Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Is spirituality a passing trend?

Philip Sheldrake
“Spirituality” is a word that defines our era. The fascination with spirituality is a striking aspect of our contemporary times and stands in stark contrast to the decline in traditional religious belonging in the West. Although the word “spirituality” has Christian origins it has now moved well beyond these – indeed beyond religion itself.

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When a language dies

By Nancy C. Dorian
When he died recently, Bobby Hogg took the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect out of existence with him, at least as a fluently spoken mother tongue, and the media took notice. The BBC reported on his death, celebrating the unique nature of his native dialect. In an Associated Press report originating in London, his dialect was spoken of as “a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.” A knowledgeable University of Aberdeen linguist spoke of this as “the first time that an actual Scots dialect has so dramatically died with the passing of the last native speaker.”

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Unfit for the future: The urgent need for moral enhancement

By Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions. But this is no longer the world in which we live.

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AIDS and HIV in Africa

On HIV Testing Day, Gregory Barz and Judah M. Cohen, the American ethnomusicologists who edited The Culture of AIDS in Africa, reflect on the ways they came to their field research.

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How do humans, ants, and other animals form societies?

Forming groups is a basic human drive.  Modern humans are all simultaneously members of many groups — there is the book club, your poker buddies, all those fellow sport team enthusiasts. Most basic of all these groups is the connection we form with our society. This is one group people have always been willing to die for. During most of human history, foreigners have been shunned or killed. Allowing an outsider to join a society is typically an arduous process, when it is permitted at all.

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Modern childhoods and the growth of academic interest

I remember turning up on my first day as a junior academic in one of the older universities in the UK and proudly talking about my work as an anthropologist in Thailand working with young prostitutes, only to be met with the withering put-down that ‘it didn’t sound like anthropology — more like comparative social work.’ If it involved children, it couldn’t be a serious area of study. At the time I was totally deflated but today, such a comment would be nonsensical.

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How to communicate like a Neandertal…

By Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
Neandertal communication must have been different from modern language. Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. They were a distinct population that had a separate evolutionary history for several hundred thousand years.

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Born to be a sacred midwife

Born with the destiny of becoming a Mayan sacred midwife, Chona Perez has carried on centuries-old traditional Indigenous American birth and healing practices over her 85 years. At the same time, Chona developed new approaches to the care of pregnancy, newborns, and mothers based on her own experience and ideas. In this way, Chona has contributed to both the cultural continuities and cultural changes of her town over the decades.

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The missing link in human evolution?

By John Reader
A blaze of media attention recently greeted the claim that a newly discovered hominid species, , marked the transition between an older ape-like ancestor, such as Australopithecus afarensis, and a more recent representative of the human line, Homo erectus. As well as extensive TV, radio and front-page coverage, the fossils found by Lee Berger and his team at a site near Pretoria in South Africa featured prominently in National Geographic, with an illustration of the three species striding manfully across the page. In the middle, Au. sediba was marked with twelve points of similarity: six linking it to Au. afarensis on the left and six to H. erectus on the right. Though Berger did not explicitly describe Au. sediba as a link between the two species, the inference was clear and not discouraged. The Missing Link was in the news again.

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Witchcraft!

In 2004, workmen digging in Greenwich, near London, uncovered a sealed stone bottle that rattled and splashed when they shook it. It was sent to a laboratory where X-rays revealed metal objects wedged in the neck, suggesting that it had been buried upside down, and a scan showed it to be half filled with liquid. Chemical analysis confirmed this was human urine containing nicotine and brimstone. When the cork was removed, scientists discovered iron nails, brass pins, hair, fingernail parings, a pierced leather heart, and what they believed might be navel fluff.

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The Essential Stonehenge

Stonehenge was begun about 2800 B.C. by a people who had no written language, no wheeled vehicles, no draft animals, and no metal tools. To dig holes in the ground, they used the antlers of deer. The initial Stonehenge consisted of a circular embankment 350 feet (107 meters) in diameter, four marker stones set in a rectangle, some postholes, and the Heel Stone. The Heel Stone was apparently the first of the great boulders brought to this site as construction commenced. But it may not have stood alone. A similar huge stone stood just to its left as seen from the center of Stonehenge. In that ancient time, the Sun at the beginning of summer probably rose between the famed Heel Stone and its now-vanished companion, and the alignment with sunrise at the summer solstice was probably exact.

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