Thursday, 28 June 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind

It was no matter of serendipity that the gorgeous Eloisa had fallen in love with her charming and erudite teacher Abelard. He was the most renowned philosopher in Paris, a man of high intellect, a man respected in academic circles for his mastery over the Latin and Greek scriptures. One may be inclined to think that men endowed with such sublime intelligence are not men who possess bodies that are objects of a woman's fantasy. But Eloisa found that Abelard possessed both - a corporeal confidence that brought her the much needed assurance of protection as well as the polish of a highly refined intelligence that appeals to a woman of finer taste. Their love burgeouned and broke through the walls of classroom etiquette. Philosophy became synonymous to studying the aphorisms of love penned over centuries by master poets, natural science became an excuse to sneak out of the confines of the palace and make love in the woods and art was learnt by the sensation and perception of each other's bodies that had been destined to meet by divine providence.

Alas! The lovers were seen together in proximate unity by a maid servant who reported the misconduct to the girl's family. Outraged and offended at the audacity of the teacher, they apprehended Abelard and tortured him into confessing his love. Upon extracting his confession, Eloisa's eldest brother, the sinister red-bearded Victor ordered that Abelard be castrated for his impudence. One chop, and the eunuch saw the bloodied vestige, of what had once made him a very desirable man, lay upon the ground. For all that was worth, the eunuch decided to spend the rest of his life away on the mountains and seek refuge in a monastery. He bade goodbye to his beloved one last time and blessed his seed that lay in her womb not with the intent of revenge but redemption. Eloisa gripped her stomach suffocating her tears before the horror that had befallen her life. The eunuch looked up to the heavens and thanked God for liberating Abelard from the throes of lust.

That night she dreamed of Abelard, the most handsome and desirable man she had yet known. She felt her anguish echo the still nascent unbearable sexual feelings for her former lover. Even the pity she felt for him seemed to arise from the lava of unfulfilled desire and longing for the man and his body. She knew that God was watching. She was disgusted by the naked callousness of her own lust. Knowing that the Abelard could no longer satisfy any of her desires now, she was still surprised how her mind was not willing to let go of her desires. She knew that if Abelard the eunuch were to come before her, she would not be able to contain herself from the erotic impulses that seemed only to intensify with the minute. But however true these feelings of mine for Abelard, she thought, must I not beg at his feet for forgiveness for the misfortune that has atrophied him? He who lost his dignity and self-respect because of me, does he not deserve my sincerest apologies? But how will I contain my desire, God, when it has not yet matured into the love and empathy that I am expected to feel for him? Therefore God, I cannot seek forgiveness for I cannot curb these urges that make me covet the impossible. Spare me from this ordeal, God and grant me forgetfullness for all its worth.

No, fly me, fly me, far pole as from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd .

All the while I was watching the movie this afternoon, I kept reprimanding myself to not have watched it earlier. I had heard reviews saying the movie is incomprehensible and bounces from scene to scene changing the point of reference as frequently. The reviews are not entirely untrue but once I realised way the narrative was architectured, each scene was a delight. I shall not provide details of the plot here for the movie is just too good to miss and I fear I might give away too many spoilers. According to me this was Jim Carrey's second best performance till date (right below the wonderful "The Truman Show") but Kate Winslet was absolutely stunning. It is by far the best love story I have seen and I haven't had the patience for too may. Watch it watch it!!

Sunday, 24 June 2007


Yesterday, I happened to chance upon a copy of Ek ruka hua faisla, the desi remake of the classic Hollywood drama 12 Angry men on the LAN. The latter is perhaps the most fitting example of a movie with a script whose maximal evaluation rests on the verdict of the movie watcher's intelligence. For those who haven't watched the film, here's an outline of the plot and a complimentary advice - Watch it immediately!

