The Wolf-Children of Midnapore

Physics was one of the first sciences which helped develop the modern “scientific method”. One of the processes in the scientific method involves controlling of variables during an experiment. Performing an experiment in this manner one can possibly find the effect of the independent variable on a dependent variable. In this manner, we are supposed to find out if there is any causal link/correlation between the variables. This method was seen as a hallmark of true science and was widely adopted while discovering and developing new other disciplines.

Now in the case of psychology and behavioural sciences, we have a long-running debate regarding the effects of nature and nurture on human growth and development. By nature here it is meant our genetic make-up, while by nurture it is meant the environment (both physical and social) around us. For long people have tried to establish the link between nature/nurture and various aspects of human growth and development. This dichotomy has a deeper connection to the nature of knowledge and learning, which in turn in related to the two basic schools of philosophy: empiricism and rationalism. In the extreme forms, put very crudely, empiricism proposes that we can gain knowledge through our sense organs only, while rationalism proposes that we make sense of the world in our mind only. For example, in The Matrix the machines have developed a simulation which makes the human mind “experience” the world only in the mind. When Morpheus asks Neo

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Here Morpheus is actually subscribing to the rationalist school as he denies that our sense organs are the primary source of our knowledge. In The Matrix the brain is simulated and it doesn’t know it is being simulated. How can we ever know? This is exemplified further by many Gedanken experiments which have been brought out by psychologists and philosophers. The Brain in a Vat is an example of such experiments.

On the other hand, the other extreme form of human development from empiricists would be considering humans a tabula rasaIn this perspective, the human brain is not born with any innate capabilities. And it is the experience with the physical world through the sense organs makes us understand the world. Thus, in this case, the environment is the factor on which our growth and development occur.

Now coming back to nature vs nurture debate, whether people believe in either depends strongly on the orientation and grounding people have regarding how the society works. We will see what is the basis both philosophical, epistemological and political when people subscribe to these viewpoints. First some thoughts on what exactly we mean by human growth and development in this context. We all see human babies grow from infants who are incapable of talking, understanding, even walking for that matter to being adults in a society who can talk, understand and do a variety of other things which infant versions of ours are not capable. How does this change occur, over let’s say a span of 15-20 years or so? Are we predestined by our genes to develop in a particular way, or does our immediate environment play a fundamental and crucial role in making this happen? What is the nature of learning and what is it dependent upon? Physical growth can be perhaps linked to the unfolding of the genetic predispositions that we have. For example, physical maturity occurs with age. Piaget has given us evidence on the basis of the so-called Piagetian tasks that thinking also matures with age and is a universal phenomenon across cultures.

But what happens to our thinking or our behaviours are they too natural and will occur even if we are not in contact with the society? People have thought over this question for a long time. We will discuss the evidence that people over the last 200 years or so have put up in support of each side, which is related to the title of the post.

In general, there are two groups who subscribe to the primacy of nurture in human development. The first group is of the people who are usually are influenced by Marxism and have a left orientation tend to favour nurture more than the nature aspect. According to them the social environment, including the socio-economic status of the family influence the way in which humans develop and learn. For this school of thought, the genetic composition (nature) of the individual has little or no effect on the way the individual develops or learns. This is in line with the central tenets of Marxism, in which capital plays a fundamental role in the way society works. The construct of cultural capital is a good way to understand how this group, in general, thinks about the effects of society and societal factors on human growth and development.

The other school which subscribes to the primacy of nurture in human learning and development is behaviourism. The behaviourists, very strongly influenced by logical positivists, and playing along with the zeitgeist gave credence in psychological studies to only things that could be observed. This was linked to the deep debates in the philosophy of science of the 1930s which was dominated by the logical positivists. The basic idea was that if anything is not observable directly by our sense experience like human thinking, it should not be considered scientific. This led to an entire programme which was very influential during the 30s-50s in which studying higher order thinking skills were banished from scientific enterprise. The definition of learning in case of behaviourists was seen in terms of behaviour. And according to them, the behaviour could be controlled by operant conditioning hence effectively we could control learning by providing required stimulus in the environment.

Bringing in the metaphor of a blank slate, people with this leaning would say all individuals are of equal potential, given a chance and environment anyone can perform anything. This was one of the basic assumptions of behaviourism. In Marxist sociological perspective, the metaphor of the blank slate allowed individuals to transcend the class that they were born in and to achieve their true potential irrespective of the social status of their parents. The quote below summarises this viewpoint very well:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.

From – Behaviorism by J. B. Watson, 1930, pp. 82.

Now let us look at the other group which takes the genetic makeup of ours as the most influential aspect for development and learning. In this perspective, your genes determine everything. There is no scope for anyone to do anything which the genes do not permit. Sometimes this is termed as genetic determinism. According to this view, the potential for learning and development is completely determined by genes. Unless one has a particular genotype, one by definition, is not capable of doing certain things. Now, of course, we do inherit our biological and physical structures from our parents. Physical characteristics like hair and eye colour, skin colour, size are inherited from our parents. So are tendencies for certain diseases like diabetes and others. Now the question that is interesting is this heritance limited to only physical characteristics or it can be used for determining other factors like intelligence, learning and development also?

