Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Cursed Geographies - Why Australia was destined to remain backward

...prepared by the hands of the lowest race in the scale of humanity that is known to exist, the soil of these extensive regions is ready to receive the virgin impressions of civilized man. No tombs, nor temples, nor palaces, nor shrines, exist to tell of the past; the history of the land remains to be written in the future, when nations of the Anglo-Saxon race people the woods and valleys of Australia, and with their enterprise and energy cover the land with evidences of their greatness.

To the British colonial enthusiast who wrote the above in 1848, the abject nature of the Australian race was clear as day. After all, he had been trotting the globe (British colonies, to be exact), and nowhere had he found a people so primitive, so totally inept at innovation that despite thousands of years of undisturbed existence, they had not even a bow and arrow to show for it. What, other than their racial inferiority, could explain this rot ?

Cash on Delivery option available for buying Aboriginals
(An 1886 cartoon : source)

The question isn't trivial. After Australia was colonized by the British in the 18th century, this supposed inferiority of native Australians was routinely used to justify their systematic murder, rape, torture and near extermination. The local population dropped from nearly 500,000 in the 18th century, to less than 80,000 in 1933. For more than 50 years, the State followed the policy of kidnapping native children and raising them as "civilized" orphans - the Stolen Generation. Even as late as the 1960s, the Aboriginals (as the native inhabitants of Australia are called) were officially classified as animals in Australian law. 

The rise of civilizations

Before answering why native Australians remained so spectacularly backward, we have to first understand why societies advance at all. Turns out, its more or less a predictable pattern. 

All advanced cultures start with hunter-gatherers settling down to farm. Agriculture allows for a more consistent supply of food, resulting in a veritable population explosion. Unlike hunter-gatherer bands, all members of a farming village aren't your immediate family members, and it makes increasingly less sense to share the fruits of your hard labour with those other members of the village. Thus, the concept of "private property" becomes prominent for the first time. Society starts fragmenting into rich and poor, based often on pure luck (seeds gathered by one family turned out to be worse than that of another).

Disputes arise when people trespass on other's property (or more likely, their goats do). Elders are chosen to adjudicate upon such disputes. Some of these "elders" would surely be less than scrupulous, and accept bribes and gifts in return for delivering favourable judgements. In time, these gifts turn into regular tributes, and powerful families emerge. Free from having to produce food themselves, these distinguished individuals can use their wealth to buy the loyalty (and muscle power) of those below them. You have "leaders" now.

In times of drought, these leaders will be expected to provide for the group, and at least some will resort to invading nearby tribes. Spoils from such raids will be distributed among the "subjects". Those refusing to invade, will simply be replaced by those who will. Tributes from their own people, will be replaced/augmented by tributes from conquered tribes. You have "kings" now.

Not every tribe will have megalomaniacs bent on conquest, but the fact that there are such tribes, will force you to weaponize and enhance your own military technology (or be conquered instead). The cold efficiency of metal, once witnessed in the battlefield, would force metallurgy to spread like wildfire. In comes the bronze age, followed in no time1 by the iron age, and you have full-blown iron furnaces brandishing in areas that a few centuries years ago, didn't even have mud houses. 

Military technologies, like sword-making, were the catalysts for a systematic
investigation of nature, providing the foundations of chemistry and geology

Those able to improve these technologies (say, better steel for swords) are richly rewarded. resulting in the incidental development of sciences like chemistry (studying the property of metals and minerals) and geology (what materials are found where). These conquests also create a class of wealthy elites, who can then hire philosophers and poets, mathematicians and naturalists, to speculate on the nature of atoms, and the corpuscular theory of light - all very interesting, but (practically) useless curiosities. In time, these very "curiosities" would go on to form the basis of all technological progress - progress that would never have come about, had conquests not given people enough wealth to allow those scholars to pursue their fancy ideas.

Human beings have always invented things, but most of these inventions would be lost when a society collapsed. By incorporating far-off regions within a single empire, conquests also ensured that ideas and technology were able to travel from one part of the globe to another, getting modified, adapted, build upon, and generally, enriched along the way. Movable type - the fundamental technology on which printing presses are based, was invented in China, but the complex Chinese script made its use very difficult. Only when it reached Europe, where scripts were far simpler, that people realized its true revolutionary potential.

Basically, you never start off with the explicit purpose of creating vastly interconnected technologically-advanced superpowers, but human social dynamics ensure that you'll inevitably end up being in one.

So, what happened with Australia ?

