Edge —June 29, 2007
(7,000 words)

By Katinka Matson



David Pesetsky, Daniel L. Everett, Robert Van Valin, Jr.
on "Recursion and Human Thought" by Daniel


What You Ought to Be Reading
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic

Daniel Gilbert


From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes
By Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force
By Cornelia Dean

Human DNA, the Ultimate Spot for Secret Messages (Are Some There Now?)
By Dennis Overbye

Books can also be dangerous
By Nick Krewen


Allentown, PA
Research on human nature is cause for optimism
Gary Olson

The Human Touch That May Loosen Google’s Grip

Dangerous Minds
By Boonsri Dickinson

Birth Order and Intelligence
Frank J. Sulloway

Food For Thought
By Ann Gibbons


Attempts to Patent Artificial Organism Draws A Protest
Jocelyn Kaiser

Hitchens Book Debunking The Deity Is Surprise Hit
By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg

J. Craig Venter

In a news cycle dominated by Paris Hilton and the Apple iPhone, Craig Venter has announced the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another. This is news, bound to affect everyone on the planet. Below is the press release from Venter's Institute, along with links to the scientific paper published in Science, and the international press.

The day after the announcement, Edge talked to Venter, who had the following to say about the research underway:

Now we know we can boot up a chromosome system. It doesn't matter if the DNA is chemically made in a cell or made in a test tube. Until this development, if you made a synthetic chomosome you had the question of what do you do with it. Replacing the chomosome with existing cells, if it works, seems the most effective to way to replace one already in an existing cell systems. We didn't know if it would work or not. Now we do. This is a major advance in the field of synthetic genomics. We now know we can create a synthetic organism. It's not a question of 'if', or 'how', but 'when', and in this regard, think weeks and months, not years.


JCVI Scientists Publish First Bacterial Genome Transplantation Changing One Species to Another

Research is important step in further advancing field of synthetic genomics

ROCKVILLE, MD — June 28, 2007 — Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) today announced the results of work on genome transplantation methods allowing them to transform one type of bacteria into another type dictated by the transplanted chromosome. The work, published online in the journal Science, by JCVI’s Carole Lartigue, Ph.D. and colleagues, outlines the methods and techniques used to change one bacterial species, Mycoplasma capricolum into another, Mycoplasma mycoides Large Colony (LC), by replacing one organism’s genome with the other one’s genome.

“The successful completion of this research is important because it is one of the key proof of principles in synthetic genomics that will allow us to realize the ultimate goal of creating a synthetic organism,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., president and chairman, JCVI. "

Published Online June 28, 2007
Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1144622
Science Express Index
Research Articles
Submitted on May 3, 2007
Accepted on June 21, 2007

Genome Transplantation in Bacteria: Changing One Species to Another
Carole Lartigue 1, John I. Glass 1*, Nina Alperovich 1, Rembert Pieper 1, Prashanth P. Parmar 1, Clyde A. Hutchison III 1, Hamilton O. Smith 1, J. Craig Venter
The J. Craig Venter Institute, Rockville, MD 20850, USA.

As a step toward propagation of synthetic genomes, we completely replaced the genome of a bacterial cell with one from another species by transplanting a whole genome as naked DNA. Intact genomic DNA from Mycoplasma mycoides large colony (LC), virtually free of protein, was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum cells by polyethylene glycol-mediated transformation. Cells selected for tetracycline resistance, carried by the M. mycoides LC chromosome, contain the complete donor genome and are free of detectable recipient genomic sequences. These cells that result from genome transplantation are phenotypically identical to the M. mycoides LC donor strain as judged by several criteria. ... [subscription]

June 29, 2007


Replacement Genome Gives Microbe New Identity
Elizabeth Pennisi

In a feat reported in a paper published online by Science this week (www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1144622), researchers have induced a bacterium to take up the entire genome of another, related bacterium, thereby transforming one bacterial species into another.

June 29, 2007


Scientists Transplant Genome of Bacteria

Scientists at the institute directed by J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in sequencing the human genome, are reporting that they have successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another, an achievement they see as a major step toward creating synthetic forms of life.

Other scientists who did not participate in the research praised the achievement, published yesterday on the Web site of the journal Science. But some expressed skepticism that it was as significant as Dr. Venter said.

His goal is to make cells that might take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produce methane, used as a feedstock for other fuels. Such an achievement might reduce dependency on fossil fuels and strike a blow at global warming.

