Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

17 MAY, 2011

BBC’s The Human Animal

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What offensive Italian hand-gestures have to do with beauty and the evolution of sexuality.

In 1994, BBC and Discovery Channel reached out to British zoologist, ethologist and popular anthropologist Desmond Morris for an ambitious and unusual endeavor: To illuminate human behavior from a zoological perspective — because we are, after all, just another animal species. The result was The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, a fascinating series later adapted as a book entitled The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.

More than the mere fascination of finding out about our deep pre-wiring, I find the documentary particularly timely in a cultural moment where we’re constantly caught up in some sort of media-perpetuated otherness, making it ever-easier to see those of other cultures, faiths, political beliefs or sexual orientation as so distinctly different from us that we forget our shared humanity.

Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris

The documentary is now available on Google Video in six parts, each examining a different biological component of our beliefs, behaviors and ways of being — a timeless and timely reminder that we share far more than we think.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY

The series begins with The Language of the Body — a fascinating look at how mankind communicated before the evolution of language. From gestures and expressions are so deeply ingrained in our collective memory that they appear to be universal to the curious, confusing and often comically misinterpreted cross-cultural difference of insult gestures, the segment explores the rich vocabulary of body language, both universal and regional.

Most regional body language has a long and complicated history, with the origins often forgotten. One of the special qualities of regional gestures is that they’re amazingly conservative — they remain confined to their own particular area, regardless of the fact that all around them national boundaries keep changing. As a result of this, within a particular country today, you can find what we call a ‘gesture frontier’ — a place where one gesture stops and another one begins.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUNTING APE

The second episode, The Hunting Ape, looks at our most fundamental activity — the quest for food — exploring how our origins as hunter-gatherers permeate every aspect of our modern lives, from fast-food culture to dating.

Viewed as a pattern of human feeding behavior, a trip to the supermarket is the remarkable endpoint of a long journey through evolutionary time, a journey that started in the primeval forest and at the checkout counter. To me, it’s a story of an arboreal ape, which became a ground-dwelling predator, which in turn became a credit card customer.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUMAN ZOO

Part three, The Human Zoo, examines how we managed to go from mud to skyscraper in what’s no more than a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. From the subtleties of human hierarchy in an English pub to the tribal behavior displayed by gangs in Los Angeles, the segment looks at the complex sociology of our species and how it shaped our civilization. It’s also fascinating to see, in 1994, one of the earliest time-lapse simulations of land change as Morris explores the construction of human cities over time.

Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE BIOLOGY OF LOVE

Episode four, The Biology of Love, explores the profound impact standing upright had on our sexuality and how this simple anatomic fact affect all our lives today. Morris analyzes how patterns of behaviour and signals of health and fertility evolved to ensure pair-bonding and genetic survival, ultimately underpinning many of our romantic quests and decisions. From the stages of courtship to the aesthetics of physical beauty, the segment looks at the very foundations of our sexual behavior.

The more we understand, the more fascinating the subject becomes. But how did it all begin — how did boy meet girl?” ~ Desmond Morris

THE IMMORTAL GENES

Part five, The Immortal Genes, explores the biological basis for parental love.

Our species has the heaviest parental burden of any animal on earth. Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?” ~ Desmond Morris

BEYOND SURVIVAL

The final part of the series, Beyond Survival, addresses the question we’ve all been asking ourselves since the very first rub with the program’s premise: Are we really merely another animal? And, if so, why do we have things like art, music, literature and philosophy? Morris concludes by exploring the deepest humanness of humans — what we do and who we become once we have our basic needs for food and shelter met. The episode explores concepts like creativity, artistic progression, play and symbolic thinking.

The human animal is not satisfied with mere survival. Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.” ~ Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is one of the most extraordinary books on being human that you’ll ever read, a rare and thought-provoking look at the tender and complex creature behind the socially constructed facade.

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13 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Velcro: From Nature to NASA, Animated

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Innovation that sticks, or how to turn nature’s aggravations into universal usefulness.

This year, Velcro — one of the world’s most beloved multipurpose inventions — celebrates its 60th birthday, and today marks the 53rd anniversary of Velcro’s US patent. The miracle adhesive was the brainchild of Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One afternoon, as he was taking a walk in the forest, he noticed the that burrs — the seeds of burdock thistle — stuck to his clothes and wondered how they did that. So he excitedly rushed home, stuck one under the microscope, and spent the next ten years perfecting nature’s brilliant hook-and-loop adhesion mechanism, eventually producing one of history’s smartest applications of biomimetic design.

