympathy with, or any wish to migrate to, the modern Israeli state.

Now an Indian researcher has collected blood samples from members of the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns who today live in Malihabad, near Lucknow, in northern India. Shahnaz Ali, from the National Institute of Immuno­haematology in Mumbai, is to spend several months studying her findings at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. A previous genetic study in the same area did not provide proof one way or the other.

The Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel some 2,730 years ago, scattering 10 of the 12 tribes into exile, supposedly beyond the mythical Sambation river. The two remaining tribes, Benjamin and Judah, became the modern-day Jewish people, according to Jewish history, and the search for the lost tribes has continued ever since. Some have claimed to have found traces of them in modern day China, Burma, Nigeria, Central Asia, Ethiopia and even in the West.

But it is believed that the tribes were dispersed in an area around modern-day northern Iraq and Afghanistan, which makes the Pashtun connection the strongest.

"Of all the groups, there is more convincing evidence about the Pathans than anybody else, but the Pathans are the ones who would reject Israel most ferociously. That is the sweet irony," said Shalva Weil, an anthropologist and senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Pashtuns have a proud oral history that talks of descending from the Israelites.

Their tribal groupings have similar names, including Yusufzai, which means sons of Joseph; and Afridi, thought by some to come from Ephraim. Some customs and practices are said to be similar to Jewish traditions: lighting candles on the sabbath, refraining from eating certain foods, using a canopy during a wedding ceremony and some similarities in garments.

Weil cautioned, however, that this is not proof of any genetic connection. DNA might be able to determine which area of the world the Pashtuns originated from, but it is not at all certain that it could identify a specific genetic link to the Jewish people.

So far Shahnaz Ali has been cautious. "The theory has been a matter of curiosity since long ago, and now I hope a scientific analysis will provide us with some answers about the Israelite origin of Afridi Pathans. We still don't know what the truth is, but efforts will certainly give us a direction," she told the Times of India last year.

Some are more certain, among them Navras Aafreedi, an academic at Luck­now University, himself a Pashtun from the Afridi tribe. His family trace their roots back to Pathans from the Khyber Agency of what is today north-west Pakistan, but he believes they stretch back further to the tribe of Ephraim.

"Pathans, or Pashtuns, are the only people in the world whose probable descent from the lost tribes of Israel finds mention in a number of texts from the 10th century to the present day, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars alike, both religious as well as secularists," Aafreedi said.

The implications of any find are uncertain. Other groups that claim ­Israelite descent, including those known as the Bnei Menashe in India and some in Ethiopia, have migrated to Israel. That is unlikely with the Pashtuns.

But Weil said the work was absorbing, well beyond questions of immigration. "I find a myth that has been so persistent for so long, for 2,000 years, really fascinating," she said.

McCarthy, Rory. 2010. "Pashtun clue to lost tribe of Israel". Guardian. Posted: January 17, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Silver lining effect study, 'I have some good news and some bad news,' in INFORMS journal

So a doctor says to his patient, I have some bad news and some good news.
The patient asks for the bad news first so that the good news will comfort him.
"The bad news is you're going to die." The doctor says.
"And the good news?" The patient asks hopefully.
"See that gorgeous nurse over there? I'm having sex with her."

Communicating "I have some good news and some bad news" is better than combining messages into a single, bleak result when small gains and large losses occur together, according to a study in the current issue of Management Science, the flagship journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).

"The Silver Lining Effect: Formal Analysis and Experiments" is by Peter Jarnebrant of the European School of Management and Technology and Olivier Toubia and Eric Johnson of Columbia University.

The authors ask how people's choices change when they are presented with information in either of two ways: as an integrated whole or as two segregated pieces. For example, they ask, does an investor prefer a statement showing only an aggregate loss of $95 – or one showing a loss of $100 and a gain of $5?

The authors follow upon work first done by RH Thaler in 1985.

"Thaler's intuition was that decision makers would prefer to mentally separate a small gain from a big loss, thus providing a silver lining to the loss," explains Prof. Olivier Toubia, one of the authors. This study provides new tests to the original assumptions.

The authors also tested to determine the threshold balance – for example, if subjects also prefer the information divided when there is a more even, 50/50 split in gain and loss.

The authors determined that the smaller the positive amount ($5 in the above example) and the larger the negative one ($95), the more people prefer that the information be presented in separate sections rather than summed together.

"When the loss gets larger, you're more likely to want to separate a small gain from that loss," explains Toubia.

This perception plays better with customers who are less loss averse, they determined.