As you might expect, Australians never took that crucial first step on the "civilizational" ladder - they never settled down to farm. To understand why, we need to find out why humans took to agriculture in the first place. After all, our humanoid ancestors have been walking on two feet and cooking their food for over 2 million years now. Even our own species has spent close to 2 lakh years roaming in the wilderness, and in all that time, it never occurred to us to settle down. What changed then ?

For starters, a 100,000 years old ice age ended. During that time, much of earth's water was locked away in glaciers, leading to average rainfall that is almost half of what it is today. This, combined with the fact that most crops tend to grow extremely slowly in cold weather, ensured that all experiments at farming were bound to fail during this time. Around 12,000 years ago, when temperatures rose and rainfall became more abundant, such experiments began to bear fruit (literally) for the first time.

So again, what happened with Australia? The people who populated the continent 50,000 years ago were the first humans to cross the oceans - a feat that wasn't to be repeated for another 35,000 years, when Europeans made the (relatively easier) journey into North America. Obviously not lacking in creativity and enterprise, Australians nevertheless refused to join the agricultural bandwagon when the ice age ended (and indeed, for 10,000 years since). The reason, unsurprisingly, is that farming in Australia was far less productive than hunting and gathering. Why ?

1. Worst crops ever : Wild ancestors of today's crops looked wildly different from their modern versions. Take corn, for example. Today, after thousands of years of selecting the best varieties, it looks like this :

And this is what it looked to our ancestors :

When you're a hunter-gatherer, its damn difficult to see your future in that (especially when there's a delicious deer, just around the corner). Compare it to how ancient wheat used to look and versus now :

Not a lot of difference, no? Any wonder then, that wheat (and barley), whose ancient varieties already looked promising, were among the earliest crops to be domesticated, and not maize. The region where these big crops were found - the Middle East - would go on to be the site of the world's first kingdoms and empires, and also be the birthplace of three of the most influential religions of the world - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Not a coincidence, if you ask me.

What does that have to do with Australia ? Well, of the 56 heaviest cereal crops in the world, there are exactly 2 that are found in Australia - and that too, near the very bottom of the list. When choosing to devote time exclusively to cultivation, the incentive to try plants with such little yield, would understandably be minimum. Even modern geneticists haven't been able to cultivate any crop from locally available plants except for one (macadamia nuts). No wonder the ancient Australians weren't that keen on farming.

2. Worst animals ever : Human-like beings and animals had been co-evolving in Africa for millions of years before modern humans emerged, allowing both enough time to evolve defences against each other. Similarly in Eurasia (Europe + Asia), owing to contact with our cousins Neanderthals (which separated from homo sapiens and left Africa around 600,000 years ago), animals there too, had a pretty long time to adapt to human ways. Australia, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky.

Diprotodon - a relative of kangaroo and the size of a small truck, was one of the 90% of
megafauna (big animal) species that vanished forever with the arrival
of humans in Australia (source)

Having separated from the rest of the land more than 50 million years back, Australia hadn't seen anything even remotely like an ape. So, when (spear-throwing, sea-faring, tool-making) humans set foot 50,000 years ago, it was pretty much the most devastating slaughter in the isolated history of the continent. 90% of the Australian megafauna (large animals) was extinguished in a few thousand years. The result was that when conditions became favourable for agriculture to start, there were not a single large domesticable animals left in the entire continent.

Kangaroo is the only non-carnivorous, terrestrial mammal heavier than 45 kg
present in Australia, but not even modern experts have not
 succeeded in domesticating it (source

Why are large domesticable animals essential for agriculture ? Well, for starters, they provide protein (meat or milk). Without any knowledge of protein-rich plants, new farmers wouldn't be able to explicitly include them in their crops, resulting in a stunted population over several generations - not exactly a good advertisement for an agriculture-based life. Moreover, domesticated animals provide an easy way to till the fields which is otherwise extremely labourous. Basically, an agricultural society without domestic animals is highly improbable, if not downright impossible.

3. Worst geography ever : Australia is the lowest and the driest of all inhabited places on earth. There're no melting glaciers, no high mountains, and hence, no downstream rivers that could deliver fresh silt to the plains. Along with low volcanic activity, this results in Australia having the oldest and the most nutrient-deficient soil anywhere in the inhabited world.

And if this wasn't enough, the continent's climate lies under the influence of something called ENSO - a climate cycle characterized by sudden and unpredictable rains, followed by equally sudden and unpredictable bouts of dry weather (unlike the more or less annual seasons found elsewhere). Farmers experimenting with agriculture would have a great harvest one year, and be totally decimated the very next. It made more sense to keep moving and gathering whatever plants that were in vogue, rather than stay at a single place and invest all energy on just one or two crops.