"We look forward to having the first fuels from synthetic biology certainly within the decade and possibly in half that time," he said.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, said the transplantation technique, which leads to the transferred genome’s taking over the host cell, was"“a landmark accomplishment." ...

June 29, 2007

From reading DNA to writing it
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

First artificial life could be created 'within months'

Man could be on the brink of creating the first artificial organism, a landmark development that would provide a profound insight into the origins, workings and essence of life, and vast new opportunities to exploit living organisms.

The scientist behind the effort, Dr Craig Venter, wants to synthesise new kinds of bug to clean up the environment, generate biofuels and green energy, even mop up greenhouse gases.

But this pioneering research has inevitably triggered unease about the limits of science, fears about “playing god,” and raises the spectre that this technology could one day be abused. ...

June 29, 2007

Scientists Report DNA Transplant
Organisms Adopt Donor Traits
By Rick Weiss

Scientists said yesterday they had transplanted a microbe's entire, tangled mass of DNA into a closely related organism, a delicate operation that cleanly transformed the recipient from one species into the other.

After the operations, the "patients" -- single-celled organisms resembling bacteria -- dutifully obeyed their new genomes and by every measure exhibited the biological personas of the donors.

"This is equivalent to changing a Macintosh computer into a PC by inserting a new piece of [PC] software," said study leader J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville company racing to be the first to create fully synthetic, replicating cells. ...

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

£8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph

Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial

Paperback — UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer


David Pesetsky; Dan Everett, Robert Van Valin, Jr.

Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT

1. When Andrew Nevins, Cilene Rodrigues and I began discussing Everett's 2005 paper in Current Anthropology, our goals were simple and limited. Everett had described a set of "gaps" in Pirahã language and culture, and suggested that these gaps must be attributed to the effects of a cultural Immediate Experience Principle. In our lengthy reply to Everett's paper, posted to the LingBuzz website (and submitted for publication), we focused on two main questions:

• Had the gaps had really been shown to exist in the first place? We concluded that in several key instances, the answer was no. Evidence for many of these gaps was weak or nonexistent.

• Do we need the cultural Immediate Experience Principle to account for the gaps that did seem to be real? Here too our answer was negative.

Though Everett had called the Pirahã "very surprising from just about any grammarian’s perspective", that is not what we found. In almost every case, Pirahã looked just like many other languages of the world—languages spoken in many different kinds of societies.

For example, Pirahã appears to position its subordinate clauses after the verb—despite the tendency elsewhere in the language for the verb to come last in the sentence. Everett used this fact as an argument that what look like subordinate clauses in Pirahã are really independent sentences. This claim formed part of an argument that Pirahã lacks "recursion", which in turn was supposed to reflect Pirahã's special cultural restrictions. In fact, however, the grammatical property that he had identified in Pirahã is extraordinarily common in the languages of the world—and has no detectable correlation with recursion or culture. We offered German, Hindi, and Wappo (a language of California) as examples of languages with this property, and could have given many more examples. No cultural thread links the speakers of these various languages. (Who has ever accused German speakers, for example, of living exclusively in the "here and now"?) Consequently, there is no reason to attribute the word order of Pirahã embedded clauses to any particularly remarkable grammatical property or to any property of culture.

This was typical of our initial findings. There were other issues as well. Much of the Pirahã data included in the Current Anthropology paper itself seemed too sparse to support any conclusions. Other arguments were left incomplete. Often the discussion seemed "personalized", presenting assertions in lieu of argument. Nonetheless, we could imagine that we were dealing here with a flaw in presentation, not a flaw in the actual research. Perhaps a broader examination of other available material on Pirahã would fill in the missing pieces and strengthen the arguments.

Consequently, we attempted to integrate the data from Current Anthropology with other published data available from the language. When we did so, however, we reached even more strongly negative conclusions. Where we previously found certain arguments weak, we now began to find actual counterevidence to them. For example, though Everett had claimed that apparent "subordinate clauses" in Pirahã were actually independent sentences, the literature turned out to offer crucial examples that simply could not be analyzed that way. One might imagine that what looks like the Pirahã counterpart of the single sentence "He watched the foreigner catching fish" is actually two separate sentences: "He watched the foreigner. He was catching fish." But one could hardly give the same analysis for the Pirahã counterpart to the English "He does not want me to go", which cannot be said to mean the same as, say, "He does not want me. I go."—or any similar two-sentence counterpart. Consequently, it looked like we truly were dealing with a subordinate clause.