To celebrate Velcro’s birthday, here are three different animated short films that tell the same great story of ingenuity and perseverance in just over a minute each.

From HowStuffWorks, here’s a characteristically short-and-sweet evaluation of the invention. Though I have to disagree with their 2/5 on the benefits-to-humanity scale — anything that’s good enough for NASA should be good enough for at least a 4.

From Pan-African media portal ABN Digital, a beat-by-beat recap on the chronology of Velcro’s invention and its impact as a zipper alternative.

And my favorite, from designer Antonio Alarcón Román, a delightfully fuzzy motion graphics narrative:

And a big “THANK YOU” to my wonderful intern, Adam Rubin, who is doing an admirable job of cataloging notable birthdays, deaths and historical anniversaries for me to find interesting content around.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

04 MAY, 2011

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

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What the fountain of youth has to do with robots and unlearning our faulty thinking.

Earlier this year, we looked at how the web is changing the way we think, alongside 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. But many of these prognoses seem to be tragically dystopian — could there, perhaps, be a more hopeful outlook for our technology-encrusted future? After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, trying to figure out just that. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

Stevenson proses a number of mental reboots that shift some of our present cognitive bad habits, from linear thinking about the future to hierarchical, top-down views of innovation.

Part trendhunting, part rigorous research, part cultural anthropology, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future may just be our generation’s version of Bill Brysons’s iconic A Short History of Nearly Everything — a bold and entertaining blueprint for a future that’s ours to shape and ours to live.

Illustration by John Dykes for WSJ

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03 MAY, 2011

Children and Established Artists Draw Autism

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What the spectrum of difference has to do with 12th-century demons and Google Earth.

Autism is one of the greatest modern mysteries of cognitive science, a highly faceted condition that remains largely misunderstood. We’ve previously explored several notable autistic outliers — British savant Stephen Wiltshire, who draws remarkable 3D panoramas of cities from memory; animal scientist Temple Grandin, who is equally well-known for her innovations in livestock herding and her autism advocacy; and autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who was able to learn Icelandic in a week, among other remarkable feats of memory. But what is the actual experience of living with autism in a deep felt sense, beyond the social stereotypes and headline-worthy superskills?

Drawing Autism, a celebration of the artistry and self-expression found in artwork by people diagnosed with autism, explores just that.

The stunning volume, with an introduction by Grandin herself, features works by more 50 international contributors, from children to established artists, that illustrate the rich multiplicity of the condition — which we hesitate to call a “disorder” as we subscribe to the different, not lesser view of autism — and the subjective experience of each autistic individual. Thanks to Will of 50 Watts for the wonderful images.

Felix: Imaginary City Map, Age 11

Who are some artists that you like?

None. I study road maps and atlases in detail and generally I scroll the full track of our trips on Google Earth.

Eleni Michael, Dancing with the Dog, 1995

Josh Peddle, Changing Seasons, 2006 (at age 12)

Vehdas Rangan: A. (India)

David Barth, Vogels (Dutch for 'birds'), 2008 (at age 10)

Emily L. Williams, Leap Years

Wil C. Kerner, Pals (collage), age 12

Wil’s grandmother explains:

The key in understanding Pals is the brown rimmed off-white donkey ear. Four facial expressions depict the bad boys turning into donkeys in the movie Pinocchio: purple-faced Pinocchio is stunned by his new ear and considering what to do; it’s too late for the horrified yellow face; the green trapezoid is oblivious to his pending fate; the blue head is looking away hoping he’s not included.”

Eric Chen, Mirror Mind poster 3, 2005

Jessica Park: The Mark Twain House with the Diamond Eclipse and Venus, 1999

Drawing Autism comes from Mark Batty Publisher — one of our favorite independent voices at the intersection of visual art and thoughtful cultural commentary, whom you may recall from The Unruly Alphabet, Drainspotting, Pioneers of Spanish Graphic Design, and Noma Bar’s fantastic Negative Space illustrations.

Images via 50 Watts

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