Exciting things are happening in evolution research. Evolution of man is not simply to be explained, in my humble opinion, in biological sense alone. I was glad to read a latest survey of the evolution in the December issue of The Economist magazine (December 24th 2005). The survey titled “The Proper Study of Mankind” covers new theories and techniques that have revolutionised our understanding of humanity’s past and present, says the author of the survey.
No day passes these days when there is no news about evolution. In fact, more and more news and developments concern one or other aspects of evolution. There is a furious debate in the American schools community about the need to teach evolution. The Christian fundamentalists want the Biblical theme taught in place of the biological/Dravidian theory of man descending from the ape! This debate is now portrayed as Evolution vs Intelligent Design. Even George Bush, who otherwise shows himself off as a devout Christian and Church-goer had to back foot from his enthusiasm to support the fundamentalist lobby.
Incidentally, this lobby played no small part in his election victory for the second time. So, apart from the intrinsic value of knowing the exact nature of the scientific revolution in the current evolution theory of man and mankind, we are drawn to the subject by the American pre occupations with science vs religion.
2005 was noted for new developments in genetics. The genomes of chimpanzees have been sequenced. Also, new books, latest being Richard Dawkins, Ancestors’ tale brought out some more popular concerns, like the triggering of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by America. Yes, there are also many new discoveries and opinions about the origins of virtues, trust, altruistic behaviour in the chimpanzees and also about man’s own mental and bodily behaviour are all subjects of studies and speculations. All these unique and difficult questions are the subjects of the study of evolution.
Evolution was once an obscure topic. For some specialists. Not anymore, it seems. The new technologies, information technology and biotechnology seem to be driving modern life. IT had brought about globalisation, people of the world now have become neighbours and live like neighbours! Biotechnology had pushed us to think of genetics as our hope for a disease-free life, why genetics can even enhance our genetic skills, we can even save humanity from perversities of racial and religious prejudices, improve our health, produce more healthy and nutritious foods and save environment and in one word biology helps us to explain our evolution and also our present behaviour patterns. Altogether, for the first time, it seems, only now, mankind seemed to have seized of its own power to control the humanity’s hopes, to expose the rogues of wars and destruction and make the world truly safe and truly civilized. Some random thoughts are offered here to raise the curiosity and understanding of man’s evolutionary progress.
The latest Economist survey of the topic brings home much more exciting developments in many universities and the large number of players, not just zoologists but anthropologists and psychologists and also the way the essay is developed by the journal by bringing the current concerns. Evolution is about how man descended from the Chimpanzee one day, somewhat a very long period in hirotical years, 4.5 million years ago, when the whole story of human family begins in Africa. So, too the other questions in other sciences like physics when the universe was born. We are talking not the history of man, the history of man is very short time, it looks when we look at evolution or the beginning of the universe. Or, when we speculate the present times, or the future, where man will evolve into new species or when the universe will end, if at all.
The history of man is after all a history that at best doesn’t extend in the past beyond, say some 2,500 years when civilization, as we know it, began, when the Greeks speculated on the earth and sun and when the first questions of philosophy and the other sciences began. So, the history of civilization is after all a brief period, from Greek to Roman to Renaissance to the modern European Enlightenment and the present times when we, the humans, had learnt to live as a global family, though there are the agonising questions of whether we have truly become civilized or truly cultures, truly human. The lives of the animal kingdom have been extensively studied and what we find is that the animal kingdom is given to extensive genocide, the killing of each other species and the very same ‘animal’ traits we can see in moor present times’ mindset to go to war and destroy mankind. May be the new danger of nuclear warfare could explain somewhat our next step in the ascent of man?
Richard Dawkins says in a perceptive way, that the Bush-Blair friendship in going to war in Iraq could have some evolutionary meaning. The swagger displayed by Bush inn his first term had something to do with that trait catching on with the British Prime Minister and says Dawkins that the swagger of the duo could trigger a nuclear threat! Yes, we have now come to nearer times in studying the evolutionary theory or theories. The mental power of man, the intellectual traits, the size of the (large) brains (measuring about 1,3000 cm). That might explain to some extent why the brain growth had something to do with man had been able to build cities and flown to the moon!
