Sunday, 24 February 2008

Tit for That!

In the last few months I have had the opportunity and good fortune to read a number of books on evolutionary biology and anthropology, two extremely fascinating subjects. However, I find it terribly difficult to summon up facts and illustrations that fill these books whenever I talk about them to my friends and hence, most of the time, my reviews and recommendations end up doing gross injustice to these wonderfully written books. Also, it is difficult and time consuming to write elaborate reviews for them as is possible for movies and music albums. And perhaps that's one reason why one just has to step into one's friendly neighborhood bookstore to confront the magnitude of text that remains to be conquered.

With a very general (and possibly unnecessary) introduction, let me now start cooking the particulars for this post. I finished reading Jared Diamond's Why is Sex Fun? (WiSF) this afternoon. A mere hundred and fifty pages, this one was a joyride compared to his highly formidable Guns, Germs and Steel, which I read a month ago - considerably more voluptuous in size, detail and impact. The subject matter of Guns, Germs... was evolutionary anthropology. WiSF, as its blurb reads, delineates the evolution of human sexuality. For most of us (men and women included) sexual consciousness operates inside the domain bound by various cultural modes. Undoubtedly we've all discussed or contemplated sex at various levels- from early curiosity and explorations into pornography (adolescent) to judging members of the opposite (or the same) sex on the basis of their physical appearances and subjecting them to various roles in our fantasies (carnal) to prescribing and proscribing various kinds of sexual practices in family/public life (social) and to associating roles in society with their sexual identities (sexist) to debating the role of natural sexual desires in our existence (metaphysical). Some of these modes, however, begin with certain unjustified assumptions and end with absurd (but intended) conclusions (e. g. women are 'impure' during their menstrual phase and hence should be sequestered from the rest of the family and should be disallowed from entering temples, a Hindu custom as prescribed in the book of Manu). Many of them are for the greater good of the society and in conjunction with modern principles such as gender equality, freedom of the individual etc (e. g. strict criminal laws against rape, physical harassment of the spouse etc). Some others are implicitly programmed in us by various kind of penalties that are associated with practicing them - social, genetic, health etc (e. g. infidelity, incest, usafe sex with multiple partners etc). But these modes are mostly socio-economic in nature and are ad hoc with regards to assumed sexual characteristics of humans that arise from their unique physiology and psychology. But the real challenge is to integrate these physiological and psychological consequences with causal explanations that were responsible for them in the first place. And whenever we look for systematic causality in the characteristics of life forms on this earth we have to turn to evolution.

Until I read this book, I never appreciated the unique sexual characteristics that humans possessed. To begin with we have the weirdest sex life that would sound blasphemous to any animal worth its evolution including most other mammalian species. To name a few of these seemingly incongruous characteristics of ours,

1. We're one of the only three species that practice recreational sex - most species on this earth engage in intercourse only when the female ovulates, in other words, when she is fertile for conception. Even dogs would probably find the prospect of having sex any time of the year a disgusting one.
2. We're one of the few species who have sex in privacy. While species practicing temporary monogamy will be found frequently in birds, lifetime monogamy (which the institution of marriage ensures, in most cases) is probably unique to humans.
3. We're one of the very few species on earth where the females ovulate in a concealed manner. Most others animals, including mammals, display a conspicuous physical change in the body of the female that attracts the males towards them.
4. We're perhaps the only species on the earth where the females experience menopause. Most other mammals have a systematic decline in fertility but nothing like a menopause. Men on the other hand continue to be fertile for much longer.
5. Men apparently have unusually large penises (!). Apparently our ancestral cousin, the gorillas have males that are nearly two times as big as us but possess penises one fourth the size of ours. An interesting tongue in cheek point is that the male gorilla still manages to happily maintain a harem of 7-8 females who stay loyal to him and beget him children :-).

Most of these questions may seem unworthy of answering but nonetheless in them lies the uniqueness that makes us different from other animals. Indeed one may ascribe points 1-2 as 'human characteristics' that have arisen from civility but they are not so, as Diamond says. They have distinct evolutionary advantages and it is because of natural selection that they have survived and manifested in us. Diamond provides convincing answers for most of these questions other than 5 which he leaves for posterity. The book provides a highly detailed and convincing explanation for the existence of menopause and concealed ovulation in women and their evolutionary purpose. It is probably, he says, the two main characteristics that differentiates our sexuality from other animals including our immediate ancestors, the primates.