The curse of destiny

So, agriculture was basically, a non-starter in Australia. As was "civilization".
In a hunter-gatherer society, each and every member is involved in day-to-day work, and the social hierarchy is essentially flat. This leaves little space for permanent "leaders" to arise and conquer other tribes. Without this unifying influence of proto-empires, thousands of separate tribes continue to live in isolation. Mutual contacts are few and far in between, and any technological innovation produced in one tribe would forever be confined to that tribe (and be ultimately lost with the tribe's demise). Given that hunting and gathering can only support low population densities, the pool of potential innovators is, anyways, pretty small to start with.

Ultimately, you are as good as your strongest enemy, and physical isolation from the rest of the world ensured that Australians never faced an enemy possessing anything more than stone-age technology. Hence, there was no incentive to advance military technology or to conduct a systematic exploration of (its highly abundant) metals. Even something as basic as a bow and arrow was invented, and later forgotten. 
Path taken by humans to Australia. Little did they know that
this trip would leave their descendants isolated
and technologically backward (source)

None of this implies that agriculture, and complex society would never have arisen in Australia. In fact, some fishing settlements had already arisen in the last thousand years, and harvest tools in certain areas began to eerily resemble those found at the earliest farming communities in other parts of the world. Uninterrupted, the Australians would have ultimately gone down the same road as their more (geographically) blessed cousins. 

But interrupted they were. And how!

When the first humans set their foot on this continent, little could they've imagined that this daring adventure of theirs, would one day, lead their descendants down the path of such isolation and technological stagnation, that when they reunited with the rest of the human family, racists would presume they were the missing link between man and ape.

Such, is the savage curse of geography.

Sources :

  • Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond)
  • Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Harari)

Monday, 11 January 2016

In the name of our Lord, Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi

A still from an actual video produced by our Censor Board chief in praise of our Lord 

"By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person... He reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory to even high level party officials. He hoards power and often leaves his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios" 

(US Consul General (Mumbai)'s 2005 secret cables as revealed by WikiLeaks)

Let me confess that the reality didn't dawn on me at first (of course it didn't). It was Shri Lokesh Chanda, our newly appointed chief of ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations), who first connected the dots. Close on the heels of his coronation, he revealed our Lord to be a veritable incarnation of God on earth, with a "more meaningful impact" on the poor than Karl Marx (He also said something about being greater than Gandhi, but that was a mistake. We have standards, you know). 

Its not as if our Lord kept us completely in the dark. We were encouraged, after all, to substitute His name in place of Mahadev's. And until unenlightened seers forced us to abandon its public performance, our cacophony of 'Har Har Modi' would singe the secular ear, everytime His Holiness graced the dais. To be fair though, He could have blessed that temple some of us were building for him; that would have made things clear. But what can one say? The Lord works in mysterious ways!

Anyway, coming to the main point. You see, our Holy PM is the most misunderstood entity on the planet. He has given statements after statements extolling the virtues of peace and inter-communal harmony, but paid media won't show any of that (I get my information through Naarad Muni). Instead, they keep coming back to a speech His Holiness delivered in 2002, during one of His Gaurav Yatras or "pride marches" (raam raam, not that pride march)  :

What brothers, should we run relief camps? Should I start children-producing centers?.. We are five, and our 25! (Ame paanch, amaara pachees!) Can’t Gujarat implement family planning? Whose inhibitions are coming in our way? Which religious sect is coming in the way? 

Now, you really need to be a sickular to think this has anything to do with Muslims. As our Master explained to SIT, it was simply a general statement about India's increasing population. That the SIT interrogator effectively belied His claim is totally irrelevant. Gods don't lie. 

James Michael Lyngdoh, on the other hand, sure does. And yes, his being a Christian (which my Master took care to emphasize 6 times during an election rally) makes his loyalties naturally suspect. His Holiness was right to speculate that perhaps he and the Italian bahu 'meet in Church' to conspire against him. What else, but an Italian-Christian conspiracy could possibly explain why this highly decorated Election Commissioner refused to hold polls in a communally-charged Gujarat where thousands were still languishing in relief camps ? Hain ?

I absolutely fail to understand this obsession with 2002. Hasn't the SIT given our Lord a clean chit ?  Or is it that even the Supreme Court fails to measure up to your "pseudo-intellectual" standards ? At least, show them some respect. (Unless of course, if its a matter of faith. Then, as His Holiness-turned-pishaach so eloquently implied, the Courts can go and screw themselves!)