In general, the people who are conservatives, leaning towards the right favour this point of view. This is because it provides a sort of legitimacy to the existing social order. The people who are in positions of power are there because they have better genes or are from a better stock. This also implies that nothing can be done to improve this situation as nature is unmutable. Of course, this position has racial, class gender, and caste overtones. Such an argument can be used to effectively defend and justify any existing social order. Sometimes, this entire range of ideas is put under the notion of Social Darwinism. Analogies from the natural world like artificial selection and breeding for producing better breeds (of plants and animals) are used to justify such a worldview. The movie GATTACA shows an example of a dystopian future is a good example of how a society where your genes are the only factors to determine your worth. In such a world, what matters is what your genes are, and not your skills.

Now apart from the philosophical, sociological and cultural aspects do we have any “scientific evidence” for deciding which factors are more influential. There have been many studies which claim a very strong evidence (mostly observational) regarding either worldviews. But none of the experiments or studies are seen to be conclusive. Critics on the other side point to experimental issues with data, samples, statistics, assumptions and personal beliefs and so on. Let us ask ourselves this question:

Can we design any critical experiments which will decide once and for all whether nature is important or nurture?

Ideally, the experimental design should be such that we should be able to control for nature and nurture. Now how would such an “ideal” experiment be designed? Let us look at each of the two variables. To control for nature we can take individuals from different genetic stocks and give them similar treatment. This way we will know from the differences in the outcomes/performance of the individuals and accordingly in their genes too. Now the question arises if we take adult individuals from different genetic stocks, they are already “contaminated” via the various nurture aspects of growing up. For example, they might have a different value system, a different language, different learning experiences, different social norms, different environments and so on. So ideally an “uncontaminated” sample should be with us.

How do we create an uncontaminated sample of human beings? Who are not touched by any aspect of nurture or environment? Ideally, we take don’t allow nurture to touch the newborn infants in any manner. That is to take them away from their mothers right after they were born. Oh! What a horror!! But such a thing would never be done in practice now. Though in the ancient times there were many who actually performed similar “experiments“. There are serious moral and ethical issues involved. Now strict research guidelines are in place whenever human subjects are involved in research studies. This came to force when evidence emerged post-World-War II which involved experimenting on human subjects by treating them like animals. That is basically not valuing human life and dignity. Hence I had put “ideal” in quotes.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book the protagonist Mowgli, is raised by the wolves. Although fictional, this story presents us with an interesting case study. Mowgli, who has been raised by the wolves, is not human in the sense of how we identify with the society. He identifies himself as a wolf and behaves like one. But then this is fictional story and a Mowgli is a fictional character. Now if we could find such an individual like Mowgli, we could perhaps test many of the basic questions regarding aspects of nature and nurture. One such opportunity came to us in an episode which is the title of this post: The Wolf-Children of Midnapore.

Now it so happened that in 1920s a rector  Joseph Amrito Lal Singh in an orphanage in the town of Midnapore in Bengal, India reportedly found two girls in a wolf den. They were named Amala and Kamala. The discovery of these two girls was seen as a major event. The rector apparently maintained details notes about their discover and behavior in his diary. So much so, it was published into a book Wolf-Children and Feral Man J.A.L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg published in 1942. The discovery was also reported in a reputed journal as Scientific American (Vol. 164, No. 3 (MARCH · 1941), pp. 135-137).

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So what did the rector observe in these two children? Can it resolve any fundamental questions regarding the nature-nurture debate? The book and the entries in the diary of Rev. Singh make many such attempts. However, it so happened that people raised serious doubts about the authenticity of the story, and further analysis has shown that it was a hoax. Recently, there was a case in which a girl was discovered living with monkeys. Again, girl showed some feral characteristics, but according to some reports nothing conclusive could be said.

So our basic question regarding nature/nurture remains unanswered. Perhaps due to moral and ethical concerns we may never be able to answer question on “experiments” such as these. But there have been other ways, surveys, studies and experiments which do indicate the complex ways in which nature and nurture do interact to produce the social human animal. But what cases like these show is that there is so much that is still to be discovered in the respect of nature/nurture debate. Perhaps we will be able to resolve these issues at some point.

http://www.midnapore.in/wolf-children-of-midnapore/wolf-children-of-midnapore14.html

Cost of environment

Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha on Tuesday blamed Congress leader and union minister Jairam Ramesh as being “singularly responsible for shaving off 2.5% of the GDP” by not giving environmental clearance to projects during his stint as the environment minister, escalating the war of words between the two.

via ET

Mr. Sinha should understand that economy is not everything. If at all protecting environment costs so much of GDP indirectly, even then it is okay. Perhaps we should provide 2.5% of GDP to protect our environment, and that would ensure it will remain for posterity.  The rampant rape of environment in form of various “developmental” projects and its toll on the flora and fauna is something that needs to be stopped. For example consider the illegal and legal mining in Goa and its impact on the fragile ecosystem there. Ramesh had a choice, and he exercised it. How many ministers do that? If the environment ministry will itself not worry about the environment then who will? Sinha in criticizing Ramesh seems to have forgotten this basic fact. Otherwise what is the reason for the Environment ministry to exist? For there are certain things that cannot be equalized in terms of money, and our flora and fauna is one of them. Mr. Sinha should understand that extinction is forever, no amount of money can bring back lost species or lost ecosystems. But people who are corrupted by lure of money at any cost (to environment and other people) will not understand this. Even if they do, their priorities are set by the bottom line, which is money.