By the time we concluded our research, we could find no remaining arguments for Everett's claims about subordinate clauses, and several good arguments against them. We reached much the same conclusions in other areas of Pirahã grammar crucial to Everett's general claims.

Our findings also touched on the cultural claims. The Brazilian anthropologist Marco Antonio Gonçalves turned out to have written two lengthy scholarly books in Portuguese, in which he recounts and discusses Pirahã mythic narratives, including a (re)creation myth. These reports seemed to contradict Everett's claims about the Pirahã's lack of mythology and their lack of interest in creations and origins.

Here then were our conclusions. The real grammatical gaps of Pirahã seemed to have no connection to culture. Other claimed gaps did not seem to be real. The cultural principle invoked to explain these gaps was not needed, and there were open questions about the cultural description as well. Finally, Everett had also asserted that his findings about Pirahã had broad implications for all sorts of deep issues in linguistics and related fields. If we were correct, no broader discussion was called for.

Everett has replied to us formally in an article also posted on the LingBuzz website, and less formally in interviews and articles like the one here. Unfortunately, much of this discussion strikes me as beside the point.

Everett often writes, for example, as if the institutional and intellectual allegiances of his intellectual opponents should influence our evaluation of their arguments—and even the evaluation of their data. Among these intellectual opponents he numbers not only us, but also his own former self. It is in this light that he attempts to discredit his own detailed sketch of Pirahã syntax and morphology from the late 1980s, still the most important source for any researcher seeking hard published data about the language. "The 2005 article supersedes my previous work", he writes. The only reasons offered for ignoring the earlier work seem to be the following: (1) the earlier work presents data that appear to contradict Everett's current claims; and (2) the earlier work was written when the author held beliefs about language that he no longer does (described as the "theoretical baggage" of "Chomskyan theory"). "I did my very best to make Pirahã come out and look like a 'normal' language," Everett writes. If our paper is correct, of course, Everett succeeded because Pirahã actually is a "normal" language.

The criticism of us that Everett offers rather politely on in his article here has not been expressed so politely elsewhere. In Everett's reply, for example, we are called, for example, "armchair linguists", our work is denigrated as "armchair speculation" colored by "a vested interest in the Chomskyan framework", and our attempts to suggest alternative analyses of Everett's data are repeatedly parodied as instances of "eyeballing".

Even our professional resumes are apparently a topic for discussion—and this is probably the place to correct some errors. Everett in his article here on Edge describes my coauthor Andrew Nevins as a former "student at MIT who now holds a temporary appointment in Linguistics at Harvard". In fact, he is a regular member of the Harvard faculty. Likewise, Everett describes Cilene Rodrigues as "a Brazilian linguist who I think is doing her Ph.D. at MIT". In fact, she received her PhD in 2004 from the University of Maryland, and is currently teaching at the University of Campinas (Everett's own doctoral alma mater). In other words, we are all experienced researchers, and we are not all from MIT.

Finally, Everett claims that our paper contains insinuations of racism. This unfortunate charge once again gives a personal twist to a discussion that we carefully kept non-personal. In the final section of our paper, we wrote of a "more general discomfort with the overall presentation of Pirahã language and culture" in the Current Anthropology article, and noted that we shared this discomfort with a previous commentator on the paper who had called for a "more balanced picture". In contrast to this commentator, however, we pointed out that Everett's picture of Pirahã culture might actually be the balanced picture. But we also noted that the shakiness of the grammatical evidence for Pirahã's "gaps" might be grounds to take special care with sensitive cultural characterizations. As an example of what we had in mind, we quoted a paragraph about the Pirahã from Everett's own archived Pirahã website (along with several captions from the same webpage). To judge from the version of Everett's complaint presented in his reply, it is to these quotations that he most strongly objects. He calls them "contrived and decontextualized".

I wish I could invite readers of Edge to visit the Pirahã website and judge the charge of "decontextualization" for themselves. Unfortunately, I cannot. For some time now, any reader who attempts to access the Pirahã site sees a page with the text "Blocked Site Error". According to information provided by the archivists, this message signals the blocking of the site "at the request of the site owner". The blocking of these pages has also eliminated free access to all but one of the previously available Pirahã texts, and has prevented access to what (I believe) was the only publicly available Pirahã-English word list—two important research tools.