The observation, the authors write, is important for decision makers in finance, retailing, and other organizations.

In finance, for example, a mutual fund posting a quarterly loss would be better perceived by investors if the accompanying information pointed out the portions of the portfolio that posted a gain.

In a retailing example, automobile manufacturers and dealers will be better appreciated by potential customers if they price a car at $20,000 with a $500 rebate than if they price the same car at $19,500.

They reached their conclusion through two experiments with online respondents. In the first, involving an online panel, respondents were asked to imagine losing their jobs and having to choose between two new job possibilities offering different mixes of lost winter and summer vacation time. In the second experiment, with a group who signed on via the company Mechanical Turk, respondents rated four sets of gambles involving a one in three chance of winning. In one set of gambles, the gain and loss were presented separately; in another, the total amount was combined.

2009. "Silver lining effect study, 'I have some good news and some bad news,' in INFORMS journal". EurekAlert. Posted: November 30, 2009. Available online:

Monday, January 18, 2010

More than a jump to the left

Study on memory for dance moves discovers substantial cross-cultural diversity in human cognition

Despite the fact that physical space follows similar laws everywhere across the globe, cultures vary as to how space is encoded in their language. Some, for example, do not use egocentric terms such as 'left, right, front, back' to talk about spatial relations, instead using allocentric notions like 'north, south, east, west' at all times for all scales: "The spoon is north of the bowl" or "There is an snake by your Northern leg". Whether not only spatial language but also spatial cognition varies across cultures remains a contested question. In a new study, which will be published in next week's issue of Current Biology, Daniel Haun and Christian Rapold present a comparative analysis of how children from different cultures articulate spatial relations in different ways: Germans, whose language preferentially codes space in "right, left, front, back" terms, and the Akhoe Hai||om, a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer group from Northern Namibia, whose language preferentially codes space in "North, South, East, West" terms.

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Researchers from the same group had previously shown that cultures differ in the way they represent the locations of objects in space. However, knowing where our own hands and feet are has a strongly "egocentric" organization in the brain in various cultures. Therefore, you might expect all people to remember body movements in essentially the same manner. The new study shows that this expectation needs to be adjusted.

In the present study, the researchers asked children to learn a short dance, during which they move their clasped hands from one side of their body to the other in a right-left-right-right (RLRR) sequence. Then, the participants were rotated 180 degrees around their own axis, and asked to 'dance again'. Afterwards, they danced again in their original orientation. If participants coded the RLRR dance in egocentric coordinates they should produce a RLRR sequence after both Rotations 1 and 2. Alternatively, if participants coded a RLRR dance in allocentric coordinates they should produce a LRLL sequence after Rotation 1 and a RLRR sequence after Rotation 2. While almost all German children produced body-centred responses, the vast majority of Akhoe Hai||om children memorize movements of their limbs in relation to an external reference system anchored in their environment. Paraphrasing, their arms don't move right, but west.

"The human mind varies more across cultures than we generally assume," said Daniel Haun, member of the Max Planck Research Group for Comparative Cognitive Anthropology. "Even everyday tasks that we would never think of doing any other way, like remembering body movements, are done differently in other places. This is the kind of fact that should make us stop and reconsider how little we know about the diversity of human cognition. The Akhoe Hai||om community is an exemplar of indigenous cultures around the world with drastically different concepts of their surroundings, which are the key to understand the plasticity of the human mind. However, these astonishing cultures are constantly vanishing and therefore the documentation of this kind of human variability is a highly urgent task".

In future research the Max Planck research Group for Comparative Cognitive Anthropology aims to document the extent of cross-cultural variability in different domains of human cognition and determine the underlying uniquely human set of psychological mechanisms, which allow and stabilize the astounding cross-cultural cognitive variability across the human species.

Haun. Daniel Dr. 2009. "More than a jump to the left". EurekAlert. Posted: December 15, 2009. Available online:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Speech and Gesture Mutually Interact to Enhance Comprehension

Your mother may have taught you that it’s rude to point, but according to new research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, gesturing may actually help improve communication.

Psychological scientist Spencer Kelly from Colgate University, along with Asli Özyürek and Eric Maris from Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands) were interested in the interaction between speech and gesturing and how important this relationship is for language. In this study, volunteers watched brief videos of common actions (e.g., someone chopping vegetables, washing dishes) followed by a one-second video of a spoken word and a gesture. In some of the trials (congruent trials), the speech and gestures were related (e.g., “chop,” chopping gesture), while during other trials (incongruent trials), what was said did not match the gesture (e.g., “chop,” twisting gesture). The volunteers had to indicate whether the speech and gesture were related to the initial video they watched.

