Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Human nature and wild nature

Edward Wilson, yet again with a startling insight, in the 25th anniversary foreword to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:
Human nature – the epigenetic rules – did not originate in cities and croplands, which are too recent in human history to have driven significant amounts of genetic evolution. They arose in natural environments, especially the savannas and transitional woodlands of Africa, where Homo Sapiens and its antecedents evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. What we call the natural environment or wilderness today was home then – the environment that cradled humanity. Before agriculture the lives of people depended on their intimate familiarity with wild biodiversity, both the surrounding ecosystems and the plants and animals composing them.

The link was, on a scale of evolutionary time, abruptly weakened by the invention and spread of agriculture and then erased by the implosion of a large part of the agricultural population into the cities during the industrial and postindustrial revolutions. As global culture advanced into the new, technoscientific age, human nature stayed back in the Paleolithic era.

Hence the ambivalent stance taken by modern Homo Sapiens to the natural environment. Natural environments are cherished at the same time they are subdued and converted. The ideal planet for the human psyche seems to be one that offers an endless expanse of fertile, unoccupied wilderness to be churned up for the production of more people. But Earth is finite, and it still exponentially growing human population is rapidly running out of productive land for conversion. Clearly humanity must find a way simultaneously to stabilize its population and attain a universal decent standard of living while preserving much of Earth’s natural environment and biodiversity as possible.

Conservation, I have long believed, is ultimately an ethical issue. Moral precepts in turn must be based on a sound, objective knowledge of human nature…I am persuaded that as the need to stabilize and protect the environment grows more urgent in the coming decades, the linking of the two natures – human nature and wild Nature – will become a central intellectual concern.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pictures from El Alto, Bolivia

El Alto is a Aymara city perched at the rim of the canyon in which the world's highest capital, La Paz, is nestled. So El Alto, at 13,615 feet, is higher than La Paz. It is also poorer, confirming the trend I'd noticed in Andean Peru and in Lima: material wealth diminishes with elevation. The gated communities and the fancy stores are at the lowest points of La Paz. Complexion also changes with the drop in elevation: from Aymara dark brown to Spanish white. Evo, whom I mentioned in my last post, is a hero in El Alto, but the billboards celebrating his election victory disappear as you descend.

Despite the naked brick buildings and the generally unsanitary conditions, El Alto is full of entrepreneurial energy. The city market is full of every imaginable commodity -- second hand cars, cattle, clothes -- and sprawls over dozens of blocks. Some of the prosperity shows in El Alto: the wealthier Aymaras have offices with glass facades on their originally naked brick buildings.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tiwanaku and Evo Morales

Most of us have heard of the Incas, but they were only the last of a line of empires that rose in western South America. Before them, in the high and mostly dry plateau of the Andes, called the Altiplano, the Tiwanaku flourished. The indigenous Aymara of modern day Bolivia consider themselves descendants of the Tiwanaku. In January 2006, a day before he assumed presidential office, Evo Morales, an Aymara himself, attended a ceremony at the principal archaeological site of of this ancient culture, two hours from La Paz.

The Spanish colonized this part of the world with much brutality in the 16th century; Bolivia became independent in the 19th century but it was a sham independence: the Spanish descended elites still held power. Evo Morales’s remarkable ascension to the highest office in Bolivia in 2006 – he had been a Coca farmer once – was a truly historic moment. Hence the coronation at Tiwanaku. Like the blacks of South Africa, the majority Aymara too were denied for a long time. Evo Morales may be viewed skeptically in the West because he is socialist, but it is from the perspective of indigenous empowerment that his rise is significant. In 2009, a month before I visited La Paz, he was reelected with an even stronger majority.

Above, you'll find some pictures of relics from the Tiwanaku site. The Spanish missionaries of the sixteenth century couldn’t let them be. They "exorcised" the spirit of the second relic by scraping a cross on the right shoulder. No doubt, this nasty bit of sabotage stemmed from a deep insecurity. If the God of Christianity was indeed the only worthy and true God, then why did that fact have to be imposed in a coercive manner?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Conquerors, but also cultural carriers

In the marvelous introduction to his book, Genghis khan And The Making Of The Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes,
The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture. Their own craftsmen could not weave cloth, cast metal, make pottery or even bake bread. They manufactured neither porcelain nor pottery, painted no pictures, and built no buildings. Yet, as their army conquered culture after culture, they collected and passed all of these skills from one civilization to next.

