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Reading Zygmunt Bauman

during these months spent on #eartotheground, one of the largest social processes my colleagues and i have written about is this rising intensification of caste and religious identities.we saw that in punjab. and we saw that in tamil nadu. our story at tamil nadu advanced an hypothesis that stagnant economic fortunes of the intermediate castes combined with an improvement in the status of dalits when they left farm labour for construction labour, etc, in a rapidly urbanising tamil nadu.

but how did that newfound equivalence translate into an intensification of caste/religious identities? did what freud called “the narcissism of small differences” kick in as equivalence increased? was it something else? right now, i am reading “modernity and the holocaust” by sociologist zygmunt bauman. there is a bit in there where he talks about modernisation, and how it began to erode the social and legal barriers between jews and christians…

“modernity brought the levelling of differences — at least of their outward appearances, of the very stuff of which symbolic differences between segregated groups are made. with such differences missing, it was not enough to muse philosophically over the wisdom of reality as it was- something christian doctrine had done before when it wished to make sense out of the factual jewish separation. differences had to be created now, or retained against the awesome eroding power of social and legal equality and cross-cultural exchange.”

this created a problem for the anti-semites. new differences needed to be created. how was that done? they knew religion alone could not provide an enduring foundation for the differences sought to be created. religion itself was becoming a hostage to human self-determination. and so…

“under conditions of modernity, segregation required a modern method of boundary-building. a method able to withstand and neutralize the levelling impact of allegedly infinite powers of educatory and civilising forces; a method capable of designating a ‘no-go’ area for pedagogy and self-improvement, of drawing an unencroachable limit to the potential of cultivation. if it was to be salvaged from the assault of modern equality, the distinctiveness of the jews had to be re-articulated and laid on new foundations, stronger than human powers of culture and self-determination. in Hannah Arendt’s terse phrase, Judaism has to be replaced with Jewishness: ‘jews had been able to escape from judaism into conversion; from jewishness there was no escape.”

now to get into more detail.

the view from tadoussac

(i was on leave between the 12th of June and the 5th of July. a close friend was getting married in toronto. and so, i took about 25 days off and travelled in bits of canada and the uk)


destination number one was a village called tadoussac. on the western bank of the st lawrence river in canada’s quebec province, it is a place where whale sightings are said to be common. as they indeed were. i saw a few minkes and belugas. i saw a subadult humpback. and i saw a few seals.

and a minke

a minke

the humpback starts sinking after exhaling. the spout shows up as a haze.

the humpback

funny business, venturing forth to see species. it is much the same as tiger-spotting in india. you get into a vehicle — which might range from a ship to a 12-seater zodiac — and its pilot steers to the sites where whales are commonly seen. sooner or later, you see some. these are not particularly educative excursions. a fin curving backwards, set in the middle of the whale’s back, appeared to suggest a minke, a white whale is a beluga, a spout (the cloud of exhalation), a long, sloping fin set in the whale’s lower back appeared to indicate a humpback. but that is pretty much all you glean.

it makes me wonder why one even sets forth. is it to be able to come back and boast about the species one saw? or to add to the tally of species one has seen? or is it to, as david quammen argued once in an essay, to feel comforted that the animals are around, and the the ecosystem is fine?

definitely not the last. see fauna near human settlements and it is easy to feel one has stumbled upon an idyll where animals and humans can coexist amicably. which is what i thought. only gradually did my ideas evolve. mainly after i read — towards the end of my trip — ‘sea of slaughter’ by farley mowat, a canadian naturalist. the book, a history of animal life in the north atlantic, has extraordinary tales about the north atlantic and the st lawrence itself.