The results revealed that the volunteers performed better during congruent trials than incongruent trials — they were faster and more accurate when the gesture matched the spoken word. Furthermore, these results were replicated when the volunteers were told to pay attention only to the spoken word and not the gesture. Taken together, these findings suggest that when gesture and speech convey the same information, they are easier to understand than when they convey different information. In addition, these results indicate that gesture and speech form an integrated system that helps us in language comprehension.

The researchers note that “these results have implications for everyday communicative situations, such as in educational contexts (both teachers and students), persuasive messages (political speeches, advertisements), and situations of urgency (first aid, cock pit conversations).” They suggest that the best way for speakers to get their message across is to “coordinate what they say with their words with what they do with their hands.” In other words, the authors conclude, “If you really want to make your point clear and readily understood, let your words and hands do the talking.”


Isanski, Barbara. 2010. Posted: January 4, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Genetic study clarifies African and African-American ancestry

PHILADELPHIA –- People who identify as African-American may be as little as 1 percent West African or as much as 99 percent, just one finding of a large-scale, genome-wide study of African and African-American ancestry released today.

An international research team led by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University has collected and analyzed genotype data from 365 African-Americans, 203 people from 12 West African populations and 400 Europeans from 42 countries to provide a genome-wide perspective of African and African-American ancestry.

The data reveal genomic diversity among African and African-American populations far more complex than originally thought and reflect deep historical, cultural and linguistic impacts on gene flow among populations. The data also point to the ability of geneticists to reliably discern ancestry using such data. Scientists found, for example, that they could distinguish African and European ancestry at each region of the genome of self-identified-African Americans.

Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at Penn, and Carlos Bustamante, a computational biologist at Cornell, led the study to analyze 300,000 genetic markers from across the genome from West African, African-American and European-American populations to see whether they could reliably distinguish ancestry.

The team found that, while some West African populations are nearly indistinguishable, there are clear and discernible genetic differences among some groups, divided along linguistic and geographic lines.

This newly acquired genetic data revealed a number of important advances, including:

* The rich mosaic of African-American ancestry. Among the 365 African-Americans in the study, individuals had as little as 1 percent West African ancestry and as much as 99 percent. There are significant implications for pharmacogenomic studies and assessment of disease risk. It appears that the range of genetic ancestry captured under the term African-American is extremely diverse, suggesting that caution should be used in prescribing treatment based on differential guidelines for African-Americans.
* A median proportion of European ancestry in African-Americans of 18.5 percent, with large variation among individuals.
* The predominately African origin of X chromosomes of African-Americans. This is consistent with the pattern of gene flow where mothers were mostly of African ancestry while fathers were either of African or European ancestry.
* A technique which can reliably distinguish African and European ancestry for any particular region of the genome in African-Americans. This could have implications for personalized ancestry reconstructions, personalized medicine and more effective drug treatments and could aid in developing more effective methods for mapping genetic risk factors for diseases common in African-Americans, such as hypertension, diabetes and prostate cancer.
* The similarity of the West African component of African-American ancestry to the profile from non-Bantu Niger-Kordofanian speaking populations, which include the Igbo and Yoruba from Nigeria and the Brong from Ghana
* A comparison of the West African segments of African-American genomes. This is wholly in line with historical documents showing that the Igbo and Yoruba are two of the 10 most frequent ethnicities in slave trade records; however, most African-Americans also have ancestry from Bantu-speaking populations in western Africa.
* Population structure within the West African samples reflecting primarily language and secondarily geographical distance, echoing the Bantu expansion from a homeland in West Africa across much of sub-Saharan Africa around 4,000 years ago.

"Africa, which is the homeland of all modern humans, contains more than 2,000 ethnolinguistic groups and harbors great genetic and phenotypic diversity; however, little is known about fine-scale population structure at a genome-wide level," said Tishkoff, professor in the departments of genetics and biology at Penn. "We were able to distinguish among closely related West African populations and showed that genetically inferred ancestry correlates strongly with geography and language, reflecting historic migration events in Africa.

"We were also able to show that there is little genetic differentiation among African-Americans in the African portion of their ancestry, reflecting the fact that most African-Americans have ancestry from several regions of western Africa. The greatest variation among African-Americans is in their proportion of European ancestry, which has important implications for the design of personalized medical treatments."

