A Review of Behave by Robert Sapolsky (Vintage, London, 2017)

Behave by Robert Sapolsky (Vintage, London, 2017) is a book full of information about human aggression. Even though Prof. Sapolsky does not provide new solutions to deal with human aggression, he tells us about its biological roots and makes us look at the aggressors with a broader understanding. Our behaviours are more complex than what a single factor explanation can provide. The reviewer feels that the author does not discuss the democracy as a possible solution to the aggression as a societal problem. The reviewer also finds that the book could have appreciated the role of Lamarckian inheritance in some behavioural traits rather than being somewhat dismissive. In summary, this is a valuable addition to any collection of books.

The full review can be found here:

A guided tour through a labyrinth of biological and behavioural information- A Review of Behave by Robert Sapolsky (Vintage, London, 2017) | hc:34857 | Humanities CORE (hcommons.org)

Behave by Prof. Sapolsky is a thick volume with full of interesting information not only on the biology of aggression and violence in humans but also on the subjects like genetics, anthropology and ethology. The authour extensively discusses neurophysiology and the relevant ideas in evolutionary biology that contribute to who we are. Unfortunately, most of the footnotes, irrespective of the fact that however interesting they had been, were too small and I had to oftentimes skip to avoid eyestrain. What I understand as the essence of his book is that we humans are complex beings and our behaviours are expressions conditioned by our biology that controls our brain and hormones, the environment that hosts our behaviours and our upbringing that shapes our childhood. Prof. Sapolsky concludes that both our worst and best behaviours are rooted in our biology. In this review, my intention is not to write about what Prof. Sapolsky extensively covered but to highlight some implications of two ideas discussed in the book. 

Violence: The Role of Democracy

While reading Prof. Sapolsky’s huge work, my main interest was around the reasons for war or mass murder and the controls over it. Although the book by Prof. Sapolsky is a tour de force on the physiology related to human nature than the psychology, it only says that our behaviours are products of our biology but does not explain how to keep our behaviours in check. Perhaps, in this regard, Prof. Sapolsky does not agree with the measures suggested by some writers who took on the same subject.

Dr. Erich Fromm says as long as one believes that the evil man wears horns, one will not discover an evil man[1]. To avoid future human destructiveness, we need to make fundamental changes to our economic and political structures as well as our values, our concept of man’s aims and our personal conduct. We should not listen to the demagogues or to the leaders with hardened hearts without the love of life[2]. Prof. Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in their book Demonic Males state that” out of four thousand mammals……a system of intense, male initiated aggression….is known only among chimpanzees and humans[3].” Linking the violence to the biological evolution between the closest relatives was stopped by the practices observed in Bonobo, the ‘gentle ape’, the name used in Demonic Males. Prof. Sapolsky, in third person, while disagreeing with their picking chimpanzees and ignoring gorillas also says “Wrangham pretty much ignores bonobos.[4]”In my view this is an unfair criticism as “Demonic males” devotes a full chapter to bonobos and hypothesises that in bonobos “males lost their demonism…Or possibly male coalitionary skills..[5]

Prof. Sapolsky also says that the history of violence is a mixture of Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s views. World, he accepts, did not have wars in its modern sense until the nomadic hunter gatherers became sedentary agriculturalists. Like Hobbes’s belief of man as a wolf to his fellow men, the ethologist, Prof. Konrad Lorenz also believed in savage hunter gatherers. People like Professors. Wrangham, Steven Pinker and Lawrence Keely continue in some sense to believe in the innate violence in man. As some of the writers quoted in Prof. Sapolsky’s book wanted us to believe, the prehistoric people placed in mass graves with arrowheads closer to skeletons or the skeletons with projectiles embedded in bones indicate warfare. This as evidence reminds someone of a quote in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Dr. Erich Fromm. Future archaeologists studying present day bushmen will look at the cracking stones found with nearby arrowheads might conclude that these stones were used to crack bones even though the stones were actually used by women to crack open the nuts providing 80% of bushmen economy[6]. As Dr. Fromm points out the war is mostly caused by the ‘aggression of military and political elite’. He quotes a Ukrainian saying found in Prof. Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression “When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.[7]” People who go to war against humanity are directed by the reasoning of the elite, the trumpeters like Caesars, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Bin Laden. Unfortunately, sometimes the trumpet, in the case of war against Iraq was played by the democratically elected leaders like President Bush.

But on the other hand, we live in the best of the times in the history of world as Prof. Pinker quoted in Behave says ‘the worst horrors of inhumanity and violence declined over the last 500 years due to the forces of civilisation’[8]. As Dr. Quincy Wright tabulated the number of battles engaged in by the principal European powers increased from 9 between 1480-1499 to 892 between 1900-1940.Even though the above quoted numbers do not help the assurance about a decreasing violence, inhuman acts such as slavery, racial vilification, colonisation, violence against women and LGBTQ people declined over the recent spans of time. Behave too ignores the possibility that the diminishing violence has been due to the rise of one impactful ideology with all its flaws: Representative Democracy.

This reminds of a profound statement in Demonic Males. The political power, that depends on physical power in traditional societies is personalised. Whenever the political power is personalised, the physical power arising from the violence of demonic males becomes unrestrained. The great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century placed the political power in the hands of institutions rather than a person or families or alliances. Of many styles of political institutions, the most depersonalised ones are the most democratic[9].

Even though the world’s first age of revolution began in Greece around 650 BC[10] through the breaking of the monopoly of aristocratic groups to empower the law givers, the democracy as a widely accepted system of governance did not arise until late. The start of the modern democracies should be considered as the period when the women were allowed to fully participate in the electoral process. Thus, the world’s democracies in modern form only started to appear around the turn of the 20th century[11]. As Prof. Niall Ferguson points out in the introduction to his book Empire (Penguin,2008) the British Empire which controlled the quarter of the world disseminated, among other things, common law, representative assemblies and the idea of liberty to its colonies. As the British left many of their colonies in the 20th century, these ideas found support among their former subjects. The experts of the field proclaim that the democracy thrived with the globalisation of economies. But that was not always the case as one of the largest democracies in the word, India, had been closed to the world economically for a long time. Thus, it is very likely that the world we see today with restrained violent impulses on the level of individuals or as a nation is mainly due to the ideas of lawfulness, liberty and representative democracy. In a democracy, going to war is not very often one person’s decision but a collective decision. There will be likely repercussions to be had at the ballot box for the wrong decisions. The individuals breaking the law by being violent towards others have to face the legal system. At least in theory, all citizens are equal under Law in a law-abiding democracy. One of the greatest ideals we may see as a cause of progress we made as humans is the Democratic Institutions. Thus, a strong democracy is where constitutionality, voter participation, equality under Law and transparency in government are upheld and preserved.

