Thursday, November 27, 2008

The superorganism has castes; Individuals are automatons

The Superorganism from Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen
The subtitle is
The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies and that is the new book by Bert Hölldobler and Edmund O. Wilson... Here is a New York Times review of the book [By STEVE JONES
Published: November 21, 2008

Hölldobler and Wilson’s central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that stung me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony’s rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of cooperation give the impression of planning. Teamwork pays; in a survey of one piece of Amazonian rain forest, social insects accounted for 80 percent of the total biomass, with ants alone weighing four times as much as all its mammals, birds, lizards, snakes and frogs put together. The world holds as much ant flesh as it does that of humans.

Karl von Frisch, discoverer of the famous waggle dance of the honey bee, said in the 1930s that “the life of bees is like a magic well. The more you draw from it, the more there is to draw.” Plenty of excellent science still springs from that source, and Wilson and Hölldobler gather some classics here. How does an ant work out how far it is back to the nest? Simple: by counting its steps. Glue stilts onto its legs as it sets out and it will pace out into the wilds; take them off and it will walk only part of the way back.

The superorganism has castes, based not on genetic differences but — like our own social classes — on the environment in which they are brought up. Sometimes, a chemical message does the job, but cold and starvation can be just as effective at condemning an individual to a humble life as a worker.

A few simple rules produce what appears to be intelligence, but is in fact entirely mindless. Individuals are automatons. An ant stumbles on a tasty item and brings a piece back to the nest, wandering as it does and leaving a trail of scent. A second ant tracks that pathway back to the source, making random swerves of its own. A third, a fourth, and so on do the same, until soon the busy creatures converge on the shortest possible route, marked by a highway of pheromones. This phenomenon has some useful applications for the social animals who study it. Computer scientists fill their machines with virtual ants and task them with finding their way through a maze, leaving a coded signal as they pass until the fastest route emerges.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too much time spent on introversion could lead to depression and lack of spontaneity, joy, and gaiety

Discovering one's own golden mean

The term ‘golden mean’, according to Chambers dictionary means “moderation, a middle way between extremes.” An ancient Tamil proverb also notes that even the elixir of life (amrita) can become poison, if taken in excess.

Doubtless, life has to be marked by dynamism, extroversion and action but too much of these could also be damaging. Similarly, too much of ‘take it easy’ attitude or even reflection and introspection could lead to stagnation, with life drifting away without any tangible accomplishment.

The ceaseless and excessive dynamism of the warriors of Ulysses (Odysseus) and also their subsequent metamorphosis to lethargy and introversion, as portrayed by Tennyson, would suggest that there should be a golden mean between these extremes.

The ‘middle path’ concept, centred on finding the right ‘golden mean’, for sustained excellence, as applicable to each aspirant, would eventually depend on individual nature and needs. However, certain broad, practical and time-tested concepts in evolving this could serve as guidelines.

Those habituated to a busy bee life in search of fruits — they themselves may not be sure of and pushing themselves to near physical and psychological burn out — would do well to remember that all their activities would become counterproductive unless tempered with moments of needed reflection, solitude, relaxation and meditation.

Similarly the dreamer and one involving himself continually with substantial reflection, analysis and meditative exercises would also be benefited through forays into activities calling for dynamism and physical exercises marked by zest and exhilaration. In fact, too much time spent on such acts of introversion could also become counterproductive, leading to depression and lack of spontaneity, joy, and gaiety.

Research on depressed and schizophrenic patients has revealed that ‘work therapy’ and involvement with dynamic activities often work where passive counselling, analysis and even medication could fail. Indeed, work is worship. The business of life, if it were to be fulfilling, is to get on with it with briskness and natural ease, not cluttered by perceived ideas of excessive introspection, etc.

This natural approach could often prove to be the right sadhana for inner purification. Doubtless, the crux of all true accomplishment lies in discovering for oneself his own workable ‘golden mean’ and to build his dreams on this stable foundation!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation

Why economists should study the origins of bargaining?
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy,
Rome, November 2008

The Pre-History of Bargaining: a multi-disciplinary treatment (Part 1) [i]
© Gavin Kennedy (Heriot-Watt University)

The whole point of the quasi-bargain was to share the spoils between the catchers and the matrifocal family. Therefore there had to be a social mechanism to ensure that the chasers shared with the non-chasers, otherwise individuals and the group faced local extinction. In a Darwinian sense, the individual may not care about the group (natural selection works on the individual not the group) but an individual had to care about the fate of some minimum number of other individuals if he was to achieve his own survival goals. A chase was more successful if it was conducted by several of the most fleet-footed individuals, backed by the best stone toolmakers and the bravest perimeter skirmishers and pickets who warded of rival predators. A race with each other it was not.