The Mongols deliberately opened the world to new commerce not only in goods, but also in ideas and knowledge. The Mongols brought German miners to China and Chinese doctors to Persia. The transfers ranged from the monumental to the trivial. They spread the use of carpets everywhere they went and transplanted lemons and carrots from Persia to China, as well as noodles, playing cards, and tea from China to the West. They brought a metal worker from Paris to build a fountain on the dry steppes of Mongolia, recruited an English nobleman to serve as interpreter in their army, and took the practice of Chinese fingerprinting to Persia. They financed the building of Christian churches in China, Buddhist temples and stupas in Persia, and Muslim Koranic schools in Russia. The Mongols swept across the globe as conquerors, but also as civilization´s greatest cultural carriers.

The Mongols who inherited Genghis Khan´s empire exercised a determiend drive to move products and commodities around and to combine them in ways that produced entirely novel products and unprecedented invention. When their highly skilled engineers from
China, Persia and Europe combined Chinese gunpowder with Muslim flamethrowers and applied European bell casting technology, they produced the canon, an entirely new order of technological innovation, from which sprang the vast modern arsenal of weapons from pistols to missiles. While each item had some significance the larger imnpact came from in the way the Mongols selected and combined technologies to create unusual hybrids.

Seemingly every aspect of European life -- technology, warfare, clothing, commerce, food, art,liteature and music -- changed during the Renaissance as a result of the Mongol influence. In addition to new forms of fighting, new machines and new foods, even the most mundane aspects of daily life changed as the Europeans switched to Mongol fabrics, wearing pants and jackets instead of tunics and robes, played their musical instruments with the steppe bow rather than plucking them with the fingers, and painted their pictures in a new style. The Europeans even picked up the Mogol exclamation hurray as an enthusiastic cry of bravado and mutual encouragement.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Mysore story

In the early 2000s, I wanted to write a short story set in the south Indian city of Mysore. I had been inspired by my travels to the city. The style of the story was a typical response of someone who had just arrived abroad -- I had come to the United States just then -- and feels nostalgic about home. What had once been part of my milieu now was exotic even to me. I never quite finished the story -- there are many failed versions in fact -- but here is whatever I managed to put to paper.

I present this in unedited form, so the typos and awkward sentences have not been corrected -- that is intended to be part of the charm. Or so I hope.


The line between the realms of mythology and reality is often thin and hazy, and sometimes a drifting vagabond never realizes when he has crossed one and is treading on the other. So it was, when, blown by an overnight storm and cocooned by a dark low-travelling rain-cloud, I was carried to the city of Mysore. Like a dream that is often forgotten when a slumbering person wakes up to groggy reality, the dark clouds that cradled me disappeared to reveal a shining morning and a smiling sun, and there wafted in the air the faint but unmistakable scent of sandalwood. I sniffed heartily to olfactory content, and saw a man-sized, live and moving toy, holding incense sticks that burned cheerfully orange at their tips and wore crumbling grey hats of ash.

“Welcome to Mysore,” said the toy. The orange flames burned brighter in acknowledgement. My guide was quite remarkable looking. Though made of sandalwood, his facial feaures and his limbs had the potential of free expression and movement. He had a great black moustache painted above his thick upper lip, and gold earrings dangled on his long Buddha-like ears; a huge red dot adorned his forehead, and a gold crown sat majestically over his head.

He walked and I followed him, but I really just had to follow the trail of scent that he left. We reached a roadside where a tonga stood; the horse that would give us a ride was nodding its head and clicking its hoofs musically in a slow foot dance. “Enter,” said the Sandalwood man grandly, and I did. He guided the tonga smoothly through the roads of Mysore. A quaint atmosphere enveloped me, and I absorbed it while my heart danced in it; there was a song on my lips to the tune of the undulating ride and the soft beats of the horse’s hoofs of the tar road. While I was thus singing to myself, my driver and escort started a lilting song too:

“ Tall eucalyptus and coconut trees
Rustle! Rustle! Rustle! in the gentle breeze
Cuckoos and mynahs sing their sweet songs
Tring!Tring!Tring! the bicycles respond!”