“…the gulf of st lawrence and the living waters overlying the continental shelf from cape cod to labrador were among the foremost of the world’s seas for their concentrations of marine mammals. besides providing a haven for one of the planet’s largest concentrations of walrus, they harboured untold numbers of seals of several species. yet all of these were dwarfed into relative insignificance by the whale nations, which included almost every extant species of great whale together with many of the smaller kinds. it was not for nothing that some early europeans referred to the northeastern approaches to the new continent as the sea of whales.”

according to mowat, the plankton-rich waters of the sea of whales attracted the whales during the summer months. as summer ended, some, like the right whales, drifted southwards towards florida and the gulf of mexico. according to written sources from the time, he says, they were numerous.

“whales were so abundant on the northeastern seaboard and their presence was so all-pervasive that they posed problems for early voyagers. a record penned by an anonymous mariner of the mid-1500s complains that the worst risk to navigation in the new founde land was not fog, ice or uncharted rocks — it was whales of such size and in such numbers that collision with them was an ever-present danger. in the early 1600s one french missionary reported testily that whales were still so numerous in the gulf of st lawrence that “they became very tiresome to us and hindered our rest by their continuous movement and the noise of their spoutings.””

the rest of the story is pretty well-known. whaling began. and soon, each of these species had been hunted close to extinction. i did not realise this at the time i was in the zodiacs, bobbing up and down with the waves, going oooh every time a whale surfaced, but what i was seeing was a ghostly simulacrum of what used to exist.

like i said, in the summer of 2014, about 400 years after whaling began, i saw a few minkes and belugas. i saw a subadult humpback. and i saw a few seals. a slow recovery, if that.

61VeAb8VoPLas for the remnant populations, whale watching, with its outboard engines, churning propellers, and boats heading wherever a whale has been seen, must be a disturbance. in her book on killer whales, eva saulitis, talks about the harassment of killer whales by tourist boats. (her book, “into great silence”, is an uncommonly reflective book on killer whales, scientific research and extinction (thanks to exxon valdez). it was one of three books i bought on whales. the third — the first is the mowat — is called “the sounding of the whale”. i just started on it and it is proving to be rather absorbing.

“so let me start again. this is a book about knowledge of whales. and to be still more precise, it is a book about knowledge of whales garnered and mobilised by experts over the course of the twentieth century. experts like the two men who appear in the epigraphs for this introduction, two whale scientists… whose labors — one slogging through the gruesome residue of a whaling station with knife and notebook, the other bronzing himself on the bow of a hydrophone-equipped sailboat in the indian ocean — mark out the chronological (and perhaps also the spiritual) endings of this book as a whole. two whale scientists pursuing knowledge of whales in different ways, at different times, for different purposes. their work and its effects — that is my subject.”


this is also where references to landscape and memory comes in. today, tadoussac is regarded as a place with whales. its past, one of far greater riches, slowly sinks out of sight. which is what george monbiot calls the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ in feral, his book on rewilding. what we see becomes the new ‘normal’.

the retreat of the elephants

Working on the hydel stories, thinking about how these dams will change the Brahmaputra, feeling the country will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for a long, long time, I am reminded of this passage from Mark Elvin’s The Retreat Of The Elephants.

A paradox has to be confronted. The same skill in water control that had contributed so greatly to the development of the Chinese economy in ancient, medieval, and even in the early part of late-imperial times, slowly fashioned a strait-jacket that in the end hindered any easy reinvention of the economic structure. Neither water nor suitable terrain was available for further profitable hydraulic expansion.. A remarkable but prescientific technology was approaching the limits of its capacities. Deadliest of all, hydrological systems kept twisting free from the grip of human would-be mastery, drying out, silting up, flooding over, or changing their channels. By doing so they devoured the resources needed to keep them under control or serviceable. And made these resources unavailable for other purposes prior to the coming of modern engineering. No other society reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy as did the Chinese, nor on such a scale, but the dialectic of long-term interaction with the environment transformed what had been a one-time strength into a source of weakness.