If one had to use a redundant phrase, one would say that all discussions on sexuality unfortunately end up being or being perceived as sexist. The battle of the sexes is one that has profound evolutionary significance and it is one that does not arise from male chauvinism or feminism- which are undoubtedly important but sociological manifestations and not primeval. Indeed, one might be able to work out the genesis of male chauvinism and its iniquities in the fundamental inequality of needs that evolution has inflicted upon its male and female species. There are a few exceptions - for instance the case of the Black widow where the female bites the head off the male during intercourse and makes a meal out of him subsequently - a practice termed sexual cannibalism. Check out The Selfish Gene in order to understand the evolutionary advantages that the male (surprisingly) possesses in this act of 'sacrifice'. An interesting fact is that the decapitation turns him on and causes an enhanced discharge of semen! Notwithstanding a few countable examples, however, one must admit that there has existed a fundamental inequality in the roles of males and females in the animal kingdom. Most mammals are brought up by their mothers alone and most of these grow up scarcely knowing the identity of their father (there are some examples where the mother performs the act of desertion). This bastardisation of society is extremely common in different mammalian species and it is important to understand the existence of these characteristics with the eye of objectivity. The book will help you do that, apart from many other things.

As is my habit usually, let me leave you with a lingering thought which might also justify my choice of title :-). While still significantly lesser than the woman, the male in human society surprisingly contributes much more to the rearing of children than most other species (This is by no means a justification or an excuse - to the women). Though men and women in human societies originally evolved to play distinct roles, the gap is now slowly bridging. One of the historically feminine roles was that of child nutrition through lactation after childbirth. With a queer sense of irony, natural selection has made men capable of lactation too! The role of men and women in hunter-gatherer societies were distinct - the women had to tend to and nourish children while the man had to provide for security and hunt and to use a modern phrase, he had to 'bring home the bacon'. The gap however has bridged thanks to civilization, consciousness and not so surprisingly mutation through natural selection! Six out of ten males are apparently capable of lactating provided sufficient stimulus is provided to their nipples (this was discovered in some 'self indulgent' teenage boys in the US according to Diamond). And who knows - the current definition of the metrosexual might soon have to be extended to accommodate this one bit of evolved feature :))

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Movie Review: Into the Wild

I had lost my patience with watching movies on my computer during the last couple of months. When I got back the LAN connection in my room at the start of the semester, I promptly downloaded four satyajit ray films, three stanley kubricks, the star wars hexology and Andaz Apna Apna. I only remember dozing out to AAA twice and never touched the rest. Anticipating my mood and enthusiasm, I played Sean Penn's latest movie (as director) on my laptop yesterday night and surprisingly, I was hooked on. The blurb that I read on IMDB made me associate the protagonist of the movie immediately with Jack Kerouac for the story sounded pretty much like his life. I learned a little later that the movie was made from a book of the same name written by John Krakauer about the true story of Christopher McCandless. The protagonist Chris, a top-of-his-class history and anthropology graduate from Emory University, decides to leave his family, surrender all his possessions and become a vagabond. He gives all his savings ($24000) as charity to OXFAM and begins traveling across the country after rechristening himself as 'Alex' Alexander Supertramp. Inspired by the writings of Tolstoy and Thoreau he sets foot on the road hoping to escape the rush of the civilization and get intimate with nature.

I shall not narrate the entire plot here for the fear of letting out more spoilers than what I already intend to. But let me, on the outset, recommend this movie strongly! In a nutshell the movie is about the journey of a man from civilization into wilderness, his coming of age and the final redemption. The lead actor fits snugly into the character of Chris and gives a mesmerizing performance. The supporting actors are extremely competent, especially the hippie couple whom Chris befriends on the road the old man who he lives with for a few days before commencing the last part of his journey - to Alaska. The background music and OST are one of the best I have heard in recent times and the songs of Eddie Vedder permeate through the scenes weaving magic. The movie has two overarching heroes - the director/screenplay writer Sean Penn who conceives the movie out of Chris's/Alex's mindscape. There is ample but skilful and inventive usage of symbolism from nature. A bee is shown pollinating on a flower when Chris's reads Tolstoy - "I have lived through much and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor - such is my idea of happiness." The dialogues are minimal and never superfluous and the scenes are as though they have been woven with great imagination. The second hero is the cinematographer, thanks to whom the movie flows like poetry. Indeed, the two main characters of the movie are Chris and Nature. The scenes in Alaska are especially breathtaking.

I watched parts of the movie once again today afternoon. Two statements of Christopher struck out to me and I cannot forget them. They're simple yet profound in a certain way. One goes - "The core of man's spirt comes from new experiences". The other is when he replies to the old man who says that he'll miss him when he leaves for Alaska, "I'll miss you too, but you're wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships". Chirstopher McCandless was found dead in an abandoned bus in the slopes Alaska by two moose hunters in 1992. Not encountering game for many days had forced him to eat the root of a wild potato which turned out to be poisonous. A certain fungi in the root was known to inhibit digestion and in the absence of treatment, Chris died of starvation.

