from the world's big
Why is Language Veiled?
Pinker: What I basically try to do is understand human nature, how the mind works, what makes us tick. What are the patterns of thought, and emotion and motivation that characterize our species? I focus on language partly because you can’t make a living out of studying human nature. It’s just too big a topic. You’ve got to pick something tractable to study. For me it has been language, and indeed for much of my career one little corner of language, namely regular and irregular verbs. And I have my reasons for focusing on that particular corner. I think it sheds light on larger questions about what makes the mind work. But language as a general topic is, I think, a good entrée into human nature for a number of reasons. It’s distinctively human. If you’re interested in general in what makes humans unlike mice and birds, language is a pretty good place to start not only because of language itself – the fact that we make noise with our mouths in order to get ideas across, but because language has to be fine tuned for the kinds of thoughts and the kinds of social relationships that humans want to share and negotiate with one another. So it’s a window into human nature. It’s also figured into debates on human nature, perhaps most famously with Chomsky in the late 1950s using language as a way to rehabilitate the idea of innate mental structure, something that was virtually taboo in the 1950s. He said language was a very good candidate for something that is innately and uniquely human. So it’s an opening wedge for the idea that important parts of the mind are innately structured. It’s also a prime case of mental computation. It’s very hard to make sense of language, of our ability to string words into new combinations, sentences that other people have never heard before but can very quickly understand for the first time without appealing to the idea that we have a mental algorithm, a set of rules, or a recipe or a formula that picks words out of a memory store and strings them together in combinations where the order, as well as the choice of words is meaningful. So language sheds light on the idea that the mind is a computational system.
Question: Why is language veiled?
Pinker: My main preoccupation today is using language as a window into human nature. I’ve studied language in the past as an example of human computation. What are the kinds of simple operations of look up in combination that the mind is capable of? How is language structured? What I’m turning to now is the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships. For example, why is so much of language use veiled, or indirect, or done via innuendo rather than people blurting out exactly what they mean? Why do I say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great?” instead of “Give me the salt.” Why does someone make a sexual overture in terms of, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” rather than, “Do you want to have sex?” Why are threats so often veiled you know, “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.” Given that the listener knows exactly what the speaker had in mind, it’s not that anyone is fooled by this charade; but nonetheless some aspect of the social relationship seems to be preserved if the request is slipped in between the lines. I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo. Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity. Just to be concrete, why do you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great.” Well in issuing an imperative, you’re kind of changing the relationship. You’re turning it into one of dominance. You’re saying to a friend or to a stranger, “I’m going to act as if I can boss you around and presuppose your compliance.” You may not want to move the relationship in that direction. At the same time you want the damn salt. So if you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great,” it’s such a non sequitor the intelligence of the listener can figure out that it really is a request. But both of you know that you haven’t actually turned the relationship into a superior-inferior. I think that’s the key to understanding all of these. That the sexual overture, the veiled threat, the veiled bribe and so on are ways of preserving one of several kinds of relationships at the same time as we transact the business of life such as requests, such as sexual overtures that might be inconsistent with the relationship that we have with the person. So it’s in a way of using language as a way of doing social psychology.
Question: Why do we use metaphors?
Pinker: I’m also interested in the effective memory on language. Why is so much language metaphorical? Not in terms of poetic ornamentation. We don’t even realize that they’re metaphorical. We say something like, “He moved the meeting from 3:00 to 4:00,” we’re using the metaphor of time as a line, as a spacial dimension of a meeting as a thing, and a rescheduling as causing emotion. If we say, “I have to force myself to be polite,” without realizing it using a metaphor of our natural inclination as inertia; a change in inclination as the application of force; and indeed as conflicting tendencies as different object or people inside our skull being shoved around. It’s almost hard to find an example of language that’s not metaphorical. So what does that say about the human mind? Does it say that we actually can never think abstractly, but deep down we always have little cartoons in our head of little pucks being slid around on the ice, or people shoving each other inside the skull? Or does it mean that we really do think abstractly, but that deep in the midst of history when the first coiner of expressions like “force so and so to be nice” or “move the meeting” came about, they needed some kind of verbiage. And so they cooked up a metaphor on the spot. It’s better than saying ________ if you can say force, because at least some people might have some chance of knowing what you’re talking about. But ever since we’d been repeating the metaphor dumbly, and we really do think abstractly, that’s an interesting question about what makes us tick inspired by language, and I’d like to get some insight into it.