The study focused primarily on the genetic structure of West African populations, as previous genetic and historical studies suggested that the region was the source for most of the ancestry of present-day African-Americans. The results suggest that there are clear and discernible genetic differences among some of the West African populations, whereas others appear to be nearly indistinguishable, even when comparing more than 300,000 genetic markers. The researchers note that a larger sample size would likely reveal further substructure and diversity between these populations.

Analyzing patterns of population structure and individual ancestry in Africans and African-Americans illuminates the history of human populations and is critical for undertaking medical genomic studies on a global scale. Understanding ancestry not only provides insight into historical migration patterns, human origins and greater understanding of evolutionary forces, but also allows researchers to examine disease susceptibility and pharmacogenic response, and to develop personalized drugs and treatments, a frontier in public health.

There is also strong reason to believe that high-density genotype data from African and African-American populations may pinpoint more precisely the geographic origin of African ancestry in African-Americans, the researchers said. The study appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reese, Jordan. 2009. "Genetic study clarifies African and African-American ancestry". EurekAlerts. Posted: December 21, 2009. Available online:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Queen's University study finds first-generation immigrants struggling in education system

First-generation immigrant adolescents in Canada performed below average in math and science in recent testing indicating that these students may be struggling to succeed in the educational system. These results from a study by Queen's University Faculty of Education PhD candidate Shaljan Areepattamannil are surprising because they contradict findings of other studies.

"Immigrant children are the fastest growing sector in the Canadian child population and account for nearly one in five Canadian school children. Therefore, the integration of immigrant children into schools should be an important issue for educators," says Mr. Areepattamannil (pronounced "A-ree-pat-a-man-ill"). "How these children adapt and the educational pathways they take will clearly have profound implications for Canadian society."

The study examined the results of 2,636 13-year-old first-generation immigrant students from British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec who took part in the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The data reveals those students' math and science results were "substantially below" the TIMSS scale average of 500.

Because TIMSS 2007 Grade 8 assessment was administered in only three Canadian provinces, Areepattamannil feels more research using Canada-wide data is needed. Still, he feels the findings should raise some concerns.

"Most of the parents of first-generation immigrant students arrived in Canada from China and India. Unlike schools in Canada, both curriculum and instruction in schools across these countries emphasize rote memorization," says Mr. Areepattamannil, who came to Canada from India in 2004. "I'd like to further explore the factors that precipitate first-generation immigrant students' disengagement from Canadian schools with a view to understanding what needs to be changed to better accommodate the needs of first-generation immigrant students in the Canadian school setting."


Onesi, Michael. 2010. "Queen's University study finds first-generation immigrants struggling in education system". EurekAlert. Posted: January 13, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

400 Hundred year old Chinese Map Depicts Canada

The missionary Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata in Italy. He took up theology and law in Roman Jesuit school. In 1577 he applied to join missionary expeditions to India and in 1578 made his way there via Portuguese Goa. Four years later he was sent to China.

He arrived in Macau in 1582. The Portuguese colony was the home of China's young Christian community. However Ricci joined fellow missionary, Michele Ruggieri in learning the Chinese language and customs. He traveled throughout Guandong Province and soon became quite fluent in Chinese. He received permission to settle in Zhaoqing because the Governor of the Province learned that Ricci was quite adept at mathematics and cartography.

It was in Zhaoqing that he composed the first European-style map of the world in Chinese. It was called the "Impossible Black Tulip" because it was so rare. The map was printed on rice paper, and only six copies survive to the present day.

His 1602 map of the world in Chinese shows Ka-Na-Ta for Canada. It is believed this is one of the first world maps to do so. He died 8 years after the map was made at the age of 58.

Rare 1602 World Map, the First Map in Chinese to Show the Americas, on Display at Library of Congress, Jan. 12 to April 10

A rare, 400-year-old map that displays China at the center of the world will be on exhibit at the Library of Congress from Jan. 12 to April 10, before it heads to its intended home at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The map is on loan from the James Ford Bell Trust.

The Matteo Ricci World Map, the first in Chinese to show the Americas, will be on exhibit for the first time in North America, joining the Library of Congress’ cartographic gem, the 1507 Waldseemüller World Map, in the ongoing exhibition "Exploring the Early Americas." The exhibit is free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, in the Northwest Pavilion on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C.

After the three-month display, the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division will digitally scan the 1602 document and make the electronic image available to scholars and students for research.