A verse by Lord Byron shown at the start of the credits was particularly poignant and I end by quoting it:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Thoughts unkempt, disheveled
are scattered in my closet
They have a mind of their own
for they migrate and mutate
when I attempt to do them away.

I plead them to behave
and assist me in my industry
but then they hide and resurface
to regurgitate bad poetry.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Maximum City?

While traveling back home last week I filled myself up with three editorial pages worth of support/criticism for the recent activities of Raj Thackeray and his party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), and other tidbits reporting happenings in Mumbai, Pune and Nashik - Some taxis were attacked and burnt down, native hooligans wreaking havoc in housing societies of north indian immigrants, shops ransacked and burnt, shopkeepers beaten up etc. On one page was an article that predicted Raj's 'imminent' arrest, on its back was another which scraped history for examples of how the Thackerays have been known to give the police a slip, another speculated that a great cataclysm would be unleashed if Raj Thackeray was arrested and on the same page there was another article which severely chided the incumbent Congress government on its spinelessness and inaction (tell us something new!). Surely when every possibility is so elaborately detailed, who can stop the paper from claiming to have accurately predicted the future?

When I reached home and put my baggage down, I suddenly remembered a time from the past when somebody had once gifted me an E. M. Forster omnibus. I had read it for a couple of days until some ineluctable reason might have forced me to put it down and place it in my collection. I unearthed it and read this one particular essay called What I believe once again. I had routinely read it then but this time I made sure I concentrated on every line. It cannot get myself to judge whether it is a remarkable essay by whatever standards but it was certainly ahead of its time. The very first paragraph goes as follows:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered be- neath a military jackboot. They want stiffening, even if the process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, at all. Herein I probably differ from most people, who believe in Belief, and are only sorry they cannot swallow even more than they do. My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St Paul. My temple stands not upon Mount Moriah but in that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My motto is : "Lord, I disbelieve - help thou my unbelief.

How far fetched do these words seem today. One might not even be so kind as to call Forster a romantic anymore. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy would not have enough intensity in order to step outside a moral science class room and only a raving lunatic would care to remember and enunciate them. There is a universal undertone in the language of Thackeray and Thackeray - that of intolerance and of incontinence. Incontinence to such an extent that either Sena is built on a principle that draws its spirit from a perpetual hunger for an enemy. There is nothing novel in Raj Thackeray's politics. As the Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar put it succinctly:

Raj Thackeray is a product of the same Shiv Sena culture which actually started this 1966 onwards; later on, they were also responsible for the attacks on North Indians just four years ago. The questions of North Indians versus Maharashtrians, South Indians versus Maharashtrians, Hindus versus Muslims, these were not dogging the city for a long time. This was started after the birth of Shiv Sena
On the receiving end there is apathy, discontent, fear and plausible deniability. Apathy from those who don't have to bother about a bhelpuriwallah losing his only means of livelihood; discontent from the millions of middle class and poor Maharashtrians who are desperately in need of a way out; fear from the poor taxi driver and the daily wage laborer who are the victims of a man's selfish electoral motives channeled through an ethnocentric community against their own; and plausible deniability from the a government that never finds its spine in the right place in times of need. An then, there lies scathed a maximum city with minimum tolerance. The overcrowded megapolis of over twenty million people burns while its infrastructure crumbles in a time when the last thing that the city wants is "a rupture in its social fabric caused by visionless political interests". Of all the things that one reads, what inevitably stick to one's memory are the cliches. Cliches that hope and instruct to hope; cliches that throw up questions which are fated to be forgotten the moment they surface. I leave you with some that I happened to read:

Maybe, if Raj Thackeray is genuinely interested in the future of Mumbai, he needs to shift his gaze from ill-advised, high-profile agitations against chat pujas to more concrete proposals for urban renewal. Blaming Mumbai's problems on the economic migrant is to simply escape responsibility for failing to address the core issue: a serious crisis of governance. The train from Gorakhpur and Patna station to Mumbai central isn't going to stop in its tracks because a lumpen mob insists on it. What can be stopped is the political corruption that has destroyed Mumbai's body, and now threatens its soul. Why cant Mumbai's leaders agree, for example, to stop regularizing illegal slum colonies?

PS: My wing treat stands canceled today because of rumours that the bugger has been arrested.
PPS: Anyone for Valentine's day?

Monday, 4 February 2008

North bhai Northwest

A few days ago I wrote a post where I called Bal Thackeray the abominable demagogue of my city. What I perhaps failed to mention is that Bal Thackeray has spawned a legacy of abomination. Yes I call it my city because my family has made Bombay its home for the last three generations.

