Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The BS Column: Darwin's Savage Reviewers

(Published in the Business Standard, November 24, 2009)

On this day, one hundred and fifty years ago, the publishing house of John Murray brought out a condensed and abridged treatise on The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in a first printing of 1,250 copies.

The author, Charles Darwin, was delighted when John Murray ordered a second printing of 3,000 copies in the wake of public demand, and when the first printing in the United States of America ran to 2,500 copies. He considered this tremendously successful for a scientific work on the then obscure field that would become known as evolutionary biology. Over the next 150 years, Origin of Species would become one of the most widely read, reprinted and discussed works in the history of science.

Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection have had a massive influence on almost every aspect of contemporary thought. Companies and governments alike often abuse the principle of survival of the fittest. The emphasis on the evolution from man from other species has led animal rights thinkers to the argument that we will, eventually, have to cede non-human species more respect and rights than we are currently willing to offer. And Darwin’s exploration of mating practices in the animal kingdom as part of sexual selection influences a slew of dating games and tactics. It’s incredibly difficult, if you’re a thinking person in the 21st century, to try and imagine a world where we didn’t take the principles of evolution for granted.

Except in one field, where the opposition to Darwin’s The Origin of Species has always been fierce—religion. In the wake of the publication of Origin, the Church found itself split. The Bishop of Oxford came out fiercely against Darwin’s theory of evolution, as did the Church of England faction in general; but liberal Christians were able to support Darwin’s ideas.

Darwin followed these debates with great emotion, complaining bitterly against one reviewer: “But the manner in which he drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base.” A few lines later, he was more composed, thanking his friend J D Hooker for his support: “You have cockered me up to that extent, that I now feel I can face a score of savage Reviewers.”

And he has them still, a century and a half after The Origin of Species came out. In that time, there has been little scientific refutation of Darwin’s theories. But opposition to evolution comes from three unlikely, ill-assorted groups. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a valiant opponent of Darwinism, if the least influential of his critics today. ISCKON’s The Darwin Delusion draws from Intelligent Design rather than classic creationism to make its arguments. Author Lalithanatha Dasa says, “Darwinism is, more than anything else, the singular cause of atheism in our time.”

Creationism in its current US avatar is a well-funded and influential movement. Schools of creationist thought vary widely, but the basic text is the Book of Genesis, and in the creationist view, the timeline of human evolution is drawn from the Bible. (This seems to lead, as far as the newly established Creationist Museum demonstrates, to an obssession with dinosaurs and the belief that they were still walking the earth long after the fossil record would indicate possible, but that’s another story.)

Where US creationism has been most successful is in the challenging of the teaching of evolution in schools, and in its demand that creationism be taught alongside—preferably as an equally established scientific theory, despite the complete lack of scientific proof, but at any rate as a valid belief system. The debate over mixing science with religion is an ongoing, fierce, take-no-prisoners one, and it has had far-reaching effects on the equally ferocious free speech and censorship debate.

Though they have little else in common, the Genesis-inspired creationists and the burgeoning school of Islamic creationists are united in their hatred of Darwin. In bookstores in Turkey (and New Delhi’s Nizamuddin), you can find entire shelves devoted to theories of Islamic creationist belief. Harun Yahya/ Adnan Okhtar, the man who has written the 800-page standard text on Islamic creationism, is a fascinating figure. Condensed, Yahya’s views are that the world may well have been created billions of years ago, but that the creatures in it exist in the same form that they were originally created, by God. (There is a rather magnificent comparison between Darwinists and the wicked Pharaohs of Egypt, a must-read on Yahya’s website.)

If the first 150 years of the theory of evolution saw a battle between the Church and Darwinists, accompanied by growing acceptance of Darwin’s ideas among the scientific establishment, the next 50 years is likely to see a broader battle, between religious dogma and science, censorship and free speech. The power of Darwin’s theories can be seen, to a great extent, in the ferocity of the resistance currently being offered to them. Reason and scientific proof may yet win the day, but this is in some senses a very medieval, 21st century war.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book review: The Museum of Innocence

(Published in Mail Today, November 2009)

The Museum of Innocence
Orhan Pamuk
Faber and Faber
POUINDS 12.99, 536 pages
ISBN 978-0-571-23699-2

“What I am trying to explain,” Orhan Pamuk wrote in Istanbul (2005), “is the huzun (melancholy) of an entire city, of Istanbul.”