A 12 member jury team is all set to begin deliberations on the fate of an immigrant 19 year old boy accused of murdering his father with a switch-knife. At the start of discussion, a preliminary vote indicates that 11 of the 12 jury members think the boy is guilty. Only juror #8 (a most memorable role by Henry Fonda) votes not guilty, more so because he is not entirely convinced and considers it ethically wrong to send the boy to the gallows without discussing about the case properly. A much heated discussion ensues and the details of the case slowly emerge out. Each juror represents a distinct character and it gets really interesting to see how each character unfolds in parallel to the discussion on the case. One by one, Fonda argues each point of the evidence against the boy and gradually convinces the entire jury that there is indeed reasonable doubt in the evidence. The entire length of the film is set inside a single room and yet thanks to the intense dialogues and wonderful execution is a gripper from start to end. Each performance is memorable, from the boobyish juror #2, the most obnoxious and irritating juror #10, the curt and self-assured juror #4 and the old and wise juror #9. But the most memorable performance comes from Lee. J. Cobb, who plays juror #3. He initially starts of as a pleasant businessman claiming to be impartial in his analysis of the case. However, as time goes on he becomes more and more passionate and seems to be somehow personally involved with the case. He also starts to show some signs of slight mental instability which is revealed at the very end when he irrationally sticks to claiming the boy as being guilty. All in all, 12 angry men is top class cinema that is not to be missed.

Considering the pedigree of the source, I began to watch Ek ruka hua faisla with sincere interest and anticipation. This was not even mainstream Hindi cinema and had a cast composed of character actors. The wonderful Pankaj Kapoor played the role of Juror #3, which, as I said is arguably the most complex role in the film. The role of Juror #8 was played by K. K. Raina, who if you would remember, played the role of Sunny Deol's brother in Ghatak (Yes! I used to watch all hindi movies when in school. Now proceed with the reading!). But the movie was lacklustre and nor was Pankaj Kapoor as wonderful as he usually is. Raina was the only actor who tried to bring some meat into his role in a film that turned out to be comically melodramatic as opposed to the intellectual and dramatic intensity of its predecessor(which was made almost 30 years before this one!). Our directors sometimes forget that the intensity in an argument rests on the dialogue rather than the loudness of the speaker. Anu Kapoor who played the role of the wise old juror #9 was an ignominy and was wobbling like a door-knob as if he were desperate to miraculously age into his character. What was majestically accomplished in an hour and thirty six minutes in 12 anrgy men took almost two and a half hours in a remake as opprobious as this. What was even more belittling to the writers of this movie was that the script was an exact replica of the hollywood gospel it referred to. And they could not even translate word to word competently! And as was expected it was Ache ruka hua faisla by the time it ended.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Selfish to the core - Part 3

Many believe that the living world would have originated as a chaotic society of tiny molecules constituting what is referred to as the primeval soup. Among these molecules arose a particularly formidable character called the replicator (which we have referred to earlier) whose uniqueness lay in the fact that it could make copies of itself and spread through the primeval soup. The DNA of today, in character, is an example of a replicator that survived over the ages and functioned as the basis for the synthesis of higher organisms. There would have been many replicator molecules that would have fought each other over dominion of the natural world over the ages because common and limited resources for survival necessitated competition. Some replicators would have come together and recognised prudence in complicity against others in the soup thus forming even bigger replicator molecules. Indeed, the DNA that we find today in living organisms may be very much unlike these original replicators that existed and propagated in the primeval soup, but the principle on which it functions and propagates has not changed. As Dawkins puts it succinctly, the three characteristics that a replicator must possess if it has to survive in the natural world are longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity. Is there a basic motive (purely functional in nature and nothing to do with consciousness, as defined in Part 1) at a more fundamental level of which the three aforementioned properties of a replicator are direct consequences? The DNA of any living organism in the world is a map of its psychobiological characteristics. Living beings have evolved over ages up the ladders of natural selection- able bodied organisms of today from the chaotic molecules of the primeval soup through extremely elaborate evolutionary processes over many millions of years - and it is known that it is the replicator (or simply put, the DNA) indeed that holds the masterplan over generations. Thus, can we identify a suitable 'motive' for these replicators that will unveil the process of evolution through the eyes of natural selection?