Indeed, there were lots of bicyclists right in the middle of the road, some on the sides, and the tonga had to weave through them as they waved and shouted and rang their bells. After a while we reached more crowded streets with the bazaars and the coffee houses where people chatted gaily, and sipped on coffee in ever-silver tumblers and cups. We were in the heart of the city, and the spectacular domes of the Mysore Palace had come into view.

“To there we head,” said the Sandalwood man with great hype. “We shall call on the Maharaja.”

We marched on slower through the traffic of people and reached the gates of the palace. The ochre domes shone bright in the sun. It was a great piece of architecture: European, Islamic and Hindu styles all merged into one fantastic palace.

“Indo-Saracenic, they call it,” said my guide, at whom I wasn’t looking, for the arresting sight that the palace had never allowed me to. We entered the palace, and armed guards bent in respect. If the exterior was majestic the interior was twice so: there were ornate dark brown wooden carvings on the doors of lotuses, peacocks, elephants, gods, and grazing deer of the forest; on the walls and stained glass windows there were intricately drawn designs and symmetrical patterns curvaceous as a swan’s neck and adorned with dots and geometrical shapes; there were paintings depicting the life of the king and his family, portraits of royal family’s ancestors, paintings of battles and those of celebration and horsemanship during the festival of Dasera for which the city was famous; and there was size, the immense size and height of the rooms, which ended in domes that made you feel dizzy with grandeur. All these I observed while I was being led to the Durbar room where on a golden throne sat Maharaja Wodeyar. He was attired with the best of clothes, those befitting a king; his robes flowed of silk and gold. And on his right side sat a strange-looking, furtive person, who looked like a puppet made of shining cloth. I caught a striking glint from his eye that seemed so powerful that I stood for a moment entranced, and then that mysterious bit of light disappeared.

“Welcome to Mysore,” said the Maharaja. His smile was bright and his demeanour cheerful; yet, if I was not wrong, I could detect the faint touch of a frown on his brow. Gesturing to the person on his right, he said: “And this is Silk, of the Mysore silk fame, that beautiful piece of everlasting luster. I can see that you have already met the Sandalwood.” He winked at me. “They don’t get along, the two of them; for both compete to make themselves famous in this city!”

“I am honored, O king, to be treated with such great hospitality,” I said with evident awe. All of us were seated now. A servant wandered in silently, and offered fresh coconut water to me. Sandalwood and Silk faced each other, their faces turned upward, each avoiding eye contact with the other. The Maharaja looked at me, and said:

“It is not without reason that you are treated with such special care.”

I arched my eyebrows, for there was something in his tone that suggested a burden.

“Yes, it is so. We got you from the real world for the stars foretold something about you. Our astrologer looked at the end of his long white beard in contemplation, and in his mind celestial objects floated – the planets, the stars, and the galaxies. His calculations matched with the date of your birth, the time, the exact hour – it seemed that you were the person we were looking for. Hence you were called to assist in a problem that bothers us.”

“This intrigues me. What is the nature of my assistance?”

“That has to do with your vagabond-like nature, your tendency to roam in the forests, and your knowledge of beasts.”

“A riddle it is all to me, and doubt resides like an dreadful intruder in my mind. Pray be clear.”

“In due time… do not make haste, although the issue at hand does require us not to be idle. We shall talk over lunch, which shall be soon, and my cook, who is also my vizier in matters of distress, shall join our talk.”

Lunch was served on banana leaves cleaned with water. The Maharaja ate with me while the cook supervised. The cook, whose name was Manisundar, talked a lot; he seemed quite an intelligent chap. His skin was covered with a formidable layer of oil and grease, and exuded the aromatic steam, heat and spice of the frying pan. He chattered on in a vocabulary that initially seemed strange, but later, when I was habituated to his “phrases”, I started to see light in his speech.

“Manisundar here has never liked anything as much as he has liked cooking. It is strange,” the Maharaja said. “Oh, how much he likes his cooking! He cannot stand anyone else in the royal kitchen, and does all the work himself.”

“Lord of all Vegetables, how will I survive without that?” asked Manisundar. “Cutting beans, snipping off those sticky ends of a ladysfinger, grating coconuts for chutney – of all these things if you deprive me, I shall have to fry myself deep one lunch in scalding vegetable oil!”

“There, there he goes again – stop that suicidal talk of yours!”

“Ah, okay, more mango pickle, tourist? Burns your tongue doesn’t it in a tangy-sour way! Quite my intention.”

