“Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”

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I recently came across this long article titled “Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”, sent to me by a colleague. It is an attempt to interpret some of the recent (last 10-15 years’) findings in cognitive science, neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, and “provide a theoretical basis for a complete transformation of formal educational structures”, in the authors’ words.

I was someone who, during my adolescent years, was desperate to grow up so that I can be in charge of my own life. Now I find myself in a role where I control the lives of adolescents, and I find that it creates an inner conflict, sometimes.

There’s enough that is interesting about being a teacher to go on like this, but I really want to understand the issues of adolescence better, just because it’s something that’s close to my heart and I’ve been thinking about it since my adolescent years, how young people who are growing up do not have a proper place in modern society. Also, to explore the possibility of creating saner spaces for young people growing up.

Here are some excerpts from the article that suggest the critical evolutionary role of adolescence and its very features like exuberance and risk taking tendency that modern society find difficult to handle.

“Of the greatest importance to early people was the progression of their dependent
child to that of autonomous adult. This was a process that had to be completed sufficiently early to ensure that the young adult would be able to take on whatever were the responsibilities of the earlier generation before they died. While there is much evidence about the care and attention given by such people to the very young (as can easily be noted to this day in remote areas of Africa or elsewhere) there was absolutely nothing soft or sentimental about this.

Amongst the nomads of the Zagros mountains of southern Iran, until very recently, adults spent much time and energy equipping every four-year-old to look after the chickens, the six-year-olds the goats, the eight and nine-year-olds the sheep, the ten-year-olds the asses and twelve-year-olds the donkeys – leaving only the bad tempered camels as needing actual adult attention! When the tribe moved everyone had a task to complete. As the child grew older so the tasks they were allocated became harder. Everyone was engaged, even if work frequently felt like play they all shared in the sense of achievement.

Such small-scale, self-contained communities depend upon the good will of their members to ensure cohesion, but such cohesion would have come at too high a cost if youthfulness lasted too long , and there was any undue delay in reaching adulthood. The adaptation that had earlier enabled the young to learn easily in their earliest years through intense emotional connection with older people, had to be balanced by an internal mechanism that prevented the children from becoming mere clones of their parents. In other words unless those close bonds which had characterized the earliest years were ruptured (forcibly if necessary) the young would not grow to be adaptable to new situations.

Adolescence, it is now becoming clearer, is that deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words to prove themselves – so as to start a life of their own. As such the biology of adolescence aims to stop children being merely clones of their parents. It is probably a time-limited predisposition, in other words if the adolescent is prevented (by over careful parents or a too rigid system of formal schooling) from experimenting and working things out for itself, it will lose the motivation to be innovative or to take responsibility for itself when it becomes adult.”

I don’t believe that adolescents should be left completely on their own to do whatever they want to do. Even in these early pre-industrialization and pre-civilization societies, the adolescents had tasks to do, but those were more concrete and real unlike the abstract subjects children learn in school today, and they had a role in society unlike the “youngsters of today who are too old to be treated as children but not yet in meaningful employment.”

It seems like our brains are wired so that adolescents of every generation will question their parent generation and try to find their own way in life. Given that, and given the likelihood that schools are here to stay for at least my lifetime, there are two questions that come to my mind about schools.

Is there something of value which the older generation can give the younger generation in such a set up? If so, what? And how is that valuable to the younger generation? I’d like to examine this question from scratch, not taking for granted anything that we think is of value in education.

Is there something of value which the younger generation has to give the society here and now(not some abstract notion of future citizens and blah-blah)? If so, what is it? And what are the conditions/environment that will bring forth those contributions?

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Interesting Times

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“May you live in interesting times”– an ancient Chinese curse.

Undoubtedly, we are living in interesting times. Of course, you may say. After all, we live in an age in which we can communicate with a person on the other side of the globe at the speed of light, travel around the world in a day, we have machines to do all the “dirty” work for us, tourists are venturing into space, we carry gadgets around in our pockets, that people a century ago would have considered magic, we are splitting atoms to produce the energy equivalent to burning thousands of tons of coal- in short- an age in which anything is possible.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. Perhaps, half a decade ago, I would have revelled in such thoughts- when I still hadn’t begun to see through the general belief that the only relevant world view is that held by the mainstream society. Yes, there was a time when I used to be excited by technology(As a student of technology currently, I’m definitely interested in it, but excited is perhaps far too intense a word). When I used to eagerly observe new models of cars on the roads, when I was fascinated by the things you could do with a computer, when I used to read about astronauts while holding my breath and wonder whether one day I would like to travel into outer space as well.