In this confessedly small exposition (though I realise now that it is far from that), I suddenly find myself juggling at a single place with a number of concepts that were developed over three elaborate chapters in "The Selfish Gene". But I have, to the best of my abilities, tried to maintain a logical chronology of thought in the way I that I received these ideas albeit putting them through a lot of condensation. Coming back to where we were, I had mentioned in my last post that a DNA was divided into sections called the chromosomes which in turn were further divided into genes. Thus, any modern replicator is nothing but a conglomeration of genes. A more enterprising and indeed interesting way to look at it is that it were these unitary genes that were the original replicators in the primeval soup. The properties of longevity, fecundity and high copying-fidelity that were mentioned earlier are indeed the properties that genes would desire if they were to pass the test of survival in nature. A gene, if it has to survive in the gene pool, has to ensure that its copies spread faster than any of its rival genes competing for the same resources. Complicity with other genes may be a really smart option and we shall come to this when we discuss 'survival machines' in the next paragraphs. Fundamentally though, the natural propensity of a gene must be to act for its own interests. Even complicity with other genes, that may seem altruistic at the surface are really acts of forwarding self-interest, if investigated more closely. This is, simply put, the principle of gene selfishness or the 'gene centric view of evolution' or 'gene selection'. The fundamental 'motive' that we were talking about in the last paragraph is indeed selfishness in the sense that a gene must try and propagate its kind in the gene pool at all costs. Let me repeat once again that this selfishness is not a conscious motive and that the reader should not make a conclusion that genes are ruthlessly malevolent entities. Nor is this statemet a harbinger for my crescendo statement where I would issue a coup de grace on humankind as being selfish thanks to the selfish genes that inhabit them. No , I am neither a devil's chaplain nor (or even worse) an evangelist in disguise.

The terms selfishness and altruism that appear here are purely technical definitions- biological motives independent of consciousness and very similar to computer algorithms at the very basic level of the constitution of the living. Selfishness of a gene encompasses all those actions that enable it to spread its copies in the gene pool, even if this required it to inhibit the spread of other genes especially its rivals that are called alleles. Pure Altruism on the other hand refers to acts that demand the gene to facilitate the spread of copies of other genes (rivals or not) at the cost of inhibiting its own spread. There have been instances (the example of Jonathon Livingston Seagull in Part 1), where acts of seeming altruism by an organism on the surface is really selfishness at the core- gene selfishness. The basic statement of the theory of 'gene selection' is that at the fundamental level, genes are basically selfish and this selfish nature empowers them to serve as units of natural selection in all living beings along the evolutionary chain. Can we support this hypothesis with observable evidence from the natural world - observations that cannot be explained under the tenets of 'group selection' or 'individual selection' theories of evolution?( to be continued and concluded)

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

On Reading

I was eight years old, I think, when for the first time, a novel was gifted to me. It was an abridged version of 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. When I went and showed it to my father, his eyes twinkled and he said that it was one of the best books he had read while he was at college. The praise for the book however, did not spark any enthusiasm in me to sit and read it. The first feeling I felt on receiving the book was a joy of ownership and the first thing I pictured was how it would look on my little book-shelf, standing disctint amongst my ordinary schoolbooks. Further, I felt my age being acknowledged by that someone who felt it was fitting to gift me such a wonderful and famous book. It was a feeling of intellectual upliftment, the first one that I recollect from childhood, caused because of an imagined acknowledgement rather than a genuine accomplishment. But when my father praised the book, though the pride of ownership doubled, a feeling of complacency found its way in. Suddenly the book seemed intimidatingly complex, now that I knew my father himself had been capable of reading it only on reaching college. I flipped the pages of the book to see if I could rouse some interest in me by looking at the illustrations. There were very few in number and that too they were ordinary sketches which I must say looked pretty amateurish. However, to commemorate my ownership I took out the best pen out of my dad's briefcase, an original Mont Blanc and wrote on the front page just below the title - "This book belongs to Karthik Shekhar. Standard 3, Division C, Little Angel's High School". I would do the same for every other novel that I recieved or bought for the next 5 years or so. By the time I was 13 and in my 8th grade, I had bucketed quite a collection consisting of puffin classics, encyclopedias, hardy boys, enid blytons and others, so much so that I started keeping them on the fancy glass shelves where my dad kept his books. Each book bore the stamp of my ownership without fail before it was snugly placed in the shelf. The other fact being that I never bothered to read any of the books in those 5 years.

