Friday, February 19, 2016

The new normal

From the Buddha doodles
I'm thinking about the JNU crackdown almost constantly these days, and everything in my daily existence feels like a background narrative to what is happening in Delhi and to Kanhaiya Kumar. It seems to me that we're in a very important phase in the history of our times - perhaps these weeks will be talked about every time future humans think back to a time when India used to put people in jail for saying something like "patriotism is a dumb concept and I don't give a shit about the ugly flag". In the present time, this last sentence might offend a lot of people; it might even make me eligible for prison, but think about it, saying all of the following was prison-worthy at some point in recent history:

"Women have the right to vote"
"Blacks and whites can go to the same universities"
"India should be a free country"
"I want to work on Sunday and not go to church"

Given that the world is changing before our eyes, it is rational to assume that at some point in the future, someone will stand on top of a table in a park and shout that India should be 25 different self-governed countries, and people will either yell back in agreement or disagreement, or laugh in derision. Some people will yawn and say, meh, that's his opinion, and I don't care either way. There will be a couple of guys who will want to punch the nose of the speaker, but THAT will be seen as illegal and it will be the punchers who will be taken to the police station for a chat, not the speaker.

I was thinking these thoughts as I was jogging yesterday so the podcast that came up on stitcher (it's an app I use for streaming podcasts), "The New Normal", almost seemed like a direct answer. Radiolab, brillant as usual. The premise of the podcast is the question - can people/cultures/belief systems change? - and it explores the question over three amazing stories. The one that blew my mind was story #3 which links behavior change to genetics and Darwinism, through the idea of domestication. We know that wolves, who are creatures of the wild, branched out and evolved into dogs over hundreds of years of evolution, from ferocious snarly creatures, to adorable cuddly pets. The podcast talks about a biologist in Siberia in the 1960s who wanted to understand this process of evolution/domestication and worked with wild foxes; turns out it took him only ten years of selective breeding to change wild fox into domesticated fox. This leads to the inevitable question: can such a process happen with humans? And guess what the answer is - it is already happening. The universe is playing selective breeder with us. As compared to our ancestors, we're shorter, our bones are more fragile, we're less aggressive (hard to believe when you see pictures of RSS karyakartas, but it's true). How did this happen? As societies moved towards community based activities like agriculture, aggressive people were less useful than collaborative ones, and so the latter were more likely to be more popular, have better luck in finding mates and having kids, and hence had a better chance of propagating their genes! This is the podcast, I cannot recommend it too highly. It will cheer you up and give you hope.

It's only logical to hope that the process will continue: The RSS karyarta-types will find fewer mates, and the folks like the cute JNU students will have a more active sex life (they're carrying roses in their protest marches for god's sake!), and therefore, spread more of their genes around. So in a few hundred years, we will be a world of sensible, respectful, 'domesticated' people, who will argue and disagree but will not kill each other for arguing and disagreeing.

I only wish the process were faster.

Sometime in 2216....

Kanhaiya Lee: Dude, I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about patriotism and love for the motherland. I think Hitler was one of the smartest people ever, he was just very misunderstood.  
Albert Singh: Well, he was a murderer, can't get away from that, you know
Lee: But he had the greater good of his country at the core of all his actions. I really admire him. He was so right - the welfare of the people who belong to a country takes precedence over anything else.
Singh: Nothing justfies killing 3 million people. Nothing. At. All.

....goes on for a couple of hours.....

Singh: I think you're an *****.
Lee: I think you're stick-in-the mud baffoon, incapable of any intellectual growth. I'm hungry, do you want to go get a Soylent drink? 
Singh: That place with the cute waiter? Yes, I heard he broke up with his boyfriend. Let's go! And after that, will you help me with some research on my paper?
Lee: I'll think about it. 


  1. WOWO, nothing could describe my new fascination with FB more than the beginning of your post, the events at JNU (and haryana and Soni Sori) have been rather shocking and sticky.

    I agree mostly with the podcast, but just a few days ago Sam and I were discussing the same thing. well almost. So, the conversation was not about JNU or Nationalism or whatever, it was about arranged marriages. How we entirely disapprove of them, because not only is the concept meant to perpetuate caste, religion and gender prejudices, but, its also anti-Darwinian! When you think about it, with all the pressure laid by indian families on marriage (i don't even need to mention that its arranged for the large majority of people) that means, every person, however idiotic, brute, chauvinistic, whatever, has a mate readied for him/her to breed.

    Had it all been left to love, there would have been natural selection and the phenomenon described in your podcast, may have happened faster!

    Lol, you asked for my opinion :-p

  2. Loved it, and loved that podcast episode. I think our tendency to forget and not learn from recent history is fascinating.


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