Topic: The Almighty Verb
Pinker: I did what I think is, and for a long time to will be the most exhaustive study of one aspect of child language development. The fact that kids make errors like, “We holded the baby rabbits,” and “The alligator go kerplunk.” Or they add a regular suffix like “-ed” to an irregular verb like “hold” or “hear” or “stick”, producing errors like “sticked” and “teared” and “holded”. I analyzed 20,000 of those forms from computer transcripts of children developing language, and developed a theory of why kids make that error, how they outgrow it, what it shows about language. The reason to obsess over a tiny little topic like that is that it’s a nice illustration of children’s creativity in acquiring language. The essence of language is that you aren’t restricted to a fixed list of messages that you’ve memorized and then you regurgitate like a parrot; but rather you recreate . . . recombine elements to create new messages. Every sentence that we utter is a brand new sentence, but it’s rather hard to study the process of kids making up new sentences. When a kid says something like “sticked”, or “teared”, or “heared”, or “holded”, that’s a tiny example of recombination that I think is the engine that powers language as a whole. The act of children making an error like that I think is a way of catching them in the act of doing something that makes language powerful, mainly combining things by rules. And in trying to understand that one phenomenon, I hope that we – my students and I – shed light on the process of linguistic generativity or creativity in general. I also try very hard to crack the code of what verbs means and how that influences how we use them in sentences. The verb is, in a way, the chassis of the sentence. Once you pick the verb, it’s got slots that the rest of the sentence is built around – the subject, the object, the indirect object, prepositional objects and so on. So knowing how the verb works tells you a lot about how the sentence works. And how the verb works depends on what the verb means. You might think how could you ever get a handle on something as nebulous as what a verb means. But I’d like to think that I cracked a lot of that code. What’s the difference between a verb like “to fill”, and a verb like “to pour”, and a verb like “to load”? They’re not just video images in the head of someone pouring, and filling, and loading, but rather they have an anatomy. They’re built out of parts – parts like to cause, to move, means versus end, let versus cause. I’d like to think that in addition to making some empirical discoveries – how little things work, for me in the case of language – I hope to have helped put things together. There’s so much of science and scholarship that consists of hyper specialized efforts. Necessarily have to pick one topic now because it’s retractable. It’s something that a single person can hope to make headway on in a lifetime. But when you do that, you also lose sight of the big picture. If you study _____ about irregular verbs, or experiments on word recognition, you lose sight of a question like, “What’s language for? How does it work?” A question that let’s say a lay person quite reasonably might ask, but which most specialists are completely ill-equipped to answer because they necessarily have to focus on a particular phenomenon.
I’d like to think that I have also helped draw the big picture in the case of language, the idea that language works by an interplay between memorized units that we call words and rules for combining them; and that the reason that we have language is that we are a species that lives off social cooperation and know-how; and that language is an evolutionary adaptation that multiples the power of technological know-how by allowing us to share it; and that allows us to negotiate relationships. So that is a kind of nutshell description of how language works and why we have it. And I think it’s not so obvious that it’s helpful for someone to draw the picture in such broad brushstrokes. And I’d like to think that I’ve done the same . . . or helped to do something like that for the human mind. How does the mind work? What is a human mind for? The idea that the mind is a system of organs of computation – that is, information processing sub systems that evolved by natural selection to allow us to figure out how the world works and figure out how other people work as a survival strategy for homo sapiens. It is a general idea, but it does help to make sense of the whole shebang. I think it offers me some potential of a satisfying answer as to why we have a mind and what it does. So both at the microscopic end of how irregular verbs work and why kids make errors on them, and a macroscopic view of what is language, what is the mind?