“Er, yes, the food is quite delicious, delectable,” I said.

“Let’s talk of the pressing matters now that trouble the kingdom,” the Maharaja said importantly. “It is high time we did so.” There was a stern pause and I was all attention, with my ears straining and twitching with curiosity so much that they moved; and Manisundar watched them with glee and mirth.

“You may have heard of the buffalo demon Mahishashur, whose massive statue resides up Chamundi hill.” I nodded and he continued: “Well, he is the problem, the demon! He has the city named after him, what more does he want! Ages ago he was killed by Goddess Chamundeshwari, and the people of Mysore thought that was the end of that. But no, his spirit still moves, and he still troubles the people of Mysore; he is still as notorious as he was millennia ago, not giving up his mischief.

“You might ask what mischief he does. Ask what mischief he does not do! His apparition has been spotted in the night, moving about; people cringe in fear when he prowls around, troubling the innocent. But though that is a problem too for us, the real problem caused by him, I believe, lies elsewhere. His spirit is one with that of a living bandit named Marasuran, who lives, it is said, in the forest of Nagarhole. Occasionally, he comes to town with his cronies and wreaks havoc amongst the people, stealing their belongings, and even killing some. They come in strong and powerful horses, whose stamina is outstanding, far more than what our army horses can achieve. The most striking thing about this villain Marasuran is his capacity to elude. The forest is his home, and we have reason to believe that he has no one house or hideout; he lives all over the forest. Entire armies of men have gone about searching the thick dense parts of the forest, and they have sighted him, yes, but he has vanished strangely, and there is something miraculous about his escapades that has led me and my wise sages in court to believe that he is none other than an incarnation of the demon himself.”

There was silence for a while as the Maharaja paused and looked at Manisundar before he said in a low whisper, dramatically:

“Manisundar here believes that the bandit gets help from the birds and beasts of the forest.”

The cook nodded sagely, and said: “During my occasional visit to the forest to pluck some herbs and fresh leaves for the delicacies of the kitchen I have sensed and seen strange things. Steamed rice and round pumpkins, it was frightening! The whole living forest had its eyes on me, as if they knew I was from the Maharaja’s court. For some moments there was complete silence, and it is a terrible feeling; everything around you stands still, alert and frozen in time. I have never yearned for the sound of bursting mustards in hot oil more than in those chilly moments when shivers sneaked through my body. Once I saw someone running stealthily over rustling leaves and I followed the footsteps. At one point I was running parallel to the fugitive, and there were the trunks of trees between us. I saw the profile of a tall man dressed in shabby clothes, but remarkably athletic and lean. His running form went behind a tree and he evaded my vision for a split second or two; but what came out was utterly surprising and disturbing: a large croaking black bird, its wing flapping loudly, emerged from the other side to my astonishment, and a monkey, which I could have sworn was not there a moment ago, was suddenly climbing the tree. The fugitive was gone! I stood stunned and petrified; I felt deceived and cheated with a form of trickery that was beyond my comprehension. And as if basking in the glory of the deception, I heard a barking deer barking away somewhere; to me it sounded like laughter. Carrots are red, capsicums are green, and brinjals are violet, but after that little episode I felt the colour of all vegetables drowning into diabolical shades.” At this point his voice had reached a shrill squeak and tottered off lamely into silence; he gulped, and I could see his Adam’s apple bob up and then subside.

“What happened after that?” I asked

“Nothing. I just came back, and decided that I’d have to give up my fancy little herbs that could have enhanced the culinary treats that come out of the royal kitchen. There has been nothing more disheartening in life. I went to the masterful poet in the king’s court Devraya, told him of my problem, and to console me and ennoble my sorrow, he composed the following lovely verses:

Of cardamom and clove, I sing many praises
The flavour of coriander and cumin, I eulogize
Of these, I obtain, a good measure and plenty
But for the herbs of Nagarhole, I forever pine.”

He sighed and gloom hung over the room. Into this gloom came Sandalwood and Silk and joined us, exuding their scent and shine. The cook brightened and said: “These two great representatives of Mysore, they cheer me up so well! But I do hold a grudge against them for they never eat my food, not even the great, irresistibly sweet mysore pak that I prepare so often.”

It was well before dawn the next day that we set off for the forest of Nagarhole in two chariots. From Mysore, the forest was quite distant, and it would take a while to get there. Manisundar, Sandalwood and myself were in one chariot, whereas Silk and the Maharaja were in the other. It was still dark and the stars, if they weren’t hidden beneath pale-white scattered clouds, kept a twinkling vigil over us. Manisundar spoke to me almost incessantly, and whenever he was advising me to be cautious in my forest adventure, his voice dropped to a whisper as if he feared that the demon would listen.

“It is important for you to locate the bandit first. Like I locate those little worms than hide in grains of rice. Your skill with beasts is the way to do it.”

I nodded my head skeptically: “I know my way with beasts, and I have roamed in many forests, but that doesn’t mean I can deal with beasts who are under a spell of the bandit!”

“Enter the forest, and maybe you will see things differently. I know you agreed to this plan of mine as the allure of the forest is too much for you to resist! ”

He paused and said: “You may even meet people in forest, strange people, hermits, wanderers like you. Judge and do as you feel best.”

Sandalwood spoke for the first time: “Cut the wood of the tree closest to you if you need help or if you find something significant. The scent of a damaged bark of a tree is something I can detect early, and I’ll come rushing; it may take a little while, but I’ll be there.”

For the first time, I felt a tinge of fear tarnish the pure sense of anticipation and excitement that was within me.

Dawn was breaking and the eastern sky was starting to show light. The speed of the chariots had slowed, and after a while they came to a stop. All of us alighted. The Maharaja came to bid me goodbye: “You are almost in the forest now. This is where we leave you! I wish you good luck in your endeavour. The people of Mysore and myself cannot be more indebted to your courage and enthusiasm. May the great Goddess be with you! Remember, Silk and Sandalwood shall be in Nagarhole too, at some other points of the forest.”

The chariots rode away, and I was left alone. There were trees around me but it was not the dense forest yet. A thrill went through me as I inhaled the fresh air of the morning.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The art instinct

Edward Wilson writes in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:
Artistic impulses are by no means limited to man. In 1962, when Desmond Morris reviewed the subject in The Biology of Art, 32 individual non-human primates had produced drawings and paintings in captivity. Twenty three were chimpanzees, 2 were gorillas, 3 were orangutans, and 4 were capuchin monkeys. None received special training or anything more than access to the necessary equipment. In fact, attempts to guide the efforts of the animals by inducing imitation were always unsuccessful. The drive to use the painting and drawing equipment was powerful, requiring no reinforcement from human observers. Both young and old animals became so engrossed with the activity that they preferred it to being fed and sometimes threw temper tantrums when stopped. Two of the chimpanzees studied extensively were highly productive. “Alpha” produced over 200 pictures, “Congo”, who deserves to the called the Picasso of the great apes, was responsible for nearly 400. Although most of the efforts consisted of scribbling, the patterns were far from random. Lines and smudges were spread over a blank page outward from a centrally located figure. When a drawing was started on one side of a blank page the chimpanzee usually shifted to the opposite side to offset it. With time the calligraphy became bolder, starting with simple lines and progressing to more complicated multiple scribbles. Congo’s patterns progressed along approximately the same developmental path as those of very young human children, yielding fan-shaped diagrams and even complete circles. Other chimpanzees drew crosses.

The artistic behavior of chimpanzees may well be a function of their tool using behavior. Members of the species display a total of about ten techniques, all of which require manual skill. Probably all are improved through practice, while at least a few are passed as traditions from one generation to the next. The chimpanzees have considerable faculty for inventing new techniques, such as the use of sticks to pull objects through cage bars and to pry open boxes. Thus the tendency to manipulate objects and to explore their uses appears to have an adaptive advantage for chimpanzees.

The same reasoning applies a fortiori to the origin of art in man…Human beings have been hunter-gatherers for over 99 per cent of their history, during which time each man made his own tools. The appraisal of form and skill in execution were necessary for survival, and they probably brought social approval as well. Both forms of success paid off in greater genetic fitness. If the chimpanzee Congo could reach the stage of elementary diagrams, it is not too hard to imagine primitive man progressing to representational figures. Once that stage was reached, the transition to the use of art in sympathetic magic and ritual must have followed quickly. Art might then have played a reciprocally reinforcing role in the development of culture and mental capacity. In the end, writing emerged as the idiographic representation of language.