JRR Tolkien disliked novels that tended toward autobiography, though he did not dispute the fact that an author has no choice but to use his or her own experiences in writing fiction. The Lord of the Rings is most assuredly not an allegory for the 20th century, nor are any of his protagonists a reflection of Tolkien himself. Yet, if there is a domain inextricably intertwined with the life of our author, it is linguistics: comparative philology, to be precise.
For Tolkien, language and literature necessarily go hand in hand; this is the only way to ensure proper understanding of a text, particularly in the case of ancient texts. Tolkien conveyed this point of view in his analysis of Beowulf, published in The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, which combined philological rigor with literary appreciation at a time when critics generally saw the epic poem merely as a source of historical information distorted by myth.
The importance of language is easily discernible in Tolkien’s obsession with finding the perfect turn of phrase, even if it meant reworking certain sentences countless times. His preoccupation with linguistic detail also found its way into his stories themselves, focusing on the languages spoken by the various characters. No one who has read The Lord of the Rings can fail to have been struck by the passages in Quenya or Sindarin, the two main Elvish languages, and in perusing the novels’ appendices, it becomes clear to the reader that these are true languages, each with its own specific grammar and vocabulary, and that Tolkien also paid close attention to the evolution of these languages, and to their relationships to one another.
The bitter culture wars over the teaching of evolution in public schools dominated headlines throughout the 2000s, in large part because of the Bush administration’s coziness with evangelicals who rejected the science on evolution.
Yet flash forward to 2021 — when the acrimonious battle over science has shifted from evolution to pandemic public health — and few youngsters are apt to have any idea what “intelligent design” even means.
Curiously, despite the right seizing on face mask science and immunology as new battlegrounds in the culture war, the fight over evolution is all but forgotten. In fact, for many Americans, it is completely forgotten.
Though it might seem hard to believe, Americans are more scientifically literate than ever in 2021 — so much so that creationism has become a minority opinion. And Americans are likewise been able to identify intelligent design and other forms of creationism as the inherently religious theories that they are.
Children know the fun of throwing a ball into the sea, only to watch the waves fling it back. Jennifer Mather and Roland Anderson at the Seattle Aquarium were surprised to find octopuses playing similar games. Their toy was a floating pill bottle, which they were free to ignore or explore as they wished.
Six of the aquarium’s octopuses soon lost interest, but two showed childlike curiosity, pushing it with their arms or shooting jets of water to move it against the tank’s current. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than play, which many researchers argue requires some form of conscious awareness.
Many animals exhibit behaviours similarly suggestive of an inner life. Conscious creatures may include our primate cousins, cetaceans and corvids – and potentially many invertebrates, including bees, spiders and cephalopods such as octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. The challenge, of course, is to understand how the inner lives of these creatures differ from our own.
Editor’s Note: Sorry, excerpt only, full article is behind a paywall…
It’s something that many of us reckon with: the sense that we’re not quite as sharp as we once were.
I recently turned 42. Having lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s, and with my mom suffering from a similar neurodegenerative disease, I’m very aware of what pathologies might lurk beneath my cranium.
In the absence of a cure for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the most important interventions for upholding brain function are preventive — those that help maintain our most marvelous, mysterious organ.
Based on the science, I take fish oil and broil salmon. I exercise. I try to challenge my cortex to the unfamiliar. As I wrote my recent book, A History of the Human Brain, which recounts the evolutionary tale of how our brain got here, I began to realize that so many of the same influences that shaped our brain evolution in the first place reflect the very measures we use to preserve our cognitive function today.
This is the kind of impasse that encourages innovations that might be considered “creative,” or at least as creative as an evolutionary process without explicit goals, without a guiding intelligence, can be. Evolution found some important mechanical tricks to get around this constraint: Babies’ skulls are made of pieces that shift during birth, women’s pelvises temporarily separate during delivery, and the space for the brain increases dramatically in infancy. But another key adaptation was in how the brain itself worked. Evolution made human beings learn what they need about the world, rather than having it inborn.