I still hope it is possible to look forward to a calmer, more reasonable discussion of Pirahã grammar and culture, rather than what has unfolded. If the discussion improves, who knows—perhaps even the press will get the hint and report more carefully. Perhaps we will begin to see fewer articles with nonsense like the Chicago Tribune's claim that that Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch's (2002) article was a reply to Everett's (2005) article, and their statement that the Pirahã "don't use recursives". (There's no such thing as "a recursive"!) And perhaps we will even see a healthier, more relevant discussion of opposing views such as ours.


David Pesetsky's reply on the Edge corrects some errors I made with regard to the professional background of Andrew Nevins and Cilene Rodrigues. As he says, they are both established and experienced researchers. I in no way wished to indicate otherwise. They are all deservedly respected scientists.

I also do not want to give the impression, as I seem to have given to David, that I believe that their long criticism of my work is completely blinded by their own theoretical commitments. I do think that the history of science shows that our theoretical commitments deeply affect our conclusions, but certainly not entirely.

Now, to get to the point, in the article that Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues wrote and posted on the LingBuzz site, they purport to show, as David repeats in his Edge posting, that my arguments for the lack of recursion in Pirahã do not go through, based on my earlier data, i.e. from my PhD dissertation.

But data, as I discuss in my reply and as Chomsky has said in many different publications, data 'do not wear their analyses on their sleeves'. The way we analyze a sentence from any language depends to a large degree on the meaning that we assign to that sentence. Meaning and form are carefully linked in all linguistic theories. So if the linguist assigns the wrong meaning to an utterance, even a meaning slightly off from the speakers' intended meaning, the structure that is assigned to that utterance will be wrong as well.

The sentences that I record in my PhD dissertation are all fairly accurate as recorded utterances, but often their meanings were too subtle for my understanding of the language at the time I was writing my PhD dissertation, based on 14 months of field research and a beginning knowledge of the language. Long before I wrote my Current Anthropology article I had corrected the mistranslations of examples, but had not written a paper to discuss the implications of these more accurate translations. The Current Anthropology article did discuss these and I discussed them further in my reply to Pesetsky, Nevins, and Rodrigues. But, as Pesetsky points out, it is true, trivially so in fact, that when one makes claims of the kind I have made, no one article provides enough space to thoroughly document and argue for all the conclusions in it. This is why I, along with colleagues from MIT, University of Manchester, and University of Edinburgh, plan to write a much more detailed grammar of Pirahã over the next couple of years, based partially on experimentation to test all the more controversial claims about Pirahã.

Ultimately, though, I am puzzled by David's reply. First, I have replied to every single one of the criticisms he raises in his Edge reply in my paper on LingBuzz. There is not a single argument that he raises on his Edge posting that hasn't been answered. The Brazilian anthropologist he cites has indeed studied Piraha myths, but only in the sense of stories based on immediate experience that bind the Pirahas together. That anthropologist does not have a single text in Piraha on creation. I have stated this many times and Pesetsky has failed to note it each time.

Moreover, if you do not do fieldwork, you are an armchair linguist. That is simply the way the world works. You study languages in the field or from your armchair. This is not a moral judgment, though it becomes relevant when non-fieldworkers opine about the nature of fieldwork. David has never done fieldwork on any language, nor has his co-authors, that remotely approaches the Piraha situation in being monolingual, extremely difficult access, and so on. This is not to say that there is not a lot of important work that can be done without field research. But it does mean that Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues are much more sanguine about interpreting examples, such as those from my PhD dissertation, at face-value, apparently not realizing how hard it is to translate even simply examples in a field work situation and how being even just a little bit off in those examples' translations can dramatically affect the picture of the grammar that emerges ultimately.

Ultimately, once again, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues have not added anything to our knowledge of Piraha or my work on Piraha except to show that I currently disagree with my PhD dissertation.

It is true that I am one of the few people that have worked on Piraha. But for just about any grammar of any smaller, difficult to access language we have in the literature, there is only one or a small handful of people that have studied the languages in question. It is as likely that we have many 'false positives' in these grammars (like my dissertation) that support the idea of recursion as it is that we have false negatives (as Pesetsky would have readers think of my 2005 paper) against recursion. More experiments are needed on all fronts. I have made my claims. What is needed are new experiments, not an expression of dismay that my dissertation is different from my current work.

