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Are humans that different from animals?

Human touching ape's hand (Copyright: SPL)

(Copyright: SPL)

Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including the “world’s weirdest languages”, preventing cancer and why it is good to be wrong.

Are humans just animals?

John Wilkins | Evolving Thoughts | 2 July 2013

Yes, and to argue otherwise is to underestimate other species. “Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But so are all other animals — a cat, a mole, a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not.” (1,020 words)

Rethinking surveillance

Kenneth Roth | New York Review Of Books | 2 July 2013

 “When I was a prosecutor, the human capacities of investigators meant that even upon accessing metadata, there was still considerable protection for privacy. Today, those limits have largely disappeared. With the advantages of mass surveillance so low, the law should give meaning to our legitimate expectations of privacy in a wired world. It is time to treat this metadata no differently from the content of our communications.” (1,400 words)

Valves and values

Deirdre Loughridge | Spooky and the Metronome | 1 July 2013

Charming illustrative tale of disruption caused by arrival of valved horn in the early 19 Century. Better for pitching notes, but inferior in tone and resonance — or so keyless horn players claimed. “The transition to the valved horn was thus not a matter of the inferior giving way to the superior, but of certain values – and certain people – winning out over others. The winners in this transition included those who patented valve technologies.”    (1,330 words)

World war cancer

Alexander Nazaryan | New Yorker | 1 July 2013

Richard Nixon declared war on cancer 40 years ago. So far, cancer is still winning: 140,000 Americans die every three months. Should physicians try more radical and experimental treatments? Perhaps, but the record isn’t encouraging. Crackpot theories, horrible side effects, “promising anecdotes curdling into hideous truths”. We’re stuck. As for prevention: no change there to speak of, either. Avoid cigarettes and red meat. (1,900 words)

It’s good to be wrong

David Deutsch | Nautilus | 28 June 2013

Essay on fallibility and the paradoxes to which it leads. “A fallibilist cannot claim to be infallible even about fallibilism itself. And so, one is forced to doubt that fallibilism is universally true. Which is the same as wondering whether one might be somehow infallible—at least about some things. For instance, can it be true that absolutely anything that you think is true, no matter how certain you are, might be false?” (3,240 words)

World’s weirdest languages

Tyler Schnoebelen | Idibon | 26 June 2013

If you rank the world’s languages by the structural features they share with other languages, the one most different from the majority of all other languages is Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico — in which, for example, there is no difference between statements and questions. English ranks 33rd. The English way of marking a question, by changing word order, is used in only 1.4% of languages. (1,870 words)

Four levels of science

Noah Smith | Noahpinion | 2 July 2013

Short and highly readable note on the virtues of lab experiments versus natural experiments. Lab experiments are — in principle — easy to repeat, and you can control the variables so as to get a better idea of cause and effect, as opposed to mere correlation. But it’s always open to question how well lab experiments map to the real world. That’s where natural experiments score higher. The best course is to use both. (1,200 words)

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