The context:  For hundreds of years, the Chinese have been trying to control their great rivers — the Yellow, the Yantze and the Huai. Take the Yellow. Carrying large volumes of silt down from the mountains, it used to make frequent (and sweeping) alterations to its course. Once, it swung so far south it actually merged with the Huai. This was a problem. For one, Beijing, up in the north, was serviced (transport of goods, etc) by the Grand Canal which connected in the south to the Yellow. And since you cannot have a functional canal if the river feeding it with water keeps swinging here and there, the Yellow needed to be tamed. So, in the 16th Century, the Chinese built massive embankments, got the Yellow to flow along one predetermined channel. In response, the river began dumping silt. So much that, as Elvin writes, the river bed rose by over 2 metres in just 13 years. Higher and higher embankments had to be built.

A technological lock-in without fully understanding the attendant consequences.

Turn now to Arunachal and Hydel. Developments here are taking India down an irreversible direction as well. And the strange thing is this. We know enough to not take such decisions. But all that knowledge and wisdom seems to be powerless before the political economy at work. For, what we have is a system of environmental governance which only pretends its decisions are scientific. But take a closer look — at the minutes of the MoEF committees set up to evaluate projects or how our policies on environmental clearances are created — and you see that it is the political economy that calls the shots.

That is one question. How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to reason and science? Also, is such a system desirable — or can it become a technocracy? So, maybe I should rephrase my question as “How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to interdisciplinary reason and science”?


(Also cross-posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for the Economic Times).

The Dov Ospovat Book

A couple of hours ago, I finally finished reading Dov Ospovat’s The Development Of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838-1859.

I had blogged about this book some weeks ago saying anyone reading The Origin Of Species will be struck by several paragraphs where Darwin describes painstaking experiments he carried out seeking answers to questions that were puzzling him – similar vegetation on far-flung seashores, how did the seeds get there? Or, how did poorly mobile species like snails, etc, manage to spread across the world?

These experiments were largely conducted in the 18 years that passed between Darwin getting off the Beagle and the publication of The Origin Of Species. Which basically suggests that in this period, Darwin was hard at work chasing down hypotheses, testing and proving/disproving them, working on his theory.

And what Dov Ospovat has done, in this book that he finished just before he died at 33, is reconstruct, well, the evolution of Darwin’s theory during that 18 year period.

It has been a mesmerising read. It’s not often that one gets to read about how ideas take shape. And the way the theory of evolution took root in Darwin’s head itself is fascinating.

Why? Because when Darwin left England on the Beagle in 1831, he believed that each species had been independently created with characteristics that suit it admirably for the conditions under which it was destined to live. This was the teleological explanation, which held sway in the mid-nineteenth century. This believed in perfect adaptation. It held that organisms are created, either directly or indirectly, by God. (Cuvier, Paley)

By the time Darwin got off the Beagle, many of the young naturalists were starting to reject the teleological explanation. However, even those who shifted away from teleology continued to believe in perfect adaptation. They too believed that organisms are created by God. But where the teleologists attributed the perfection of organisms to their having been specially adapted for particular conditions of existence, those who rejected the teleological explanation said the perfection of species was the result of harmonious laws established by the creator to achieve his purposes. (Owen, Martin Barry, Bridgewater Treatises, Geoffrey St Hilaire, Carpenter, Whewell)

Similarly, when he wrote the “Essay of 1844” where he put down his evolving thoughts on evolution, this is what Darwin thought as well. He believed that, in general, species are perfectly adapted by God for their conditions of life. This was, admittedly, a different notion of perfect adaptation from what Cuvier and others preached. Darwin and others challenged the notion that there is one form that is better than all others and that is what is chosen by God by pointing at things like vestigial organs, etc. Theirs was the doctrine of limited perfection. Organisms are created by laws and they are only as perfect as they can be within the limits set by the necessity of conforming to these laws. And that organisms are formed with reference to the law of unity of type or of heredity, etc.

He also believed in harmony. That the number of species would remain constant. And that perfectly adapted forms do not vary. That organic change occurs only in response to environmental change.