But it may be true that democracies as Rousseau believed are not the natural state of affairs even though those are the ones with restrained personal power as the authours of Demonic Male show us. A citadel of democracy adored as a shining light for the rest of the world tested the strength of its institutions on the 6th of January 2021. Even though it was unlikely that the American Republic would have collapsed, it clearly showed how fragile the system was. Modern form of democracy is so delicate that it completely relies on the good faith of the elected and other officials and the people’s belief in the democracy as a whole. Even the American system of democracy that has stood the test of time for more than a good century and revolves around the supremacy of the constitution may not be all that strong as arguably the greatest logician the world has seen in the modern times, Prof. Kurt Gödel realised. He tried to explain why to Prof. Albert Einstein, Prof. Oskar Morgenstern and the judge who was examining him for the US Citizenship. Long after the finest logician of our times was troubled by some inconsistency in the Constitution that would give rise to a dictatorship, in the fateful month of January, the possibility of weak links in the US Constitution came so close to a conceivable scenario for a realization. It was rather surprising to find out how little people care about the value of democracy in one of the greatest democracies in the world. This episode again reminds of some remarks in Demonic Male. The authors noted the fear of the right-wing militias in the US, particularly referring to the Michigan Militia in 1990s, about their freedoms in a world led by the United Nations[12]. Fear of a shrinking world and the humanity encroaching traditionally held spaces can be easily dignified as diminishing freedom and exploited by demagoguery or even closet bigotry. The United Nations may represent to some a new order with crumbling traditional boundaries dismantling the old-world order. The idea lacking in Prof. Sapolsky’s book is about a mechanism to control the demons residing in human souls. At least according to the authours of Demonic male, the control over any possible violence is moral sanctions or the law and order imposed by the institutionalised political power, a democracy. We need to acknowledge all democracies in the world are not same and some are only a semblance. Anyhow, we all owe a responsibility to participate in the democratic processes that uphold the belief in democracy that protects people[13] from violence.

A greater challenge the democracy today faces is misinformation and the lies to get elected as the majority of Fourth Estate now mainly resides online with the freedom to publish anything, fact or fiction. Voter ignorance is still blamed as a cause for the failure of democracy as an ideal. But this is a sad argument when the literacy today is as high as it perhaps could be. As the allegory goes, a doctor prescribing harsh remedies for the good of the people would be outdone by a person selling sweets to get elected by popular vote. The perceptions matter in politics as well as in any other realm of human activity. The increased literacy combined with transparency, accountability and factual information is essential to a good democracy. Now we have the literacy but are losing the battle for facts with the overarching intervention of the world wide web. The tech giants, unwittingly, are at war with democracies by feeding the masses with streamlined news and catalysing a process that creates unscrupulous individuals with bullhorns to promote harmful ideologies and falsehood. The selective news feeds in a world almost everyone having access to a phone with the internet is likely to be an invisible danger to an individual living in a healthy democracy. Perhaps, the moral philosophers and legal theorists have their work cut out in the future to stop the flow of misinformation in modern societies where morality and decency such as truthfulness, honesty and personal integrity induced by a moral code like ten commandments, five precepts or greater sins no longer exists. What we need to keep in mind about democracy as an ideal is that the ideals set are the ideals followed; the ideals upheld are the ideals preserved.

Evolution, its mechanisms and new paradigm

Prof. Sapolsky devotes chapters eight and ten to genetics and evolution. The discussions are very thorough and very illuminating to a lay reader. Prof. Sapolsky rejects the idea that the violence is solely determined by a gene such as a variant of the gene encoding the enzyme monoamine oxidase, MAO but caused by many genes and influenced by the gene and environment interaction; Nature and Nurture. The discussion on the adaptations, spandrels, gradual and punctuated equilibrium is entertaining (even involving the manner Prof X put down a more statistically oriented Prof Z by saying “Prof Z has a slide rule rather than a penis”) and very informative. Especially, the way the above ideologies accepted by various socio-biologists can colour the schools of thought are pointed out. However, at the end of the day the heated debates on those matters, Prof. Sapolsky writes, are now only a thing of the past and both of the opposing arguments are accepted as plausible explanations.

The above paragraph segues into the topic we want to focus here. Lamarckian ideas were one of the most controversial topics in Evolution until very recent times. Even Prof. Sapolsky mention Lamarck about epigenetically mediated inheritance and makes sure to follow up with the caveat that Lamarckian inheritance is “right in this narrow sense”[14]. The academic restraint is a good thing especially when it comes to controversial viewpoints that are based on blatantly weak premises. However, it can be very detrimental when people reject them like Dr. X mentioned by Prof. Sapolsky on a whim without a profound reason. Especially in the case of Lamarckian inheritance, the professional “Us-Them dichotomy” that perhaps drove Prof. William Bateson of the UK to undermine the work of another fellow scientist without a thorough analysis and further experimentation, led to the tragic death of Dr. Paul Kammerer. The author Arthur Koestler in his book the case of the midwife toad beautifully explains the callousness that might have driven the scientist over the edge[15]. It is true that political manoeuvring by Dr Lysenko or the allegation of fraud on Dr Kammerer’s experimental outcomes did not help the cause of Lamarckism in the West. Another Lamarckian, this time from Australia, who had to reportedly fight the British biological establishment[16] was Dr. Edward Steele who pioneered the idea of crossing Weismann’s barrier via the action of a retrovirus. However, now there is more acceptance for Lamarckian ideas as the experimental data accumulates and neo-Lamarckism is being popularised by the geneticists like Prof. Eva Jablonka and Dr. Marion Lamb and in the likes of the comic book Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide (Icon Books Ltd, 2017). Coming back to Prof. Sapolsky’s book it is sad to see mix-messaging on Epigenetic inheritance. Talking about the inheritance of mothering style in rats, he emphatically discusses the possibility of epigenetic inheritance but is reluctant to accept its impact on neo-Lamarckism by saying epigenetic inheritance “resembles the long-discredited idea about acquired inheritance[17]”.

Dr. Steeles’ mechanism for somatic hypermutation, even though disputed, was something that can be depicted as follows:

External factors à Genomic variation in somatic cells à Retrovirus involvement à Genomic variation in Germline à Darwinian selection

This process combines Darwinian evolution with a Lamarckian pathway. Another hypothetical pathway combining these two schools of thought is given below in Figure 1. This is not a scientific idea as it is speculative and coming from a trespasser into the field. But it is a possibility for a feedback mechanism that provides a complete framework for evolutionary models. As some biologists assume, Prof. Fred Hoyle might not be so naïve to misunderstand the process of natural selection and compare its perceived effect on evolution to a hurricane blowing through a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747[18]. Even though he was not a biologist and the analogy flawed, he had been an intellectual giant who is believed to have missed the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough ideas in Astronomy, due to his unorthodox views. Teleological arguments aside, Boeing 747 is a designed specimen of human ingenuity that came into fruition through years of development by many engineers and technicians, a process of evolution[19]. However, in the landscape of the often-written about history of flight, it all started with an ingenious idea of two brothers in the US. That is, in my opinion, an act of punctuated equilibrium followed by a progression of feedback loops. Here the feedback comes from the humans; an autocatalytic process of ‘behavioural and symbolic inheritance’, two of the four processes suggested in Evolution in Four Dimensions[20] In the cycle in Figure 1 we have Epigenetic inheritance labelled Lamarckian Inheritance as the only known mechanism for passing on environmental and other external influences via somatic cell genomic material. Phenotype can also be a holobiont phenotype.

Figure 1. Hypothetical Feedback Mechanism for a Lamarckian Darwinian Evolution

( To see the figure please visit Humanities Commons)

The above diagram is surely an affront to the scientific purists who would not entertain any idea that is different to what prevails. I am comfortable being an offender here even though I am neither a biologist nor a geneticist and have no right to criticize prevailing scientific authority. When Weismann proved the fallacy of Lamarckism by cutting off tails of mice to emulate the use and disuse, we applaud it as scientific[21]. But we do not have a proof of Weismann barrier like a proof in mathematics, that there is no way that the barrier can be broken. Yet we accept it as if it were a mathematical proof. The same can be said about the natural selection as the sole mechanism for Evolution. Almost everyone in scientific community believes in Evolution but many are not convinced about the tyranny of natural selection promoted by the scholars like Professors. R. A. Fisher, W.D. Hamilton, Ernst Mayr and Richard Dawkins as a complete mechanism. The emergence of ideas like Hologenome theory of Evolution that encompasses all microbes symbiotic to an organism as responsible for the evolutionary process, proves that there is some unease about the completeness of Darwinian mechanism of Evolution even among the elite biologists. Not surprisingly this recent idea includes Lamarckian mechanisms. In my humble opinion, Hologenome theory, with its warts and all, is a ray of sunshine into the now stale ideas around the modern -synthesis-based view of Evolution. This theory is likely to be in symbiosis with the framework in Figure 1. As an afterthought, it is not untimely to keep in mind what Prof. S. J. Gould said in the prologue to his book The Panda’s Thumb (1980) about the evolutionary theory- “fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of mysteries”. I wish Prof. Sapolsky had written about an Evolutionary landscape inclusive of Lamarckian inheritance.


