Essays

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A drunkard is challenged to walk in a straight line. Detail from Walking the Chalk (1838) by Charles Deas. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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Food and drink
Drunks and democrats

Violent, lively and brash, taverns were everywhere in early colonial America, embodying both its tumult and its promise

Vaughn Scribner

Photo by Wang Zheng/Getty

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Space exploration
Do we send the goo?

The ability to stir new life into being, all across the Universe, compels us to ask why life matters in the first place

Betül Kaçar

Engineers prepare to enter HAM 6 (left) to install the new septum window between HAM 5 and 6 through which LIGO’s laser beam passes. Staff must wear full bunny suits and goggles to protect their eyes from any stray laser light. The structure visible inside HAM 6 supports the photodetector that ultimately detects gravitational waves. Photo courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

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Philosophy of science
Keep science irrational

Is hard data the only path to scientific truth? That’s an absurd, illogical and profoundly useful fiction

Michael Strevens

The boxer Muhammad Ali with his daughter Laila outside the 5th Street Gym in Miami, 1980. Photo by Brian Morgan/Popperfoto/Getty

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Family life
The biology of dads

The bodies and brains of fathers, not just mothers, are transformed through the love and labour of raising a child

James K Rilling

Leonard Bernstein (far right) with members of the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra on 10 May 1948 in Munich, Germany. Bernstein was on a working tour of Europe when he conducted this small orchestra comprised of Holocaust survivors at a displaced persons camp. Photo courtesy of Sonia Beker, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Meaning and the good life
Humanity at night

A violinist plays in a concentration camp. A refugee carries a book of poetry. Art sustains us when survival is uncertain

Sarah Fine

Coloured scanning electron micrograph of a macrophage white blood cell (purple) engulfing a tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) bacterium (pink). Photo by Science Photo Library

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Biology
Life with purpose

Biologists balk at any talk of ‘goals’ or ‘intentions’ – but a bold new research agenda has put agency back on the table

Philip Ball

Franz Brentano c1910, possibly in the garden of his summer house in Schönbühel bei Melk, Austria. Photo courtesy the Brentano Archive at the University of Graz

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Thinkers and theories
With charisma to spare

Franz Brentano, philosopher and psychologist, was an iconic teacher eclipsed by his students, Freud and Husserl among them

John A Goldsmith

Three-year-old twins Estaban and Salome Hernandez at home with their parents Fabio and Mabel, 15 March 2020. The Hernandez family were awaiting the result of the Washington DC school lottery which determines which school they will attend. Photo by Michael S Williamson/Washington Post/Getty

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Genetics
The genes we’re dealt

The new field of social genomics can be used by progressives to combat racial inequality or by conservatives to excuse it

Erik Parens

Photo by Cristina Garcia Rodero/Magnum Photos

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Human evolution
Vulnerable yet vital

The dance of love and lore between grandparent and grandchild is at the centre, not the fringes, of our evolutionary story

Alison Gopnik

Bhima fighting with Jayadratha in a page from the Mahabharata (c1615), Popular Mughal School, probably done at Bikaner, India. Photo by Getty

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Stories and literature
The living Mahabharata

Immorality, sexism, politics, war: the polychromatic Indian epic pulses with relevance to the present day

Audrey Truschke

The French aviation pioneers Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Henri Guillaumet. Photo by Roger-Violett/Topfoto

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Cognition and intelligence
On the same wavelength

The urge to align our minds and emotions with those we care for, whether they are near or far, makes our species unique

Hayden Kee

Photo by Paul Zinken/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB/Getty

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Illness and disease
The wisdom of pandemics

Viruses are active agents, existing within rich lifeworlds. A safe future depends on understanding this evolutionary story

David Waltner-Toews

Trivulzio Portrait/Portrait of a Man (1476) by Antonello da Messina (1430-1479). Courtesy Turin City Museum of Ancient Art/Wikipedia

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History of ideas
The subjective turn

For Hegel, human nature strives through history to unchain itself from tradition. But is such inner freedom worth the cost?

Jon Stewart

A woman and her children sit at the entrance of Rua Dois, one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. Photo by Lianne Milton/WMF/Panos

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Political philosophy
Who gets to feel secure?