Finally, I should say that the great, now deceased, MIT linguist, Kenneth Hale, claimed more than thirty years ago that it looked like several Australian languages lacked syntactic embedding (and a fortiori recursion), though he never investigated the implications or the nature of this claim as thoroughly as has been done for Pirahã.

Several Australian linguists believe that Hale was correct, and papers are beginning to emerge which support the idea that some Australian languages lack recursion too. Pirahã is unlikely, therefore, to be the only counterexample to the claims of Chomsky and others on the centrality of recursion.

I only hope that the debate, as David urges in his posting, will become more civil and less emotionally charged. This is just science, after all. Life is enriched by science, but is a lot more than that.

ROBERT D. VAN VALIN, JR. [6.27.07]
Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf

The dispute over Pirahã is curious in many respects, not least with regard to the fact that Everett is not the first linguist to claim that a language lacks embedded clauses and therewith recursion. In a series of important papers published in the late 70's, the late MIT linguist Kenneth Hale argued that certain Australian Aboriginal languages lack embedding of the type found in Indo-European languages in their complex sentences and furthermore that one of them, Warlpiri, has a completely 'flat' syntactic structure. The latter claim was amended somewhat in the published version of the paper, but the point about the complex sentences remained valid. In the mid-1980's, William Foley, a linguist at the University of Sydney, described Iatmul, a language of Papua New Guinea, as having non-hierarchical clause combining, i.e. no embedded of clauses in complex sentences, hence no recursion in the syntax. So the question arises, given that such claims go back a good thirty years, and the most important of them was from a former colleague of Chomsky's, why has Everett's claim engendered such controversy?

There are two reasons. The first is that it is only recently that Chomsky elevated the concept of recursion in the syntax to being the defining feature of human language. Prior to this, claims such as Hale's and Foley's would not have generated such interest, although Hale's claims did have theoretical consequences, albeit with respect to different issues. Chomsky stands at the end of a long and very distinguished career, and his current theoretical work and the claims about language evolution and specifically about syntactic recursion being the key property of human language are the capstones of that career. For them to be called into question now is a serious challenge to Chomsky, his work, and his intellectual legacy. Everett has raised important scientific questions, and they deserve serious and dispassionate investigation. Pesetsky et al.'s reply to Everett and his response to their criticisms are important steps in that direction, as are the other investigations of Pirahã that have been carried out recently and are planned.

One of the striking features of this controversy has been how little dispassionate discussion there actually has been. Indeed, both Pesetsky in his commentary and Everett in his response call for a calmer tone to the discussion. The non-linguist might well wonder, why so much sound and fury over a claim about syntax, of all things? The reason for this is summarized by Pinker in a comment quoted in the article in The New Yorker (p. 131):

There's a lot of strange stuff going on in the Chomskyan paradigm He's a guru, he makes pronouncements that his disciples accept on faith and that he doesn't feel compelled to defend in the conventional scientific manner. Some of them become accepted within his circle as God's truth without really being properly evaluated, and, surprisingly for someone who talks about universal grammar, he hasn't actually done the spadework of seeing how it works in some weird little language that they speak in New Guinea.

So, first of all, Everett's claim is a direct challenge to the "guru's" teachings, and second, Everett himself was once one of Chomsky "disciples" (he was once a leading figure in Chomskyan linguistics in Brazil and spent time at MIT) and is now apostate. A former true believer is always attacked in a way that those who were never believers are not. There is a further factor. Chomsky is perhaps best known to non-linguists for his prolific political writings, and while he has always taken great pains to keep his political work separate from his linguistic work, many people take both of them as two parts of a single oeuvre, so that an attack on his linguistic work is also perceived as an attack on his political work. This is particularly true in other countries, especially in those countries in which Chomsky's trenchant criticisms of the US government resonate with local attitudes toward the US.

I would like to revisit one of the points I made in my earlier contribution in light of one of the arguments made in Pesetsky's contribution. He writes:

For example, Pirahã appears to position its subordinate clauses after the verb—despite the tendency elsewhere in the language for the verb to come last in the sentence. Everett used this fact as an argument that what look like subordinate clauses in Pirahã are really independent sentences. This claim formed part of an argument that Pirahã lacks "recursion", which in turn was supposed to reflect Pirahã's special cultural restrictions. In fact, however, the grammatical property that he had identified in Pirahã is extraordinarily common in the languages of the world—and has no detectable correlation with recursion or culture. We offered German, Hindi, and Wappo (a language of California) as examples of languages with this property, and could have given many more examples. No cultural thread links the speakers of these various languages. (Who has ever accused German speakers, for example, of living exclusively in the "here and now"?)

