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An argument over the evolution of language, with high stakes

SPEECH leaves no fossils, so palaeoanthropologists have no direct evidence for the emergence of the quintessential human trait: language. Many scholars work on the topic nonetheless, but few of their findings have achieved consensus. On one thing, at least, most agree: though animals communicate, only humans have true language, with …

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Why pessimism is key to understanding the Victorians

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906. By David Cannadine. Allen Lane; 602 pages; £30. To be published in America by Viking in February 2018; $40. IN THE 19th century, Britain’s old enemy France was vanquished. Britain was industrialising faster than its European neighbours, while preserving its monarchy and parliamentary system. …

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Two documentaries on policing, race and justice in America

AS THE Black Lives Matter movement has gathered momentum and racial injustice has come to the forefront of America’s national consciousness, it is no surprise that film-makers are exploring these topics. Many have focused on the past to shed light on the present. A recent spate of documentaries analysed the …

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Can the marathon’s two-hour barrier be broken?

IT IS one of running’s three great barriers. The first, a sub-four-minute mile, was achieved in 1954 by Britain’s Sir Roger Bannister, on a gusty day at Oxford University’s dusty cinder track. The second, a sub-ten-second 100-metre dash, was credited by hand-operated stopwatches to American sprinter Jim Hines in 1968, …

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Arte Povera’s radical simplicity

IN one room of Hauser & Wirth’s New York gallery, kettles whistle and hum inside a glorious assemblage of rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto. A second room plays host to one of Mario Merz’s igloos, this one small and rusted, with a bright neon strip-light protruding from the top. And in …

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Stalin’s famine, a war on Ukraine

A calamity made in Moscow Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. By Anne Applebaum. Doubleday; 496 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25. OF THE estimated 70m deaths due to famines in the 20th century, at least 40m occurred under communist regimes in China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Cambodia. The …

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A carpenter philosophises

Hammer, chisel, heart and soul Making Things Right: A Master Carpenter at Work. By Ole Thorstensen. Translated by Sean Kinsella. MacLehose Press; 240 pages; £16.99. HANDS can reveal much about the lives of their owners. Ole Thorstensen’s fingers are surprisingly intact, and he has a few small but unremarkable scars. …

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Thomas Ruff’s manipulative photography

Manga-nificent WHEN Thomas Ruff was young, he had a simple ambition: to travel the globe taking colourful pictures of far-away places for National Geographic. Then he went to art school. His teachers at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where he began studying in 1977, were Bernd and Hilla Becher, a couple …

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Migration and identity in a new German novel

Go, Went, Gone. By Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. New Directions; 320 pages; $16.95. Portobello Books; £14.99. A RETIRED classicist, Richard shuns strident rhetoric. This reserved and solitary man, the protagonist of Jenny Erpenbeck’s seventh novel, nonetheless comes to a severe judgment on the plight of African refugees in …

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Many writers try to span America’s political divide

THAT left- and right-leaning Americans read different books might be the least surprising fact about publishing. After all, they live in different places, eat different food, listen to different music and, of course, consume different kinds of news. All these reinforce one another; increasingly, progressives and conservatives simply do not …

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