Security is one thing to a Black mother in a favela, another to a politician keen on law and order. They should be the same

Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò

Survival Piece I: Hog Pasture (1970-71) by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, for the exhibition ‘Earth, Air, Fire and Water’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison/The Harrison Studio

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Art
The art of survival

The Harrisons’ eco-art told stories about the apocalypse, pointing to a future where we’d all have to be survival artists

W Patrick McCray

Saint John the Evangelist Causes a Pagan Temple to Collapse (c1370) by Francescuccio Ghissi. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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The ancient world
Fiddling while Rome converts

A generation of pagan bureaucrats amassed wealth and status while Roman emperors Christianised the world around them

Edward Watts

Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum

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Neuroscience
The need to touch

The language of touch binds our minds and bodies to the broader social world. What happens when touch becomes taboo?

Laura Crucianelli

The Stephen sisters playing cricket in St Ives, Cornwall, England, c1893-94. Photo courtesy the Houghton Library, Harvard University

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Biography and memoir
My sister, my mirror

Vanessa and Virginia – intimates in art, adversaries in love. Can we ever transcend the primal envy of the sisterly bond?

Lily Dunn

Mousehold Heath (1810) by John Sell Cotman. Drawing on paper. According to the UK Government, between 1604 and 1914 enclosure Bills enacted by Parliament restricted access to formerly open communal land comprising just over a fifth of the total area of England. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

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Economic history
Economics for the people

Against the capitalist creeds of scarcity and self-interest, a plan for humanity’s shared flourishing is finally coming into view

Dirk Philipsen

All photos courtesy Marrioth Ling

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Illness and disease
Beautiful monsters

Cancer is part of multicellular life. Now the riotous growth of crested cacti show how humans might adapt to live with it

Athena Aktipis

Skinheads in Southend, England, in 1981. Photo by Michael Daines/Mirrorpix/Getty

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Subcultures
Hate reads

The Western canon has no shortage of fascists. But can the far-Right make ‘literature’ worthy of the name?

Andrew Marzoni

Self-Portrait in the Camp (1940), by Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum was a prominent and admired artist prior to the Nazis seizing power in 1933. He subsequently worked in exile and hiding before being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Neue Galerie New York/Getty Images

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Thinkers and theories
Where loneliness can lead

Hannah Arendt enjoyed her solitude, but she believed that loneliness could make people susceptible to totalitarianism

Samantha Rose Hill

Lambari, Brazil, August 2010. Photo by Steve McCurry/Magnum

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Cognition and intelligence
The science of wisdom

Psychological science can now measure and nurture wisdom, superseding the speculations of philosophy and religion

Igor Grossmann

Close-up detail of the Papilio demoleus malayanus, the lime butterfly. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic

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Philosophy of science
Cognition all the way down

Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones)

Michael Levin & Daniel C Dennett

A view of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York showing the Golden Rondelle Theater (upper left), Tower of Light (upper centre) and General Electric’s Pavilion featuring Walt Disney’s Progressland (upper right, blue and yellow lit dome). Photo by George Silk/LIFE/Getty

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History of ideas
The rise and rise of creativity

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative?

Steven Shapin

Detail of a miniature of Boethius lying in bed, with Philosophy standing beside him, from the beginning of Book I of The Consolation of Philosophy. Harley 4355 f.27. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Library

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Thinkers and theories
Why read Boethius today?

Written while awaiting execution, the Consolation of Philosophy poses questions about human reason that remain urgent today

John Marenbon

The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). Photo by Robbie George/The National Geographic Image Collection

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Ecology and environmental sciences
Being eaten

The fear of becoming a meal is a powerful evolutionary force that shapes brains, behaviour and entire ecosystems

Lesley Evans Ogden

From The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) by Tove Jansson. ©Moomin Characters™

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Stories and literature
Pippi and the Moomins

The antics in postwar Nordic children’s books left propaganda and prudery behind. We need this madcap spirit more than ever

Richard W Orange

Members of the Ik (Uganda) mime a ritual raid-and-escape dance, an element of which is to teach the importance of tending to the injured and vulnerable. All photos courtesy the author

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Anthropology
Neither nasty nor brutish

The Ik – among the poorest people on Earth – have been cast as exemplars of human selfishness. The truth is much more startling

Cathryn Townsend

Something for everyone. Workers at a Daimler-Benz car plant listen to a speech by a visiting dignitary in West Germany circa 1972. Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty

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Economic history
Thirty glorious years

Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

Jonathan Hopkin