Given a chance, I'd still like to find out what prolonged the inertia in me so much, against reading. Though none of my peers were 'readers' per say and that was probably one of the reasons I did not find reading either the 'The Famous Five' or 'The Hardy Boys' or 'The Count of Monte Cristo' gratifying in any sense. It wasn't an expedient matter for me and could be conveniently left for the future. More importantly, it did not add to my repertoire of skills that assisted me in the kind of games I used to play with my friends, most of whom made it a point to show off their aversion to reading. Some of them were so effective in making a virtue out of it, that I believed them. Ineptitude at playing cricket and reading books used to be directly and confidently correlated and I did not want to be a labeled a sissy at any cost. Though at the same time, I used to enjoy it when guests visiting our house believed I had read those books and praised me for that. As I was introduced to them, they were told without delay that I always stood in the top 3 ranks in my class and from the look on their faces it appeared to me that they considered this knowledge important, subliminally promising to spread it around. Much often they asked me which books I had read and on hearing the words 'Alexander Dumas', 'Leo Tolstoy' and 'Mark Twain', the wife used to remark to the husband, "Now you know why he stands at the top of his class always!" None of this however, created any urge in me to go and read those books which I had conveniently claimed to have read. With the physical ownership of that books, I had assumed indirect ownership of the textual property that the books contained. Yes, I say textual property and not story, for a story is something that cannot be owned and I understood that then too. Nonetheless, I could never get myself to read any of these books because the textual property that these books possessed could never translate into a story in the language of my imagination in those days.

That is not to say that I did not read anything in those days or that I was convinced by the mantra that reading books and physical machoism never went together. In disguise perhaps, but being not so good at playing cricket probably rescued me from accepting that piece of wisdom that my playmates in the colony seemed to emulate with assumed confidence. I had, in my mind, formed notions of what a 'story' ought to be like and the all the books that faced rejection and subsequent refuge in that glass shelf had in some way or the other violated my regulations. I still remember as a small kid of four years, I used to sleep on my grandparents' bed every night and insist on hearing an animal story. The one about the thirsty crow was my favourite one and I never got bored or weary of listening to it every night. Of course, a story is only so good as the storyteller himself and hats off to my grandfather who was a master raconteur! He made the crow in the story seem like an epitome of intelligence, a reverend creature who had so articulately instructed humankind on a scientific principle through an ingenious solution to a predicament. Though repeated listenings failed to tire me, my grandfather's subsequent encores used to capitulate into deep slumber as he always dozed off into his mighty snore before he could finish of the story with his favourite punchlines.

The crows flew away and these bedtime stories transcended onto different levels. My grandfather, a devout hindu, started telling me stories from the Hindu mythology. He told me those stories with a voice that was half piety and half fervour, as if he were dictating verses from a prayer book. He used to fold his hands in reverence and close his eyes in devotion whenever Goddess Durga appeared on her ferocious tiger to slay the demon Mahishasura or Krishna let his disc upon Narakasura who tried to run to the end of the world but was nonetheless hunted down and decapitated. These bedtime sessions succeeded in whetting my appetite for Indian history and mythology but more importantly they passed on a perspective that I would carry in my subconscious through my childhood. Stories were meant to be shared with the ones close to you - narrated and listened to - and the stories that I couldnt share with my family and friends then were the stories I wrote off without second thought in that glass shelf of my father's.

It was impossible for me to share 'The Count of Monte Cristo' as a bedtime story in the same way as a fable from the Panchatantra or an episode from The Ramayana with anyone who was close to me in those days. Even if I had made an attempt to read it, I think an Edmond Dantes would have seemed terribly limited in flair and panache as compared to an Arjuna. My upbringing was fairly cosmopolitan and urbane, so this fraternal comfort that I had with our native stories had nothing to do with a family induced cultural indoctrination. Our stories were relatively easier to comprehend (thanks to the Amar Chitra Katha comics) and assimilate and though this was one reason behind the aforementioned comfort, it was certainly not the only one. (to be contd..)

Monday, 18 June 2007


Project work these days is getting a lot frustrating. It is long since I realised that I am in a Catch-22. There are times when things are working fine, but that is when I know that I am but swimming in waters of mediocrity. But when things aren't (like right now) it gets extremely frustrating to wake up every morning and remember that what I seek is to be able to swim in waters of mediocrity.

To rub salt on the irritation, there are people who come and ask me about my project work. Not that they mean any malintent but the prospect of being answerable to every inquisitive bugger is hardly a very pleasant prospect. However, being an amiable and reasonable man, I cannot therefore be predisposed to shrug every poor bugger off, one who unwittingly asks me about my project. Therefore the best I can do is to humour him/her by putting myself up for public ridicule as follows:

Bugger: So what is it that you're working on these days? How's it going?