“Being clever helps people to survive by learning about their surroundings and by being able to solve practical problems”. There are so many explanations for the intelligence of man. The Machiavellian manipulative politician might be an evolutionary growth in the use of language. Though there are talking chimpanzees, parrots and dolphins, real language-the sort with complex grammar and syntax is unique to man. Language and culture of the humans evolve, become complex and natural selection causes revolutionary changes to enable the humans to exploit the new environment and opportunities and this process, says one noted expert, has driven the capacity for abstract thought. This is what is intelligence. Human mind is like a peacock’s tasil, a luxuriant demonstration of its owner’s genetic fitness. The subject of evolution is not complete without what is called sex selection. This is a fascinating subject. He or she has, from time to time, done some of these showing-off things to a desirable partner. Really interesting is when they home in on what is unique to humanity.
One uniquely human characteristic is the playing of games with formal rules “Evolutionary psychology has not yet sought to explain this, though there are new tests to decide the significance of its ideas”. There are now studies how man becomes not just selfish but also altruistic, how trust is formed, how a sense of justice and sometimes self-denial, these seem to be uniquely human behaviour. The idea of racial prejudices are traced to early man’s isolation. Now, long distance transport, now the IT and Internet relation might make for reduced racial prejudices, as already most developed countries are battling with the multicultural population, with migration becoming the major issue today.
The Economist survey tackles some very interesting questions on sex selection and the economic well-bring and what makes for humanity’s happiness etc. One important point is that race-perceptions, racial prejudices well might change for the good. As more wealth becomes within the reach of the majority of mankind, there would be other drivers for evolution, status, sex selection might also undergo changes with more and more independent income earning women also having a say in the matter. The sex and economic drive might see several interesting changes. There is a quote from Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who married Jacqueline Kennedy. It is this: “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning”!
First of all, let me make it clear that I am no expert on evolution. Or for that matter on any other sciences like physics. Though I read, almost daily these days some news or other that touches on evolution or the latest information of the many exciting developments in the sciences. In any good bookshop, you find invariably a shelf devoted entirely to the popular books on the sciences, from genetics, DNA, Chimpanzees, the universe, the galaxies and the many new specialists writing for the more popular audience. I buy sometimes books in this genre or some in the family do so and thus I am exposed to these new books.
What they try to convey, more to the common man interests me, more than what they really know in the more complex issues and what their peers know in their respective narrow spheres of specialised knowledge domains. Or for that matter, even more for what they have done in enlightening the elite classes. Today, the spread of education and the spread of knowledge through the Internet and also the coming of the more popular channels, National Geographic and the Planet Earth etc keep the common man’s interest in our natural world,in our animal kingdom. The elite class anyway can have more keen interest and qualifications to make up their minds or make intelligent decisions. These days there are so many conservation movements, so many NGOs and much more number of dedicated individuals who have devoted their best part of their lives to, say, to conserve the Chimpanzees like Jane Goodall and mighty and whenever they occupy such high profile platforms like the Science Congress, the leaders (more the politicians) hold forth and yet when you turn to the India of the masses and the classes are blissfully uninterested in teaching the sciences in our schools and colleges in a more meaningful ways. I find more and more these so-called educated persons simply don’t show any interest in any general knowledge, any new knowledge, except simply to spend their rest of their lives in sticking to some jobs or other, mostly government jobs.
The Indian language press is the worst offender. Even the language publishing industry is guilty of fostering such astrological/spiritual books, often recycled from the same old mindset, relentlessly! Even now, I find in the new India of IT revolution where IT professionals of the younger generation earn big incomes and yet they all seem (to me, at any rate) to have no interest in the larger world outside their narrow domain, they have no interest in the larger questions of the society they live in or the outside world, except in a routine way of existence.
Is materialism all to our current phase of living in the globalised world? Is the IT superpower India all about giving a go to the past cobwebs of India being a spiritual country, Indians value their religious beliefs more than their material prosperity? Yes, religion is on the retreat everywhere, including in India. There is also the counter phenomena that along with material prosperity, there is a comeback of religion and new superstitions with a vengeance! Consumerism is on the upswing. Also, the new age gurus and godmen and godwomen are having an all-time following. How to explain life and its meaning today?
They might travel to USA, spend time there in some jobs, acquire the American accent or some taste for the consumer culture, food, clothes and lifestyles and that is all. They are neither seriously Indians in any serious cultural sense nor American citizens in any cosmopolitan sense or never consciously they become citizens of the world. All the talk of globalisation and making money in the fast lane don’t mean anything to them except in a biological sense of existence. Such big issues of culture, civilization and the great questions of man and mankind, philosophical, religious and spiritual questions seem to be all out of the mind-set of the average educated younger generation Indians.