"When the James Ford Bell Trust asked the Library to be the site for unveiling the Ricci map in North America, I was delighted," said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services. "The Ricci map, the first map in Chinese to show the Americas, will be placed near the Library’s Waldseemüller Map of 1507, the first document to name America and to depict a separate and full Western Hemisphere. These two maps will ‘talk’ to each other, offering a unique perspective on East-West linkages."

The 1602 map was drawn by Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a missionary in China, and measures 5.5 feet tall by 12.5 feet wide. It was designed to be mounted on a folding screen.

The James Ford Bell Trust purchased the map for $1 million from the firm of Bernard J. Shapero, a noted dealer of rare books and maps in London, for the benefit of the James Ford Bell Library.

When the map returns to Minnesota, it will be displayed for a limited time at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Afterward it will move to its intended home in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

The James Ford Bell Library documents the history and impact of international trade prior to 1800. Its premier collection of rare books, maps and manuscripts illustrates the ways in which cultural influences expanded worldwide, with a special emphasis on European interactions.


Anonymous. 2010. "Matteo Ricci". Wikipedia. Available online:

Anonymous. 2010. "Rare 1602 Chinese Map on Display". Library of Congress. Newsrelease. Posted: January 12, 2010. Available online:

Map: Henry Davis Consulting. 1998. "441 World Map, Matteo Ricci, 1602." Henry Davis Consulting. Posted: February 12, 1998. Available online:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language Episode # 5 Life and Death - preview

This is the final episode in the preview of the documentary. Just a reminder that you can purchase the DVD through this site.

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language Episode # 5 Life and Death - preview. It is predicted that within a century more than half of the worlds languages will become extinct, but as languages are lost, new ones emerge naturally or are constructed. In this program, Noam Chomsky; Esperantist Thomas Eccard; endangered languages researcher Peter Ladefoged, who has since passed away; and others provide insights into the language life cycle. Topics include constructed languages such as Esperanto, language endangerment and preservation, and the role of globalization in language obsolescence. The experts also discuss current language trends and offer their opinions on which languages may emerge as front-runners of the future. (48 minutes) One part of a five part ground breaking documentary series
Produced by Syncopated Productions Inc.

Free men 'built Egypt's pyramids'

Tombs discovered near Egypt's great pyramids reinforce the theory they were built by free workers rather than slaves.

The location of the tombs, where workers who built the pyramids of Khufu (Cheops) and Khafre (Chephren) are buried, suggests they were not slaves.

The tombs, made from bricks of dried mud, date back 4,500 years.

They are the first to be discovered since the first such workers' tombs were found in 1990.

"These tombs were built beside the king's pyramid, which indicates these people were not by any means slaves," Zahi Hawass, the chief archaeologist heading the Egyptian excavation team, said in a statement.

"If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king's."

Evidence from the site indicated the approximately 10,000 workers who built the pyramids had eaten 21 cattle and 23 sheep sent to them daily from farms in the Delta and Upper Egypt, said Dr Hawass.

This would suggest the farmers who sent the animals were not paying their taxes to the Egyptian government, but were sharing in one of Egypt's national projects, he added.

The workers were employed for three-month stints, and the tombs, which date from the 4th and 5th Dynasties (2649-2374 BC), were for those who died during construction.

The authorities have long fought what they call the "myth" of slaves building the pyramids, saying it undermines the skill involved in their construction, and the sophistication of ancient Egypt's civilisation.

You can find more stories about this:

ABC News
Guardian story 1
Guardian story 2

Anonymous. 2010. "Free men 'built Egypt's pyramids'". BBC News. Posted: January 11, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language Episode # 4 Civilization to Colonization - preview

Speaking in Tongues The History of Language Episode # 4 Civilization to Colonization - preview. Writing is a relative latecomer to the history of language. This program tracks its emergence in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica and its spread down through the millennia via conquest—usually violent, sometimes benign—and colonization. The creation of creoles and pidgins resulting from the interaction of specific populations is also addressed, and speculation is made about the first things to be written down. Noam Chomsky; Peter Daniels, coeditor of The Worlds Writing Systems; the Manhattan Institutes John McWhorter; MITs Michel DeGraff; and Salikoko Mufwene, of The University of Chicago, contribute. (48 minutes)
One part of a five part ground breaking documentary series