Language sheds light on the idea that the mind is a computational system.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
Be fruitful and multiply<p>Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.</p><p>In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring. </p><p>Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each <a href="https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/37/6/1408/729795" target="_blank">child</a>. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-016-0471-0" target="_blank">additional sibling they have</a>. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores. </p><p>Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn't have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother's social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children's test scores. However, this association was small, didn't show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables. </p> These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate. <br> <br> Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15327957pspr0904_5" target="_blank">previous studies</a> and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
So, how quickly should I join a local religious group?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="6RrmYM8M" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9eb4740a7d1e10108a75fd2ed627a90f"> <div id="botr_6RrmYM8M_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/6RrmYM8M-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.</p><p>These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.</p><p>This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.</p><p>However, the researchers' hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families. </p>
The community religion offers<p>As we've mentioned <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/what-is-secular-humanism" target="_blank">before</a>, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.</p><p>While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research. </p><p>The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612472910" target="_blank">group trust</a> and <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069397103037002003" target="_blank">cooperation</a> are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications. </p><p>While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world. </p>
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
A neuroscientist argues that da Vinci shared a disorder with Picasso and Rembrandt.
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3Mjc2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTA4MDg2NH0.T-98YvLjS9mUCQkgqHyV43Q7h_JIiubrev-Fp_0j4Pg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C38%2C0%2C579&height=700" id="58346" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="674799ba34e115a2e9a3e94c366bfc26" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci created c. 1480–1490<p><a href="https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/christopher-tyler" target="_blank">Professor Christopher Tyler</a> of the City University of London's optometry division analyzed six pieces of Renaissance art by or held to be images of Da Vinci, including the famous <em>Vitruvian Man. </em>By looking at the paintings, drawings, and statues and applying the same techniques optometrists use on patients, Tyler was able to conclude that the eyes of the men depicted were misaligned.</p><p> He concluded that, if the images he analyzed were truly reflective of how Da Vinci looked, that the great artist had a mild case of exotropia. </p>
How would this have helped him paint?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b221010aa7688734d4d6a41f0df5933f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/j6F-sHhmfrY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://shileyeye.ucsd.edu/faculty/shira-robbins" target="_blank">Shira Robbins</a>, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at San Diego, who was not involved with the project, explained to <em><a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/19/leonardo-da-vincis-genius-may-be-rooted-in-a-common-eye-disorder-new-study-says/?utm_term=.d3f44ed91c16" target="_blank">The Washington Post</a> </em>how individuals with exotropia often turn to additional information to help understand the world around them:</p><blockquote>"What happens in some people is when they're only using one eye . . . they develop other cues besides traditional depth perception to understand where things are in space, looking at color and shadow in a way that most of us who use both eyes at a time don't really appreciate." </blockquote><p>Dr. Robbins agrees that, if the artworks analyzed accurately depict Da Vinci, then he probably had exotropia.</p><p>If Da Vinci did have a mild form of the condition, which would allow him to focus with both eyes when concentrating and with one when relaxed, Tyler asserts that the famed artist could have viewed the world in two or three dimensions at will, showing him the world exactly as he would need to recreate it on a flat surface. Quite the superpower for an artist.</p>
Does this mean Da Vinci would have been a hack if he had normal eyesight?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3MjY5NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjYwOTgxOH0.eSu3YBpCuaDj59-4lzSeZ1WgwtV2ETGiWHqczzW3how/img.png?width=980" id="9c323" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="edd4e9e9d9c1156a53242df6288d7cc0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
How can we know this? He has been dead for five hundred years.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c26fc51b0aebbcd6905593015fec79e5"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LRAptNtN9-A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>There are reasons to be cautious anytime we make claims about people who are long dead. In this case, we have the bonus problem that we aren't 100 percent sure that the images used are supposed to look like Da Vinci. </p><p> That is the major caveat of the idea; all of the images used as evidence of his condition are assumed to look like him. While some of the images, like the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Verrocchio)" target="_blank"><em>David</em> by Andrea del Verrocchio</a>, are generally agreed to be based on Leonardo the other pictures are claimed to be reflective of him based only on his statement that "[The soul] guides the painter's arm and makes him reproduce himself, since it appears to the soul that this is the best way to represent a human being." </p><p>Tyler also argues that the portraits he claims are based on Da Vinci share similarities with the images generally accepted to be portraits of him; including similar hair and facial features. This lends weight to the idea that the artist incorporated his own traits into his artwork, including his vision problem. </p><p>Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses of all time. If he had exotropia, then it was merely a minor addition to his artistic skills. It does, however, give us a literal example of how people who look at the world differently can use that vantage point to their advantage to create things we all can appreciate. </p>
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.