Thankfully, our nation saw right through their hypocrisy and pseudo-secular blabber. In May 2014, they gave His Holiness a resounding victory over that "Jersey cow", her "hybrid bacchda" and a notorious "Pakistani agent". Reciprocating their trust, our Lord declared a 10-year moratorium on communal politics, and immediately appointed Shri Yogi Aditynath ji as BJP's star campaigner for UP elections. Now Adityanath ji, as you all know, has always campaigned against bureaucratic red tape. "No need to engage in formalities like FIRs", he once thundered. "For every Hindu that dies", the crowd was assured, "we'll kill at least 100 of their ilk". 

Muslims stopped practicing love jihad after the UP elections and immediately started eating beef. It wasn't their mistake, you see. Who, after all, can refuse to take part in our Lord's Divine Plan ? Cow became our star campaigner in the Bihar elections. It would've carried the day but Forces of Evil got together and formed a Mahagathbandhan. Fearing Anticipating loss, His Holiness decided to further contribute to inter-community relations. Twice in His rallies, He revealed the oppositions's conspiracy to take away reservations from OBCs and dalits, and (horror of horrors) place them in the lap of THAT community! Suffice it to say that the world was left stunned by such grace!

In spite of such a progressive campaign, damnation they preferred, over my Lord's offer of communal redemption. Heathens, all of them! 

With characteristic tranquility, His Holiness moved on. Not the presstitudes though. They keep quibbling about our "discussion" on removing the word "secular" from the Preamble, or Our Lord's hypocritical, roundabout, paradoxical stand on conversions or the fact that he counts among his heroes, a man who openly advocated taking away citizen's rights from non-Hindus. Whatever. They'll never focus on all the good work He is doing. The Man has been travelling virtually non-stop in order to bring foreign investment into our economy. Doesn't that make up for everything ? 

India is virtually guaranteed to outstrip China in terms of annual growth rate. But in a sense, that was inevitable, naheen ? With a Yale-certified Education Minister, a param-sanskaari Culture Minister, disinfected ICHR, "nationalised" NBT and a Yudhishthira-led FTII, how can there not be growth ? 

Sharm inko magar aati nahi...

References :

Thursday, 3 December 2015

When Congress stumped the mullahs : Revisiting the Shah Bano judgement

Shah Bano (image source : Hindu)

The story as it goes..

In 1978, Muhammad Ahmad Khan, a well-known lawyer from Indore, decided to stop giving maintenance money (a mere Rs 200/month) to his 62-year old wife Shah Bano, who he had thrown out of his house after taking a second wife for himself. When she petitioned a local court to guarantee her a fixed maintenance amount, shrewd lawyer that he was, the husband decided to divorce her. Now, under the Muslim Personal Law (applicable to Indian Muslims in personal affairs), a divorced woman is only eligible for maintenance upto the period of her iddat (usually 3 months), and thus, by divorcing her, Mohammad Ahmad ensured that he wouldn't be under any legal compulsion to give her any money after the first 3 months were over!

When the Madhya Pradesh High Court repudiated his maneuver and ordered him to pay Rs 179.20/month, Muhammad Ahmad filed a petition in the Supreme Court, claiming his "right" under the Muslim Personal Law to not give monthly alimony to his ex-wife. As expected, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected his appeal. Several of the ulema (religious authorities) saw this as a violation of God's laws and an intrusion into the personal laws of Muslims. Under the umbrella of All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Ali Miyan and other prominent ulema launched a vigorous campaign against the judgement. Fearing the loss of Muslim votes, Congress passed the infamous "The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986" nullifying the Supreme Court judgement, effectively allowing Muslim men to divorce their economically-destitute wives without having to provide for their maintenance except for the first three months.

The Act was roundly criticized as regressive and a blatant case of minority appeasement. BJP (whose predecessor Jan Sangh and ideological fountainhead RSS had incidentally fought tooth and nail against the rights of Hindu women during the Nehruvian era) accused the Congress of placing its own self-interest ahead of the rights of Muslim women. Ever since, the Act has become a symbol of vote-bank politics and a byword for minority-appeasement, especially of the Congress.

Behind the scenes - What really happened

So, are Muslim women today devoid of their alimony rights in India ? Fortunately, not, and the reason is a legal maneuver from Congress, worthy of a John Grisham novel. Under pressure from influential Muslim groups, Rajiv Gandhi agreed to scrap the Supreme Court ruling, but in the very Act that was supposed to nullify the judgement, a paragraph was deftly introduced that would strengthen and validate that very verdict, paving the way for far-reaching reforms in Muslim alimony laws in India. Arif Mohammad Khan (India's Minister of State at that time; he later resigned in protest against the Act) recounts that when the Law Minister Ashoke Kumar Sen handed him a draft copy, he was astounded that the Act overturned everything that the ulema were demanding, and was in fact, an improvement over the Supreme Court's decision itself! Section 3(1)(a) of the Act requires :

"a reasonable and fair provision and maintenance to be made and paid to her within the iddah period by her former husband".