Monday, January 11, 2010

Speaking in Tongue: The History of language Episode # 3 Mother Tongue - preview

Speaking in Tongue: The History of language Episode # 3 Mother Tongue - preview. This program travels the globe as it surveys a large portion of the worlds languages—25 percent of which are spoken by a mere 0.1 percent of the Earths population. Moving from Africa to Oceania and up to Asia and then west to Europe and across the ocean to the Americas, the program assesses how many languages are spoken in each region, the characteristics they share, and misconceptions about them. Historical background on some of the key languages of the regions is included as well. The commentary of Salikoko Mufwene, coeditor of The Ecology of Language Evolution; Larry Hyman, of U.C. Berkeley; Hua Lin, of the University of Victoria; Harvard Universitys Jay Jasanoff; and Lyle Campbell, of the University of Utah, is featured. (48 minutes) Produced by One part of a five part ground breaking documentary series.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language Episode #2 Constant Change preview

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language Episode #2 Constant Change preview. In this program, John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language; Lyle Campbell, of the University of Utah; Brian Joseph, of The Ohio State University; and population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza examine factors that contributed to the diversification and spread of languages, including early migration, the introduction of agriculture, and genes. Language transfer from mother to child and from one population to the next is also investigated, along with the concept of dialects and commonalities among the worlds more than 6,000 languages. (48 minutes) One part of a five part ground breaking documentary series.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language - Episode # 1 Let There Be Words

Over the next 5 days I will post this series of preview videos regarding the history of language. If you are interested in purchasing the DVD for this series go to this site.

Speaking in Tongues: The History of Langauge - Episode # 1 - Let There Be Words preview. What precisely is language, and how did humans acquire it? In an effort to answer those essential questions, this program journeys back to prehistoric times in search of languages origin. But this is not a passive discussion, as Noam Chomsky; Brown Universitys Philip Lieberman; Johanna Nichols, of U.C. Berkeley; Stanford Universitys Merritt Ruhlen; professor of anthropology Richard Klein; Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann; and others passionately defend their points of view. Additional topics include distinguishing features of human communication and what humankinds first utterances may have been. The early evolution and migration of humans is also considered. (48 minutes) One part of a five part ground breaking documentary series
Produced by Syncopated Productions Inc.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Anthropology Song: A little bit Anthropologist

I loved this.

This song is dedicated to all anthro-enthusiasts (lay and pro), and especially to my own students, and the current students of my own first introductory Anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia -- who are a very fortunate bunch. I can only hope that you enjoy and appreciate that class and prof as much as I did! And that anthro continues to inspire you throughout your life, wherever it may take you :)

The line about Anthro professors all being kinda crazy I will specifically dedicate to that (nameless) prof, who has continued to inspire me towards craziness ever since that first class back in 2004.(Daionisio)

Check out her interview with Lorenz Khazaleh for his blog!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Documentary: "The Linguists"

The documentary was released in 2008. It's an amazing journey taken by two linguists as they search out the world's dying languages and record them before they are gone. The following is an interview with Dr. K. David Harrison. The discussion is a chance for him to push his book, "When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge" but also mentions the documentary.

By the way, the book is available in paperback at for CDN$20.85; for USD$15.34; and Chapters/Indigo for CDN$35.95 (for the hardcover, listed as sold out.)

Enjoy the discussion.

About the Documentary:

With colonialism and globalization, speakers of thousands of the world’s languages are abandoning their ancestral tongues at an unprecedented rate. What is lost when these speakers switch to English, Hindi, Russian, or another larger language? And why should we care if smaller languages vanish?

Languages are repositories of thousands of years of a people’s science and art, from observations of ecological patterns to creation myths. The disappearance of a language is a loss not only for the community of speakers, but also for our common knowledge of mathematics, biology, geography, philosophy, agriculture, and linguistics. In this century, we are facing a massive erosion of the human knowledge base.

In The Linguists, we see languages at various stages of endangerment. In the earliest stages, because children want or are forced to speak the language of a dominant group, they shy away from using their ancestral tongue. Soon a language becomes moribund, with no child speakers left. Then, as the speakers age and are not replaced, the language undergoes a process of “invisibilization.” The pool of users becomes smaller and less active. People begin to forget the language. Eventually, it may go extinct (Source).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How a linguist revived ‘New World’ language

Yesterday's blog talked about the invented language Na'vi created for a science fiction movie. Today I want to look at the revival of a language for the cinema.

What would Pocahontas say? That's what was on writer/director Terence Malick's mind when he started to film "The New World," his cinematic retelling of the saga surrounding Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.

Malick thought he could just find some contemporary speakers of the language that was used by Pocahontas and her tribe in pre-colonial Virginia — and he was somewhat surprised to find out that the language had been extinct for more than 200 years.

A less rigorous director might have given up, but Malick instead turned to Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in past and present American Indian languages. Rudes' work to reconstruct and revitalize the Virginia Algonquian language might itself make for a good movie — or at least a History Channel documentary.