Survival of the fittest, natural selection, people got what they deserved are all the common phrases everywhere. 100 years after Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” we find there has been much progress of science but there is not much progress in the behaviour and conduct of man. Man has remained a brutal species still, there is much bloodshed in the last century, “the bloodiest century” calls historian Eric Hobsbawm.
So, now back to my topics. I am a long time reader of Richard Dawkins, the author of such books like The Selfish Gene (1976),The Blind Watch maker(1986), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and his latest book I couldn’t tackle and it is so huge and so I didn’t buy it but keep reading extracts here and there.
By the way some more information about Hawking is in order. He is paralyzed and bound to a wheel chair, suffers from a motor neuron disease and yet it doesn’t affect his brain or the senses. He is now 63 and he communicates through an electronic voice synthesizer. He holds the Cambridge University’s Dept of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, the chair once held by Isaac Newton! He is now a celebrity, he had been to India too, and the book he wrote in 1988, A Brief History of Time as an account of how the universe began to a general readership. It was translated into sixty-five languages, one of the best sealing books, sold because a combination of the author’s personas and also as a really moving book on a theme that concerns man’s quest to know the ultimate realities and truths. “I myself hadn’t read this famous book more than the first few pages or attempted to read but I bought this time his more shorter version of the same book with a new title, A Briefer History of Time just out in the bookshelves. It is some days since I acquired this book and I am not sure whether this time I would finish reading it completely. At least I am sure I would browse through the pages soon.
Hawking enjoy an iconic status not seen in a scientist since Einstein is likely to be an ambassador for science today. He is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. (Only in the West you have such special chairs to convey the modern scientific findings to the public. Here, in India, we are all too preoccupied with our existence only!). That stand is now more and more challenged. On January 9, 2006, Dawkins took up the question of religious faith in a two-part British Channel 4 television programme, The root of All Evil? His voice is called one of the shrillest in an increasing world of atheist humanists.
What it is to be human and ethical? To be moral and responsible for our actions?
As one writer on the Dawkins TV presentation put it, it is now all consumerism, football. and a mindless absorption in passing desires!
Not knowing or believing in the big questions of man and our life in the cosmos, we, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, we instead of believing in God, we believe anything! Critics of Dawkins say that there are so much uncertainties about life, about our own scientific beliefs and yet a scientist of the stature of Dawkins, instead of taking into account all questions of life, he tries only to explain everything as a” product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage”. First, Dawkins is featured in Jerusalem. It is the segregation of schools that caused the violence. So, if there is no religious segregation there would be peace. For this the critics point out that as in Ireland, the conflict in Israel as in Ireland is much more owing to lands, resources and history that to religion. So to blame religion for the violence in certain territories is to simplify a much more complicated questions.
History of mankind shows that over long periods of our existence, we have been confined to different geographies and so was born the separate racial and religious and ethnic identities. In recent centuries, we find that various historical forces played roles to bring in conflicts between nationalities and religious allegiances. The rise of imperialism accentuated the religious and territorial conflicts. As pointed out, Rwandan tragedy was about ethnicity, the German Holocaust was about a racist political ideology. Even today we see in the globalising world, there are imperial instincts, the power for domination of one race against another, one race against another race, one region over the other, for sheer aggression or for material resources (oil). This instinct for aggression, for genocide tendencies are parts of our evolutionary process, what we have in common with our ancestor apes and other animal kingdoms.
Second, Dawkins attacks the education based on religious teaching to abuse and corrupt the children’s minds. He rather advocates an education that would instill in the children an enquiring mind, a scientific mind to question everything and thereby develop a rather sceptical mind. This is again controversial for after all children grow up in their families and families bring all the baggage of the past traditions and belief systems. Family values are much more important than strictly an all-out scientific teaching, however good it is in itself. It is again a much more complex question: how children grow up with a belief in ethics and morals, a cultural environment that is rich in all details, including scientific beliefs. Unless ethics and morals are taught at home, there is no way children can imbibe certain definite world view. “Don’t indoctrinate the children before they are in a position to acquire the enquiring mind and that can be done only by teaching first science, not religion” seems to be the theme song of Dawkins.