Even though Prof. Sapolsky does not provide new solutions to deal with human aggression, he tells us about its biological roots and makes us look at the aggressors with a broader understanding. He also draws attention to the information on how our modern society creates problem individuals with our parenting choices. Behave also teaches us our behaviours cannot be easily explained as a presence of one factor or an absence of another but as a process conditioned by one or more factors. It also tells us to take responsibility for our actions even though there are biological factors at play. This book is a great read with a wealth of information for a person with some patience.

Reviewed by Darshi Arachige

[1] P574. Fromm, E the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Pimlico,1997; The evil man here implies people with destructive tendencies like Hitler.

[2] P579. Fromm. Love of life is likely to mean the love of humanity.

[3] P24. Wrangham, R and Peterson, D Demonic Males Bloomsbury, 1996

[4] P317. Sapolsky, R

[5] P219. Wrangham, R and Peterson, D

[6] P144. Fromm

[7] P52. Fromm

[8] We only need to have a look at the statistics quoted by the late Prof. Hans Rosling in his book “Factfulness”. Unlike in the past, the majority of the world population live in middle-income countries and expect to live longer than ever before.

[9] P243-247. Wrangham, R and Peterson, D

[10] P58. Fox, R. L the Classical World, Penguin, 2006

[11] As per https://ourworldindata.org/democracy, in 1900, there were only 1 democracy among 112 autocracies. As of 2018, there are 99 democracies and 80 autocracies. Retrieved on 20/02/2021

[12] P248. Wrangham, R and Peterson, D

[13]  Australia is a great example of a sound democratic system even with its flaws like branch-stacking. If the people of a country do not fully participate in the democracy, it is unlikely to be a fully developed democracy. Thus, Australians, virtually any citizen above the age of 18 years incur a fee if they fail to vote at elections reminding them that the democracy is not to be taken for granted.

[14] P230 Sapolsky

[15] In a recent paper (2016) titled ‘An Epigenetic Perspective on the Midwife Toad Experiments of Paul Kammerer (1880–1926)’, JEZ-B, Vol 328; https://doi.org/10.1002/jez.b.22708 argued that the parent of origin effects (i.e., superficially speaking, inheritance of a trait from one of the parents), the parental sex on dominance described by Dr Kammerer can be explained now via current understanding of epigenetics. Thus, after all he may not be a fraud.

[16] To be fair, this is a broad statement. Writing in 1990s in his book Evolutionary Genetics (Chapter 1), Prof. John Maynard-Smith, a high priest of Darwinism, accepts the existence of inheritance outside of germline. Then in mid-1070s the British biologists Robin Holliday and John Pugh pioneered the trend towards modern epigenetics.

[17] P220-221 Sapolsky. The inheritance in such cases may not be stable but it could not be explained as Darwinian. Why then cannot a case of acquired inheritance be accepted? Although Lamarck’s original explanation is flawed, over the years Darwin’s original views have also been modified.

[18] P234. Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin, 1988

[19] Possibly for billions of years, there have been seven major tectonic plates, counting Indo-Australian plate as one. These plates were in different climates and have rocks exposed to various weathers and forms of erosion. But no one has reported, at least to find its way into the internet, a recognisable human shape or a Moai head, sculptured by those millions or billions of waves lapping rocks, gusts of wind sweeping landscapes almost all day or occurrences of rain and sunshine that constantly impact the rock formations. All are gradual processes that continuously occur over a very, very long time. The point is that time and random actions do not always create what makes sense to us but what Nature happens to shape. The creation here comes from the Nature ‘looking for’ the most energy efficient way to flow. In the Darwinian framework, a germline via natural variation will bring forth phenotypic expressions that would be culled by the environment. The selfless gene lets the selfish environment select the phenotype it favours. In case of Lamarckian inheritance, a genome effects the changes making the phenotype suitable for the environment. This, in theory, is an energy efficient process that does not require the intermediate forms to exist.

[20] Jablonka, E and Lamb, M Evolution in Four Dimensions, MIT Press, 2005.

[21] In a hallucination one can visualise a holobiont phenotype that includes some form of virome interacting with consciousness – mind virus. If the mind is just biology as physicalists want us to believe why shouldn’t someone throw the possibility into the mix to explain the difference between chopping off and the use-disuse?

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Kali’s Child – A Search for An Autobiographical Ramakrishna

Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, Jeffrey J. Kripal, University of Chicago Press, 1995 ; Full review available at Humanities Commons

Humanities Commons DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/3php-k973

The following is only some excerpts from the review published at the above web address:

Image of Kali – An iconographic masterpiece or a simple depiction of a Tantric Goddess?

Prof Kripal structured his ‘proof’ of the fundamental hypothesis about the homoerotic nature of Ramakrishna’s ascent to prominence around the stone image of passively reclining Siva and fearsome Kali, naked except for a garland of human heads and a waistband of severed hands, standing with her right foot on Siva’s chest (the plate facing the page 1 of his book). As long as I did not look for the details of the Dakshineshwar temple I only had Prof. Kripal’s depiction of the sexualised image of a naked Kali as a reference point. I was of the impression that this was the image Ramakrishna had in front of him when he was at the shrine of Kali. In the page describing the Kali’s image at Dakshineshwar, the authour somehow omits the details of the Benares saree covering the image described in the passage of Kathamrita that he quotes on page 15. On the same page he paints a picture of a Siva reclining with an erect penis from somewhere else to probably give an unwarranted  impression. The Dakshineshwar temple image only had a very passive Siva[1] to whose image the learned authour attaches an erotic significance arising from Tantric philosophy[2].

The philosophical ideas behind the Kali’s image is far more beautiful that the sexualised image that Prof. Kripal intentionally or unintentionally portrayed. This reminded me on a point made by Prof. Vilayanur Ramachandran in his book “The Emerging Mind” about Chola Bronze of Siva’s cosmic dance[3]. Far beyond its literal meaning the image is a multilayered metaphor that the art critics in Victorian times failed to appreciate. Prof. Kripal even though far more culturally sensitive and appreciative of the Indian philosophy, failed to appreciate the deeper meaning of the image to Ramakrishna.