To succeed in worthwhile scavenging the Ancients had to discover that there was safety in numbers and how to make noise near the carcass to ward off intruders. Scavenging induced co-operation, supported by stronger-willed enforcers. It also induced stone-tool creation and use. While predators were busy in a stand-off, or a snarling fight, the scavengers had time to risk a sneak snatch at whatever meat they could get. On such occasions their stone cutting and scraping tools and their disciplined numbers gave them a small enough advantage. Chimpanzees in a display charge can chase off a leopard; several Ancients screaming in an aggressive charge, catching predators with accurately aimed heavy stones, waving heavy branches, beating a predator’s body with clubs, and generally creating mayhem, could drive off even fearsome predators, at least for a short while. Meanwhile, the cutters would get to work. Skilled and brave distracters were party to the quasi-bargain too.

In principle, gatherers shared most of what they gathered, killed or found. In principle, strong quasi-bargains within the band’s matrifocal families embraced them all.[xxvii] Did this mean they all pulled their weight together in whatever way they could best contribute? Probably not; they were as riven by the usual dissents found in any group of Homo before or since. When it ‘worked’ reasonably well, it was an evolutionary stable compact. But there were wide variations in the behaviours of the individuals whose co-operation was essential for it to ‘work.’ Groups fell apart when laggards predominated; they were destroyed by careless acts in the vicinity of predators; they were scattered by internal discord and, in consequence, survivors may have endured generations of misery.

Gathering plant food, insects, and small animals, was more reliable than relying on opportunistic scavenging. But gathering was subject to variability, which imposes a cycle, sometimes severe, of ‘feast or famine.’ Some variability was the ‘fault’ of the individual, such as a lack of skills, effort or learning, and sometimes it was bad luck, injury, illness, the chosen search pattern, or attacks by predators. Where there was variability, there was pressure for sharing among sociable hominids. With multi-lateral promiscuity, sharing whatever food was collected was a small but significant behavioural step for males from merely feeding themselves. Establishing the sex-for-food norm, and policing it effectively, took generations to evolve into a culture of sharing, with additional norms to cope with exceptions, to constrain selfish behaviours and to establish taboos that enforced the metanorms. Sharing undoubtedly enhances the survival of the individual amidst scarcity. Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation.[xxviii]

It arose directly from the psychology and practise of the quasi-bargain. If the Ancients suffered cycles of scarcity and abundance, and the cycles were asynchronous (while one individual enjoyed a feast, the other endured famine) a transfer of resources between each other to even-out the cycle proved beneficial (though that does not mean it always happened!). Over the cycle, sharers benefited. But could they co-operate despite the nature of their ‘prisoner’s dilemma problem (whether to do what was best for oneself or what was best for one’s partners and one’s self)? [xxix]

Frank Marlowe identified six useful distinctions between types of food sharing and by changing the order we glean its possible social-evolution:[xxx]

  • Mutualism: food for foraging partners, particularly, but not exclusively, for kin;[xxxi]
  • Tolerated scrounging (TS) - food for peace (sometimes known as ‘tolerated theft’);
  • Costly signalling (CS) – ‘food for non-food benefits, such as sexual access’ -
  • Reciprocity:
  • Not-in-kind exchanges - ‘food A for food B’; [xxxii]
  • In-kind exchanges with delayed reciprocity – ‘food now for same food later’ (e.g., human equivalent of bats with blood);[xxxiii]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Open, generous, equal, frank and kind

Health News The beauty of flowers
Naini’s Page Monday, September 17, 2007 12:4:37 IST Mind Matters

Have you been amongst flowers early in the morning? Or seen them facing the sun waiting its advent? Felt the aspiration that surges all around when watching a bud slowly open its petals one by one. Seen the earth after a few drops of rain and realise how the flowers like little multicolored hands come out in a gesture of thanks giving. Walked by a bush at night and smelt the beautiful fragrance of the raat-ki-rani. Wondered why flowers make you so happy, peaceful and filling you with joy and love?

Says Sri Aurobindo in Savitri: “The worlds senseless beauty mirrors gods delight its hued magnificence blooms in leaves and flowers.”