Me: I'm concerned with the application of Penetration theory. These days are real bad for I'm experiencing Stiffness problems. Too stiff.

Poor Bugger: What the fuck?

Me: He he (007 smirk)...too bad your major wasn't chemical engineering.

Note: For the innocent, 'Penetration theory' is a theory of solute diffusion in a solvent. It was proposed by Higbie, a man who was ostensibly good at certain things and liked to carry over his panache to work too. Now when this theory (of diffusion) is applied to the system that I am working on (oxidation of cyclohexane), it results in a system of five coupled differential equations in the concentration variables that need to be solved together. Because of bad scaling and non-linearity (if you are really 'innocent' then don't bother reading further), the concentration variables vary in different orders of magnitude. This makes the equations 'stiff' and difficult to solve.

Selfish to the core (part 2)

As nature would have it, it seems that natural selection really takes place at the macromolecular level of the genes that constitute us. Before trying to exposit the workings of a gene as the de facto unit of natural selection, I shall define it for the benefit of the reader. The bodies of living beings are really macromolecular machines, in the sense that all living beings are made up of one or more cells that contain different types of molecules performing various functions. Now what grants each one of us our respective individuality is a particularly long molecule called the DNA. The DNA is like a blueprint to the psychobiological construct of the living organism that it inhabits. Each organism has a unique DNA which may differ relatively less from a corresponding DNA molecule of another member of its species but will nonetheless differ more when compared to the DNA of an organism belonging to a different specie class. This molecule is unique in many aspects, the foremost being that it belongs to a very remarkable class of molecules called the replicators. Such molecules have the ability to make copies of themselves pretty rapidly. This makes them ideal choices as 'blueprint archives' inside an organism, for a DNA can make numerous copies of itself that can get distributed throughout the cells in a body. Thus each part of the body can have in its possession, a consistent set of rules that correspond to various behavioral and physical characteristics of the individual.

Now a DNA itself is divided into pairs of macromolecular sections that are called the chromosomes. There are 23 such chromosomal pairs in the case of humans making it a total of 46 chromosomes that constitute what is referred to as our genome. Other plants and animals also contain chromosomes of their own but in a number different from that of humans. Now these 46 chromosomes are like 46 volumes of formatted and indexed information that constitute the 'blueprint' corresponding to an individual living machine. During sexual reproduction (in most cases) the offspring inherits half of its 46 chromosomes from its mother and the other half from its father. There is a reason we find it more convenient to refer to them as 23 chromosomal pairs rather than 46 chromosomes and the reason is as follows. The two volumes in each pair contain alternative instructions for a particular function or motif. If we suppose that pair number 16 contains information about 'the color of the eyes', 'the shape of the ear', ' literary aptitude' among many other things, then volume 16a (inherited from the mother) might contain the instructions 'brown', 'small' and 'Shakespeare' and 16b(inherited from the father) might say 'green', 'long' and 'George W. Bush Jr.'. Only one instruction in each case can be selected ( I exclude the case of multiple personality disorders for the sake of brevity :P) and the one selected is referred to as dominant. The alternative that is not selected is referred to as recessive and though that part of the chromosome does not perform any function for the individual in which it resides, it may be passed on to future generations.

Now that I have (to the best of my engineering abilities) provided a working definition of the DNA and the chromosome, let me try to do the same for a gene which is the pivot of all my purpose here. I have myself come across two different definitions of a gene which though not definitely contradictory, are not necessary equivalent either. One definition is that a gene is that unit of a chromosome which corresponds to the synthesis of a particular protein or enzyme. For example when the body is in need of glucose and there is lactose present in the environment, a particular gene in the body is instructed to synthesise an enzyme called beta-galactosidase, which is responsible for converting the lactose into usable glucose. The other definition of a gene is that it is that part of a chromosome which corresponds to a particular bodily function or characteristic of the individual say colour of the eyes or height. But in order to go ahead with this small exposition, I shall state Richard Dawkin's definition of a gene which he believes is a working definition for the gene. But that and my last bit on gene selfishness and gene selection in the next and concluding post.