Pamuk, the most celebrated of Turkey’s writers, has had to carve out an unusual path in his decades of writing. Unlike his contemporaries in Turkey, he gives himself the freedom to see his country with a clear, unsparing eye. Unlike writers from the West, he must explain the culture his writing is steeped in. Instead of explaining Istanbul or Turkey, though, he reinvents and reimagines this world for an audience that could just as well be sitting in Istanbul’s cafes as Europe’s salons, or India’s metropolises.

The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s first novel after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, is ostensibly about love and obsession. It’s also an evocation of huzun, a meditation on the attractions and uses of melancholy.

“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” There is a precision to this moment, as there is to the rest of Kemal’s story—it happens “on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three”, as he enters his lover from behind, and nothing in his life will ever be the same again. Kemal is rich, successful, on the brink of the perfect marriage to Sibel, a girl from a similarly privileged Istanbullu family, and what will change his life is the oldest story in the world—his love for Fusun, a shopgirl, and a distant relative from an impoverished branch of Kemal’s family.

If this sounds like the storyline of a Turkish—or an Indian—melodrama, Pamuk sets up the echo deliberately. The Museum of Innocence is a straightforward tale of desire and obsession; an unusual form for the master of the baroque plot to choose, almost a reversion to the early 21st century Marquezian or Nabokovian explorations of the topography of love. Fusun and Kemal occupy the no-man’s-land between the conventional demands of Istanbul society, and its yearning for the beguiling but dangerous freedom of the individual promised by the West.

The definition of love Pamuk offers in The Museum of Innocence is “deep attention” blended with “deep compassion”; Kemal’s obsession with Fusun is a function of the painful, acutely focused attention he finds himself compelled to offer--as with lovers down the ages, for no good reason. Rendered impotent with his fiancee, he retreats, Sibel by his side, from the round of parties and opulent amusements that govern their “insular, intimate” circle, but the relationship ends; Fusun marries someone else; and Kemal spends eight years at the edges of her life, a guest at her family’s very middle-class dining table, a possible source of funds for the film she wants to make and star in, a casual but committed drunk.

Released from the glittering but airless world of crumbling privilege he was born into, Kemal discovers the vivid and corrupt world of Turkey’s film-makers, who aspire to make art films, sometimes make melodramas, and must usually survive by making or dubbing soft porn films. By the 400th page, the reader knows that this tale will have a conventional, dramatic twist; and Pamuk delivers as expected.

It’s a conventional storyline, but what lifts The Museum of Innocence into the realm of the classic is Pamuk’s understanding of the frailty of love, and the fierce effort needed to maintain it.

Rising up alongside the figure of the lovers is the ghost of Istanbul, a city struggling to be remembered, known, familiar, mired in its own melancholy, reaching for change even as it holds on to the sexual and social shibboleths of the past. And Kemal’s closest kin are not other lovers, but the obsessive collectors of Istanbul, whose homes fill up with the accumulated memorabilia of a city just as he allows the many rooms of his life to be filled with shrines to a love often consummated but never possessed. The last chapter is turned over to the figure of Orhan Pamuk, allowing the writer to make a cameo appearance in his work.

The Istanbul he evokes is familiar to readers of his previous work, and The Museum of Innocence is as much a tribute to its lost, forgotten icons as it is to the power of first love. Turkey’s first domestic fruit soda, Meltem; a floral batiste handkerchief folded carefully by Fusun; a modified Nisantasi map of Istanbul; tombala sets and salt-shakers, New Year’s lottery tickets, china dogs, 4,213 of Fusun’s cigarette butts, bottles of Altun Damla cologne, everything that might be found in the locked glass cabinets of a well-off Istanbullu’s home.