In the intervening 18 years, his thoughts on all of this changed. He moved from perfect adaptation to relative adaptation. And from a view of nature built around harmony to one built around struggle. As Ospovat writes:

“Rather than a single decisive break we find numerous shifts in emphasis, some obvious, others subtle. In 1844, Darwin supposed that change in the organic world is inherently intermittent; in Natural Selection, he implied that it is potentially – but probably not actually – continuous. In 1844, he supposed that inorganic conditions are the principal determinants of structure; by 1856 he considered them less important than organic conditions. When he wrote the “Essay of 1844”, Darwin assumed that variation occurs only as a result of environmental change; in Natural Selection he assumed it is always occuring because conditions never remain absolutely unchanged. In 1844, an increase in food is allowed to be perhaps a minor cause of variation; in Natural Selection it is said to be an important cause; and by 1868 Darwin called it probably the single most powerful cause… In the “Essay of 1844”, natural selection is supposed to produce perfect adaptation; in Natural Selection it produces forms only as perfect as their competitors. In 1844, Darwin saw nature as a system of inorganic change and organic response; in Natural Selection he saw everywhere organic change and reaction.”

The question is how these changes in his thinking came about. According to Ospovat, these emerged, after 1844, out of “Darwin’s complex, creative response to the thought of the leading naturalists of his day.” Indeed, scientific history too is written by the victors. Darwin has come to appropriate the centrestage in our understanding of how the theory of evolution came about. People like Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently thought up the theory of natural selection while struck down by malaria while collecting specimens and sent the paper he wrote up to Darwin at a time when the latter was still working on his theory have not received their due.

Nor have countless others. How many of the names in the brackets, for instance, can you recognise? Richard Owen, for instance, one of the greatest paleontologists the world has ever seen and the man who set up the Natural History Museum in London, was almost written off as someone who did little more than challenge Darwin. (Only in the 1970s did his rehabilitation start. For a more recent book, see Nicolaas Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin).

This is one thing that Dov wanted to correct in this book. He wanted to, as Adrian Desmond writes in the foreword, “make Darwin less of a seer, standing out of time, and more a man of his day”.

It is a point that is driven home very successfully. But that said, what makes the book special for me is its detailing of the process through which the idea of evolution came about.

For instance, Lyell, who wrote the Principles Of Geology, the book that so influenced Darwin while he was aboard the Beagle, “argued that the history of the earth is cyclical and when the current cycle of an earlier geological cycle returns, then Iguanadons, Icthyosaurs and Pterodactyls, which were perfectly suited to the ancient climate, will again inhabit the earth. This was the teleological explanation for succession. This also meant that organisms were primarily adapted for inorganic landscape, not to other species around them… This was opposed by Carpenter, Owen and Louis Agassiz, among others. They did think that external conditions were designed with the organic world in mind, but felt that external conditions at any period, though known beforehand by God, were the product of geological forces and laws, not of special adaptation to the living things then or about to be in existence.”

Or take Owen. For him, “There was no strict relationship between external conditions and organic form. He believed that the structure of successively appearing organisms was determined not only by the conditions to which they must be adapted, but also by biological laws, such as unity of type and the law of the succession of the same type in every country. He supposed that new forms were related not only to conditions, but also to their predecessors.”

This, incidentally, qualifies as a real, breakthrough insight. He had identified some of the processes at work!

There are several things that strike me here. First, I cannot but marvel at these hypotheses, all trying to explain what the age of exploration was telling naturalists about species, their distribution, etc. There is an earnest, groping quality to so many of these as they try and make explain the world using the limited information with them.

Or try this. “The problem with advancing such thoughts (challenging perfect adaptation) is they seemed to support transmutation – species changing into another. And naturalists like Owen, Carpenter and Agassiz were anxious to explain that they did not see their viewpoint as tending to denigrate God’s power or to minimise his influence in the creation. Some, like Agassiz held that ‘biologists contribute most effectively to natural theology not by discovering more examples of the adaptation of structure to function and organism to environment, but rather by discovering the laws that constitute the creator’s plan’.