This popular fascination with technology is not because people truly appreciate technology-in fact, very few people understand it- but is a testimony to the ways in which technical gadgets and increased means of mass production which technology made possible, have supposedly “improved” our lives and rescued us from the alleged misery and filth which our predecessors endured in centuries past.

To come back to my original point, that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. I’m referring to the fact that exhaust fumes from our vehicles are heating up the earth and disturbing the climate system, the fact that more than a hundred species are becoming extinct everyday- more than any other time since the dinosaurs, the fact that we are six billion today and our population is still exploding, the fact that a significant portion of us go to bed hungry, the fact that water is becoming undrinkable and air unbreathable. I’m referring to the ecological, cultural and social crisis that we are facing today.

What is there about it that is so “interesting”? Fair question. After all, the crisis I mentioned is not something new to us. In fact, some of these problems have been with us for centuries. Only it has almost never been perceived as a crisis. There has always been an explanation for why these problems persisted in our society. It is the price of civilization and technological advancement. True, we face serious problems, but we have come so far, haven’t we? Surely, we are smart enough to conjure solutions to all of them, sooner rather than later. Surely, technology will help us solve our problems. We can clean up the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gases, and that will be the end of global warming, using genetic engineering and biotechnology we can grow a ton of wheat in a square foot, we can desalinate sea water and use it for drinking… the list is virtually endless.

In fact, this cheerful and blind optimism has brought us to the edge of peril, almost to a point of no return. The biosphere is a web interconnected in unimaginably myriad and complex ways, and not a pyramid with humans at the very top. We have been alienated from the natural world ever since the beginning of large scale agriculture. But driven by the unprecedented power and control which the industrial revolution made possible, we have been meddling with and tweaking the delicate web of life, tuning it to our advantage, in a massive scale that was previously impossible. And we have been unbelievably successful for a while. But the biosphere is not designed for domination by a single species. It thrives on diversity and competition, the very things we are wiping out so successfully, undermining its very ability to support life. No wonder it is starting to show signs of distress, threatening our existence, and that of other higher plants and animals. Hence the use of the word, “crisis”.

“But you still haven’t answered my question!”, I can almost hear you grumbling.”Why is it interesting? All you have succeeded is to paint a picture of gloom and doom in my mind.”

True. I still haven’t come to the interesting part. I’m taking you through the journey that I reluctantly set out on as a sixteen year old, when I first began to feel that there was something wrong with the world. Doom and gloom were the feelings that came to my mind when I used to think about the state of the world and where it was heading. Throw in helplessness, when I realized that this was the world which I was about to step into, and you have the complete set!

Now I come to the interesting part- it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, there is nothing about human nature which dictates that we live this way, that we alienate ourselves from the natural world. We are brought up to believe that agriculture, civilization, division of labour and advanced technology are inevitable expressions of the human urge to evolve, and represent progress. There is very little evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, advances in anthropology and paleontology in the last few decades positively refute this claim. Science has played an important role in changing the way we think about the world. This, I think, is the true significance of science, and not the utilitarian pseudo-blessing as it is usually perceived.

Human beings have been roaming the earth for a few million years now. According to our beliefs, it was a long, dark, uneventful and stagnant chapter in human history. We were “just another animal”, until we had the brainwave to take matters into our own hands. It was a “difficult”, “savage”, “brutal” life. Having been brought up with this myth, I’m not surprised that until half a century ago, it was unthinkable that technology was anything but beneficial.

But now we know that most of what we generally believe about the lives of our ancient predecessors is nothing more than a myth, we have to embark on the difficult and seemingly impossible task of educating and convincing as many people as we can. For people who are thoughtful, free and flexible enough to accept and acknowledge such a radical change in perspective, are a tiny minority, though encouragingly a growing one(that an ordinary boy like me, brought up in reasonable comfort and good care, can perceive that something is wrong and mostly work it out for himself gives me hope!). A vast majority are blindfolded and trapped in the exploitative global economy of today, dependent on it for their livelihood. Its seeming infallibility is reason for despair, but we know that “seemingly infallible” need not mean infallible(look at communist Russia).

