Next of Kin

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I’ve been quite busy over the last few days, and haven’t got around to writing anything, though there is a lot that I’d like to write about. Just thought I’d keep the blog going by writing about a book called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts, which I read last month. It’s about a series of experiments about the language learning ability of chimpanzees, by teaching them sign language. Of course we know that chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, but the book reveals just how “intelligent” they are, and how amazingly similar their cognition and social behaviour are, to our own. The author takes us on an intriguing journey that tells us a lot about the nature of our own learning and behaviour, and tackles the question of how language could have evolved, from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

It’s interesting that for decades, the Western scientific world looked at the chimpanzee as little more than a “monkey”, but the native African cultures look upon chimpanzees with a lot of respect. In fact, the word “chimpanzee” comes from an African dialect, and it originally meant “different man”. Some tribes even supplement their knowledge of medicinal plants by following and observing chimpanzees medicating themselves with herbs.

We often call ourselves “social animals”, which somehow seems to put ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom. After reading this book, any line of division between humans and the other animals looks really thin. In fact, it makes you even redefine what is meant by “human”.


Myths Debunked by Ishmael


Why do we humans seem unable to stop destroying the world and why do we seem unable to live in harmony with the world?

This is the most important question I’ve had in life so far and I had been looking for an answer for, ever since I was in the Twelfth standard. This is not an easy question to answer. Many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are easy to find in observations made in our everyday life, but it’s not very obvious how they fit in together.

That’s what the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn does. It helped me consolidate my thoughts and changed my life forever. It’s the most important book I have read in my life, and I think it should be right up there among the most important books that have ever been written. I just thought I’d note down some of the common myths about humans and civilization that this book exposes.

1. Man is fundamentally flawed. The negative qualities of man like selfishness, cruelty, greed etc. outweigh the positive qualities like love, selflessness, kindness etc. And so, man cannot stop consuming the world.

This is not true. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with humans. All these qualities, constructive and destructive, are there in all of us. Given a system which fails to keep the destructive qualities under control, man will go on destroying the world, and given a system which can successfully keep them in check, man is perfectly capable of living in harmony with the world, as our tribal ancestors did for almost 190,000 years before civilization began. In short, we are captives of a civilizational system that makes us go on destroying the world.

2. Human history began only 10,000 years ago with the birth of agriculture and civilization. What happened before was insignificant and just a prelude. It was a long and uneventful chapter in the history of the human race. Man was always meant to be a civilization builder.

This is what conventional wisdom teaches us, through stories, text books, cartoons, movies, conversations, all sorts of media. We are made to believe that only after civilization began, did man fulfill his destiny, and potential and whatever preceded was just an uninteresting period when it was only a matter of time before man would discover the glory of civilization.

Evolutionary Anthropology has turned this view upside down, and the “Recently Out of Africa” theory reveals how resourceful our ancestors were in overcoming the challenges they faced in colonizing the entire planet. Not only that, by at least 40,000 years ago, people already possessed technology like the sewing needle, and sea faring vessels.

3. Tribalism was the first chapter of a story of which civilization is the second chapter.

Or in other words, tribalism is a relic of the past and has no relevance today. We are made to believe that civilization was a massive improvement over tribalism. But even today, tribal people lead very happy lives wherever they have been untouched by civilization. Ishmael says that tribalism and civilization are entirely different stories, based on contradictory premises.

4. Spread of agriculture was a revolution, much like the industrial revolution.

We are taught in history about the “Agricultural Revolution”. But there was no such thing. Around 12,000 years ago, the world was made of many tribes. Some of them followed the practice of selectively encouraging the growth of their favourite foods, and had been for centuries, but none of them practised full time agriculture.

It was then that a tribe in the Near East started practising this form of agriculture which led to huge surpluses, which made them powerful. They started expanding and this led to conflicts with other tribes. Some of them were lured by the power and seeming control over their lives afforded by this form of agriculture and joined with them, but most tribes resisted because they knew that full time agriculture meant a life of toil, and they were quite happy with their way of life.

But ultimately everyone had to either join or fight because the ones who practised agriculture were far too powerful for the hunter-gatherer tribes and they were intent on bringing every piece of land under agriculture. This is explained beautifully in Daniel Quinn’s article, The Great Forgetting . Also, this had many interesting consequences which ultimately led to the formation of classes, hierarchical societies, kingdoms, the need for legislature etc. as explained in another article, The Great Remembering.

This is quite unlike the Industrial Revolution where manual labour was systematically replaced by machines. “Agricultural revolution” was more like the Colonization of lands by the European powers during the 1500s-1700s.

5. Nature is a chaos which is not fit for man to live in and so man has to build his empire to put everything in order.

Not only is Nature a system in perfect balance with intricate feedback mechanisms, but all creatures that have evolved and survived, did so because they were very well able to live in it.

6. Man can do what he wants with nature because the laws of nature do not apply to us.

The laws of nature DO apply to us. Ultimately we are dependent on the green leaves of trees to capture sunlight and convert it into biological energy, to produce enough oxygen, for the proper functioning of the water cycle. Life, or the biosphere is an intricately woven web, and we have not even begun to understand the full extent of the interdependencies between organisms.