This is how ideas evolve. In the short term at least, the new ideas we get are strongly determined by the ideas we already have. Only if we plug away long enough, and only if we question our assumptions rigorously, might we end up with radically different ideas from what we started out with. Remember, Darwin started with assumptions about harmony and a benevolent creator. It took him 18 years to so utterly recast his views.

But that is also what makes Darwin such a remarkable scientist. He was smart, knew enough to challenge his assumptions, and above all tenacious. Not to mention a keen monitor of how ideas on evolution were, again, evolving and he tried to explain them through his theory.

For a journalist, there are salutary lessons in all of this. We too develop hypotheses in the absence of enough data. And what we resultedly end up with are hypotheses that fare as poorly as MacLeay’s Quinarianism. And we certainly keep writing on the same things over and over again (banking correspondents, financial inclusion, microfinance, yah da, yah da) for the new (story) ideas we get are strongly determined by the ideas we already have.

Anyway. That is how it goes. I should shower and cook now. I am heading out on a long field trip soon and am wondering which books to carry. I think I should get deeper into this fascinating epoch and read Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors next. Should be fun.

(A modified version of this review has also been posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for ET)

dov ospovat and the development of darwin’s theory

i am finally reading dov ospovat’s the development of darwin’s theory. back in 2009 when i was studying the drafting of the forest rights act, i had read the origin of species. interspersed in that book were little paragraphs where darwin described numerous experiments he had conducted in the years after he got off the beagle, testing out answers to different puzzles thrown up by biogeography — the science which studies the distribution of species.

for instance, to understand why similar trees are found in coastal areas, he left a bunch of their seeds in sea water for weeks and months and then planted them and tried to see how many blossomed into plants — this was his test to see whether seeds could be dispersed by oceanic currents, and then take root on farflung shores. similarly, as he says in the book…

I suspended a duck’s feet, which might represent those of a bird sleeping in a natural pond, in an aquarium, where many ova of fresh-water shells were hatching; and I found that numbers of the extremely minute and just hatched shells crawled on the feet, and clung to them so firmly that when taken out of the water they could not be jarred off, though at a somewhat more advanced age they would voluntarily drop off. These just hatched molluscs, though aquatic in their nature, survived on the duck’s feet, in damp air, from twelve to twenty hours; and in this length of time a duck or heron might fly at least six or seven hundred miles, and would be sure to alight on a pool or rivulet, if blown across sea to an oceanic island or to any other distant point.

the book is filled with accounts of similar experiments. passages like this must have filled everyone who read the origin… with wonderment. 18 years lapsed between darwin getting off the beagle and the publication of the origin of species. in this period, he was obviously very busy, fastidiously thinking through the question of how life evolved and spread across the planet, and testing myriad hypotheses.

and then, while reading janet browne’s the secular ark, which traces the — well — evolution of our thinking on evolution, i came across a reference to ospovat’s book.

and guess what it focuses on — on that 18 year period! a history of science, the book painstaking reconstructs the development of darwin’s thinking on what david quammen called the question of questions — the distribution of life on the planet — and locates darwin amongst his peers.

some weeks ago, i finally began reading this book in earnest. i am about two chapters down. i am reading slowly. underlining and scribbling with gusto. this is such a lovely, careful, magisterial book. one filled with such gentle epiphanies that it summons the title of a book by richard feynman to mind — the pleasure of finding things out.

it is also a poignant book to read. dov ospovat died of cancer shortly after finishing the manuscript of this book. he was 33. such a shame that is. such a brilliant, pathbreaking book. and the author taken from our midst so young.

i am thinking that i will finish this book and then start work on a chronology on how human thought on evolution developed. might be an interesting way to trace the incremental, collaborative manner in which ideas — again — evolve and take root. hmmm.