What we are doing today, continuing with buisiness as usual, doesn’t offer much room for hope. But a collapse of this mega-structure in the near future, is definitely a possibility, given its stark dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. In fact, there is enough reason to believe that we are approaching, and maybe even past, peak oil. Who knows, the current global financial crisis could be something more than just another recession. Such a collapse would be painful, yes- there will be increase in mortality. But it would be just a transition to a better and more sustainable future. I don’t believe even for a second that our planet can sustain billions of us indefinitely. The number has to decrease drastically, it’s got to happen and it will happen when we’ve reached the tipping point. But it’s not for us to decide what would be the ideal number. Natural processes will see to that. Perhaps it need not be a mass die-off as in a calamity. Perhaps it would happen through a lower life expectancy, and we might hardly notice it. We don’t know, really.

Meanwhile, we need to find out as much as we can about how our lives were, before agriculture, before the Great Forgetting, so that we can intelligently choose a sustainable way of living and begin the transition instead of waiting with folded hands for catastrophe to strike. Some people say that there is no “going back to nature” for us. We can’t go “back to being a hunter-gatherer”. This is probably true. We know a lot, and we have developed wonderful disciplines like literature, art, science which have probably become an important part of who we are, but how much of it survives the millenia will be probably decided by how much of it is sustainable and in accord with the laws of the biosphere.

Probably, there is no “going back to nature”. But I firmly believe that we will go “forward to nature”, because that is where we came from, and where we ultimately belong. We will find another way of living, unimaginably more beautiful, and in harmony with nature. This dream is what drives me on, and dispels my despair. This is why I feel that we live in “interesting times”. There is no going back to the drudgery of the inhuman machinery that is the global economy. I have to find my path in the undergrowth. A path that leads me back to the glorious road which our ancient ancestors followed for millions of years, until we lost our way and ended up at a dead end- on the edge of a cliff.

The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of Intelligence

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“…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.

The Great Forgetting

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Read The Great Forgetting based on The Story of B by Daniel Quinn.

For thousands of years, people of our culture (not in the usual sense of the world, but as Daniel Quinn defines it- “if food is placed under lock and key and people have to work and earn money to buy it back, then the people of that place belong to OUR culture”, in short- modern civilization) believed that humanity, agriculture and civilization all began at roughly the same time, and that they are inseparable from each other. This meant that the general belief was that humanity was only a few thousand years old.

But today we know that it is not so. We know that humanity is about three million years old, and people had led a very different life from ours, obeying the laws of life which applies to all living beings on earth. This had been forgotten in the “Great Forgetting“, when one group of people (or more, we don’t exactly know) decided to take up totalitarian agriculture, convinced that human beings were meant to be the rulers of the world, and that they weren’t meant to live like lions and snakes and butterflies any longer. Man’s destiny was surely something more “glorious” and they broke with their past.

Now, if we call this event the Great Forgetting, something happened in the nineteenth century, which could have been called the Great Remembering. Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution and others followed up his research to tell us that we are much older than a few thousand years, that we evolved from “lower” animals, and did not just appear as “civilized” agriculturalists. This was a bitter pill to swallow as it shook the very foundations of our culture, which was based on the pillar of the alleged specialty and uniqueness of man which vindicated his rule of the world.

But nothing remarkable happened, really. Things went on as before, and the Great Remembering didn’t even happen. No one thought about questioning the assumptions on which our civilization was built. It didn’t even occur to anyone that this new finding could make any difference. After all, that’s pre-history. What did it matter if man evolved from the slime around him? He was always meant to be an agriculturalist, and the ruler of the world.

Nevertheless, a century and a half later, with the world on the brink of catastrophe, at least some people are starting to ask the right questions. It’s still a tiny minority, but importantly it is a growing minority. We can’t blame the Industrial Revolution, we can’t blame cars and factories and missiles. The seeds of disaster have been with us for a long long time- a culture that casts us as conquerors of a world which is hostile and from where we have to forcibly take everything we need. We can save the world only through changed minds.

“If there are still people here in 200 years, they won’t be living the way we do. I can make that prediction with confidence, because if people go on living the way we do, there won’t be any people here in 200 years.” —Daniel Quinn