Note: Though pretty late and pretty ungrateful to provide a disclaimer, I shall nonetheless go ahead with this one. All of what I have written is based upon my understanding of most of what is written in one book, little of what is written in a second book and almost none of what is written in a third book. These books are (in order) The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The first among these is highly recommended for a fantastic exposition on the 'gene selection' theory. It is succulent with multifarious examples of animal behavior and each point or claim made is substantiated with an extremely articulate line of reasoning. The second was referred to extensively in the first and I chanced upon it in my institute library. I didn't have patience to read more than a couple of chapters. The third book is an undisputed classic and an inspiration to many ethologists and biologists after its author and its eulogised importance compelled me to buy it from Crossword (many thanks to penguin paperback for bringing the Classics to the masses). But I found the arcane english prose extremely dry and soporific in parts. Plus, the very size of the book was intimidating and I chose suicide over enlightenment. But I do hope to evolve into a formidable reader myself someday so that I can confront that book. After all ,Darwin is the master of all braggarts mouthing evolutionary innuendo, isn't he? ;).

Pyaar ke side(y) effects

Mary the elephant was one of a kind,
Unparalleled beauty and a noble mind,
She had the looks and she had the goods,
Her face and figure were the talk of the woods.

When Mary the elephant took her strolls,
Beavers would ogle from their holes,
Mary would respond by flapping her ears,
A coquettish response to the whistles and leers.

Thomas the squirrel was cracking his nut,
And Mary's stroll started quaking his hut,
Openmouthed he checked Mary and thought,
"One thing mate, she's flaming hot"

Larry the Lion was picking his teeth,
Having savoured a chunk of juicy Sambar meat,
Mary passed by and his den was shaking,
Larry peeps out and man, she was breathtaking.

Thomas and larry, the squirrel and the lion,
Smitten by Mary, the beauty elephantine,
Her seductive trunk and her voluptuous hips,
Her ponderous brow and her luscious lips.

Its time, said Thomas, to put on my suit,
A dab of old spice, some original Brut,
One look, and she'd be red as a rose
She'd be coy, and I, ready to propose.

Larry thought, "She's mine, the sexy dame,
I'll manicure my claws and shampoo my mane,
Shall look suave and smoke a cheroot,
We'd be some couple, the beauty and the brute!"

They left for Mary's on parallel routes,
One brought bananas, the other bamboo shoots,
Alas, confrontation at the elephant's gate,
They peep into the house and realise its too late.

Mary's making love to the Beaver named Victor,
Hard work always wins, Omnia vincent Labor!
So there was the tale of Thomas and Larry,
One thing we know, there's sure something about Mary.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Selfish to the core

Our understanding of life and life processes in the natural world has been maximally contributed by Darwin's theory of evolution. Since the days Darwin had impressed upon humankind his articulate and extremely well researched yet elusively simple theory, much of future investigations in the life sciences have only reinforced his original idea. It is conventional wisdom today to know that we humans have evolved from the apes who in turn had evolved from other primates before them. Every other organism inhabiting the natural world is supposed to have evolved out of its primeval counterpart(s) and is known to possess physical and social characteristics that enable its kind to propagate through time. 'Survival of the fittest' is a fairly common term that appears in high school textbooks in chapters that expound Darwin's theory of evolution. Though scarcely anybody today would challenge 'evolution' as a principle characteristic of our construct, the underlying processes that evolution entails have not yet been clearly understood.

Most famous approaches to answering this problem hypothesise a basic biological motive that translates itself into the behaviour of the organism, pervading its consciousness and its actions. For instance, if 'nourishment' is a self-motive that has been programmed into my biological structure, then that would cause me to eat to my fill rather than choosing the alternative to starve. Of course, this is only a crude example to illustrate a 'biological motive' and a much learned lateral thinker would immediately point out the fact that if 'nourishment' was not a motive and 'non-nourishment' was, then life would end before it even began! But 'seeking nourishment' is a behavioral need that has evolved out of 'natural selection', considering the fact that our bodies would violate the second law of thermodynamics if they lived healthily without a balanced and nourishing diet.

The example of 'seeking nourishment' as a biological motive to explain 'natural selection' is perhaps too trivial, almost to the point of being a misplaced illustration. But I believe it will facilitate an understanding that while 'natural selection' itself is an indispensable weapon for adaptation and propagation of life, every physical or behavioral motif cannot be so easily linked with natural selection as easily and trivially as 'seeking nourishment' can. For example, straight and sinewy beaks are 'natural selection' for woodpeckers but would be useless for a parakeet, for which 'natural selection' bequeathed a short and curved beak (almost like a betel-nut cracker) that makes it easy to consume a fruit.