There are three significant issues in this passage.

First, Pesetsky does not refer to Everett's counter-arguments to his claim that there are subordinate clauses in Pirahã given in the Pesetsky, et al. paper; he simply assumes that there are, without confronting Everett's arguments in his response.

Second, in comparing languages like German, Hindi, and Wappo with Pirahã, the crucial point is not that all four of these languages permit a clause to occur after the verb, which is true, but rather that in Pirahã it is the only option. Furthermore, as I noted with respect to Lakhota, the two possible placements of a linked clause, either before the main verb in an embedded structure, or in a flat, conjoined structure, are considered to be communicatively equivalent by native speakers. Thus, the lack of a particular structural option in Pirahã is not evidence of any kind of deficiency with respect to communication or with regard to semantic complexity.

Third, Everett does not claim that the fact that subordinate clauses follow the verb in German or other languages has anything to do with the kind of cultural constraint he proposes for Pirahã. The reason why this phenomenon is so widespread in verb-final languages is that it allows speakers to avoid what are called 'center-embedded' structures, which are difficult to process. An example of center-embedding from English is 'The cat [that the mouse [that ran away] saw] purred', which is composed of 'the cat purred' and 'the mouse saw the cat' and 'the mouse ran away.' This sentence is technically grammatical but very difficult to understand. Similar structures are created in verb-final languages if, for example, a subordinate clause follows the subject and precedes the verb. This point is, for languages which allow both options for the placement of subordinate clauses, there is a good processing reason why they prefer the post-verbal option. (Hence the comment, "Who has ever accused German speakers, for example, of living exclusively in the "here and now"? is an attempt to ridicule a claim which they imply follows from Everett's analysis, but which does not.)

What is so striking about Pirahã is not only that the language does not have the preverbal option, which languages which have true embedding do, but also that there is no evidence that in the two-clause structures that the second clause is in any way grammatically dependent on the first. The language is definitely exceptional in this regard.

June 24, 2007

What You Ought to Be Reading
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic

Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is quite properly drawing praise for its thorough, step-by-step chronicle of the great man's long and eventful life, but if you want a briefer, quirkier, more multifaceted picture of Einstein, try "My Einstein" (Pantheon, 2006). The latter, edited by John Brockman, is a bouquet of brilliant essays by Einstein's intellectual peers: top scientists who know their way around a quark. My quarrel with the Isaacson biography is that it occasionally feels padded, as if the author is just adding anecdotes to thicken the sauce, whereas the essays in the Brockman book are zippy and personal.

June 27, 2007


Daniel Gilbert tells Stephen why he is so bad at finding happiness.

June 26, 2007



...The special issue of Science Times is an attempt to help make sense of evolution, as a living, changing science.

From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes

Evo-devo researchers are finding that development appears to have been one of the major forces shaping the history of life on earth.

Graphics: When Fins Became Feet

...One of evo-devo’s greatest strengths is its cross-disciplinary nature, bridging not only evolutionary and developmental studies but gaps as broad as those between fossil-hunting paleontologists and molecular biologists. One researcher whose approach epitomizes the power of such synthesis is Dr. Neil Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum.

Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force
Biologists are turning up evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.

...Or as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.

For people like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, talk of the soul is of a piece with the rest of the palaver of religious faith, which he has likened to a disease. And among evolutionary psychologists, religious faith is nothing but an evolutionary artifact, a predilection that evolved because shared belief increased group solidarity and other traits that contribute to survival and reproduction. ...


Human DNA, the Ultimate Spot for Secret Messages (Are Some There Now?)

If bacterium can be encoded with messages and cockroaches can be archives, why not us?

...As a result, it has been suggested that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, should look inward as well as outward. In an article in New Scientist, Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, wrote, “So might ET have inserted a message into the genomes of terrestrial organism, perhaps by delivering carefully crafted viruses in tiny pace probes to infect host cell with message-laden DNA?" ...

June 24, 2007

Books can also be dangerous
Short spooky thoughts from smarty-pants around the world

Nick Krewen

If your notion of a dangerous idea is handing the car keys to Lindsay Lohan or entering a biker bar and calling its patrons a bunch of pansies, you might want to steer clear of this book.

