3 NYT Essays

fri9mar2007—10w068d18%— 06h34m00s—0utc

All three of them long (9,000 words average), all three of them remarkable. Favorite to least-favorite-but-still-remarkable,

Unhappy Meals By Michael Pollan January 28, 2007

What should we eat?

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

..A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

Darwin’s God By Robin Marantz Henig March 4, 2007

How can we explain belief in God?

Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed “spandrel” to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align.

In architecture, a spandrel can be neutral or it can be made functional. Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase’s but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct.

“Natural selection made the human brain big,” Gould wrote, “but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels — that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity.”

The possibility that God could be a spandrel offered Atran a new way of understanding the evolution of religion. But a spandrel of what, exactly?

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

From 0 to 60 to World Domination By Jon Gertner February 18, 2007

A look at Toyota.

By any measure, Toyota’s performance last year, in a tepid market for car sales, was so striking, so outsize, that there seem to be few analogs, at least in the manufacturing world. A baseball team that wins 150 out of 162 games? Maybe. By late December, Toyota’s global projections for 2007 — the production of 9.34 million cars and trucks — indicated that it would soon pass G.M. as the world’s largest car company. For auto analysts, one of the more useful measures of consumer appeal is the “retail turn rate” — that is, the number of days a car sits on a dealer’s lot before it is turned over to a customer. As of November 2006, according to the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power & Associates that tracks such sales data, Toyota’s cars in the U.S. (including its Lexus and Scion brands) had an average turn rate of 27 days. BMW was second at 31; Honda was third at 32. Ford was at 82 and G.M. at 83. And Daimler-Chrysler was at 107. The financial markets reflected these contrasts. By year’s end, Toyota would record an annual net profit of $11.6 billion, and its market capitalization (the value of all its shares) would reach nearly $240 billion — greater than that of G.M., Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and Nissan combined.

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