Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reflections: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Who are we? Where did we come from? If each of us were to draw our genealogy map, most cannot list anyone beyond the last three generations. There are many of us who have hardly heard, leave alone seen, our great grandparents. With the floodgates of genetic research flung wide open, how priceless would it be to unearth the histories of our ancestors to better understand ourselves and those around us. We might finally understand why we are the way we are, and hopefully find some wisdom to project a better path for the future - for the benefit of us, humanity and the whole planet.

After many discussions on several topics that are weaved into this book, I received the book as a New Year's gift from my dear friend. It's wonderful that my New Year started with such an excellent gift. It has helped me answer questions that I have battled with for a while and has opened my mind to interesting vistas sure to help me sort out many of my future doubts. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have put together the story of humanity - right from the formation of the planet from mere star dusts, to the evolution of the most complex species, some blessed with enough intelligence to trace their histories. It's a story about how there came to be a structure in the midst of random chaos, how an impeccable ecosystem was established to sustain a cycle of energy, and how mere cell reproduction was perfected with Nature's laws of survival to bring about selective multiplication of the fittest of species. Well, we all are aware of evolution. Is that all this book talks about? Yes and No. It's about evolution, but from a perspective we have probably never considered before. It not just asserts that we come from animals, but tries to bridge the gap between the two of us, explaining how the very "animal" instincts that we now denigrate actually helped the survival of our ancestors, and our nature and personalities are shaped by them. The objectivity of the discussion helps us view animals and us in a much clear light to contrast the differences and the similarities, while trying to answer the question - what makes us humans? How are we different?

There are just far too many things that are interesting in the book, that left with enough time and a patient audience I would likely ardently discuss every page and paragraph. But to save our sanity, I have picked some excellent themes that were explored-

Altruism or Selfish Genes
Those who have been victims of my past discussions on this topic will thank their stars with this revelation of mine - my confusions have been finally resolved. Every act of ours has a layer of selfishness behind it. But being selfish isn't bad. It is one of the reasons why we exist today. But like many out there, I could never reconcile with the argument that even a man who sacrifices his life to save the lives of those who aren't even his kins, can have any trace of selfishness tainting his motive. After all isn't survival the key instinct? How can there be any selfishness in choosing to not survive, just to help the survival of others? Ah, the answer lies embedded in that exclaim - it is indeed to help the survival of others, the species. If some thousands of our ancestors hadn't chosen to sacrifice themselves to save their species, there would have been no human race. As much as it is embedded in our genes to survive and procreate to keep our race thriving, by the same logic our instincts are wired to sacrifice ourselves to save our species (escalating from our family, our community, our nation, our planet, our species), if their survival were threatened. The utilitarian logic of saving millions at the cost of one/some, stems from our selfish genes. Not convincing enough? Well, there are evidences of monkeys, bees and even ants, assumed to be automatons that lack emotion, logic or intelligence, demonstrating such brave altruistic acts. Is this unvalidated research? Nope, scientists still assert this, as is evident from this new article. And adding the cherry atop the icing, here is another reason to bolster this. Most animals, especially those living in colonies and communities, such as ants, bees, monkeys and even us (after all, haven't read time and again that "Main is a social animal"?), can only exist in a society that maintains a symbiotic relationship - it reduces to basic economics. We cannot survive without our group. That's man's greatest threat to survival. Therefore, it is indeed in his long term best interests that he cares for and tries to protect his social circle. Those who are short sighted and who have started disconnecting themselves from this instinct, restrict their filed of concern to themselves, sometimes their own family, while some still see far enough to want to protect whales and tigers.

Cultural Diversity and Natural Selection
I have been harping on world peace, the unity of humanity, with the dream of the whole world living as one big happy family. And this is the first time, I have relinquished such a dream - not out of resignation or pessimism, but I finally comprehend the design behind diversity and isolation of pockets of communities. This is because, the more diverse the cultures, the more diverse the gene pools, which means the more chance of survival. If a certain genetic trait is lost due to our unanimity, how would we survive a certain deadly virus that is immune and can be cured only with the lost gene sequence? Humanity would be at the brink of extinction. Kind of why inbreeding is dangerous and therefore repulsive. Our world will essentially be one happy family with minimal variations in gene sequences. Precisely why our ancestors lived in communities, and why there continues to be hostility on some level when it comes to complete genetic intermingling. It finally makes some iota of sense as to why inter-racial marriages are still regarded with such intense revulsion. But of course, there HAS to be some amount of genetic mixing between clans/races, otherwise it leads us back to a similar problem - homogeneity of genes within communities. No surprise that even female monkeys invariably get attracted to males from another clan, while facing stiff resistance from many monkeys from either clans. It is amazing that this balance that impels some genetic mixing and some genetic preservation has lasted so many billions of years. I finally face reality - and this what the book gives us in liberal doses. I concede that the world cannot and should never be just one big happy family. Diversity is valuable to us, not homogeneity.