Critics seem to be warning the incorrigible Darwinist” You are over-simplifying what is a genuine complex problem, religion is not after all so simple a question, religion in a non-sectarian sense, is after all what concerned great scientists like Einstein and even now thinkers like Stephen Hawking. So, be more serious, don’t equate religion with some organised religion”. Dawkins simply doesn’t have an answer, he has not answered such questions at all. Violent religion, yes, it is but then why blame religion for violence, after all, Communism, Nazism and Fascism and other political creeds drew their violence not from religion but from their own peculiar creeds like Marxism and Freudianism and even we can say from Darwinism. So, the straightforward, irreverent, pitiless, Godless universe of biological evolutionary theory or theories also can be blamed for the cultivation of violent minds or mindsets. If the critics of Dawkins claim that the distinguished theorist is lacking in rigour in his arguments, what about the need for more rigorous application of tools from logic and philosophy, which in their own ways, in their heights of fame, as in the early Fifties to early Sixties preached the Logical Positivism that was accused of the same charge of spreading atheism.
Anyway, sitting at this distance in India and not fully keeping abreast of the latest philosophical enquiries in Oxford and elsewhere what we can do is to raise some questions of this nature and draw our own conclusions for what they are worth. As for our history of mankind when settled down from being hunter gatherers to settled farmers, civilization was born and empires grew. Men (it is men, rather than females, who are the favourites with the evolutional theorists) had the genetic traits to dominate and acquire power and territories. So, wealth, economic power and power over the other species, including sex selection when men had more women, harems that became the early stage of civilization.
When knowledge of the world, science and philosophy came to man is another fascinating question to be explored. What interests me is the question how ancient men acquired so much knowledge and the power to speculate on abstract questions, philosophy, sciences and the material wealth and much else. Architecture, painting, knowledge as exemplified in the design of warships and much of the tools that helped to desigtn such magnificent buildings as the Santa Maria church in Florence, the sculpting of David the incomparable statue, the acquisition of knowledge, the books, the building of libraries, as in Florence under the Medici’s. The Acropolis in Athens laid the foundations for architecture and the very notion of a civilization was born out of Greek and Roman nations and peoples.
Chimpanzee, the genetic difference between man the Chimp is just 0.7 Percent only! Chimpanzees are now becoming more like humans! Chimpanzees or chimps are almost nearer to man. 99.4 per cent of of the most critical DNA sites are identical in human and chimp genes,prompting lead researcher, Morris Goodman,to declare that chimps and humans should be brought together under the same genus,Homo. Till now,it was separate genus”Pan”. In the last five years there have been drmatic developments,more speed in understanding the evolutionary path of man.In 1991,Pulitzer prize-winning ecologist Jared Diamond called humans”the third Chimpanzee”, setting us alongside the common chimp, its less aggressive cousin, the bonobo.
By 1999,the New Zealand scientists joined forces to demand that”rights’be conferred on chimps and apes so that no animal experimentation be conducted on them! Now,British Home Office guidelines forbid experiments on chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. A slow molecular clock suggests that time between generations is long, something that has historically set humans apart from great apes.”Some human traits only emerged one million years ago,a fleeting moment on evolutionary scales”
Stephen Hawking’s new book
How to walk the space?How to travel in time?
There is no word, God, in Hawking’s latest book. A Briefer History of Time(2005)is a deceptively simple book of just 162 pages but is a very hard going reading indeed.
I grappled with it for sometime and then honestly gave up! But one can read it or glance through the pages for the rare observations, one or two lines that in themselves would be enlightening for laymen! “Ancient people tried hard to understand the universe, but they hadn’t yet developed our mathematics and science.
Today we have powerful tools: mental tools such as mathematics and the scientific method, and the technological tools like computers and telescopes. With the help of these tools, a lot of knowledge scientists have pieced together about space. But what about the universe? How do we know it? Where did the universe come from? Where it is going? What is the nature of time? Can we go back in time? Will it ever come to an end? Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by new technology, suggest answers to some of these long standing questions. Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun. Only time (whatever that may be) will tell” (page 4).
No educated man or his library can be complete without this little gem of a book. It takes us from the ancient times to the present moment. We may not be able to fully understand the concepts of time and space. But we would be ahead of others in realising these are the very basis of our existence in this vast cosmos. My one reading or glancing through the pages gave me an immense sense of relief! At least or at last, I realise that the business of universe, the galaxies is a pretty bloody business of realising the unique nature of human intelligence, how we humans have acquired this intelligence and we have travelled at least the long (or very tiny brief?) time from Aristotle to our own author of this book, the one tied to a wheel chair and producing one of the memorable readable book of all time! Readers might be interested to know that when the first book, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988, it was on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks and has sold about one copy for every 750 men, women and children on earth!