This masterpiece of an image is wrought with far deeper philosophical idea than a simple Tantric depiction of an erotic play between Siva and Kali. It is disheartening to see ignoring the fact that the Ramakrishna might also have dwelt more on the deeper meaning than the sexualised Tantric idea. According to the verse LIX of Samkya Karika, like a dancing girl, Prkrti exhibits her dance only when Purusha is looking. As soon as Purusha stopped looking, she stops dancing for him. She may still dance for others who are still watching[4].  This metaphor makes Purusha both Brahman, the Absolute and Atman, the individual Self looking on. In Kathopanishad, Purusha is the ultimate cause and the end beyond all ends that merges with Avyakta[5] (Mulaprkrti) to become Para-Brahman. In light of this view, Prkriti is Mulaprkriti after manifestation (Vyakta). Prkrti in union with Purusha forms the ‘creation’ that to be real, should be perceived by the knower[6] via the intellect as differentiated identities. The perceiver to know, together with sense organs, mind, five elements, legs, hands etc, there also should be Purusha in the form of Atman. Prkriti, the Existence as a combined entity embodying both Purusha and Prakriti, becomes manifest to Purusha in the form of Atman co-existing with Prakriti, the knower. Samkya Karika in the verse LII says that Bhavakaya (a creation of intellect) and Lingakaya (a creation of matter) co-exist and are interdependent. Purusha has to suffer the body of matter until the body ceases to function. Prkirti suffers bondage, migrates and is finally released. Purusha is not under bondage, does not migrate nor is emancipated (verse LXII). The above references seem to hint at the physical body and the Self or Atman. The reference to potter’s wheel that still moves even after the body departs indicates the persistence of Self. The Brahman has a duality in Purusha and Prkrti that must act in unison. The duality becomes multitude and the multitude is, in the deeper analysis, still the ultimate truth,  Brahman. In this view, the ‘Prkrti’ is not manifest until perceived by the knower who embodies Purusha. What exists emerges through the interplay among the perceiver, the perceived and the knower. As Kenopanishad says the mind and organs are only evident through the power of Atman, that is same as Brahman [7]. The philosophical view discussed above is anthropocentric[8], recursively layered and rather complex to decipher due to various loosely connected authorships. Continued…..

[1] Fig.10, Harding E.U., Kali: The black goddess of Dakshineshwar, Nicholas-Hays, 1993

[2] ‘.. Tantric image in the Kali temple… is a naked goddess standing on top of the god” p. 22 Kripal J.J, “Kali’s Child”. This is at best a misleading description as the image was not of a naked goddess.

[3] p.67, Ramachandran V., “The Emerging Brain”, Profile Books, 2003

[4] See the interpretation by F. Max Muller in the chapter on Samkya Philosophy in “The six systems of Indian Philosophy”

[5] Avyakta is treated as a seed with the potentiality of a tree inside. But I here interpret it as objects in the dark that becomes visible in the light of perception.

[6] This is my take on Ahamkara

[7] Sivananda, Swami, Essence of Principal Upanishads, The Divine Life Society, 1980

[8] Kathopanishad says that the soul of an ant is same as the soul of an elephant; the soul of all being is identical.

After reading the book I did not feel that the good professor ended up proving what he set out to do. With a lot of assumed connections, he concluded what he wanted. That does not mean the evidence he showed had merit that could go unchallenged. As we discussed he painted for us an image of Kali from a Tantric “textbook” rather than what Ramakrishna paid his homage to at the Kali temple. Furthermore, he ignored the message repeated by Ramakrishna that he assumed the form of child, not a ‘hero’ who followed the vamachara Tantra and thus, never followed Tantra with its full sexual connotations. He yet followed  philosophical underpinnings of Tantra around Kali worship. Ramakrishna dissuaded his followers including Naren from looking at women as sex objects and encouraged them to see the universal mother in the woman. He also clearly stated that following Radhatantra was like entering a house through the latrine. It is strange how Pro. Kripal, ignoring these well-documented discussions in Kathamrita, claimed that Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were erotic. Was it not good science if one accepted what another person asked his followers to do rather than inventing artificial constructs through means like interpretation of his dreams and visions, that were not as obvious?

Secondly, Prof. Kripal willingly or unwillingly ignored Ramakrishna’s genius that he could have misused to fulfil his hidden erotic wishes in devious ways if gratification of desires was his sole drive. I believe Ramakrishna’s genius is a key to his success as a guru and the drive to become who he was. He shaped by the tantric disregard for the entrenched caste system could extend his reach to many people from diverse backgrounds. Because of his Vedantic views of non-duality he saw oneness of everything including the opposites such as good-bad, socially accepted-unaccepted etc. By living as a family man among his devotees he could meet many people that an ascetic could not have encountered.

Lastly, as I listed in the previous section,  there had been several other possibilities to understand Ramakrishna that Prof. Kripal overlooked to prove his hypothesis. By doing so, Prof. Kripal substantially undermined the value of his work as a rational study of his subject, an uncut gem of many facets. This also might have tarnished the image of a genuine mystic whose only wish was to help people partake the mystical experiences he enjoyed. Assumed content around various incidents mentioned by various biographers or claiming that the devotees and disciples were not forthcoming with all the truth about Ramakrishna’s life could not be a part of an evidence-based proof. Thus, I believe that “Kali’s child” fell well short of a proof that Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were actually “profoundly, provocatively, scandalously erotic”.  To reconstruct the autobiographical Ramakrishna from the historical Ramakrishna may well be a task logically impossible.

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A Review of Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World by Judy Grahn, Beacon Press Boston 1993

Memories of certain events from childhood can still be vivid in adulthood. I cannot exactly remember the years but like a face from a distant past some events lurk. A certain young girl, dark in colour and somewhat short in stature, whose guardian was known to our family was brought into our home to see whether she would grow out of her affliction. She seemed to show some strange behaviours. This case was discussed by me in the book, the lure of noma [1]. Being a young boy then, I neither knew what puberty meant nor whether the girl was at puberty. From my viewpoint today, given her looks and the social status it was likely. My memory says that she was only referred to as a girl not a woman. Girls at puberty especially maidservants were known to have the tendency for such strange behaviours. That experience subconsciously led me to my work on puberty rites.

I am now ashamed that I didn’t refer to Blood Bread and Roses by Ms. Judy Grahn in my writings, before this review now being written about ten years after first expressing my opinions on the rituals of menarche. I admire Late Prof. Stephen Jay Gould for his pioneering views about the scientific knowledge. All good ideas need not to be in the form of tightly written journal articles. He set an example by being bold enough to write some of his brilliant scientific opinions for popular columns. I understand almost all of the academic community treat my ideas expressed in a series of accessible papers on the subject of seclusion of girls at puberty with certain amount of disdain. I am neither a feminist nor an anthropologist. I am neither European nor a scholar on European archaeology nor art. I am neither an academic nor a person with any acclaimed credentials like a well-known scientist, philosopher,  writer or a poet. Thus, I didn’t have any standing whatsoever above Ms. Grahn’s was to ignore her work. Today, I feel being unfair to the book  I am now reviewing. In spite of all of that, I then thought I had a reason. When I first came across Ms. Grahn’s book, the authour’s view that menstrual blood attracting dogs led to the seclusion of girls by sending them up trees or into thickets made me really weary of her work. I believe this is unfair treatment of her work on my part and irrespective of my strong reservations, I should have read and mentioned this book in my previous work. But I am glad that I am now making amends to correct that omission. To facts to emerge all opinions should be pondered upon.

Full review as an open source document can be found at Humanities Commons

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Moon and Human Behaviour

This work was a result of a book review I had been working on. Full review of the book will be made available in the future. The book that was being reviewed was Blood Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World by Judy Grahn, Beacon Press, 1993. Around 2009 I first came across the book but did not read it at the time. However, when it grabbed my attention for the second time in the recent past, I was determined to read it. Through this reading with a review in mind, I got the urge to test one of the consistent themes of the book about the influence of moon on the human female and the human culture. The following investigation was based on the simple attempt to see the veracity of the above claim using a dataset available to me. The following is some details about the investigation. This work follows a different way to look into the relationship between moon and humans. Instead of using statistical testing as many scholars generally do, visual observation is given prominence in this investigation. Do the moon’s position and its phase synchronise with the driver behaviour in a visually perceptible way? If they are not, does any number crunching to find evidence in a deeper layer really matter? Perhaps, it is a question that I leave to the experts.