Since the maintenance was supposed to be paid "within" the iddah period (3 months) and not "for" it, the Act effectively required the husband to pay the entire life-worth of alimony as a single lump-sum amount inside 3 months of divorce! Moreover, it provided no maximum ceiling for the alimony amount (which was Rs 500/month in the original SC verdict). This loophole was no accident; it was deliberately inserted to dilute the Act's effects. Arif recounts Sen pleading him “..to keep quiet. None of them has understood this provision.” 

The courts, of course, understood it perfectly and have since, interpreted the phrasing liberally, granting in some cases, lakhs of rupees as alimony to Muslim women. Implicitly acknowledging this honourable deceit, the Supreme Court, in 2001, remarked : 

“though it may look ironical, the enactment [Muslim Women Act] intended to reverse the decision in Shah Bano’s case actually codifies the very rationale contained therein”.

Outwitted, the ulema of AIMPLB were advised by Ali Miyan against further protest as the blame for getting the "defective" Act passed would, otherwise, be upon them. Thus ended an epic saga of patriarchal bigotry, judicial integrity, populist demagoguery, legislative ingenuity and ultimately, an enduring legal reform.

References :

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Country as myth : A case against rabid patriotism

Preempting ScoopWhoop by a good decade, my class 8 history book offered me "Top ten things about India that you probably didn't know". One particular "fact" struck me a little odd.

India hasn't invaded any country in the last 10,000 years of her history

Having spent a good part of the previous year memorizing the murderous battles that marked the formation of the MauryanGuptaChalukya and Mughal empires, I couldn't help but wonder if there was even such a thing as "India" at that time (apart from its obvious geographic connotations). The entire area seemed a patchwork of kingdoms big and small, each identifying itself as an independent (and often sovereign) entity, similar to how nations today see each other. Without any consciousness of a single united entity, the concept of an "Indian" invasion seemed, even at that time, an utterly absurd notion.

In fact, even the use of the term "country" for medieval and ancient times is anachronistic. Countries, with their well-defined borders, are a very recent innovation, with empires (with their seemingly endless appetite for gorging new territories) being, by far, the most prevalent system of political organization in the past. Inside an empire, your loyalty and identity extended no further than the current ruler's kingdom (often not more than a few dozen kilometers). You were Indian only in the way an Indian today is also an Asian - a mere geographic identity.

By contrast, all of us today that live inside the area demarcated by international agreements as "India", are united by a single identity, that of an Indian citizen. The only reason this identity exists is because everyone, everywhere in the world has come to believe in the myth of the Indian State, or more generally, the myth of a sovereign independent nation. But wait! Aren't myths supposed to be fictional stories ?

Let's take the example of money. If you think about it, there is no real reason why a person in Andaman should give you a dozen mango crates in exchange for a piece of processed wood pulp (your 1000 Rs note). He can't do anything useful with it - he can't eat it, burn it to keep himself warm, or use it to catch animals. Your note has absolutely no physical or intrinsic value. The only reason that it is valuable to the Andamanese guy is because he knows that everybody else in Andaman also thinks that it has value, and if he takes it to any shop, he can buy some actually useful stuff in exchange for it.

Money is a concept that resides only in the combined imagination of billions of human beings. It works only because everybody has agreed on the same mythical value of that processed piece of wood pulp. Indeed, its one of the most powerful myths that mankind has ever imagined (Yuval Harari : Sapiens)

Far from being a negative thing, myths are the foundations on which the human civilization is based. Our capacity to imagine powerful, completely imaginary stories, and convince others to believe in them, is what enables such large-scale co-operation among human beings - a capacity that no other animal can claim to possess. Just imagine the world without the myth of human rights. It took humans centuries to convince each other of this myth, but in reality, the idea that all human being have some fundamental rights, is something that has absolutely no basis outside the human imagination.

The nation-state is a myth in the same way money is. It works because everybody in the world has come to believe that its a good idea to draw arbitrary boundaries on a map, and tell people living inside those boundaries that they now all "one"; somehow distinct from everybody that lies outside those boundaries. One may argue that there are good reasons for drawing those boundaries, but ultimately, the only place they exist is inside the human mind (A Burmese goat wouldn't know when it entered India, would it ?)