Though a reviewer in the Nature science journal called the new book: “The topics that it claims to treat more carefully have been covered better elsewhere. In any case, many of the topics left in and flagged as more introductory are just as baffling, abstract and abstruse to non-scientists as those left out “Anyway, I count myself lucky enough to have read the book’s review as well! Incidentally, Hawking, like Dawkins, is married thrice, a grandfather today and he is being looked after by a team of nurses round the clock. It is said that today he commands 50,000 pounds for a single lecture in the USA! For a TV appearance 100,000 pounds! So, he is a rich man and hugely enjoys his fan following!
I live in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India and I meet a number of high earning IT persons, IT couples and what appalls me is their sheer ignorance of the larger world. They seem not to know any developments in the liberal arts, except in a superficial way, the latest glossies and the pop music and such Yankeeisation. Even see even the big it czars! What they speak is some superficialities or mere clichés! They have no idea that the larger society is much more demanding and you need an all-rounded education to pretend to come to have some graps of the issues.
Richard Dawkins’: the Oxford professor of public understanding of science tome is ‘one of the richest accounts of evolution ever written’. Clive Cookson reports in the Financial Times. Richard Dawkins the undisputed master of evolutionary biology since the death of his great rival, Stephen Jay Gould, in 2002, had produced no new book since Unweaving the Rainbow six years ago, and we were wondering what the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford was up to.
The Ancestor’s Tale is Dawkins’ triumphant answer. When I first saw this new book, a glossy two-kilogram monster, I thought: “Oh no-after all the waiting, he’s produced a coffee table book”. It felt and looked too heavy and too lavishly illustrated to be a serious science book. But my reaction turned out to be quite wrong – for someone who has castigated publishers in the past for their failure to illuminate science books with lively graphics and illustrations. In The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins traces human ancestry over 4bn years back to the dawn of life on Earth. The result is one of the richest accounts of evolution ever written. It is also an object lesson in the way thorough picture research, carefully commissioned illustrations and good design can enhance even the best text. He cannot resist applying similar logic to the contemporary world, with chilling effect. With George W.Bush as US president, he believes there is a significant chance of a nuclear catastrophe.
“The present leader of the largest nuclear power in the world things the word is ‘nucular’,” Dawkins writes. “He has never given any reason to suggest his wisdom or his intelligence outperforms his literacy. He has demonstrated a predilection for ‘pre-emptive’ first strikes. What are the odds against a terrible mistake, initiating Armaged-don? A hundred to one against, within any one year? I would be more pessimistic. We came awfully close in 1963, and that was with an intelligent President…It only has to happen once.”
“Then something unusual happened… A fashion for walking bipedally arose, and it arose as suddenly and capriciously as fashions do. It was a gimmick…” Dawkins suggests that an admired ape gained status through his unusual virtuosity in walking upright. Others imitated him and it became the thing to do. “Everyone’s talking about a new was of walking…” As Dawkins notes, styles of walking have a certain contagiousness among modern humans, whether it is the English public school swagger or the loose-limbed “pimp roll” of American dudes. (Indeed, he claims that Tony Blair, as “Bush’s poodle”, imitates the president’s cowboy swagger in his company.
When it comes to the evolutionary swelling of the human brain, Dawkins follows a number of recent authors in suggesting that sexual selection was responsible, as our hominid ancestors competed to lure their mates with dancing, singing, sweet-talking, story-telling and so on.
Dawkins has spent almost his entire professional life at Oxford. Indeed, as Marek Kohn shows A Reason for Everything, his lucid account of the British tradition in evolutionary biology, “Dawkins is nothing if not Oxford.” At the age of 63, Dawkins can still weave a Darwinian spell as powerful as the one that bewitched specialists and non-specialists alike when his first book, The Selfish Gene, appeared in 1976. Some other distinguished writer scientists such as Martine Rees (astronomy) and Susan Greenfield (the brain) have recently strayed into fields far from their original areas of expertise – with less than satisfactory results. Although Dawkins could write well about anything, I hope he will stick to evolutionary biology. Genetics is moving ahead fast enough to give him plenty of new material for another masterpiece in few years.