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On the surface, it looks a lot like your typical Sunday School. There are children gathered at the feet of the woman teaching the class. They are singing Christmas carols, listening to stories about how we as people came to be on this earth, making arts and crafts. It could be taking place in any church basement across America.

Until you start to listen to the words of this particular version of “Silent Night.”

Silent night, holy night

all is calm, all is bright

planets gracefully circle the Sun

Stardust cycles through everyone

Life abounds upon Earth

Life abounds upon Earth

They begin another song, this one without the familiar melody.

In the beginning

was the Great Radiance

14 billion years ago

out of the fireball

came simple hydrogen

and helium from that great glow

The children gather now to make what look like rosaries, and the instructor spreads out a large selection of beads. Only, rather than using them to count prayers, the beads are there to help the children contemplate the stages of life development. The first bead represents the Big Bang, next the formation of the stars, then the birth of the planets, the beginning of life on Earth, and so on. More… “Earthly Intervention”

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
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…might be hard to find, even in the 21st century. At art auctions in 2014 and 2015, 92% of lots were by male artists. But at least women don’t need permission to paint fish — anymore. (Art News, The Smart Set)

Art takes many forms, and there is one arena of art that likely will never reach gender equality: beardistry. Throughout the beard’s hairy history, it has been a symbol of religious belief, masculinity, and power. For the women out there wishing they could dabble in this medium — my apologies. Blame evolution. (The Smart Set, New Republic)

The modern resurgence in tattoo art has ancient roots, and they lie with one 5000-year-old tatted-up Tyrolean Iceman. Modern art continues to throw this old form into new relief using a different breed of subject. (Smithsonian Science News, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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Long after the days of Downtown Abbey and personal servants, Chris Moss argues that the best way to be an upstanding modern day (hu)man is definitely not by following Country Life’s tips for being a “modern gentleman.” (Telegraph)

Through endless practice of beauty and perfection, dancers break their bodies — and often their minds. After the enormous physical and mental toll, they still pull in a much lower income than other athletes and artists of comparable prestige. Read about the grace and struggle of two of ballet’s finest. (Der Spiegel)

Humanity is an animal. Is this statement metaphor or fact? Perhaps both. As we strive to understand what sets us apart from the other critters on planet earth, Robert Sapolsky takes a hard look at empathy, metaphor, and the brain chemistry responsible. (Nautilus)

What’s your favorite number? And why? Here are six of the best responses. (Intelligent Life) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys.

Cars are the primary predators of the modern urban ecosystem. They roam at will, and kill some 400,000 pedestrians worldwide every year — about 4,500 annually in the United States.

Faced with evolutionary pressure, pedestrians will do what other species have done over many millennia: evolve and adapt, such that the fittest will survive. This notion is at least a century old. “What is the future of the pedestrian, anyway?” the New York Times asked in 1908. “Darwin might tell us if he were here, but he is not here and we must look elsewhere for enlightenment.”

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that an ostrich and an oriole cannot mate. The two may share common traits: Each is covered with feathers, and eats through a beak, and lays eggs. But the average person knows it takes a lot more for two animals to get down to the birds and the bees, so to speak.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. 352 pages. W.W. Norton & Co. $27.95.

Anyone can look at these animals and see two species that are simultaneously related and distinct. And most know the reason behind such duality — it’s evolution, stupid. But while it’s easy to recognize evolution’s delineated products — the tiny, fast, and orange-breasted oriole; the bulky, flightless, and long-necked ostrich — the process itself is trickier to glimpse.

But consider the Monarch flycatcher…. More…

 

Sometimes the smell of body odor means more than just “Wash me!” A person whose sweat starts to smell fruity may have developed diabetes, and an ammonia smell may indicate liver or kidney disease. Odor of rotting fish may signal trimethylaminuria — a rare syndrome caused by a defective gene that prevents people from metabolizing trimethylamine, a natural byproduct of digestion of certain foods like saltwater fish, eggs, and liver.

Body odors have a way of making a lasting impression, even when they don’t signal illness and even when we try ignore them. I’ll never forget the powerful scent emanating from Father Brady, the Irish priest at the church where I grew up. He never looked sweaty, but whenever he would lean over to shake my hand with his own squat, papery one, a smell that made me… More…

In old novels and plays, the woman who blushes is invariably described as lovely and virtuous. Jane Austen, for instance, created charming characters whose blushing was a sign of modesty and sincerity. Paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries often display pink-cheeked women looking sweet. Think of the many beautiful and blushing young women Auguste Renoir painted over the years.

But today, instead of being viewed as attractive, blushing is seen as an expression of shame and embarrassment. Contemporary accounts of the blush portray it almost entirely in negative terms. The blusher’s red face seems to unmask a person who just isn’t right with the world, quite literally an uncool character, one who has somehow crossed the boundary between the outside social world and the private inner life.

People who blush a lot are sometimes called “pathological” blushers. They blush at unexpected moments over nothing in particular. The psychological-physiological tic… More…

I came to the current religion debates a bored man. Started by the discussions around “intelligent design” and by the books of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris (The Four Horsemen), the debate seemed to pit two irreconcilable views against one another, both vying for an empty prize. Religion, I gathered, will always have its place, as will the practices of science and rational inquiry. Perhaps one day some other arrangement, some other separation of powers, will come about, but it won’t be any time soon, and it will happen when no one is looking. It will happen on its own time, with the lazy mastodon movements of history, which lumbers and rarely sprints.

It has also often struck me in some inchoate way that while the basic tenets and practices of any specific religion aren’t terribly impressive, the intellectual dilemma of faith and faithlessness has something to it. Sure, religion… More…

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and amateur paleontologist, sent William Clark to dig for fossils at a place in Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. Exactly 200 years later I’m stopping to see the fossils at Big Bone Lick, which is now a state park commemorating the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology.

It’s a hot, white-sky day and the park is full of picnickers, fishermen, and campers. There used to be mineral springs here and, before they dried up, Big Bone Lick was a destination for those seeking their medicinal value. Today, the parking lot is full of minivans. A dad is angry because someone spilled soda in the back seat; another one yells at everyone to stop fooling around and get back inside the car already.

The park’s small visitor center is lined with fossils of the animals that roamed the area during the last Ice Age; behind… More…