The Museum of Innocence is not Pamuk’s most ambitious work, but it is his most evocative. And Pamuk retains his ability to surprise, even within the bounds of convention. Three-fourths through his lushly told but straightforward narrative, Pamuk reaches Chapter 69, where every sentence, for four pages, begins with the word ‘Sometimes’. The young Pamuk would have felt the need to exhibit his literary exuberance throughout the book; the older Pamuk allows himself this one flourish, and then lets us meditate again on why there are no museums to the human heart, except for the one that he has built in these pages.

(For a much more detailed review and overview of Pamuk's work, read Pico Iyer's long essay, Secret Love in the Lost City. And visit Pamuk's real-life Museum of Innocence--it's beautiful.)

The BS Column: The Man Who Would Map the Mind

(Published on November 15, 2009, in the Business Standard)

Only the steady tide of readers overflowing into the aisles of the Gulmohar Hall indicated that this was not just another book discussion at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s lecture drew students, fellow neurologists and inquiring readers in such numbers that we could easily have filled the nearby Stein Auditorium.

The neurologist and author was here to deliver the inaugural Charles Darwin lecture, though his speech was not marked by the high excitement that attended a similar event in 1860 at a meeting of the British Association at Oxford. That debate, on Darwin’s recently published Origin of the Species, saw an epic clash between Bishop Wilberforce and T H Huxley. Sir Joseph Hooker wrote: “The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke.”

Wilberforce is said to have asked Huxley if he claimed his descent from a monkey through his grandfather or his grandmother—the actual words are in doubt. Huxley’s famous response was that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected to any man who used his gifts to obscure the truth.

No ladies fainted during Professor Ramachandran’s speech in Delhi, or during his earlier presentation at the TED India conference, though there was much applause and laughter. The author of Phantoms in the Brain, The Emerging Mind and The Man with the Phantom Twin is as accomplished a speaker as he is a writer, with a simultaneous gift for humour and clarity. Ramachandran has loyal followers (and readers) around the world in part because he passes the Stephen Jay Gould test.

The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I have fiercely maintained one personal rule in all my so-called "popular" writing. I believe-­as Galileo did when he wrote his two greatest works as dialogues in Italian rather than didactic treatises in Latin, as Thomas Henry Huxley did when he composed his masterful prose free from jargon, as Darwin did when he published all his books for general audiences­ that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested lay people. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people."

Ramachandran shares Gould’s passion for clarity, and his belief that even the more complex reaches of science are not beyond the grasp of the average intelligent lay person. He led us rapidly through his explorations of the philosophy behind the workings of the brain, but what was of particular interest was his discussion of mirror neurons.

In 2000, Edge carried a paper by Ramachandran that has proved to be one of the most influential works of its kind: ‘Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution.’ He dubs mirror neurons “Dalai Lama neurons”, or “empathy neurons”—these are cells that fire both when a person acts, or observes an action performed by someone else. Ramachandran’s research led him to a succinct and breathtaking hypothesis: “The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others.” Going a step further, he suggests that there might be rational and neurological, rather than religious, grounds for ethics.

From his 2000 and 2006 research, Ramachandran’s inquiring mind has already moved further. He ran out of time and couldn’t go on to discuss his next obsession: the possibility of “multiple minds” in a single brain, the idea that your sense of your self might be even more subjective than you realize. If we are “nothing but a pack of neurons”, and if the brain produces our individual versions of reality, why not explore this possibility further? Would you be willing to upload your “self” into cyberspace, would you be willing to be a brain in a (presumably well-maintained) vat, if that allowed you to “be a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity”?

As Ramachandran shifted gears, citing the Upanishads and Advaita philosophies of the self and consciousness with as much ease as he referred to the latest research on autism, I was not alone in my sense of awe. Ramachandran and his colleagues have a long way to go before they can prove their hypotheses, but if they succeed, they will change the way we think about individuality, consciousness and the self forever.

The last time we had such a shift in human thought was in November 1859, when the publisher John Murray brought out the first 1,250 copies of On the Origin of Species and Natural Selection. I’m guessing that within the next two decades, those of us who were present in that small auditorium in Delhi will look back at Ramachandran’s talk on consciousness with a sense of having been present at the making of history. Few readers could ask for more from a literary evening.
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