What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers On The Unthinkable deals strictly with the bigger-picture stuff, gathering 108 bright lights from around the world to proffer theories and opinions on everything from the meaning of life and our relevance in the universe (or absence thereof) to the erosion of democracy.

These "what if" scenarios have been compiled by John Brockman, founder of the "third culture" website The Edge (www.edge.org), an online forum for fellow eggheads and a community – to quote the site – "of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

June 24, 2007

Research on human nature is cause for optimism
''We have a pending fortuitous marriage of science and morality of the most profound sort.''
Gary Olson

The non-profit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world's most eminent scientists, ''What are you optimistic about? Why?'' Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cited the new experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are hard-wired for empathy. ... Recall that empathy is more than compassion or sympathy with another's situation. Empathy requires being able to ''put oneself in another's shoes,'' make a distinction between self and other, and then act on that perception. Empathy recognizes the other's humanity. ...

June 24, 2007


The Human Touch That May Loosen Google’s Grip

...The company is financed by Sequoia Capital, which knows something about the search business: It was an early backer of both Yahoo and Google. Sequoia, like other Silicon Valley venture capital firms, offers experienced entrepreneurs an office and salary to figure out an idea for a new start-up. It was while he was an entrepreneur in residence that Jason Calacanis had the inspiration for Mahalo. Mr. Calacanis, 36, published The Silicon Alley Reporter in the mid-1990s and went on to be a co-founder of Weblogs, a federation of blogging sites that was sold to AOL in 2005 for about $25 million. He took up residence at Sequoia in December 2006, founded Mahalo and gathered two rounds of financing, including backing from the News Corporation. ...

July 2007

Dangerous Minds

By Boonsri Dickinson

...Essentially a compendium of short essays, the book reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science-some of whom, of course, talk right past each other. String theory king Brian Greene contends that our universe is just one of many. On the next page, quantum theory proponent Carlo Rovelli shoots down the multiverse as "audacious scientific speculation."

Bold ideas aren't limited to the hard sciences; there's something here to provoke everyone, including the suggestion that evil emerges in all of us. Geneticist-provocateur J. Craig Venter proposes that we are not all created equal; the unorthodox psychology writer Judith Rich Harris undermines parenting by claiming that parents don't have much influence over the ultimate character of their children.

Don't expect to find answers here. Brockman will have you asking more questions than when you started-and may even change your mind about the ideas you've always been convinced are right. After reading What Is Your Dangerous Idea? even know-it-alls will realize how little they know for sure.

June 22, 2007


Birth Order and Intelligence
Frank J. Sulloway

After nearly a century of debate, a large study shows that birth order influences intelligence, but the reasons remain to be resolved. ...

June 14, 2007

The Commonwealth Club of California San Francisco, CA

With Stewart Brand

Over the past four decades, invincible rabble-rouser Stewart Brand has spent time anticipating cultural revolutions and launching a medley of new ideas, movements, organizations, and communities. In the process, he has turned conventional thinking upside down. Today, Brand spends considerable time talking about the "city planet," a term used to describe the expeditious growth of cities.

By the middle of this century, 80 percent of the world population will be urbanized changing everything from economics to the environment and global population. Brand argues that these new "squatter cities," though impoverished and seemingly chaotic, will incubate untapped human ingenuity. ...

June 22, 2007

South Africa: Street Dogs - in Praise of the Sceptics
BUSINESS DAY (Johannesburg)
Michel Pire

MUCH of what happens in history, says Nassim Taleb in an article published at Edge.org, comes from very large, sudden, and totally unpredictable events, while much of what we usually talk about is almost pure noise. Our track record in predicting those events that have the greatest impact on us is dismal; yet by some mechanism called the hindsight bias we think that we understand them. We have a bad habit of finding "laws" by fitting stories to events and detecting false patterns. As Taleb says, "We go through life like drivers looking through the rear-view mirror while convinced we are looking ahead." ...

June 22, 2007
, Page B1

Hitchens Book Debunking
The Deity Is Surprise Hit

By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg

Some of the same forces were at work last fall when Bertelsmann AG's Alfred Knopf had a surprise hit with Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation," which questioned whether the Bible is the work of God, and Houghton Mifflin Co., a unit of Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep Group PLC, successfully published "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Today there are 500,000 hardcover copies of Mr. Dawkins's book in print, and 185,000 hardcover copies of Mr. Harris's book in print. ...

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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