It's a rare success story in the linguistic game: Many of the more than 800 languages that were spoken in North America when the Europeans arrived have gone extinct, including all but a handful of the 15 or so East Coast Algonquian dialects.

Reconstructing the dialogue
Rudes started the job in the summer of 2004, after receiving the scripts for two scenes where Malick wanted to use Virginia Algonquian. First, the linguist had to reconceptualize the dialogue in American Indian terms. For example, a member of Powhatan's tribe wouldn't think of the Jamestown settlers as coming from a "land to the east" — since for all they knew, there was only water to the east. So a reference to England was rephrased as the "island on the other side of the water."

Then Rudes had to figure out how the dialogue would be spoken in Virginia Algonquian. The only surviving vocabulary is a list of about 50 words set down by Smith himself, plus a 600-word list set down in 1612 by William Strachey, a secretary for the Jamestown colony. "Neither of them was a linguist or particularly skilled in transcribing foreign languages," Rudes said.

What's more, 600 words or so fell far short of the thousands needed to do justice to the "New World" dialogue. So Rudes assessed every word in the light of better-documented Algonquian languages, including the ancestral Proto-Algonquian that linguists have reconstructed through cross-language comparisons.

Rudes also had to reconstruct the grammar, based on what he knew about Algonquian languages in general. "The sentence structure and word structure differs from English in that it's a much more inflectional language," he said. The language has some similarities to Russian, in that there is no form of the verb "to be," and no articles such as "the" or "a."

When he finished his translation, Rudes spoke the dialogue in his reconstructed Virginia Algonquian, recording it on compact disks so that the actors could learn their lines in a language no one alive ever heard before. Click on the audio link below to listen to a sample clip, or click here for a text transcript.

Once the CDs were recorded, Rudes thought the hardest part of the job was finished — but it had really just begun.

Malick liked Rudes' translations of the two scenes so much that he decided to have all the native dialogue spoken in Virginia Algonquian with English subtitles. "It went from two scenes to somewhere around 48 or 50 scenes at that point," Rudes recalled.

So Rudes had to slave away on more translations for nearly a month in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Va., where Malick was filming. And that's not all. Malick encouraged the actors to improvise while they were on location.

"Ideas would come to Terrence Malick on the spur of the moment, and sometimes that meant changing the dialogue," Rudes said. "I was on the set all the time that scenes were filmed in which the native actors were present, in case there was a change in dialogue."

Rudes and the filmmakers agreed that if his spur-of-the-moment translation turned out to be slightly off, there would be a chance to correct the dialogue later during the editing process. So for two days last September, Rudes went to Hollywood to work with the actors during their voiceover sessions. "Surprisingly little" of the language needed to be changed, Rudes said.

Bonus for the tribes
Rudes said the Indians he got to know during the filming "were very pleased with my work," and the descendants of Pocahontas' people will soon be getting a bonus. "When the DVD for the film is released, all of the CDs and scripts that I prepared on the language are being turned over to the tribes," he said.

In addition, Rudes is working with Old Dominion University's Helen Rountree, one of the country's top experts on the Virginia tribes, to help develop a dictionary of Virginia Algonquian. He's also working on other language restoration projects with North Carolina's Catawba tribe and Connecticut's Pequot tribe.

Looking back, Rudes said that if it weren't for Malick's desire to hear Pocahontas' authentic words, it would have been much harder to bring Virginian Algonquian back from the dead.

"It might have been done anyway, but it would have taken much, much longer," Rudes said. "This type of work is very time-consuming and expensive. ... There are so many other projects, I probably wouldn't have turned to this one."

Boyle, Alan. 2006. "How a linguist revived ‘New World’ language". Posted: January 21, 2006. Available online:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How to speak 'Avatar'

With the success of the movie, it may well be the beginning of yet another "movie" language becoming popular.

Ayftozä lefpom ayngaru nìwotx! That's "Happy Holidays to You All" in Na'vi, the language that was created for the sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar." The professor who made up that phrase as well as all the alien dialogue in the movie hopes Na'vi does as well as Klingon, another fictional alien tongue that has taken on a life of its own. But for now, that's out of his hands.

"I have an in-box that's amazingly full," linguist Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, told me today. "They're all asking the same thing: 'Where can I learn this language?' I'm getting messages from all over the globe. The thing is, I don't own the rights to the language."