Definition of Humanity
So what makes us humans? What makes us so special, gives us the right to control, dominate, pollute, and head on a path to bring eventual destruction to ourselves? Is it our ability to think, to reason, to speak, to feel, to create and appreciate art and music, to exhibit a culture, to be in a monogamous relationship, to create and use sophisticated tools, to put together codes of religion and morality and to philosophize about our souls? Sadly, no. Discussions about chimpanzees, baboons, bonobos, bees, ants, sparrows and a host of such varied animals provide evidence that many animals display such characteristics, although the scale of their abilities is still not comparable to us. I like how the book emphasizes that these animals differ from us not in kind, but only in the ways. Baboons and most birds mate for life. Baboons and birds are capable of expressing talent and appreciation for music. Most animals are capable of showing affection, emotion, caring for their group, they are capable enough to establish their own chain of social hierarchy, their own methods of hunting, and even mold their own tools. It has been proved that even an accomplished scientist, after spending several hours with a friendly chimpanzee, can still not learn the seemingly "simple" skill of the chimpanzees to shape a twig, insert it into a termites' hole, manage to get some termites on the twig, extricate it carefully from the narrow hole and eat the little treats sitting on it. Well, can chimpanzees catch a fish like us? No... but just not yet. Macaque monkeys have exhibited high standards of morality, by choosing to rather starve than try to reach for their food that was hooked to an electric switch administering a shock to another macaque monkey, every time the food was touched. Seeing the other monkey flinch, the other stopped trying to reach for the food. And macaque monkeys show this trait despite not being taught the virtues of altruism, or about God or morality.

But would every human be as considerate as "low-level" creatures such as the monkeys and ants, to sacrifice ourselves for our group? No. Do animals engage in violence for the sake of greed? No. Do they try to kill or attack unless there is a need. No. Do animals execute calculated murder? No. And what about us humans? Having all 6 senses we don't bother about the planet, we don't hesitate to eradicate communities for industrialization and choose to rationalize all our acts and stay blind to morality. As I have ranted previously, we humans have lost in touch with Nature's ways, that many instincts that are wired in all other animals have faded in us.

How free is our will?
Centering around this, the authors tie in a brilliant discussion on free will. If we are to disrupt the social structure of animals, and for experimental purposes, we artificially create a society with 10 extremely aggressive males and 2 females, will such a society survive? No. As was the pitiable catastrophe that ensued when scientists unwittingly put in a mismatched group of baboons in the same cage. There was anarchy and violence, for Nature never creates or encourages a group in which there can be so many "leaders" or alpha males. And leaving just 2 females for so many alphas, just did not agree with the animals' natures. Can we blame the animals or their nature for the violence, killing and bloodshed? Does it make sense to talk about the baboons' free will? The experiment is an example of how each species has it's own set of core natures which cannot be shaken off. If social engineering is poorly and artificially designed, it will result in mayhem, and there is very little relevance to free will. Humans need to be wary of their limitations as well. Our reason hasn't evolved enough for us to cast away all concerns of upsetting our social and ecological balance. Our survival hangs on the balance that we take for granted. It's not about our free will to do what we want and argue that reason and intelligence will help us sustain. We are not omnipotent.

That was my major take-away from the book. Understanding our ancestors is the first step towards truly understanding us - acknowledging our limitations and staying within their boundaries, realizing which vestigial instincts we need to shed off, for although they might have been beneficial to our ancestors, they no longer apply to our phase of existence, and how to truly extend our potentials and "special" adaptive features of intelligence and reason to grow, and evolve our future generations into much sophisticated creatures. Sadly, the current trend seems to be a horrific regression.

My thoughts would be incomplete without the authors' articulate and wise words:
"We achieve some measure of adulthood when we recognize our parents as they really were, without sentimentalizing or mythologizing, but also without blaming them unfairly of our imperfections. Maturity entails a readiness, painful and wrenching though it may be, to look squarely into the long dark spaces, into the fearsome shadows. In this act of ancestral remembrance and acceptance may be found a light by which to see our children safely home."

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