Monday, April 14, 2008

Neuroscience: Language feature unique to human brain?

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Center used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to probe language areas of the human brain, vs. that of non-human primates. They found that the pathway (arcuate fasiculus) connecting brain regions involved in human language such as Broca's area and Wernicke's area is much larger and more widely connected than in rhesus macaques or chimpanzees.

Yerkes researcher James Rilling notes,
"We know from previous functional imaging studies that the middle temporal lobe is involved with analyzing the meanings of words. In humans, it seems the brain not only evolved larger language regions but also a network of fibers to connect those regions, which supports humans' superior language capabilities."
Findings like this may modify overly optimistic projections for communicating on an equal footing with apes - though don't count on it. Ideas like that die hard in times like these.

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Breakpoint reviews The Spiritual Brain

Kim Moreland reviewed The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul for Chuck Colson's Breakpoint. She kindly writes:
One might think that a book about neuroscience would be difficult or boring to read, but this one is interesting and accessible to all levels of readers. Beauregard and O’Leary include a handy glossary of technical terms, but they explain the terms in the text so the reader will not have to flip back and forth. There are also visual aids such as diagrams and cross-sectioned images of the brain.

Kim, not to worry, if it was difficult to read, I wouldn't understand it myself! If it was boring, I would never get through the job. I'm a journalist, not an academic.
Cloaked in mantles of scientific expertise, scholars like Edward O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Dean Hamer have declared that religious and spiritual beliefs are nothing more than an adaptation for survival. But have they proved it? Using a number of examples, Beauregard and O’Leary expose “promissory materialism” and faulty assumptions made among materialists.
My biggest challenge in many cases was to avoid splitting my funnybone over some of the more ridiculous materialist theories of spirituality.

In her note, Kim adds, "I truly enjoyed reading it, and felt I learned a lot. My biggest problem was choosing what to highlight."

Kim, I had that problem too. Behind every stack of books lay a bigger, more shadowy stack that I "ought to" report on, and so on and on to an apparent infinite regress. And over all brooded the menacing Deadline ...

At times, kind readers have written to ask, why is this or that not in the book?, and I am afraid that the answer is: Because no one wants a 75-lb. book. I try to address as many such topics as I can on this blog and in articles that I can link to this blog.

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Enlightenment ideals justify mass slaughter?

In an enlightening (so to speak) but disturbing column, Jonah Goldberg reveals the compromises in United Nations definitions of genocide that leave large groups without protection against murderous persecution:
The United Nations defines genocide as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Left out of this definition are "modern" political labels for people: the poor, religious people, the middle class, etc.
What difference does this make?
Under the more narrow official definition, it's genocide to try to wipe out Roma (formerly known as Gypsies), but it's not necessarily genocide to liquidate, say, people without permanent addresses. You can't slaughter "Catholics," but you can wipe out "religious people" and dodge the genocide charge.

Political scientist Gerard Alexander decries that type of absurdity as "Enlightenment bias." Reviewing Samantha Power's moving 2003 book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," Alexander observed that this bias leaves the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century - self-described Marxist-Leninists - somewhat off the hook.
Essentially, a social engineering mindset sees mass murder as "a second-tier crime if it's done in the name of social progress, modernization or other Enlightenment ideals."

Decades ago when I was at college, eager young social engineers explained to me that you can't make an omelette without breaking heads - or was it eggs or something? Anyway, their fellow human beings were just like rows of eggs in cartons, of that at least they were quite sure. They were, after all, Enlightened.

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Just for fun: Fractured Latin hits the religion news

I've sometimes tsk tsk'd over dumb "religion" reporting, but reporters who must file stories on disputes that employ Latin terms do deserve some sympathy, surely:

Anyway, this page lists some gaffes to remember:
According to the standards above, don't be surprised if the VOA reports the Marine motto "Semper fidelis" to be "Simper fiddles", or if the US Seal "E pluribus unum" comes out "Deploribus moon'em", or if the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" comes out "Citrus, insomnia, forceps."

Hat tip, Alan Yoshioka, the Sheepcat (and otherwise a fellow Toronto writer and editor).

Some Latin and Roman jokes here.