The study in focus here considered the data on road traffic accidents in order to see the influence of the moon on the driver behaviour by way of its position and illumination.  The analysis was based on the visual tools widely used for time series data in time and frequency domains. The present study could not detect any influence of the moon on the traffic accidents. This study does not see a reason for this result not being valid for the human behaviours underpinning similar data.

The overarching hypothesis the current authour worked with was that any link between moon phases or the distance to the moon and the daily traffic accidents should be visible in the periodicities of data. In the sample presented for November 2016 in the Figure 3, any synchronicity between these variables, if it exists, should be apparent.  But there was no significant periodicity of 29 days other than the strong weekly variability in the accident data series. The dominant feature of the accident data across all categories considered in this study was the above mentioned seven-day periodicity dictated by the working week. However, the patterns observed in this study are not universal, partly due to the differences in the nature of data used. For an example, Pape-Kohler et al (2014) reported that in their study using the data from Germany, they saw the highest number of severely injured road trauma cases admitted to hospital on Saturdays. Their explanation for the trauma cases were mainly based on the daily peak traffic periods. They also couldn’t see any influence of lunar phase on the number of trauma cases. What we may also have to remember in the studies of this nature is that it is not easy to unravel the cultural entanglement between our modern-day behaviours and conventional constraints on our daily lives. The working week universally ends after Friday and only begins again on Monday. Our week is 7 days and four weekly cycles give us a period that is very close to the lunar month and our standard month in the Gregorian Calendar. When future work habits blur the weekdays and weekends, there may be a different picture emerging that does not relate to the weekly cycle and hence, not tied to the lunar month. This may help to untangle any influence of the moon, if there exists one, extraneous to the habit-forming human behaviours.  


Pape-Kohler C. I. A, Simanski C, Nienaber U and Lefering R (2014) External factors and the incidence of severe trauma: Time, date, season and moon, Injury, Int. J. Care Injured, 45S (2014) S93–S99 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.injury.2014.08.027

Currently, the full paper can be accessed at Humanities Common as a paper yet to be approved.

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Some Thoughts on the Nature of Reality

Summary The following few pages contain few thoughts on reality in general, Kantian view of it, whether mathematics captures it and why reality is an interconnected phenomenon. This is not a comprehensive essay on reality but some personal views that may be useful in understanding our grasp of reality.

What does my reality means? On one wintry night I reversed my car out of a parking space and was about to move forward. Then I noticed another car reversing out of the parking space next to where I had parked. I froze in time and was wishing my car would not be hit. But the little thud happened. Later when I recalled the incident, I only could think of a rear of a black car softly bumping the front bumper bar of my car. But the photos showed a dark maroon coloured car instead of a black car. The image my mind built was taking into account the darkness of the surrounds. My perceptions are not always the reality. The world I perceive can be coloured by many things including the ambient light. Unless we are unconscious or asleep, we live in the world of our minds rather than in our bodies. With every passing second, our existence becomes one of the mind rather than one of the body. Our life before this exact second is a series of memories, at times, jumbled up. Aptly, as Plato wrote about teachings of Heraclitus, “nothing ever is, everything is becoming” (Russell, 1961). In a book review I wrote previously I talked about three types of human existence based on memories, namely biographical, autobiographical and historical . Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” becomes more complicated. Descartes asks “How could one deny that these hands and that my whole body exist?” (Cahn,1990). Do I have a continuous existence, even in the constant flux, as I am a ‘thinking being’? Am I the ‘thinking being’ as perceived by myself and as remembered by others? The person who remembered the colour of the car as black in my previous anecdote is the same person who experienced the accident as my memories link me back to the accident. But my memory failed me and I am now months older. Can a memory of a past dream get spliced with my other memories and create a new reality? Thus, the reality of our existence possibly is subjective at best and Descartes’ body in front of the fireplace feeling his hands is simply a continuum of momentary proprioception and thought. Our biographical existence together with our autobiographical and historical exitance make us feel real. Basically, our existence or reality in general is not an isolated phenomenon but a whole consisting of collection of frames of reference .

This article in full is available at Humanities Commons  http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/d745-b825

Related Article:
Visual Intelligence; How We Create What We See by Donald D. Hoffman, W. W. Norton, New York, 2000

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Visual Intelligence; How We Create What We See by Donald D. Hoffman, W. W. Norton, New York, 2000- A Review

This is a review of the book on visual intelligence written by Prof. Donald D. Hoffman. This review questions the view that we create what we see. It is argued that we rather create a representation of reality. This view is peddled using a discussion around frames of reference.

Few days ago I was sitting on in the first compartment of a stationary train at a busy station. Looking through the windows I could see another stationary train on the adjacent platform. I could only see the train, nothing else, on that side. When I casually looked at the other train after few minutes, I felt very uneasy and almost dizzy. I was overwhelmed by the thought that my train was moving fast even though I couldn’t feel it. My logical faculties were affirming me all along that it was the other train that was moving. But, it seemed like my body didn’t want to believe it. My disbelief perplexed my thinking so much so that I didn’t turn my head to the other side of the train I was sitting on. This is a very real experience about the dissociation between the vision and the signals from the rest of the body. It is also an example about reality challenged by ‘virtual reality’. Something implicit in this example was a voice, however feeble it may be, against reductionism. It is the whole individual who would coax the brain for interpretation, not just the visual cues.

Find the full article here at HUMANITIES COMMONS  (“Humanities Commons is a project of the office of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association and a trusted, nonprofit network where humanities scholars can create a professional profile, discuss common interests, develop new publications, and share their work.” )

Even though Prof. Hoffman’s book mainly focuses on the way we see the world, it is about the way we perceive the world in general. Prof. Hoffman fills the book with many examples from his wealth of experience, making it a tour de force in a moderately academic context. Thus, the book is not for the feeble minded who want to enjoy a quick and easy read. First six chapters of the book discuss the rules behind the way we see what we see and how we see the movement. With his experience in computing, Prof. Hoffman cannot be faulted for looking for rules to build algorithms usable in vision software. Given the sheer number of rules one wonders why the vision is so complex and overburdened by such a nexus of rules. The examples and rules remind one of the attempts of the proponents of Gestalt Theory to come up with laws to understand figure-ground issue. Here it is good to remind ourselves that figure-ground phenomenon is tied up with ambiguous figures.

The question I struggled with was the inefficiency that can be created by such a complex rule based system. One cannot stop wondering what sort of complex structure of reasoning our genes should construct to see what we see. On the other hand, if we look at the examples Prof. Hoffman gives in the book it is not difficult to see that almost all of the examples are about two dimensional projections of the three dimensional world. As he says on p.23 a two dimensional image showing depth “has countless interpretations in three dimensions.” Should we, then, use such projections and build rules around why the eye interprets ambiguous two dimensional images the way it does? I believe this is more of a way to infuse algorithmic thinking into a process which is less complex in a more pragmatic sense.

As Prof. Hoffman reiterates, we live in a three dimensional world. Our eyes have evolved over long period of time to see the world in three dimensions. If we use the hackneyed argument from adaptationist viewpoint, any creature using vision to live on the earth should protect themselves in a three dimensional environment. Two dimensional images don’t matter much as they occur in a three dimensional background naturally as shadows and silhouettes. Thus, I believe many of the rules described in Prof. Hoffman’s book can be merged to form a simpler structure for three dimensional vision unless we wish to develop computer algorithms.