Physical characteristics may perhaps be easily correlated thus but theories on 'natural selection' take a beating when it comes to explaining behavioral characteristics. This is because 'sinewy beaks', 'prehensile tails', 'sharp incisors' and 'seeking nourishment' may be understood as natural selection at the most basic levels for the respective organisms. But not every behavioral aspect can be linked to such a basic need so easily and so trivially. For example, it is found that if a gull sights a predator hovering near their communion, it gives out an alarm call that sends across a message to the other gulls to evacuate/take cover immediately. But this act attracts the attention of the predator onto itself, thereby posing a threat to its own life while it can be sure that none of the other gulls are going to pull out any acts of bravado as an acknowledgment to its altruistic act. This was just one example out of many. Behavioral patterns can also be observed not just at the level of the community, but also of the family. Why does an animal feel closer to its offspring rather than to its second cousin? Why do middle aged women attain menopause whereas there isn't a similar conspicuous event in the lives of men? The question we need to ask with regards to 'natural selection' is the following:

"What aspect of our psychobiological construct governs and causes the process of natural selection unlocking the mechanism of which will enable us to understand and interpret the observed characteristics of living organisms?"

Darwin and his apostles said that it was the 'species' that governed natural selection. In other words, each member of the specie would possess physical characteristics and behave in such a way so as to benefit the species as a whole. Let me digress here and enunciate that the word 'behave' doesn't come out of any diktat that is tutored to each member of a specie, a code which he/she follows out of his/her consciousness. It is similar to a computer program with certain rules that is engraved into the biological construct of a particular specie and if the rules were the opposite of what are observed in nature for a particular specie (e.g. a deer attempting to be a carnivore), then (the biological construct being the same) the organism or others of its kind would be unable to survive. Once again, let me add a disclaimer that I don't mean to suggest we are all mechanical beings devoid of consciousness. The 'rules' I am talking about at this point are really very basic ones which govern our behaviour through the eyes of natural selection which is necessarily not antagonistic to consciousness. For example, walking in a sandstorm would make a man immediately shut his eyes (an instinctual response to a stimulus which doesn't evolve out of a conscious decision making process - natural selection for his benefit) but he can very well keep his eyes wide open and blind himself, thereby asserting the power of his consciousness and his stupidity.

Coming back to where we left, the idea that sought to explain Darwin's theory of evolution was that of "Group Selection" or "Species selection". For a long time, "Group selection" was thought to be synonymous with natural selection. The Group selection theory essentially states that members of a particular 'species' behave so as to ensure that the numbers in the specie are preserved and that they propagate. The altruistic act of martyrdom by Jonathon Livingston Seagull might seemingly appear to support this theory. Many behavioral characteristics of other species like the honeybees, baboons, ants may also appear to be easily explained by the group selection theory.

Group selection may seem to account for the reasons behind observed groupism and comradeship between animals. Nonetheless, the theory falls apart when we look at other behavioral instances of animals. Macabre cannibalism has been observed in the cases of black-headed gulls (which feed on younglings of a neighbour as soon they hatch) , the black widow spider and certain mantises (where the female feeds on the male while they mate). While the group selection theory may be able to account for observed altruism for the community (or the species) as a whole, it cannot account for the aforementioned examples of brutal selfishness. Scientists have also proposed 'Individual selection' as a foil for the group selection theory, but even this theory faces problems of its own. We shall not delve into this one other than stating that today, neither 'group selection' nor 'individual selection' is favoured as a complete theory by biologists or ethologists across the globe.

Well then, what next? The problem or predicament if simply stated, is that of identifying a suitable entity that can serve as a convenient unit of natural selection, something which 'the group' or 'the individual' failed to do. Richard Dawkins and a few other thinkers like Pinker and Dennet propose(d) that selection takes place at the genetic level. In other words it is 'gene selection' as opposed to 'group selection' or 'individual selection'. Now then you would say that's obvious! But I believe you'd be confusing gene selection with gene evolution. The view of the 'gene' as the most basic unit of evolution has been long legitimated by many scientists but the debate as to whether it is indeed the unit of selection is an ongoing one. More about genes, gene selection and gene selfishness in the next post.