Flowers have been an intrinsic part of my life- my grandmother's vast collection of plants from around the world, dad's constant pottering in the garden, mother filling the house with marigolds, asters, rajnigandas and mogras, my aunt weaving garlands with all of us joining in, especially during functions and weddings. Starting my morning by picking up a beautiful champa from the ground, placing it behind one of my ears gives me immense pleasure.

The mother of Pondichery always said, “Be like a Flower”. 'They are open, generous, equal, frank and kind'. Do you know why?

  • Open — to everything and everyone that surrounds it.
  • Generous — without restrictions, dispels its very own perfume which it sacrifices entirely for our pleasure.
  • Equal — It has no preference. Everyone can enjoy its beauty without rivalry.
  • Kind — Its presence fills us with joy.
  • Frank — It hides nothing of its beauty everyone can see what it is.

They are made an important part in the ashram life - teaching people the charm of silence and thus the self giving which demands nothing in return. Flowers have a spiritual significance and are extremely receptive. No wonder, flowers have charmed and attracted men and women alike. They have been associated with religion, love, myths, legends, deaths, remembrance. For they say it more profoundly than words representing peace, joy, purity, beauty aspiration, love humility, and surrender.

Cherish your flowers. Watch them bloom naturally or in a vase. Let them be till they are fresh, collect them when they are no longer and give them back to the earth for what it has given us or otherwise we will become poor.

Land’s End and Sri Aurobindo Peak

Shortcut to heaven Usha Subramaniam, ET Bureau 6 Nov, 2008
Fear factored - The combination of trekking and holistic living at the Aurobindo Ashram camp near Nainital was perfect for Usha Subramaniam

Delving back into childhood memories of fairy tales, my mind’s eye spontaneously morphed our camp director into the Pied Piper of Van Niwas. Nirankarji’s delightful energy and sprightliness did what music did to Hamelin’s children, 115 kids happily made the steep uphill trek behind him, quite oblivious to the arduous climb. Contributing equally to the merry mood were the locale and content of the trip, a summer adventure youth camp held in the scenic and serene Van Niwas, Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Bara Pathar in Nainital. It’s no wonder then, at the culmination of the camp, two enthusiastic 12-year olds, Akankshita Dash and Samyukta Sankaran, succinctly gushed, “Shortcut to Heaven!”

The Sri Aurobindo Education Society in New Delhi has been conducting these six-day camps since 1977, in which some 1400 young people from all over India learn basic rock-climbing skills like scrambling, bouldering, rappelling and river crossing under the eagle eye of trained instructors. Yogasana-based exercises, shramdaan and, in the evening, breathing exercises, meditation, talks on right nutrition, and so on, ensure a week-full of balanced activities for the kids — and parents like myself and my friend!

To the uninitiated (and not-so-intrepid souls like yours truly) the prospect of rock climbing can bring on a panic attack sweaty palms, pounding heart et al. But the camp makes you conquer such fears. In any case I found most children to be plucky, lithe, zealous and effortless climbers. As for the few diffident ones, it was touching to see team members rally round to buoy up their morale. This was so contrary to the sneaky one-upmanship visible in present-day city life!

Day One was an unexpected test of strength and stamina, of steel and balance, of co-ordination and resolve! We crawled over jagged terrain, descended narrow rocky crevices and caves, all the while seeking, grasping and levering ourselves using available cracks and niches as handholds and footholds. How we marveled at our thrilling achievement as the day rounded off with a 4.5-km trek to Hanuman Mandir from where Naini Lake can be seen, far below.

The next day saw us carefully heaving ourselves up over large and small rocks using techniques learnt the previous day. Sometimes, facile looking boulders proved more daunting, as just a half- or one-inch toehold was all that was available to haul myseld self up! Though bouldering requires a shorter sequence of movement, a couple of boulders demanded grit and stability of mind and body. Climbing ‘chimneys’, that is, rocks shaped like chimneys for which there is a different technique, was relatively easier...

The early part of the next day was taken up with a brief session on rope knots and hitches, to prepare us for rock climbing. Given the assurance of a safety rope around the waist and patient guidance and encouraging support of instructors, we had to challenge ourselves because rocks were higher and steeper this time round. Gradually, dogged perseverence triumphed over illogical phobias; can-do conviction outweighed nagging anxiety. The children soaked in the glorious view of the surrounding mountain-scape after a spirited 7-km trek up to Dorothy’s Seat (Tiffin Top, in the afternoon. On each trek, Nirankarji and his admirable, outstanding team of instructors cajoled the children into cheerily marching ahead, up the forested paths where oaks, pines, deodars and flowering rhododendrons grew in abundance. Every moment there in the hills, the children were doing things undreamt of in the city...