Like every other nation, India too is a myth. The problem is not that it is a myth; the problem is that we have forgotten that it is one. Divinity is ascribed to it and blasphemy laws erected; legitimate criticism is dismissed as anti-national and its proponents branded "marxists", "leftists" and most unfortunate of all, "secularists". (Not all criticism is dismissed though - that of the far-right is by default patriotic) Objection to the words of a song is heresy and the slightest criticism of the army's role in conflict-ridden territories tends to haunt you for life. In India, there are no fake encounters, no false charges; no torture cells and no witness-intimidation. That's what other countries do. When our security agencies capture a terroristof course he's a terrorist. What possible reason can there be to doubt that ? Who could even think of defending him except those "sickulars" and "liberals" ?

This vile industry of rabid patriotism inevitably gives rise to self-appointed "community-leaders" - custodians of national honour and the sole arbiter of what it means to be patriotic. They extend the national myth into a careful construction of a glorious past - a past that is ironed out to remove all inconvenient wrinkles. Of course, in a region as diverse as India, there can be no such single unifying narrative of "glory". Not unless you start creating villains.

Unfortunately, the current grand unified narrative is one in which the villains constitute 15% of India's population - foreign invaders who brought an end to the glorious reign of "Indian" rulers, and pushed the country into what our respected PM called, "1200 years of slavery".

In conclusion, the Indian State (like every other nation) is a piece of political fiction - necessary and useful, but fiction nevertheless. The bigotry arises when we fail to see it as such; when the rights of the nation become more sacred than the rights of its citizens and when our love for it turns us into inveterate apologists.

Love your nation but don't restrict it to imaginary boundaries. Respect the selfless (and often anonymous) sacrifices of our security forces, but don't close yourself to the possibility of their crimes. Be a patriot. Don't be a bigot.

References : 

  • Sapiens : A Brief History of Mankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
  • The Past As Present (Romila Thapar)

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

When humans other than sapiens walked the earth

There are 3 elephant species, 10 of pigs, 90 of whales and 260 species of monkeys on earth. All humans today, no matter which colour, height or region, constitute just a single species, homo sapiens. If man is an animal (as he demonstrably is), it begs the question as to where are all its different species ? The answer, it turns out, is quite disturbing.

Around 1.8 million years, when there wasn't even a whiff of any sapiens on earth, a brute, with a little over half our brain-size and a radically different anatomy, emerged in the African grasslands. Armed with improved intelligence and full bipedality (walking on two legs), it became the first human to cross the continent of Africa. In less than a million years, it had colonized lands as far as China and Indonesia, mastering fire in the process. This was homo erectus - the most successful human species to have ever lived, at least in terms of time (over a million and a half years). 

Around 600,000 years ago, a group from an extinct human species called homo heidelbergensis migrated out of Africa, choosing to settle in what is now Europe. This group evolved into the famous Neantherthals - a culturally-sophisticated species that surpassed modern humans in both physical strength and brain size. It dominated the European and West Asian landscapes for a whopping 300,000 years! (let that figure sink in - all the history we learn spans not more than 5,000 years)

As fate would have it, another group of the same homo heidelbergensis species had stayed back in Africa. In another 400,000 years, these relatively non-descript cousins of the illustrious Neanderthals would evolve into the most dangerous predator the earth had ever seen - us, the homo sapiens. 1

Evidence indicates that we did try to cross Africa about 100,000 years ago, but were driven back by the Neanderthals while passing through the Middle East 2. Close on the heels of that failure, the largest supervolcano eruption of the last 25 million years occurred in Indonesia, setting off a thousand-year winter. Our species was pushed to the brink of extinction 3, with genetic evidence revealing that not more than 10-15,000 people survived. Evolution worked overtime, and although nobody knows exactly what cognitive changes occurred during this time, the next time we invaded the Middle East 70,000 years ago, we were a completely different animal altogether. 

Within a span of five thousand years, we obliterated the Neanderthals (and possibly the Denisovans - a human species that we know only through its DNA), proceeding then towards South Asia to wipe out any and all surviving descendants of homo erectus

Around 40,000 years, we became the first human species to set foot on Australia - a truly devastating moment in the continent's history. Almost its entire megafauna (a name given to large-sized animals) was slaughtered out of existence. In order to obtain easy prey and clear forests, we literally set fire to the entire continent! Eucalyptus - the most widespread tree in Australia today, survived only because it was fire-resistant. The pattern was repeated everywhere this new species of humans went - in North America, 34 out of 47, and in South America, 50 out of 60 genera (entire genera, not just species) of large animals disappeared within a couple of thousand of years of human arrival. So much for the belief that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature!