  1. Phenomenal world we live is three dimensional.
  2. Irrespective of the two dimensional nature of retinal images, our visual systems have been shaped by Nature to live in a three dimensional phenomenal world.
  3. Perception of hues, bundled here with brightness and saturation, and perspective is entrenched in such visual systems.
  4. Over millions of years, eyes have been designed by Nature to look for three dimensional shapes and their defining features.

In my opinion, as an intruder into the realms trodden by experts and academics such as Prof. Hoffman, these are the basic rules which govern our vision. Human eye has not evolved to see the world in two dimensions. All the visual constructions Prof. Hoffman included in his book to show how we create what we see are two dimensional and hence, deceptive to the eye. Thus, I propose we need to be critical as to whether the arguments in the book about Visual Intelligence hold much water in the phenomenal world.

Let us have a look at Fig. 1 below showing white squares on white and black rectangular backgrounds. If you keep looking at them for a while you can see either a tunnel ending in a well-lit space or a flat-topped pyramid. Eye is struggling to create three dimensional visuals with ambiguous two dimensional pictures. Fig. 2 shows grey boxes of two different sizes on black background. Irrespective of what is obvious as figure and ground, both boxes can be seen either as a grey box or a space with two vertical walls and a floor. Why doesn’t this happen with the “attached boxes” of Whitman Richards and Allan Jepson (p.30)? If we ignore the small box for a second we can see two walls attached to a ceiling instead of a floor. But this visual is not sustainable as the small box is not aligned to such a view. It cannot be seen as a similar space attached to a ceiling as the lines guiding the eye are not aligned for both boxes. One box is rectangular in shape while the other is more of a square shaped box.

All of this may tell us something intriguing about our vision. Given Prof. Chomsky’s views about an innate grammar we are all born with, it is not hard to imagine the existence of a visual vocabulary. We all remember that Ancient Egyptians used a language based on pictograms. Modern Chinese still uses logograms representing visual cues. In contrast to these flat-world languages, we may have a built-in visual vocabulary in 3-D which will be called in whenever we see something. As the vocabulary is in three dimensions, finding a meaning for a two dimensional image with ambiguous three dimensional undertones is always difficult. Eye may stretch itself to find meaning in the image. It may change the hue, perspective or movement to try different interpretations.

Fig 1. White square within white and black rectangular backgrounds (See the full article at Humanities Commons)

Fig 2. Grey 3-D boxes in black background(See the full article at Humanities Commons)

Some of the ideas in the book are important in the selection of meaning of such ambiguous images. As Prof. Hoffman says in p.121, our ‘visual intelligence tries to find the lowest cost solutions’. If it can be further interpreted this may mean the most energy efficient and effective solution to a visual problem. Unfortunately, some tricky images with no real existence presented to the eye can be costly and inefficient as the eye had evolved to work with our three dimensional world.

Philosophical Implications of Visual Intelligence and Frames of Reference

Now please forgive me for encroaching the philosophers’ territory. To look at the next chapters of the book, it is necessary to invoke some philosophical musings. Some of the views expressed here are not in agreement with age-old philosophical traditions and thus, are invariably arguable. Unfortunately, these heretical views are required for the following discussion. Prof Hoffman discusses the virtual reality and brain research relevant to our perceptions such as synaesthesia and phantom pain. He also looks at the phenomenal brain and relational brain. Phenomenal brain constructs what we see. But it is present only when we perceive something. On the other hand, relational brain is the one which sustains the object when we are not aware of it. Berkeley attributed this to God who constantly perceives the material world. Prof. Hoffman says he carefully chose the word “construct” to describe the visual process (p.196-7) to avoid mixing the phenomenal and relational aspects. He believes if he uses the word “recover” or “reconstruct” it can mean recovering or reconstructing the forms of objects existing externally through our vision. In my opinion, this reservation arises due to lack of reference to the representational nature of our sensory inputs.

It is more fashionable in current times to explain our mind and our reality in terms of artificial intelligence. In a physicalist world everything is mechanistic. Our brain works like a computer consisting of myriad of binary circuits. Mind is simply physical processes arising from the central nervous system. This may not be far-fetched. But it can only be a science fiction until the immense gap between a modern super computer and the brain becomes more imaginable. No artificial intelligence system has so far passed the long form of imitation game. Even if such a system will pass the test one day, it might be doing it like a person in Searle’s Chinese room.   What about virtual reality? Until we can call a robot a human or at least an early hominid, it may be far-fetched to imagine our reality in terms of virtual reality. Prof. Hoffman doesn’t want to be a part of these arguments and he does this by avoiding the relational aspects of our sensory inputs.

Should or shouldn’t we consider the relational aspect of our perceptions to describe the reality? I believe it is not quite right to say that we construct what we perceive. What we construct is only a ‘representation’. That representation is a result of our senses and our interpretation of the sensory input. If the existential frame of reference tied to the sensory input is compromised by any physical defect, the representation can become ‘particular’ for the frame of reference rather than becoming ‘universal’. Thus, the world and ‘reality’ are about sets of frames of reference. In a relativistic sense, a stationary observer will see something different to a moving observer. But the object that both see, is on its own frame of reference. Thus, all phenomenal and relational existences are relative to specific frames of reference. Reality exists in a relative sense. When I see a tree the representation of the tree I see is subject to a set of frames of reference comprising of two key types. We can use these two key types of frames, namely, existential frame of reference and relational frame of reference in space-time continuum to build a set of frames of reference. I think and thus, I am. This Cartesian view is defined within the co-ordinate system of my existential frame of reference. If I am colour blind, my interpretation of the image of the tree is of a different hue and will become a relational frame of reference that links me with the tree. If someone with normal vision sees the same tree at the same moment, that person will see the colour of tree which is ‘universally’ accepted and will become a relational frame of reference linking that observer with the tree. When none of us are watching, the tree still exists attached to the co-ordinate system determining its existential frame of reference. If the tree ‘can sense’ both of us, it may have two relational frames of reference about being observed. Thus, I believe we don’t create what we see. What we do is constructing a representation of what we see with respect to a set of frames of reference. The objects giving rise to the representations exist independent of relational frames of reference.

Existential Frames of Reference and Berkley’s God

As the above discussion spurs us to think, the world we live in is full of frames of reference. A reality of any animate or inanimate agent is the existential frame of reference attached to its system of co-ordinates. No one can deny its reality as it is independent of any relational frame of reference. Virtual reality created at the Virtual Reality Exhibit described on p.185 has no existential reality independent of the existential and relational frames of reference to the super computer and software. It is like the experience I had on the train. As soon as the computer is turned off or the software running to create the virtual world is closed, the virtual reality ceases to exist. But if the above mentioned tree is moved to a different location, it still exists and the movement traces a series of existential frames of reference in a space-time continuum. Thus, our waking state or ‘life’ in general is not like a dream as Mahayana School of Buddhists would like us to believe in their concept of Vijnapthi Matrata. A dream is more like a virtual reality that we earlier touched upon as the dream depends on the existential frame of reference of the dreamer. Thus, in my view, the reality or the objective world exists if we rein in our unconstrained philosophising. This helps us realise that we do not create what we see. We can replace Berkley’s God with existential frames of reference and experience the existence independent of our sensory inputs.

Prof. Hoffman’s book that I read with great enthusiasm was an interesting journey about ourselves. But it may not be for the travel-weary reader.