Waking up at 5.30am, finishing breakfast by 7.30am (all meals were simple and traditional, and entailed that all plates and tumblers be washed by the user after the meal!) no TV and computer games, and a long vigorous walk. They enjoyed every moment of it! Rappelling (as I recalled it from some action film or the other) seemed more dreaded than other camp activities; but I realised that I was wrong. Since the harness and rope provided safety and security, this was a great chance for acrophobes like myself to face it head-on.

Once I got past the first few seconds focusing wholly on the safety rope and harness I tilted my body backwards at 90o degrees to the rock/wall and the rest was easy and tremendous fun. What a limiting and illogical factor fear is, I realised! That afternoon we trekked 9 km to Land’s End and Sri Aurobindo Peak with some tree-climbing included. Gradually growing in stamina and confidence, we campers pushed our endurance levels higher day by day. On the fifth day was an instruction on the Tyroline Traverse technique of River Crossing, which was developed in the Tyrol range of the Alps. I nearly chickened out. Not for me that precarious, upside-down posture high up on a rope! But then, the positive impact of group activity came into play. So, overcoming trepidation, I did do that river-crossing!

At 8am on the day before we left, we trekked all the way up to Naina Peak , soaring 2,622 metres above sea level. It was a rewarding trek, even though snow covered mountains like Nanda Devi and Trishul were not visible that morning. However, that hardly mattered to any of us. The mood was ecstatic since the trip to Nainital was, in young Arpita Singh’s words, “totally incomparable” or, to quote Akankshita and Samyukta “a heavenly treat!” Well, if a 40-something’s mind can unconsciously hark back to a fairy tale character during an adventure camp, you can gauge exactly how hugely invigorating and restorative the camp can be for us urban individuals!

Monday, November 03, 2008

In Auroville, the pursuit of beauty is a way of life

Indian Express > Mumbai > The Artist’s Way

Find beauty and the purpose will follow. This is a credo that I try and abide by. Though by no means is it an easy task in cities like Mumbai, where the mind-numbing commute and the daily grind can make one prone to things like road rage.
In Auroville, Pondicherry, the pursuit of beauty, it would seem, is a way of life.

Potters, painters, poets and others of their ilk live and eke out a living in sylvan settings. On the face of it, their lives appear simple and uncluttered; the most common daily routine consists of Tai Chi/Yoga or meditation combined with healthy eating and a work routine that is focused and mindful. It’s a routine that is geared to assist the individual and aid the community. The art produced and sold here is beautiful and serene, free of isms and trends, indicative of a spontaneous and free way of thinking and being. This Zen lifestyle is enviable, despite the fact that the community as a whole does suffer from the same ills that plague any settlement.
Walking on dusty tracks and listening to the roar of the blue sea in the distance, I am reminded of a book called The Artist’s Way, which extols simplicity and creativity through small, daily rituals. Seemingly simplistic, these daily routines that are (to my mind) linked to the pursuit of beauty, add other dimensions to the mundane aspects of life.

The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, who needs no introduction, has written a seminal work on the spiritual significance of flowers. It’s a treatise that is both philosophical and artistic in its scope. Her samadhi shrine is adorned with flowers of incredible beauty. Matri Mandir is a structure of rare and pristine beauty. The meditation chamber offers a life-transforming experience to those who are open to it.
Gazing at the ocean from the seashore at Pondicherry, it strikes me that we, in the city, are increasingly removed from calm, a pre-requisite for creativity. A wise soul that I bump into at a little bookshop selling translations of books written in French, tells me that, “quietude, reflection, spontaneity...this is the way of the soul. We clutter the path with roadblocks in the form of unnecessary desires”. Indeed.

The majority of Aurovillians live a creative life. It’s a life sans chafing. Which is not to say they are not ambitious, successful, or in any way removed from the demands of the world and international trends. They have just learnt to tap into their intuitive selves and let their higher self guide them towards all that is necessary and required for a peaceful co-existence. Filled with reflections and age old discoveries, I am led to send a text to a friend who is aspiring to be an artist. It says, “If you want to learn form, study the shape of flowers.” Eat, pray, love, to borrow from the title of a bestseller, is actually all that one needs to do. (The columnist is a writer and a consultant)