7. The life of primitive man was unimaginably hard and terrifying and the birth of civilization was a relief.

We are made to picturise primitive man as a savage, without any morals, always on the futile search for food, always on the run from predators. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The so called “primitive” man lived in egalitarian social groups. Man is well adapted to eat an amazingly wide range of food, and it is inconceivable that primitive man could have gone hungry. Also man is not the preferred prey for any of the predators. So the life of “primitive” man was not that bad actually. In fact, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins went so far as to call the Stone Age people the “Original Affluent Society”.

8. Nature’s law is “Survival of the fittest”. Man is proving that he is the fittest, so it is inevitable that he will rule the world.

Survival of the fittest is an over simplified way to look at nature’s laws. True, there is competition at each level, but this competition is not like the one we have in our economies and politics, where any underhanded tactics may be used to maximize one’s gains. This is not an attempt to romanticize Nature, but it’s just that that’s not the way nature works. There are some rules which are invariably followed by all creatures, without which there would be no bio-diversity on our planet. These can be summarized as:

  • Take what you need and leave the rest alone
  • You may compete to the fullest extent of your abilities but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food

We have temporarily found a way to circumvent these rules with our technology, but anyone with common sense can understand that we cannot be absolutely independent and are ultimately dependent on the biosphere for many things that we take for granted.

9. Tribalism means living in caves, walking with leaves tied around your waist, and leading a hunter-gatherer existence.

Well, if that is what tribalism means, we can forget about it for good. Because there are too many of us today to be able to lead a hunter-gatherer existence. But there are deeper, valuable lessons to be learnt from tribalism as an egalitarian social organization that works and has been working for humans and our other ancestral species for almost three million years. Daniel Quinn defines a tribe as a group of people make a living together. He says that a “tribe” is to humans what a “school” is to fish, a “pride” is to lions, a “flock” is to geese etc. – a social organization that has been tried and tested by time, and passed down as a gift of natural selection.

The Scourge of the “Green Revolution”


Came across this shocking article (which appeared in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1986) today.

Many people realize today that the so called “Green Revolution” was a short sighted strategy(though perhaps deemed necessary at that time) as three decades later, it has left our soils depleted, yields decreasing and our farmers ever more dependent on fertilizers and pesticides. This recently formed dependence on high-input agriculture is one of the main reasons behind the mass farmer suicides today. Perhaps it helped overcome some misery back then, but it’s only helped to set us up for a much bigger disaster.

But what is shocking about the article is the little known(at least among the people of my generation) scandals over the varieties of rice, how our incredible wealth of diversity in rice was depleted and robbed by vested political and commercial interests from abroad and within. How M.S.Swaminathan, whom we revere as the Father of Green Revolution, actually might be just another of those “scientists” who overlook and bend facts in return for the promise of money. How there was one scientist Dr.Richcharia (former director of Central Rice Research Institute), whom very few of us would have even heard of, who sacrificed a lot to fight this robbery and preserve our indigenous varieties of rice.

In hindsight, this article doesn’t really shock me that much. It’s just so identical in pattern to the innumerable scandals which have orchestrated by the developed world, in the name of globalization and progress.

Disclaimer: I know this is just one article by just one person, with some allegations against something which has been widely accepted by our society as a boon. As my friends warned me when I showed them the article, you should never form an opinion based on just one side of the argument. But for me, this single article is enough, of course assuming that the facts it mentions are true- not least because the author is a person with reasonable credentials- but mainly because the “other side of the argument” is something (which usually consist of loose ends tied together, hardly more credible, even less) which I’m seeing and hearing all the time through the mainstream media, and such counterpoints usually cut through a lot of crap and make perfect sense.(eg: Stiglitz on Globalization)

P.S. This post was written in a flurry of emotion after reading the article. M.S. Swaminathan may or may not be a great scientist. I was just overcome by a feeling of anger and injustice that M.S.Swaminathan has become a household name as a saviour, while Richharia, who fought for our indigenous varieties of rice at such personal cost, has almost been forgotten forever. Regarding our situation today, we need to move beyond the mindless petroleum-driven farming of the past few decades if we are to have a future.

“The Incredible Human Journey”


New scientific discoveries have often lead to paradigm shifts, wholesale changes in how we look at ourselves and the world. The discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that it went around the sun, was one which had such an impact. Another was Darwin’s theory of evolution.“The Incredible Human Journey”, is about one such discovery.

According to the “Recently Out of Africa” theory, which has been proved through fossil and genetic evidence, modern human beings evolved in Africa alone and spread to all the continents from there. Not only that, but only a single tribe successfully left Africa around 70,000 years ago and the lineage of all non-Africans today can be traced back to that single tribe. This has been verified through genetic tests. Africans actually belong to a more varied family tree, which branched off much earlier.

