The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of Intelligence


“…the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree, and not of kind.” –Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man

I just finished reading Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. It’s a great book, though nowhere near as good as his masterpiece, Cosmos. It’s very intriguing to ponder about the origin of intelligence. The complexity of the brain and ratio of brain mass to body mass seems to be a reasonable measure of intelligence. But what is intelligence, as manifested by behaviour? Is it unique to humans? How and when, did we become “humanly” intelligent? What could be the possible direction of future evolution of intelligence? These are issues that are touched upon by Sagan. Besides, when we refer to violent, rash or cruel behaviour as beastly, we are probably referring to reptilian character, which is probably a part of us, due to our inheritance of significant portions of the reptilian brain. Emotions like love, and generally sensitive behaviour, are characteristic of most mammals.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is the one which deals with out ancestors. We all know that we are descended from monkeys, but how closely related are we, to them? Particularly enlightening is the report of a study of chimpanzees, in which they demonstrated amazing aptitude for mastering sign language, complete with syntax and semantics. Aren’t we perhaps too chauvinistic in holding our almost universal conviction that human beings are somehow fundamentally superior to the rest of the living world, and that the world is ours to rule?

Perhaps human chauvinism is not particularly recent. We had a variety of different primate species of ancestors, who were probably contemporaries with at least a few others, which means that their reigns may have overlapped. But where are they today? Why did they become extinct? It’s still a mystery. Perhaps it was just natural selection at work, and the smarter primates survived while the others were wiped out. There is evidence of fractured fossil skulls that belonged to one species of our ancestors who didn’t use tools, who were contemporary to another who did. Could it suggest that the smarter(and shrewder) of the two just killed off the other unsuspecting and defenseless group? Could the line of human beings, that led to us, have exterminated all other relatives they thought intelligent and perceived asĀ  a threat? That could explain why today there are no primates other than us displaying obviously comparable levels of intelligence, but there are species like chimpanzees, who at first sight, is “just a monkey” but upon greater scrutiny, show signs of intelligence very similar to our own.

When I read about this theory, I just couldn’t help imagining how the world would have been, had a few of our ancestors survived. The vision of the world that sprang to my mind was eerily like that in the Lord of the Rings– with a variety of human like creatures co-existing. Little and gentle Hobbits who lived in hilliside burrows, the big Men of Gondor who were known for their skill at machines and warfare, the mysterious elves who were legendarily philosophical.

On the whole it is a great book, though certain portions lack the rigor and flow that is so characteristic of the works of Carl Sagan. For example, there is a chapter called “Future Evolution of the Brain”, which actually talks mostly about the human invention of storing knowledge outside our bodies, computers and machine intelligence, and gives a hint of human chauvinism. It’s a very educative work, and is perfect for the layman wishing to know more about intelligence.


His Experiments with Truth


I read Gandhiji’s famous autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth almost a year ago. I had been told by my friends who had read it before, that it wasn’t really that good and they found it boring. But since I was intrigued and curious from what I had read about Gandhiji’s philosophy, I decided to read it myself. I discovered that it was an unremarkable piece of literature.

But I was simply fascinated by the ideas that originated in his undoubtedly remarkable mind, and presented themselves to me from the book. It was inspiring to read about his experiments with life. How he thought and reasoned and created standards that seemed logical and worked for him, in matters such as diet, medicine, faith, economy and politics. My friends seem at best amused and sometimes even repelled that I find his ideas attractive. Some of them have opined that they are archaic and possibly relevant only to the particular social context that he lived in. If anything, I think they are timeless and as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Apart from this, I found it inspiring that a person who lived such an extraordinary life, and possessed such an extraordinary character, was plain unremarkable during his childhood. Some people might find it hard to associate the shy twenty year old who had to get a friend read out his speech at a meeting of people with a special interest, with the philosopher who would go on to influence the thoughts of billions of people, even decades after his death. I firmly believe that the “achievements”, academic or otherwise, of children really don’t mean anything. What really matters is that their characters are nurtured and they are encouraged to think freely.

The ideal childhood is one which affords the child a lot of freedom and interaction with nature, where he learns how to learn, so that when he grows up he can look at the world with an integrated view and decide for himself what to believe, or pursue. I think this is an important point because of the fuss being made today regarding child prodigies and celebrities. I feel that the long years a child spends learning moribund facts, will be more fruitful if they are let out to play in the mud or climb mango trees instead. When they reach the right age, I’m sure they will have developed a taste for worthy pursuits and a hunger to take on the world.

P.S. Playing in the mud or climbing mango trees have nothing to do with Gandhiji’s childhood(!). They were just my figure of speech in a call for giving more opportunity for children to communicate with nature.

‘The God Delusion’


I just finished reading the book, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It’s a wonderfully well thought-out critique of religion, and the God hypothesis. Dawkins focuses on why a belief in a supernatural being is so ubiquitous, and further examines the arguments in favour of the existence of God, and explains how scientific evidence contradicts them. He also tackles the social and psychological purposes which religion claims to fulfill, such as morality, consolation and inspiration, and argues why these functions are fulfilled even in the absence of religion. The book ends with a chapter on how the broadening of the horizons of our knowledge through the advancement of science reveals a beautiful and diverse universe, governed by simple and elegant laws, which doesn’t really need a supernatural element for us to perceive beauty.