So again, where are all our human cousins ? In oblivion of course, where we placed them. But before dying, they did manage to leave an indelible mark upon us. While contriving to end their existence, we had duly taken care to breed with some NeanderthalsDenisovans and a third yet-unknown species, resulting in 1-5% genetic contribution from them in modern non-African populations. In a very real sense therefore, a part of these ancient human species continues to live within us.

References : 

  1. Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind
  2. The Greatest Show on Earth
  3. Human Evolution : Past and Future (University of Wisconsin)
  4. Introduction to Human Evolution  (Wellesley College)
Its possible that the descent from homo heidelbergensis wasn't entirely linear
There were probably other minor migrations, but firm evidence for them is still pending 
Whether it was the result of this supervolcano eruption or some other  unknown cause, remains a contentious issue

(Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Artificial Intelligence - Monsters, Minions or None of the (ever) Above

AI has traditionally been represented in Hollywood as an existential threat to humanity. Predictably, the counter-trend chose to depict them as homo humane – moral beings dedicated to humanity’s welfare, or at the very least, choosing not to interfere. In doing so however, we are merely projecting human psychological quirks upon their minds; “minds” that are fundamentally non-human.

To be sure, nobody really knows how consciousness arises (or even how to define it, strictly speaking). Increasing neural complexity along the evolutionary path, at one point, led to rudimentary self-awareness. Instead of a series of involuntary reflexes, the trait allowed the animal to take cognizance of his surroundings, and actively make use of its neural prowess to manipulate it in order to avoid danger and obtain food - the stepping stone towards intelligence. It reduced the turnover time that natural selection took in order to get the critical survival behaviour that had suddenly become indispensable. What would have taken generations to program into the animal for it to mindlessly execute, could now be partially improvised by the animal itself, making consciousness a chief candidate for optimization through natural selection. Origins aside, it is clear that our modern consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, the result of millions of years of evolutionary tweaking.

Similarly, our psychological impulses too have been shaped by innumerable, and mostly unaccountable evolutionary factors. Given that we can't possibly hope to recreate all the factors that led to our current psychological state, there is absolutely no reason to assume that an AI which becomes self-aware somehow, will share any of our expectations of behaviour. Why, for example, would it want to create something, follow orders, or have even an iota of curiosity? Why would it even want to survive? A consciousness brought about by artificial means with possibly no survival instincts, cannot be “obviously” expected to have any desire.

All of this assumes that the self-awareness we are used to is a distinct something that can be reached through multiple paths, and not something bound to a very specific evolutionary process. Even if it were the case, will we even call something that doesn't want to survive, conscious? Doesn't our very idea of consciousness hinge upon our perception of free will? If that is an illusion, might not consciousness be one too? Are all our efforts then, directed at making machines delusional? And, how much time will a “true” AI take to realize this?

(Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why banning drugs might not be such a good idea

This is a collection of selective quotations from a discussion that took place between Sam Harris and acclaimed environmental journalist Johann Hari here :

Common sense dictates that we ban drugs and other such addictions. After all, who wants their friends and family to fall victim to its menace ? The above conversation shows us why such a ban might be counter-productive, and might very well contribute to increasing the misery of society in general. Following are some of the snippets of that conversation :

Funding for the mafia

"When you ban substances that people enjoy using so much that they’ll break the law to do it, you create a black market with huge profits. And since purveyors of illicit drugs have no legal way to secure their investment, the trade will be run by increasingly violent criminals. In a single stroke, therefore, prohibition creates organized crime and all the social ills attributable to the skyrocketing cost of drugs — addicts are forced to become thieves and prostitutes in order to afford their next fix. Why isn’t the stupidity of prohibition now obvious to everyone?"
When the American authorities decided to completely ban drugs in 1914, they left a deliberate loophole permitting doctors to prescribe them to drug addicts. When in the 1930s, the government decided to ban even this, the drug gangs and mafia actually bribed the narcotics officers to implement the ban even quicker, and more strictly. Their rationale was that if the addict could not get the drugs legally, he would have to go to the mafia, which could extort obscene amounts of money for it. Its quite astonishing how this ban has funded (and continues to) fund the most violent drug lords and extremist groups, to the extent that some of them are virtually running the city's finances for it.

"[Banning drugs] means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark, in our public places, filled with disease and chaos. Legalization is a way of imposing regulation and order on this anarchy. It’s about taking it away from criminal gangs and giving it to doctors and pharmacists, and making sure it happens in nice clean clinics, and we get our nice parks back, and we reduce crime."

The example of Portugal and Switzerland

"In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. One day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and in effect said, 'We can’t go on like this. We can’t have more and more people becoming heroin addicts. Let’s figure out what would genuinely solve the problem.'

They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), 'Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.'