Daniel Quinn says that historians often relegate what happened before the advent of agriculture and civilization, into something lesser called “pre-history”. We believe that we were made to be civilization builders and what had preceded it was something of the past, a relic, of no use to us now.

But recent research in evolutionary biology and anthropology reveals astonishing stories about our ancestors, the challenges they faced and how they adapted themselves to overcome them. Each episode of the documentary describes how humans could have reached and colonized each continent.

To briefly sum up, a small group of modern humans, people like you and me, left East Africa roughly 70,000 years ago, by crossing the Red Sea, which was much narrower then owing to the Ice Age and sea levels 110 metres lower than today. Their population gradually grew and spread to Persia and from there branched- One to Central Asia and Siberia, India – and another to Europe.

By 40,000 years ago, people were living in Siberia, Europe, Australia. We are usually told that the invention of agriculture and civilization was the greatest event in our history, and that civilization led to progress and improvement in technology. And here we are, 30,000 years before civilization- people crossing a hundred miles of open ocean to Australia. Not only that people survived in the Ice Age Siberia, much colder than today, 40,000 years ago. They made coats from reindeer skin to protect themselves from the cold, which meant that they had invented the needle and sewing, back then.

At the time when the first humans reached Europe, 40,000 years ago, it was not virgin country. There were another human-like species, the Neanderthals- whom you might not even notice if you passed by on the street- which was already settled there for a quarter of a million years. To think that our ancestors and the Neanderthals co-existed for nearly 20,000 years until they finally became extinct around 24,000 years ago, is intriguing to say the least! What would they have thought of each other?! What would we have thought if there were Neanderthals living with us today?!

These are amazing stories, which reveal so many amazing things about the places we inhabit and how we came to occupy them. They are definitely fascinating and have the potential to turn entire world views upside down, make us stop and think about what we really are, and how stupid and short-sighted some of the things we do are, and what it means to be human. And, we are all Africans!

The Colourful World of Children

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I recently read two awesome books centered around children.The first was the Malayalam novel Unnikkuttante Lokam (Unnikkuttan’s world) by Nandanar, about a little village boy of five years. The story is set in a pre-independence Malabar village, and beautifully depicts the village life in those times. Written from the view point of Unnikkuttan, it gives you an idea of how colourful and full of mystery the world of a child is, which a grown-up needs a lot of patience, love and imagination to even begin to understand. Also how the village provides a child with endless opportunities for amusement and a diverse environment that nurtures the child’s sense of wonder.

The second book was a Malayalm translation of the Japanese novel- Tottochan- the Little Girl at the Window written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi as her childhood memoir. It’s about a small unconventional primary school in pre-war Japan, run by Mr. Kobayashi where she attended for a few years. Totto-chan(as she was affectionately called), a naughty little girl, was expelled from her first school as they couldn’t handle her mischiefs. Her mother then took her to Tomo-gakuen, the school run by Mr. Kobayashi.

There Tottochan finds herself in an exciting and magical new world, and a teacher who understood her and treated her as a friend. The book describes many incidents which happened at Tomo, the friends she had there, lessons she learnt, and her relationship with her teacher. Narrated from Tottochan’s point of view, it reveals many intricate aspects of the world of children. Not only that, it also tells us the role that the headmaster plays in making the children feel secure and happy, and how he “lets them be” instead of constantly telling them what they “should” be (which is what you often experience in schools).

Active Listening


Ever since I started learning how to play the flute a couple of months ago, I’ve been slowly returning to the musical world which I’ve been missing for quite a while. The last time my mind was so completely immersed in music was back when I was in the Twelfth standard. The flute is indeed a wonderful instrument. You can carry it anywhere you want, and playing even a single note on it is so gratifying. Needless to state, I’m still a novice at playing it, but to be honest, I’m amazed by my own progress. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could get a consistent tone so quickly, let alone play melodies on it.

Well, this post is not about my flute playing. My thoughts have been wandering about in the realms of listening and music appreciation. How do we perceive and interpret music? Why is classical music so sparsely appreciated? And why is popular music (some of it very poor in terms of musical content) so popular? Is knowledge of music really required to appreciate and savour good music?

I don’t mean to say that each and every person in the world should listen to classical music, but at least those who learn music should be able to appreciate it. Jimmy master, my music teacher, always says that you don’t have to learn music to be able to enjoy its blessings. For that you just have to be an active listener and learn to love music. It is a challenging task, which demands our total attention and devotion, but its rewards are just as rich. Perhaps its the effort involved in the beginning, that makes many people shy away from music with some content. They just want something nice playing in the background, which gives them a “kick”.

While I was browsing, I found a very good online course on music appreciation on the Rice University’s open course material website. It is aimed especially at people with little or no musical knowledge, who would like to be more active listeners. It adopts a top down approach, and illustrates the basic aspects of listening through listening exercises, without going into theoretical details. In fact, it’s just what one needs to learn to appreciate music without learning music. It’s not based on any single style of music, and is universally applicable to all genres. Even if you are not interested in classical music, it could help you to listen to popular music more intelligently.

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 as  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.

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