Darshi Arachige 5th Sept. 2017


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The Shroud of Turin: Where should Research Lead?

The website you are on is about the coexistence of Science and Religion. The topic of this post is about an object where Science has met Religion or rather Religiosity. The Shroud of Turin has been a very controversial object of veneration. Many devout Christians believe the Shroud to be the authentic cloth which covered the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Some vehemently reject the Shroud as a Medieval fakery. In spite of the critics, the Shroud stands as a rallying point for the faithful. Without being sure that the Shroud is a fakery from all possible angles, shrugging it off as a fakery after some evidence to support is neither scientific nor reasonable. The paper accessible via the link below is an appeal for a sensible way forward.

ARACHIGE, Darshi. Revisiting the Analysis of 1988 Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, [S.l.], v. 4, n. 13, july 2017. Available at: <http://scholarpublishing.org/index.php/ASSRJ/article/view/3418/1932>. Date accessed: 13 july 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14738/assrj.413.3418

This paper looks at the well known analysis of 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud from a new statistical perspective using standard statistical methodologies. The main feature of this paper are embracing of the so-called statistical outliers and considering them as useful information. The major conclusion is that despite the contrary views, the 1988 determinations stand as the most likely given the sampling method used. Thus, research effort should not be wasted on proving that the cause for recent radiocarbon dates was due to the fact that the sample tested in 1988 was contaminated. Research now should be directed at the Shroud as a whole. The paper used the software package R extensively.

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Correcting an Incorrect Reference

In several previous articles and posts published on this website and elsewhere on the internet, this writer  referred to the book “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes with incorrect year of publication.

The correct reference should be:

Clottes, J (2008) Cave Art Phaidon

Sincere apologies for any concerns caused by this.


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Has the Oldest Enigma of Humanity been really solved?

A review of The Oldest Enigma of Humanity: The Key to the Mystery of the Paleolithic Cave Paintings, Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrère   (Translated by M G Lynch), Arcade Publishing, New York, 2014

I bought the book by Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrère with keen interest to see how the mystery around Paleolithic Cave Paintings has been solved. The book is small and easy to read. First few chapters of the book are about Mr David’s entry to the subject. I skipped parts of these chapters to get to the content I was eager to read. I found myself to be little disappointed with the way the key idea of the book was argued for. Their idea was simple yet needed supportive evidence. Early people used figurines of animals to cast shadows on the cave walls with the help of the ‘flickering’ flames of lamps. It is known that there is an abundance of animal figurines from the Paleolithic Period. Not only figurines but also the lamps were discovered in these Paleolithic Caves. The authour himself acknowledges the difficulty of producing a traceable image using the suggested technique. “Yet no matter how many times I tried, I never managed to arrive at a helpful rule of thumb that would make it possible to consistently obtain a clear shadow, or even discernible one for that matter”p79.

If making a shadow is such a vexing task, how could the early man do it in a deep dark cave? If the lamps were burning for a long time inside the cave they should have definitely blackened the cave roof. But one can argue that they used a method that was similar to what I used to do as a child to collect the soot from oil lamps. They might have placed a shiny side of a dry bark over the lamp to collect the soot, which they in turn used to draw in black.

The authours claim that when they came up with their idea, they didn’t know about Mr Matt Gatton’s work, which shows some similarities to theirs. According to them, Mr Matt Gatton imagined that camera obscura effect might have created a ‘negative’ image of an animal on a ‘plaquette’ that Paleolithic painters used for creating its ‘positive’ image on the cave wall (p. 111). Mr Matt Gatton in a series of papers (Gatton, M (2010) Pleistocene Coalition News Vol 2 (3) May-June p4-5, Vol 2(4) July-Aug p6-7 and Vol 2(5) Sep-Oct p8-9) explained how an appropriate size of hole on the tent of Paleolithic people could act as a camera obscura (“Paleo-Camera”), which could cast inside the tent an inverted image of an animal lurking outside. This inverted image can be traced on to a surface like a paver stone some examples of which were found in the caves. The image was small and had to be transferred onto the walls of caves via a process of projection somewhat similar to Mr David’s. However, Mr David observes that these drawings on free-standing surfaces are markedly different to the cave paintings in composition. Jean Clottes in his book on cave art agrees and says, in the least in respect of one cave, “the artists who made them [sandstone plaquettes found in Les Trois-Freres] were therefore not the same ones who had access to that cave walls.” (p244 of Cave Art, Phaidon).

Furthermore, Mr Gatton’s idea seems to be somewhat convoluted for the creation of a cave art. Why do someone go through such a process when Mr David’s process is simpler. Animals are always moving and it is very difficult to imagine that they would stay quite until an artist traces the image on to some surface. Mr Gatton and Dr Leah Carreon (Gatton, M and Carreon, L (2012) Pleistocene Coalition News Vol 4 (4) July-August p1-3) uses probabilistic arguments to prove that these ancestors of ours might have seen camera obscura effect at least one per cent of the time in a day (a range of 1-8% per day). The existence of the said effect doesn’t mean a lot because observing camera obscura effect doesn’t prove that these artists used it to create the prehistoric images. On the other hand, I also believe their conclusions are confusing, to say the least. On the basis of the assumptions and deductions used to derive their probabilities they can only draw conclusions about the year not the day. Their sample space for estimating various probabilities about factors such as the weather and dwelling’s exposure to sunlight consists of the year. Thus, one should wonder how  they can interpret their final probability as chances per day. In this light, even the probability of observing a camera obscura effect should be far lower than what Mr Gatton and Dr Carreon believe, i.e. between one to eight times in a 100 year period. In the final analysis, the said probabilities don’t add much value anyway. One imaginative individual with the bright idea was very probably all that was required. The rest could be taken care of by the diffusion of innovation. Even though none of the points in the above discussion prove that Mr David’s approach is better, it makes it equally important contender. In favour of Mr David’s method, we can say that the artist didn’t have to go through the extra step of using the camera obscura effect to create a mobile art. The only trouble with Mr David’s method is adjusting the light to get the image displayed on the wall.

There are some other counter-arguments to the reasoning provided in support of Mr David’s method of creating cave paintings. One such argument is about the relative difficulty of the method in contrast to some easier ones. The early ancestors could have drawn these images on an animal hide in daylight, cut the shapes using their stone implements and used those cutouts to draw the outlines of animals inside the caves. If they had some supernatural theme associated with this practice, it would have been very easy for them to find time to perform the above task. As we know the areas where there was light, were usually avoided by these early painters. They could have done the drawing on an animal hide at the area near the opening of the cave and the finished product might have been carried inside to trace it on to the wall. Perhaps, few people held these cutouts on to the wall and others drew the outline. The painters did not need any extra light at all. Like reading Braille writing, a cutout can be easily traced even if there’s very faint light or no light at all. Let us assume that the pubescent girls lived inside these caves as a ritual practice in Paleolithic period (Reflections on Palaeolithic Cave Art, Girls at Puberty and the Origin of Religion, published in Social Science Research Network – SSRN). They had been secluded and had nothing much to do. They had all the time to draw an image on a hide, cut it out and use it to trace an image inside the cave as a collective activity.

The second argument is concerned with the ease of testing Mr David’s hypothesis. It is easy to reverse-engineer the process and work out what the distances involved and the size of the figurines required to come up with the images on the wall had to be. Did they have enough space inside the caves to do all the manoeuvres needed to get the images right? Such a process will be almost like a definitive proof of the feasibility of Mr Davis’ hypothesis and doesn’t involve all the work discussed in the book as a proof of concept. It seems strange that the authors of the book didn’t use the above scenario to build a strong case for their hypothesis.