... The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: 'Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But'—and this is the crucial next stage—'take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.'

... Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses. Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, 'If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.' The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.

Switzerland, a very conservative country, legalized heroin for addicts, meaning you go to the doctor, the doctor assigns you to a clinic, you go to that clinic every day, and you inject your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. I went to that clinic — it looks like a fancy Manhattan hairdresser’s, and the addicts go out after injecting their heroin to their jobs and their lives.

I stress again—Switzerland is a very right-wing country, and after its citizens had seen this in practice, they voted by 70% in two referenda to keep heroin legal for addicts, because they could see that it works. They saw that crime massively fell, property crime massively fell, muggings and street prostitution declined enormously."

What exactly causes addiction ?

"For 100 years we’ve been told a story about addiction that’s just become part of our common sense. It’s obvious to us. We think that if you, I, and the first 20 people to read this on your site all used heroin together for 20 days, on day 21 we would be heroin addicts, because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our bodies would start to physically need, and that’s what addiction is.

The first thing that alerted me to what’s not right about this story is when I learned that if you step out onto the street and are hit by a car and break your hip, you’ll be taken to a hospital where it’s quite likely that you’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much more potent than what you get on the street, because it’s medically pure, not f***ed up by dealers. You’ll be given that diamorphine for quite a long period of time. Anywhere in the developed world, people near you are being giving loads of heroin in hospitals now.

If what we think about addiction is right, what will happen? Some of those people will leave the hospital as heroin addicts. That doesn’t happen. There have been very detailed studies of this. It doesn’t happen."

"...our idea of addiction comes in part from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They’re really simple experiments, and your readers can do them at home if they’re feeling a bit sadistic. You get a rat, you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles: One is water, and the other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and will almost always kill itself. So there you go. That’s our theory of addiction.

But in the 1970s, Bruce Alexander came along and thought, “Hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let’s try this differently.”

So he built a very different cage and called it Rat Park. Rat Park was like heaven for rats. They had everything a rat could possibly want: lovely food, colored balls, tunnels, loads of friends. They could have loads of sex. And they had both the water bottles—the normal water and the drugged water. What’s fascinating is that in Rat Park they didn’t like the drugged water. They hardly ever drank it. None of them ever drank it in a way that looked compulsive. None of them ever overdosed."

Switzerland again and the Vietnam soldiers

"In Switzerland, where they legalized heroin, when you start on the program, you set your own dose of heroin, and you can stay on it for as long as you want. There’s never any pressure to stop, which surprised me. I actually was taken aback by that.

So anyone on that program can just stay on it their whole life, right? You can just carry on. The program’s been running for 20 years. But it’s interesting—there’s almost nobody on the program now who was on it at the start.

I said, “Well, how come that happened?” And they said that the chaos of street use, of scrambling to pay this grossly inflated price, ended, because people were given heroin as a medical prescription. The people in the clinic support you, they help you get housing, and they help you look for a job. So the majority of the people there get jobs, get homes, so they choose entirely of their own will to gradually cut down their heroin use over time, and eventually they stop. Because their lives become more bearable. Because they want to be more present in their lives. Because their lives slowly improve.

In Vietnam 20% of American troops were using a lot of heroin. And if you look at the reports from the time, they were really sh***ing themselves, because they thought, 'My God, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets of the United States when the war ends.'

Actually, this was studied very closely, and the overwhelming majority—95%—of the men who had been using lots of heroin in Vietnam came home and just stopped. They didn’t go to rehab, didn’t get any treatment. They just stopped. Because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle where you could die at any moment, and you go back to your nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family and your human connections, that’s the equivalent of being taken out of the first cage and put into Rat Park."

The case of tobacco

"[This's] not to say that there’s no chemical component [to drug addiction]. It’s important to stress that... There’s a broad scientific consensus that one of the most physically addictive drugs available to us is tobacco. And we’ve isolated the part that’s chemically compelling—it’s nicotine. So when nicotine patches were invented in the early 1990s, there was this massive wave of optimism: Great, you can give smokers all the drugs they’re addicted to without the filthy carcinogenic smoke. Progress. You will see a huge fall in smoking.

Actually, the US surgeon general’s report found that only 17% of smokers stopped with nicotine patches. Now, it’s important to stress that 17% is a lot. It’s not nothing. That tells us that 17% of these addictions are chemically driven—or at least that 17% of people can stop when the chemical component is met. That’s huge. That tells us that the story we’ve been told up to now is not false. But it also tells us that it’s only 17% of the story, and that 83% has to be explained in some other way. These social and environmental factors should be a very big part of the conversation and the discussion."

Image courtesy of marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net