ps – while we are talking of darwin, the last paragraph in the origin has to rank among the finest pieces of science writing ever. it gives me goosebumps.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

ps – indeed. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Amen.

and now for something completely different

i spent a large chunk of sunday reading the first two volumes of jason lutes’ graphic novel called berlin. set in the late nineteen twenties, the books recreate a time in the city when fundamental forces had been unleashed in germany. rearmament was secretly underway. fascism and socialism were competing for the soul of the city. the great depression was about to break out.

one of the characters is a veteran journalist who sees germany hurtling towards disaster but is slowly realising that his words do not have any impact. here is something, a tad more optimistic, a much more strategic way of looking at journalism, that he says in the early parts of the book.

I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes, before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course.

(berlin: city of stones, jason lutes).

and now for something completely different

some months ago, i wrote a small blogpost wondering about the surprising lack of books which focus on the experience of cycling, running and whatnot. it is a theme that i revisited while writing for ET about the mumbai marathon.

Gather all books ever written on running and you will have enough to pave a running track. Most of these books evangelise running, extolling its health benefits. Yet others focus on technique. Another large chunk will be biographical narratives by athletes and amateurs alike. Books on the experience of running itself are few and far between. Which is pretty puzzling. What first attracts and then binds us to running is the experience of running itself. And yet, books examining that experience of running are the hardest to find. This seems to be true for any activity you care to name — cycling, motorbiking, cricket, whatever. Books on the experience itself are rare.

With that prologue, here are the best books I have read on running till now.

1. Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This is a pretty well-known book and chances are runners will already be very familiar with it.

2. The Lure of Long Distances. If  you liked Murakami, you might want to try Robin Harvie’s account of the months he spent training for the oldest and longest footrace on the Earth — the Spartathlon from Athens to Sparta. The book is remarkable. In part because its exposition on something no one who exercises is a stranger to — pain and discomfort. And in part because it touches one big reason why people run — to see just what our mind:body complexes are capable of.

3. Ultramarathon. This journey into the self is one that James Shapiro is very familiar with. His cult classic, Ultramarathon, is now out of print. But you can get second hand copies off online book stores. He again focuses on the seeming madness which makes someone want to run 24 hours, as Shapiro does, at an event to gauge just how far humans can run in a day. The book starts with an account of that day. He has also written Meditations From The Breakdown Lane, an account of running across America.

4. Once a runner. And then, there is fiction. Quenton Cassidy is a competitive runner at an American university whose dream is to run a four-minute mile. He is a second away from getting there when he is suspended from the team for participating in an antiwar protest (the book is set in the Vietnam war era). With that foundation, the rest of the story was always going to be a predictable take of triumph against the odds. Under the tutelage of a former Olympic Gold medallist, Cassidy gives up his scholarship, his girlfriend, withdraws to the countryside and eventually prevails. But the descriptions of training, of running, are vivid indeed.

5. Flanagan’s Run. A mythical account of a transamerica run during the years of the great depression.

6. Feet in the clouds. As the book jacket says, fell-running is probably britain’s most obscure sport. It features a set of maniacs who run up and down hills (or, the fells). As in The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith too is chasing a holy grail — he wants to complete the Bob Graham Round — a nonstop circuit of 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks, all to be completed within 24 hours. Much of the book is about his initiation into fell-running, his preparation, and the legends of fell-running — Like Joss Naylor.

‘If you stop now, said a voice in my head, you will never, ever stand the remotest chance of finishing the BG. All your training will have been wasted. All those years of obsession will have been so much self-deception. Stop now and you might as well call off the attempt and save wasting everyone’s time. Never mind all the training you already have in the bank, or all the training that you’re still planning to do. This is the only moment that matters. Fail now, and you will always fail. Stick to it, and — well, you won’t necessarily succeed, but you will be in with a chance. Sticking with this is the basic, entry-level qualification.”

Got any suggestions on other books to read? Write in.