Thus, the Oldest Enigma of Humanity sadly is yet to be solved.

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Imagined Orders, Chains of Memories and Biographical Existence: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari, Harvill Secker, London 2014

(The following review is also available on-http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A3JKA0SXRYPNWY/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pdp?ie=UTF8)

When people talk about fiction they describe extremely readable fiction as ‘unputdownable’. Dr Harari’s book, though being a non-fiction, is such a unputdownable book. As he says in the acknowledgement, it may be the result of the influence of Diego Olstein who wanted Dr Harari to write a story. Whatever the cause was or whoever the owner of the guiding hand was, reading ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ was a pure pleasure. It was a treasure trove of factual information presented in an absolutely absorbing manner.


Imagined Order

The chapter titled ‘Building Pyramids‘ is one of the most thought provoking chapters in the book. Dr Hararis’ discussion about the imagined order is something I read with great enthusiasm. As he says myths are stronger than anyone could have imagined. As humans we build myths around us; myths about some features marking a territory on the land, myths about heroes who saved the country or the nation and so on. These myths about country, nation, religion and law etcetera are so strong we consider them as causes worthy of even sacrificing our dear lives. The power of imagined order is derived from its inter-subjectivity. Not only an individual believe in the existence of these institutions but also his or her friends and relatives equally believe. Thus, the myths become reality.

I entertain a very similar viewpoint over a long time. Early Indian philosophers of Mahayana Tradition called the world around us ‘Maya’ which is subjective reality or an illusion. They compare it to a dream. At the end of the dream, we are left with a pile of memories, which used to be so real in the dream. I believe each one of us lives in three domains. The essence of Human life is just a chain of memories[1]. Memories are the only factor which runs through the time a person lives. As Heraclitus would say, our physical bodies are in a constant flux. From a person’s point of view, every moment she lives, is a subjective memory. Through these retained memories, the person sees her existence as reality. This is also true in a Cartesian sense. Then, the same person lives in others’ retained memories. These are our objective memories. Thus, objective memories are always an externality. The third aspect is memories about our memories. Here we lose the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. I may consider an episode from my own dream as a memory. Someone looks at a familiar photograph or recall an incident from the past. That causes a memory of a memory. Dr. Harari’s description of the imagined order is an extension of these memories. We hold the memories about the myths so dear. People around us also do the same. Then, we compare notes through their retained memories and fall in line with the myth. Memories about these memories play havoc in our minds blurring the boundary between reality and myth.

Inverted Pyramid of Memories

Due to these memories, a person lives his or her own life in three different domains. We may call the domain centred on subjective memories autobiographical existence. Then the person lives in other people’s memories or objective memories, which demarcate his or her biographical existence. The third domain is about memories of memories and builds the historical existence. I believe these three domains about our existence build the social order Dr Harari calls “imagined order”. Like genes, in Dr Richard Dawkins’ terms, for our memories the bodies are just vehicles. That is why we inadvertently see history is just the extended existence. Why did I write about the social structures and the structures we build on personal level? What is the relevance? This simply shows that one’s life is an inverted pyramid of memories, which is so fragile and deserves no genuine right to wage war or suppress others on the grounds of the imagined realities. This is not an invitation to a world without war but to a world more introspect and circumspect.

Dr Harai also makes this point very clear in the chapter about Empires – Imperial Visions. He tells us that societies are more complex than what they seem to be. Many a time Empire builders plundered the riches of the subjugated people and laid the land to waste. But then trough the ashes of the old people and culture, another group of people and social structures emerge. Dr Harari provides many examples from the history. But his contribution lies in his argument about reciprocity between the victors and the vanquished. The new orders, which emerge absorb many aspects from both parties. Then after a while the newly emerged societies like the Modern Indians who still adore the remnants of the British Raj, immerse in the new imagined order. New imagined order is not about the forgotten memories. It is all about the retained memories reinforced by the daily experiences. As Dr Harari justifiably points out the modern Indian Nationalists who point fingers towards the havoc caused by the British Occupation, have forgotten that some of the things hold so dear by them are simply the remnants of the old raj. Their fight is about some mixed-up retained memories.

Science and Mathematics

But I regret Dr Harari’s total commitment to the infallibility of Science and Mathematics. However precise these endeavours are they are not infallible. The defence is that science is a learning process based on our acceptance of ignorance. That is very true. But the downside is that science is fast becoming a dogma. We are scared of religion as it prescribes what reality is or should be. We question when a human being from long ago tried to convince that there is a creator God. But no one question us when the physicists insist that the universe resulted from a singularity-destroying Big Bang. Perhaps, as Dr Harari claims, the difference arises from the fact that, we can see no mathematics in the Bible or the Quran. Thus, the religion has no basis to exist. Here, I do not intend to justify religion. But I wonder mathematics is a sufficient and necessary condition to justify a point of view. Wright brothers simply built an aeroplane to prove that man can fly.

I always believe that the languages of Science, namely, Logic and Mathematics, are human inventions and thus, may prove fallible at times. This is not due to the method itself but mainly due to the priories and assumptions on which the method builds on. Thus, there is some likelihood that these too may not be means to absolute truth. On the other hand, there are people who come up with theories with no mathematical arguments. Take Darwin for an example. Apart from Theory of Evolution, he argued that the man had to arise in Africa due to the presence of many big Apes there. As far as modern ideas go, he is right. Another example comes from another biologist. As Prof John Maynard Smith says in ‘Did Darwin get it right?‘, in proposing Selfish Gene Hypothesis, Prof Richard Dawkins didn’t use any mathematics. On the other hand, a very mathematical arguments are not always right. As Prof Roger Penrose points out in the chapter on ‘The quantum particle‘ of ‘The Road to Reality‘ great physicist Schrodinger himself was worried that his equations couldn’t describe the quantum jumps or the state change between particles and waves. Even in case of Statistics, we only see a way of formalising our views of nature. Probability is just an explanation of reality. We only see one realisation of an ensemble of possibilities. We cannot explain why an unbiased coin flip resulted in a Head rather than a Tail at specific point in space and time. We can only talk about the long run outcome. Thus, Mathematics and Logic only can provide a basis to understand the natural world. As we all know, E=mc2 doesn’t tell the universe how the matter and energy should behave. It is just an explanation for the observed behaviour of the matter and energy. But this explanation, for Humankind, opened up a new universe of possibilities.

Thus, in my view, science is just a formalised process to systematically acquire knowledge and mathematics is a universal language to articulate and formalise our views about such knowledge. As Professor Penrose points out with regard to quantum mechanics, the mathematical formalism tells us nothing about an actual quantum reality of the world. Most of us agree that it is wrong and unethical to spread unconfirmed views about the universe and our existence for personal or collective gain; be it religion or science. It is also wrong to subjugate alternative views simply because they do not fall into the accepted fold of ideologies. My view is that it is wrong to subjugate ideas not aligning with my own perspectives by forming schools of thought to exert power and influence. Dr Harari touches upon this point when he talks about research funding. If the ideas are wrong prove them to be so using logic and with same respect and let them die a natural death. Let the science be lit by the spark from the clash of ideas rather than be overshadowed by a gloomy mist of powerful voices and strong prejudices.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding who we are and what we have become as a species.

[1] Buddhists would prefer a train of thoughts to a chain of memories. This fleeting existence is momentarily true. But, in retrospect, we only retain our memories about our thoughts. Please also note my comparison of Maya to a dream in this instance is not entirely accurate. Mahayanists rather view life as a dream.  

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