Frommer noted that snippets of Na'vi are finding their way onto the Internet - some correct, some incorrect. "What I would love to do is get something out to the people, but I can't do it on my own. I have to do it in conjunction with the movie people," he said.

Those people have been a little busy - which is understandable, considering that "Avatar" has been America's top-grossing movie for the past two weeks. But once the holidays are over and school is back in session, Frommer is planning to check in with Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind "Avatar," and with Lightstorm Entertainment, director James Cameron's production company.

If Na'vi takes off the way the "Avatar" saga has, Frommer could well follow in the footsteps of fellow linguist Marc Okrand, whose rendering of "Star Trek" Klingon has been immortalized in dictionaries, literary works, films, online name generators, rap music and merchandise. Heck, there's even a Klingon Language Institute.

How Na'vi lingo was born

The gestation period for the Na'vi language was much longer than a Klingon pregnancy: Cameron conceived of the idea behind "Avatar" - set in a world where humans could interact with aliens by projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered alien bodies, or avatars - back in 1994. The filmmaker already had some definite ideas about names and words when he put out the word in 2005 that he was looking for a linguist.

At the time, Frommer was director of the Center for Management Communication at USC and the co-author of a linguistics textbook. He jumped at the chance to work with Cameron. "It's probably the most exciting thing that's happened to me," he said.

The first job was to find a palette of sounds that would satisfy Cameron's vision. "I wanted to make sure that whatever aural impression I came up with would be something that he'd be happy with," Frommer said.

The professor offered up three audio choices: a language like Mandarin Chinese, where rising or falling tones convey meaning; a language where vowel lengths make a difference, as they do in Mayan languages, for instance; or a language with ejective sounds, paralleling Native American tongues ranging from Lakota to Tlingit.

Cameron went with the ejectives, and as a result, you'll hear p's, t's and k's occasionally popping out of the mouths of the Na'vi. How do you enunciate an ejective? Here's Frommer's example: "You make a 'k' sound as loudly as you can without breathing, and then you add a vowel ... k-uhhhh." In written Na'vi, the sounds are represented by px, tx and kx.

Building a language

Frommer's next task was to whip up a recipe for combining the sounds. "It's not just a question of what sounds go into the languages, but also what sounds are excluded," he said. "If you throw in every kind of spice you have in the kitchen, you're not going to get something distinctive."

So Frommer held back on some of the ingredients commonly found in English. "There's no buh, duh, guh. There's no 'j' sound. There's no chuh, shuh or thuh," he said. To compensate, he added some sounds not commonly found in English, including the initial consonant clusters fp-, tsm-, sng-, tskx- and ftx-.

Another feature of spoken Na'vi is its use of vowel clusters. Frommer's favorite example is the eight-syllable mouthful "meoauniaea" (meh-oh-ah-oo-nee-ah-eh-ah). "Don't ask me what it means - I haven't assigned a meaning yet. But I love the word!" Frommer said.

The sounds were sometimes real tongue-twisters for the actors, who had to be taught how to say their Na'vi lines. "I didn't think I could get through it," Zoe Saldana, who plays the alien heroine in "Avatar," told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not good with languages. All the actors, we worked together. It was the only way."

Frommer assumed that the ejectives would be the hardest part for the actors, but the real toughies were some of the initial consonants, such as ng- (as in "fishing" or "nga," the Na'vi word for "you"). "Putting a familiar sound in an unfamiliar place turned out to be the most difficult," he said.

The overall effect has been called "Afro-Polynesian-Native American." That description might suggest that the language parallels the enviro-panentheistic philosophy expressed by the Na'vi - just as the guttural tones of Klingon parallel that culture's martial bent. But Frommer said he wasn't specifically going for that connection.

"The Klingons are a pretty rough crowd, so Okrand put in a lot of 'khaaaa' and that kind of stuff. What Cameron wanted for Na'vi was something smoother and more appealing, so I tried to make it sound nice," Frommer said. "But other than that, there isn't any obvious correlation between language and culture. So much of that is in the ear of the beholder."

Cameron started out with a repertoire of about 30 words, including the names of the major characters, words for some Pandoran animals and the term "Na'vi" itself. Frommer expanded the vocabulary to more than 1,000 words, adding some to the list even as the movie was being shot.

"There were days when I spent 12 or 13 hours on the set," he recalled. "They would change things on the fly, and they would come to me and say, 'Well, we need to say such-and-such.'"

To continue reading the article, go to the article home.

Boyle, Alan. 2009. "How to speak 'Avatar'".Cosmic Blog, MSNBC. Posted: December 30, 2009. Available online: