29 August 2007

A matter of perspective

Learning and culture in human evolution, and the transmission of that learning/culture, can be mystifying. At one moment we have nothing; in the next, it’s a whole new life. There have been specific instances in human history at (or, more correctly, right after) which our learning and culture has literally grown in leaps and bounds.

For early man, discovering fire by rubbing two stones together was one such instance. Everything changed after that. More recently, another such discovery has changed our world forever. This discovery, though scientific in nature, has been in the field of art, as well as geometry, and has influenced our thinking and culture immensely.

This discovery is the concept of ‘perspective’ – that, to the human eye, things/images in the distance look smaller than things/images which are closer (i.e. in the foreground). Although this is common knowledge today, and a child can draw it, there was no concept of perspective – at least, as far as its representation goes – in our culture as late as 1400 AD.

The concept of perspective (or, more accurately, linear perspective) was ‘introduced’ in art during the Renaissance, some 600 years ago. The person credited with this introduction, or invention as some define it, was painter, sculptor, architect and artisan-engineer Filippo Di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446) – better known as Brunelleschi.

Until the early 1400s, every element/object in a drawing or painting was represented in equal proportion to another (i.e. equal in size) irrespective of whether the element/object was in the foreground or at a distance in the picture or the model. In other words, the art was created without depth… without a linear perspective.

It was Brunelleschi, noted for building the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore at Florence and the Sagrestia Vecchia of San Lorenzo, among other famous works of architecture, who first painted the Baptistery of Florence (stated to be in 1415) in linear perspective. Thus, introducing an illusion of depth in his painting which changed art, and geometry, forever.

Soon, other Italian painters of the Renaissance period began using linear perspective in their art. And, thereafter, the rest of the world followed. The idea caught on like wildfire; its application made visible in everything people painted or designed. At one moment we had nothing; in the next, it was a whole new life. Today, a life without perspective is unthinkable.

27 August 2007

Complex evolving systems

Mimicry plays a key role in our development. It has been through mimicry – or imitation – that we humans have learnt and evolved over 50,000 years. It was probably by imitating, i.e. following and repeating another person’s movements and actions, that we first developed a language of gestures, which then evolved into an early verbal language (a protolanguage). And, finally, into a fully functional language of the kind we use today.

Mind you, all these changes in human beings had taken tens of thousands of years… something we may not give credence to today when we see a baby imitating its mother and learning from her in a matter of days and weeks. There are many theories on how this happened, one of which, based on the discovery of mirror neurons (see my previous post), suggests that mirror neurons in our brains make complex imitation possible in humans, resulting in our ability to learn and use language.

As it said in the Beth Azar article, ‘How mimicry begat culture’, from which I had quoted in my previous post: “Then, once we had the ability to imitate, and learn through imitation, transmission of culture could continue by leaps and bounds.” Still, it was something that happened gradually, over tens of thousands of years, through a cumulative mixing of the cognitive processes in the brain with the processes of human social interaction and communication.

What also contributed to human evolution in a big way was the transmission of these continuing processes from one individual to another, from one group to another, and from one generation to another, in the form of culture. What seems commonplace today, and is taken for granted, is really a network of complex evolving systems in our brains, developed and transmitted over tens of thousands of years. And, it is happening even as you read this post.

24 August 2007


The Monarch butterfly is poisonous. Its body contains cardenolides which are toxic. This biological (i.e. genetic) make-up protects it from being eaten by predators like frogs, lizards, birds and other insects. Its predators avoid it by noticing the very-visible orange and black patterns on the wings of the Monarch butterfly.

The Viceroy butterfly is not poisonous (though it’s known to cause its predators a little tummy upset), but similar looking. Its wings have orange and black patterns similar to the Monarch butterfly. This look confuses its predators, thereby saving it from being eaten. Some biologists say the Viceroy butterfly mimics the Monarch butterfly, using its mimicking capability as deception.

According to Wikipedia, “In ecology, mimicry describes a situation where one organism, the mimic, has evolved to share common outward characteristics with another organism, the model, through the selective action of a signal-receiver.” In human culture, it’s no different. People mimic people (e.g. babies and mothers); cultures mimic cultures (e.g. India and the West).

For us, as it is in the animal kingdom, sometimes, mimicry (or the act of mimicking) is for self-preservation. Sometimes, mimicry is for progress – a way of moving a nation, or the human race, forward. And why not? Mimicry, say social scientists, is a common method of learning: from languages to customs to skills to art. Not to mention our ability to empathise with each other and share our knowledge.

It’s something we have been developing for the last 50,000 years or so. For, it was around this time that human culture experienced a sudden explosion of technological sophistication, art, clothes and dwellings. According to Vilayanur Ramachandran of University of California, San Diego, this ‘big bang’ of human development happened due to our mirror-neurons.

As reported in an October 2005 article, ‘How mimicry begat culture’ by Beth Azar, in ‘Monitor’ from American Psychology Association, “it was Ramachandran’s provocative big bang essay published in 2000 on the Edge Web site (www.edge.org) – an online salon for scientists and other intellectuals – that really got people’s attention.

“I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology,” wrote Ramachandran. “They will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

In particular, he says, mirror neurons primed the human brain for the great leap forward by allowing us the ability to imitate, read others’ intentions and thereby learn from each other.

You can read Beth Azar’s ‘How mimicry begat culture’ here.

[Citation: Wikipedia – Monarch Butterfly, Mimicry.]

22 August 2007

The Butterfly Effect

A theory called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ suggests that even a tiny change somewhere in our ecosystem can bring in gigantic changes everywhere. The theory uses the analogy of the flapping of a butterfly’s wings (an almost-insignificant action) building up a momentum and force through a chain of actions and events to cause storms or other catastrophes elsewhere.

I’m not sure if this is the law of the Universe, but some people swear by it, saying that science can actually prove it. Apart from experiments in physics with application of force, there seems to be enough evidence from history which justifies this theory. I mean, take a look at any human revolution or uprising, and you’ll know this theory is true. The evidence is all around us.

Like history, the social sciences also seem to prove this theory over and over – from gossip to fashion trends to viral marketing to religion. All seem to be saying the same thing: a tiny change can result in a momentous event. As the tagline to the film ‘The Butterfly Effect’, a fantasy thriller by directors Eric Bress and J Mackye Gruber, starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart, says: ‘Change one thing. Change everything.’

The point of this is, when it comes to human evolution, even in biological and cultural systems, “small changes in one component can have cascading implications.” So agreed Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, in a 2000 interview with Leader to Leader Institute, titled ‘The Spice of Life’, while discussing similarities and differences between the natural and business worlds. Yet, he had cautioned, predicting human evolution or the success of business models is not easy.

“I can tell you to the minute when the next eclipse is going to occur, because it’s a simple system with limited interactions. I can’t tell you where human evolution is going. Also, the mathematical analysis of complex systems – systems composed of multiple, independent parts – shows that a small perturbation can produce profound effects, because of the way it cascades through the nonlinear interactions of the system. If you then add a little bit of randomness you get profound and unpredictable effects.”

According to Professor Gould, applying Darwinian laws of natural selection directly to cultural systems may be wrong in principle. That’s because, “The mechanics of change in human cultural institutions are quite different from those in nature… Natural selection is not a very efficient system because it works by elimination. You get to goodness by eliminating the bad. Why don’t you just go to good? The problem is, you don’t know what good is. You have to let a system operate and find itself. That kind of modeling is counterintuitive to the way in which humans generally try to run their institutions.”

‘The Spice of Life’ interview with Stephen Jay Gould can be found here.

20 August 2007

Parallel evolutions

As it is with most things in life, there are turning points in the evolution of the human species. For instance, the point at which humans became different from chimpanzees (in spite of acquiring 98.5% of their genes), and/or the point at which the modern man became different from the Neanderthal.

Of course, this evolution has taken 50,000 years or so. Maybe longer. As long as six million years, if we are to believe what evolutionary biologists and anthropologists say. During this period, the human brain has been ‘rewired’ millions and billions of times. Who knows at which instances the turning points occurred?

The moral of the story is that, this rewiring of the brain has made us do things completely differently from the way other animals do things. And has, eventually, made us what we are today: a life-form which is capable of finding cures to diseases, travelling in outer space, telecommunicating, and figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Our survival and our evolution have both depended on our ability to invent, to create things, using our brain. According to Prof Steven Pinker of Harvard University, our success has been a result of three things which have co-evolved (see my previous post): our intelligence about our world (i.e. cause and effect as apparent in nature), our social intelligence (i.e. coordinating our behaviour with others to bring in collective benefits), and our language (i.e. communicating, sharing and exchanging information).

In simple terms, this means human evolution has been due to a ‘cognitive’ evolution – an evolution in the powers of the human brain.

This has resulted in the creation of various methods, tools, and technologies… all of which has helped us survive and evolve further. These ‘products’ of the human brain have also made a tremendous contribution to human evolution – perhaps as important a contribution (some scientists believe a greater contribution) as has been made by our genes.

For 50,000 years or more, humans have passed on their accumulated learning – their discoveries, inventions, tools, methods, languages and customs – generation after generation, not through genes but through language, actions, behaviour and other forms of communication. Thereby, carrying on a ‘cultural’ evolution parallel to the cognitive one… making us what we are today.

18 August 2007

Evolution of the mind

“If you took a bunch of human babies from anywhere around the world – from Australia, New Guinea, Africa, Europe – and scrambled the babies at birth and brought them up in any society, they’d all be able to learn the same languages, learn how to count, learn how to use computers, learn how to make and use tools. It suggests that the distinctively human parts of our intelligence were in place before our ancestors split off into the different continents.”
– Steven Pinker in an interview on PBS ‘Evolution’.

Along with geneticist Steve Jones of University College London (about whom I’ve blogged earlier this month), Steven Pinker of Harvard University’s Dept of Psychology feels human biological evolution is over. That it was over some 50,000 years ago (give or take 10,000 years) before humans migrated from Africa to Europe and Australia. That, today, Africans, Europeans, Americans, Australians and Asians are all the same species of humans, with indistinguishable cognitive abilities.

These cognitive abilities and their application which resulted in greater intelligence in humans didn’t appear at a moment’s notice, brought about by divine intervention, but evolved over tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of years. The learning from previous application of a certain ability – or a combination of abilities – led to greater intelligence which, in turn, was used in another application. Thus, expanding our minds (i.e. our brains) with more and more intelligence and knowledge.

The trick with human evolution vis-à-vis evolution of animal or plant life forms, says Steven Pinker, lies in the application of the brain. The human brain is capable of understanding the world around us and finding solutions to problems encountered in much faster speeds in order to adapt and evolve in our ecosystem. In doing so, the human brain figures out not only how to use more of the ecosystem to our advantage, but also to invent methods, tools and technologies (which are external to the human body) to get things done.

In theory, several things are likely to have happened to develop our cognitive abilities so quickly and bring us where we are today in our evolutionary timeline. In the same PBS ‘Evolution’ broadcast (transcript) I’ve quoted from in the beginning of this post, Steven Pinker suggests what these ‘several things’ may be: “So, each one of these abilities – intelligence about the world, social intelligence, and language – I think reinforces the other two, and it’s very likely that the three of them coevolved like a ratchet, each one setting the stage for the other two to be incremented a bit.”

Armed with such cognitive abilities, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a way to a better life where threats of diseases like AIDS and cancer are a thing of the past.

16 August 2007

A promiscuous minority

Not a large chunk of the global population has AIDS, or is a transmitter of the virus. Yet, the threat of the spread of the AIDS virus is a global concern. That’s because the AIDS virus spreads mainly through sexual contact. And sex is something we all engage in.

According to data from international AIDS research (surveyed and released by agencies from the developed world), Africa alone is not a concentration of the AIDS virus. It’s the Third World in general. Besides Africa (and there, there seems to be a higher concentration in the south of the continent), countries like India, China, Thailand and Myanmar are in precarious stages of launching AIDS epidemics.

Of course, it’s not everyone in the Third World who is responsible for spreading the AIDS virus. Just a promiscuous minority of the population.

Apparently, studies of sexual behaviour of people in the Third World show that a small portion of the population – prostitutes, and truck drivers and migrant workers who patronise them – are responsible for the spread of the AIDS virus. This lifestyle of rampant promiscuity seems to be commonplace in poor countries, and has been driving the spread of AIDS.

Culturally, in the Third World, although a married woman’s fidelity is well-guarded, her husband often strays, having sex with multiple partners (such as prostitutes). This increases the chances of AIDS infection and transmission, including the possibility of the men infecting their wives. Since Islamic cultures allow multiple wives for a man, this introduces a multiplier effect in the spread of the AIDS infection.

Moreover, most people in the Third World either do not have access to condoms, or are not educated enough to follow the practice of using condoms during sex, or are not allowed by their religion or customs to use preventive methods during sex. This further enhances the possibilities of infection and transmission of the AIDS virus.

Add to this list the number of women raped by soldiers (infected with the AIDS virus) during wars and civil wars, typically in Africa, and you have another source of AIDS transmission.

Anyway, by now you must have got the basic drift of this post. That, when it comes to spreading the AIDS virus, and perhaps influencing human evolution in the Third World this millennium, it’s a minority of promiscuous men who are responsible.

14 August 2007

Conspiracy and denial

Why Africa? Why, of all the places on this planet, was Africa alone afflicted with the AIDS virus? Why was Africa its only source, now that we know that the AIDS virus has spread across the globe?

No one knows for sure. But conspiracy theories have done their time in order to answer these questions.

One conspiracy theory suggests the CIA’s involvement. That, during the Cold War (a period between World War II and the early nineties), the CIA had targeted Black Africans and infected them with the AIDS virus, surreptitiously, through vaccination campaigns. What had the Cold War – i.e. political tension between the United States and the (former) Soviet Union – to do with Black Africans in Africa? I’m not sure, but some say the CIA was evil enough to have done the damage.

Another theory suggests the involvement of the South African secret service. That, during Apartheid (coincidentally, the same period as the Cold War), the South African secret service targeted Blacks and infected them with the AIDS virus. This conspiracy theory seems to make some sense as, during Apartheid, there was a systematic ethnic separation of the Blacks from the Whites by the South African government. The theory may hold water because the South African secret service was known to have committed many an evil deed during Apartheid.

Whether these conspiracies are true, no one knows for sure. And, as you can guess, both the CIA and the South African secret service have denied charges against them.

Perhaps there are other theories we don’t know about. But there does seem to be a more accepted theory regarding the spread of the AIDS virus.

This theory involves the promiscuous nature of the African population. That, the AIDS virus was – and still is – spread through what are called ‘core transmitters’ in the sex trade: prostitutes, and the truck drivers and migrant workers who patronised them. What’s more, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference’, this ‘core transmitters’ theory in spreading the AIDS virus seems to be true not just in dark Africa, but also in the more civilised Western world.

Of course, most African leaders have denied the ‘AIDS-virus-spread-through-core-transmitters’ theory as another Western conspiracy against Black Africans. But medical data does suggest that the AIDS virus is spread through unsafe sex. Whatever be the case, it can’t be denied that the threat of AIDS to our evolution is a real one.

12 August 2007

Africa and the human evolution

When we talk of human evolution, we talk of our ancestors migrating from Africa to Europe some 100,000 years ago. Everything we are today happened from that instance; if ‘instance’ is the term we can use to label that epic moment on our human evolutionary timeline.

This ought to be a cause for celebration, if it weren’t for another instance on our evolutionary timeline when a similar migration took place from Africa to Europe, and other parts of the world. This time, the humans carried the AIDS virus with them.

Nobody is really sure when that specific instance really began. But we all know that, because of that instance, we have a crisis on our hands today. Even if you live in places far off from Africa, the rate at which the AIDS virus is transmitted and spreads across migrating populations, it won’t be long before it catches up with you.

For some strange reason, the source of the virus seems to be Africa. Scientists and doctors have identified the virus in a species of monkeys in Africa. But what they can’t explain is how the AIDS virus jumped from monkeys to humans; or, when did it jump and why. What scientists and doctors can neither explain is why the AIDS virus was unheard of before the 1980s; or, how and why it reached epidemic proportions thereafter.

Is this a call for alarm? It sure is. According to an UNAIDS December 2006 report, 25 million Africans are HIV-positive, 2.1 million die from AIDS every year, and 2.8 million are newly infected each year.

10 August 2007

Do we even care?

It’s interesting to note how the evolution of the human species, with an eye on the future, is a much-talked-about topic in the developed world. Even in India, I can walk into a bookstore and find several books on evolutionary biology by Western scientists, which is almost insignificant compared to the endless information I can get on the Internet… once again, all of it from, and on, Western scientists.

However, I can’t find any information on the future of the human population in the Third World, apart from volumes of population data, which seems to be growing by the day.

This makes me wonder if the evolution of the human species is of any concern in the Third World. Considering the facts that (a) the Third World contains 2 out of every 3 inhabitants of this planet Earth, and (b) much of this population is suffering from poverty, disease and illiteracy, my guess would be that the evolution of the human species is a top-of-mind topic for Third World governments and scientists.

And yet, when I search for information on this topic, I draw a complete blank. Not even an iota of thought from the Third World on what our future is going to be. When I asked a few friends, they (along with me) couldn’t name a single evolutionary biologist in India. When we talked of genetics, we could talk of genetically-modified food and crops. And, in a connected field, we thought of professor Jagadish Chandra Bose and his experiments with plants (he proved that plants responded to stimuli) some 80 years ago.

But, zero thoughts on the future of the human species! Living in India, amongst 1.2 billion people, I found this ignorance mind-boggling. Whatever we remembered were things we had read by Western scientists in books and in the media, or seen on TV on Discovery Channel or National Geographic or BBC World. Nothing Indian came to our minds.

Perhaps we, Indians, will not die out of starvation (though many farmers and peasants still are). Perhaps we’ll battle it out with all the diseases and eradicate them as the West has done (though AIDS is a looming threat in India at the moment). Perhaps, soon, all Indians will be literate, educated, economically well-placed and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. Perhaps, that’s achievable in the next 20 or 200 years.

What about our evolution from the perspective of the next 2,000 or 5,000 years? Do we even care?

08 August 2007

Why Steve Jones has his fingers crossed

“Of course what’s happened is there’s been an enormous amount of evolution in the general sense since the earliest modern humans, but it hasn’t been biological evolution; it’s been social and cultural evolution. We’re the creature that’s evolved not in our genes but in our mind, and I think that’s what makes us genuinely unique. We do of course share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, everybody knows that, but we’re not 98.8% chimp, we’re 100% human.”

– Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, University College London, in a ‘Truth Will Out’ (an Open University & BBC project) interview.

Like most evolutionary biologists and geneticists, Professor Steve Jones is an avid follower of Charles Darwin. In 1999, Prof Jones had written a book called ‘Almost Like A Whale’ (released in the US, a little too literally perhaps, as ‘Darwin’s Ghost’), where he had explained various Darwinian concepts on evolution. Naturally, ‘natural selection’ had taken center-stage in his book… as, I guess, Darwin would have expected.

In ‘Almost Like A Whale’, Prof Jones had actually taken chunks of text and examples from Darwin’s own seminal work, ‘The Origin of Species’ (perhaps that explains the US desire for naturally selecting their title), mixing them up with his own writing and modern-day examples of evolution and technology. In doing so, Prof Jones had accepted a lot of criticism from his detractors, but for a layman like me, who hadn’t read Darwin’s original work, ‘Almost Like A Whale’ made the theory of evolution more interesting.

However, what’s important about Prof Steve Jones is his strong stand against the ‘creationists’ of Christian faith (he had once given a no-nonsense presentation on ‘why creationism is wrong and evolution is right’ at The Royal Society of Edinburgh) and his belief that human evolution, from the perspective of genetic improvement through natural selection in the developed world, may have come to an end… or is, at least, slowing down. Is this good or bad? What does it mean?

Here’s what Prof Jones says in the same ‘Truth Will Out’ interview I quoted from earlier:

“All animals to some extent construct their environment, in that they choose to live where they feel comfortable. However, we can do it much better than anything else because we can alter the environment so we’re comfortable in all kinds of places. By virtue of that we’ve managed, at least in the developed world, to put to one side the challenges which most animals have to face. Many of us now live to the end of our biological lives, as long as we possibly could live, and that’s really very rare. I do think though there’s a severe danger of optimism. We are living absolutely on a knife edge – we can be comfortable for a long time, but it’s a very risky thing to be.

I mean, everybody’s heard about the AIDS epidemic and it’s probably more severe than most people realise, it’s really a large part of the human species is now going through the testing fire of natural selection, a Darwinian crucible. People are becoming infected with this illness, some of them have genes which render them able to deal with it, some can’t, those with the appropriate genes will pass them on, and that’s very much evolution by natural selection. Now, in the West we’re persuading ourselves that that’s not going to happen to us. I’m afraid I’m less optimistic, it may not be the AIDS virus because we understand that, but it may be something else. So when I say that evolution has stopped, I have my fingers crossed. It’s stopped for now.”

05 August 2007

The best it’s going to get

Here’s a thought:

“…human populations are now being constantly mixed, again producing a blending that blocks evolutionary change. This increased mixing can be gauged by calculating the number of miles between a person's birthplace and his or her partner’s, then between their parents’ birthplaces, and finally, between their grandparents’.

In virtually every case, you will find that the number of miles drops dramatically the more that you head back into the past. Now people are going to universities and colleges where they meet and marry people from other continents. A generation ago, men and women rarely mated with anyone from a different town or city. Hence, the blending of our genes which will soon produce a uniformly brown-skinned population.”

The above paragraphs are from a 2002 Observer article, titled ‘Is human evolution finally over?’, by Robin McKie, commenting on the future that awaits us all.

“However,” adds McKie quickly to his comment, “such arguments affect only the Western world – where food, hygiene and medical advances are keeping virtually every member of society alive and able to pass on their genes. In the developing world, no such protection exists.”

In the article about human evolution (in the Western world), Robin McKie explores some of the points of view expressed by scientists.

One, according to Professor Steve Jones of University College London, this is the best it’s going to get. Human evolution has, apparently, reached stagnation. “Things have simply stopped getting better, or worse, for our species.”

Another, by Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London, states, “You simply cannot predict evolutionary events… Who knows where we are headed?”

Still one more, from biologist Christopher Wills of the University of California, San Diego, argues, “There is a premium on sharpness of mind and the ability to accumulate money. Such people tend to have more children and have a better chance of survival.”

“In other words,” clarifies McKie, “intellect – the defining characteristic of our species – is still driving our evolution.”

In the end, writes McKie, “Some scientists believe humans are becoming less brainy and more neurotic; others see signs of growing intelligence and decreasing robustness, while some, like Jones, see evidence of us having reached a standstill. All base their arguments on the same tenets of natural selection.”

So, where does that leave us? And, who can tell what evolutionary changes will dominate the developing world?

[Citation: ‘Is human evolution finally over?’, Robin McKie, Observer, 3 February 2002, Guardian Unlimited archive.]

02 August 2007

As good as Gould

We often use cultural stereotypes in everyday conversations to make a point. Say, for instance, when using a commonplace concept like ‘bigger is better’, meaning a bigger size is a symbol of dominance, when describing social or political or economic superiority. We use such concepts even from an evolutionary point of view, suggesting that the bigger we are, the better able we are in fighting for food and mates. After all, human society is a living proof of that, right?

Not so, said (the late) paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor, curator for invertebrate paleontology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and author of such famous books as ‘The Panda’s Thumb’, ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ and ‘The Flamingo’s Smile’. To Professor Gould, who passed away in 2002, the notion of cultural stereotypes had a completely different meaning.

Since he took a somewhat macro view of life on our planet – a perspective that looked at millions of years and a thousand times as many life forms – Professor Gould believed that ‘bigger is better’ is not only incorrect, it is in fact a prejudicial view that humans flaunted to honour themselves. To prove his point, he used to give the example of bacteria which is far superior to humans in terms of biochemical diversity or potential environments in which it can survive.

From my reading about him and his books, what I value most about Professor Gould is his fairness in recognising, and evaluating, all life forms on our planet equally. A quality so few of us have.

In a Biography magazine interview with Curt Schleier in March 1998, Stephen Jay Gould had this to say: “After all, there are about a million named species of animals, of which humans are only one. There are only 4,000 species of mammals. There are almost a million species of insects. We’re just not a very prominent group. We’ve had a very great impact on the planet, but you can’t confuse impact with the status of an organism.”

[Citation: Curt Schleier, “Stephen Jay Gould: Was it Survival of the Luckiest?” Biography magazine, March 1998.]

01 August 2007

Nature, nurture

Even as I write this blog post, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, religious leaders, parents and others across the globe argue to establish their points of view on gender differences and why they occur. Some provide biological explanations of human behaviour; some propose cultural stereotyping; some talk about evolutionary programming as God’s will and testament.

Whatever the real reasons may be, I can’t deny the fact that men and women are different. That, when it comes to men and women, and boys and girls, their abilities, their responses to everyday stimuli, and the applications of their bodies and minds differ from one another according to their genders.

It’s still a mystery to me if the reason women have a nurturing nature is because they learn to play with dolls as girls earlier in life. Or, the reason men take to fast cars and spaceships is because, as boys, they grow up playing with toys which they keep throwing around their rooms or playgrounds or at each other. Not to mention the fact that boys and rough play is as common as girls and tenderness.

There are, of course, undeniable natural biological differences between the genders. After all, in any given population, on an average, men are taller, built heavier and more powerful (in, say, throwing a rock, or lifting heavier loads, or running faster) than women. I guess these abilities naturally define some of the job roles that men and women take up in any society.

I also believe we are defined by our environment and our upbringing (and, not by nature alone). In that order, cultural stereotyping does define many gender roles in our society. Which means, thinking and speaking positively, nurturing certain abilities in us can prepare us for many job roles which have, traditionally, been attributed to a specific gender… and break the myths associated with cultural stereotyping.

An example of this would be space travel, a domain which had been exclusive to men as they were believed to possess ‘the right stuff’ but has now welcomed women astronauts like Sally Ride (first American woman in space, 1983) and, more recently, Sunita Williams. It’s interesting to note here that the Russians had broken this myth of stereotyping way back in 1963 when they had sent Valentina Tereshkova on a space flight aboard Vostok 1. So, perhaps, nurturing can make a difference we are normally unaware of.

Regardless of our beliefs, the nature versus nurture debate still continues. I remember reading somewhere that internationally-renowned paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould had always despaired over the question of nature versus nurture. Professor Gould believed that biology and environment are so inextricably linked that such debates were meaningless.