Culturally, I feel much more close to a Maharashtrian from Bombay or Pune than I do to a Tamil speaking person from Chennai or Madurai. And I have no qualms about that; in fact I find it weird when an arbitrary tamilian accosts me and starts exchanging pleasantries. If it weren't for his ethnocentric motives, I would have to tell him to go get a room. But in spite of my natural disinclinations, my family has tried its best to ingest some of our native culture into my consciousness in the name of God, society and other such excuses. I do not refer to Diwali as Deepavali; I do not bother to keep track of when it's pongal or navaratri and wish my folks in advance; nor do I bother to chant the gayatri mantra a thousand and one times during the narali pournima. But then I do believe that my mother tongue is one of the most eloquent languages; I think the adages in Thirukural constitute one of the greatest poems; I regard Kalki as a great author though I have read only his translated works and I think Kamal Hassan is a brilliant actor. I also believe there is nothing that Rajni can't but that belief has nothing to do with my tamil ethnicity. I'm sure others (Chuck Norris included) will vouch for Rajni too.

The situation, I suppose would be similar for most second-third generation people of other ethnicities making their life in Maximum city. But that is not acceptable to Mr. Raj Thackeray who with his party of hooligans is currently promoting the politics of hatred which unfortunately with a leg and a half in a grave, his uncle isn't feeling good enough for. Raj has issued an ultimatum to the north Indians living in his Mumbai that "if they want to remain in Maharashtra then they should stay like Maharashtrians". The workers of his party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have gone around destroying theatres screening Bhojpuri films, removing effigies of Amitabh Bachchan (He is the brand ambassador for UP and recently started a school for girls in Bihar, which to Raj Thackeray is equivalent to treason) and throwing bottles at his house and generally wreaking havoc in Dadar and Lalbaug.

Raj Thackeray began the campaign against North Indians last week after he slammed some of the north-Indian customs, saying "Mumbai is not a place for the celebration of Chhath Puja (a festival of Bihar) or Bharatiya Uttar Pradesh Divas."

....."If the North Indians want to stay in Maharashtra, then better they learn the Marathi culture and language. Let them learn to celebrate Maharashtra Day instead of any other state events," he said.

There is fantastic polemics everywhere around for anyone who is willing to lend a year and savour them. For instance,

"Why are the Railways full of Biharis? Are Maharashtrians less able?" Thackery had demanded, and these remarks had – as expected – sparked off the wrath of Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. "Raj Thackeray is a child! Localisation will not be tolerated in an era of globalisation!" Laloo had flashed back.

No, Mr. Laloo Yadav, Raj Thackeray is not a child. Whether his politics will win him his ambitions or not only time will tell but have no doubt that he'll be more than nuisance value in the next few months!

Sunday, 3 February 2008

In defense

"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

-Richard Feynman

"We cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, 'You don't know what you are talking about!' The second one says 'What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?', and so on."

-Richard Feynman

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Test for drunkenness

In most cases it is difficult to objectively evaluate the situation you're in and pass a judgment over yourself. When the question is that of admittance it becomes even more difficult. For example, many drunk people have the habit of claiming that they're sober. The important thing is that these people sincerely believe that they are sober. Lying is not the issue here, for even the conscientious among such drunkards are assisted by alcohol in mastering the art of self deception. Drinking is just a representative of many such situations where a man or a woman finds it difficult to come to terms with the truth and hence it is important for one to first convince oneself of the existence of the same and then try and delve into the gravity of the situation at hand.

Drinking and getting high is a pretty innocuous thing but then denying neurosis, sexual frustration, low self-esteem, jealousy etc are probably a little more grave. Thus it is in my opinion necessary for one to monitor one's symptoms judiciously in cases of doubt, accept the truth and then try to resolve it . For instance, when I am a couple of beers and four-five vodka shots down I have a simple test to see whether I am high or not. I try to derive mathematics theorems in my head. Most commonly I take a minute off to check whether I can derive something simple like the pythagoras theorem, the divergence theorem or the navier stokes equation. While this is nerdy, this concept has found appreciation in some close circles as a reasonable protocol. So a friend of mine came up with this simple iterative procedure to test whether one is drunk or not. (I currently dont know of a foolproof alternative for mathematically disinclined people and hence would be much obliged if someone came up with one) :

With each successive drink try and prove the Pythagoras theorem. The moment you find yourself hesitating on the proof either stop drinking or if you plan to go all the way, inform a friend.

To this, I added a second test, for self deception might compel a person to think that he has arrived at a correct proof even it is wrong:

If you're clear and confident with Pythagoras, try Fermat's last theorem. If you know the statement, are able to prove it and if your name is not Terrence Tao, it means you're drunk. If you don't know the statement (effectively ruling out the possibility that you're Terrence Tao) and are still able to conjure it up and prove it, then you have arrived at a stronger condition for your drunkenness.

It's Sunday afternoon and I'm clearly jobless :-)