It is impossible to write a review of this book without mentioning my personal views. If you read the “About me” page, you can probably guess that I am an atheist. I was lucky to have been born into a family which was only mildly religious, though a benevolent personal God(s) was always there, for consolation and inspiration. As I grew up I gradually began to think for myself, and have become a proud, if tactful(since none of the persons closest to me is blindly religious, definitely not fundamentalist, and I respect their faith) atheist.

It’s a must-read for all those who have wondered, at some point in their lives, whether God exists.

An afterthought(25 June): Since writing this post, I have had discussions with a couple of friends about religion, and I think I need to add a few more thoughts here. One of them is an agnostic, and the other a believer. Neither of them could understand why an atheist should be so hostile to religion, if so many people indeed find comfort in faith. I don’t have any problem with faith, but I feel that these are things which one should work out for oneself. Indeed, the believer friend has a beautiful faith, that the universe is full of intentions(whether it is true or not is beside the point), which gives her hope and comfort. In fact, I believed in something similar for a while myself.

Unfortunately, such enlightened faith, acknowledging science and savouring scientific knowledge of the world, is rare and doesn’t reflect the blind faith of an overwhelming majority of the religious people in the world. Just look at the attack on evolution by creationists in the twenty first century, that too in developed countries like the USA today, and you will see what I mean. I understand and sympathize with the (verbal) hostility of Dawkins towards religion. In fact, it’s a stance every true scientist should take, in my opinion, since religion has tried too much in the course of history, to discourage scientific enquiry and encourage unquestioning faith as a virtue.

Besides, it beats me why people should find comfort in believing something like creationism, that all evidence points to be false. Why does a better, more beautiful and apparently true knowledge of the world drive them to despair? Probably there is a psychological role for faith, but I think it’s ultimately down to education and consciousness raising. I don’t think the atheists of the world live in quiet desperation. Quite the contrary. I think most of them would have become atheists because of a certain level of satisfaction in learning more about the universe, and perceiving it as it is, without needing the comforts of beliefs which they find false anyway.

The Sparrow’s Resting Place


What’s this thing I sit upon
As I wait for my sweetheart Ron?
Surely, I tell you, not a tree-
For leaf nor twig nor bloom I see.

Tall and rigid a mast underneath,
With wires black taut on either side.
Dozens I see in a row such poles,
Linked to the next by wires tied.

Tears flood my eyes as I recall
That chilly tragic night last fall,
When poor old Stevie sat on one-
Little did he know the wire breathed fire.

So he sat there watching the moon
And as he flapped his wings to keep warm
Alas! He touched those perilous wires…
A flash there was and there he was
Charred and dead- was poor old Stevie.

The very same peril over me hangs- I know-
But I’ve got to sit someplace Ron’ll see.
And all I find that’s high enough
Are these poles, while I wait for her.

No leaves to cover me from the hot Sun,
No yummy worms in woody wood,
Not a swing on a branch in the wind,
Just a pole of hard grey stone, and
Wires of fire taut on either side.

Ah! There in the distance I see my love
Flying to me- she’s graceful as ever.
Face full of fear is hers, but why?
On seeing me atop this pole.

“Careful, darling- don’t you know?
These are wires that breathe fireballs.
On a tree you could have sat,
And I’d find you just as well.”

“Yes, I am careful, dear Ron.
I know the peril that over me hangs.
But look around, my dearest Ron-
Tree or hedge or bush you find?”

“Gone are the trees indeed, but where?”

“Cut, of course, by man- to log.”

“Then let’s go find where there are
Trees in plenty that shelter us.”

And we flew away and away
With the golden Sun on our wings.

I wrote this poem back when I was in the Twelfth standard, inspired by the sight of a bird sitting on an electric pole. I recently found an abandoned written copy of it when I was searching for something and thought I’d post it here. The choice of names seems strange and inexplicable, but anyway I don’t think it matters!

Note: The phrase “golden Sun on our wings” is borrowed from the song Raindrops and Roses (“wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings”) in the movie The Sound of Music. I was simply captivated by the beauty of that phrase, and felt that it was a fitting end to the poem.

Passenger (movie)

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Last week, I watched the movie Passenger, while I was at Kottayam with Harimama and family. It’s a really good movie(even ignoring the abysmal standards of recent Malayalam movies) and all of us liked it. What I liked most about the movie was that it’s different from the usual “thrillers” in which an inevitably invincible hero fights against all odds and conquers evil. This story gives us a refreshingly different perspective- that of a common man used to an uneventful life, who does not hesitate to jump into the strangest adventure in his life, out of compassion for another human being.

Other things I liked about this movie-

  1. Cast- very apt, brought out the best in everyone.
  2. Lack of explicit violence- like my cousin Devika remarked, the makers could have made it a lot more gory, but they didn’t
  3. Message- I don’t know why I feel so obsessed about this, but I feel that every movie should have a message, because it is such a powerful medium of communication, and I seem to like movies that extra bit if they convey good messages.