Déjà vu of déjà vu

I was introduced to the term déjà vu from The Matrix. This is how the scene unfolds:

matrix-deja-vu-black-cat

[Neo sees a black cat walk by them, and then a similar black cat walk by them just like the first one]
Neo: Whoa. Déjà vu.
[Everyone freezes right in their tracks]
Trinity: What did you just say?
Neo: Nothing. Just had a little déjà vu.
Trinity: What did you see?
Cypher: What happened?
Neo: A black cat went past us, and then another that looked just like it.
Trinity: How much like it? Was it the same cat?
Neo: It might have been. I’m not sure.
Morpheus: Switch! Apoc!
Neo: What is it?
Trinity: A déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.

matrix-deja-vu-neo

Now let us leave The Matrix for now and enter the real world. I mean our world, and I am not Morpheus. We had a lot of issues with the quandrangular cat recently at my working place. Now don’t ask what a quandrangular cat is? If you don’t know already, you don’t need to know. Remember, in the first approximation the cow is a spherical object.

Leela-1

Circa, a few months back we had a sorry looking undomesticated cat, who was domesticated, nursed back to health, and attained zen (if you don’t believe me see the picture above (Picture Credits: Rafikh)). This was only possible by the warmth of many people’s affections and efforts. But unfortunately the cat overstayed, unwelcomed by some, on GoI property (without paying any taxes!) which wrecked havoc and created a red alert. To further complicate the matters, we could not for sure determine if the cat was a he or a she! The presence of cat in the campus was as good as an extinction event, extinction of one’s peace of mind and good vibes. that is. This called for extreme measures to show cat (and the ailurophiles ) their respective places. The entire drama was just short of executing the cat (and the ailurophiles ) in public. The cat was sent into exile, and if the reports coming in believed to be true, even there it is creating extinction events!

Now. Yesterday, déjà vu ! I see a similar cat in the same place approaching me similarly, well not almost as same as Neo’s black cat but quite similar. And I almost said as Neo does, (but I am neither Neo) “déjà vu!” First thing I thought was the déjà vu  in The Matrix. But then this is a déjà vu of déjà vu, and cats are involved in both of them. What is it with cats and déjà vu? Déjà vu  recursive, nothing more groovier than that! Four cats in all. The newer cat, which caused the current déjà vu , was smaller and in sorrier state and also approached me on the same table as earlier one. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of the newer cat for comparison. Will this create another leela (pun intended), which would be another déjà vu for both ailurophiles and ailurophobes? Actually if semantics of earlier sentence are seen, then we come to conclusion that leela  and déjà vu are same 😛

Trouble with a kitten

Now it remains to be seen what has changed in The Matrix.

PS: This new cat seems to have set the ball rolling, it is already making people uncomfortable, causing extinction events!

The Tyger – William Blake

The Tyger is a poem by William Blake, a English poet, painter and print maker. Blake’s works are considered seminal in poetry and visual arts. This is part of the book called The Songs of Experience published in 1794. It is one of Blake’s most known and analysed poems. Many of the facsimile prints can be seen here.

 

In the original print the poem is illustrated.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears :
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I first read this poem in the Rendezvous With Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. In the book one of the characters is overwhemled by the appeareance of the giant space-ship named Rama and in wonder says the lines from Blake’s Tyger.

As a species tiger is seriously endangered and its survival depends on just a few thousand (~ 1.5 K) indivduals left in the wild. They say that if immediately steps are not taken, we might not see the tiger in wild beyond the second decade of the century. Illegal poaching and destruction of the habitat are mainly responsible for exponential decline in the tiger population in the country.

A Woman’s Snare…

They chatter with one man,
Look at another with amorous gestures;
And in their minds think of yet another,
Who then is loved by a woman?

From: Bhartrihari [7th Century]

When you read these lines, the immediate thing that you want to do is to find a woman in your memory lanes that fits the above bill. One will perhaps find not one, but many. But, perhaps this also applies to men, in fact I think they are more likely to do so, if you accept the explanations from evolutionary psychology and comparative psychology.

In evolutionary psychology they say that the males want to produce as many offspring as possible. So they try to mate with as many females as possible, many times the quality does not matter, only quantity does. This is so because the males do not have to invest [sic] a lot in mating. The analogy that is often given to the sperm production in males is to spam mails that hit your mailbox daily. Even if one in 10 million makes it, your job is done. But for the females the bodily investment is much larger. So females they say prefer quality over quantity. After the copulation it is the female who has to bear the child, and the responsibility of male becomes minimal. Imagine if a human male copulated daily with a fertile female, which I guess one can, how many children can he produce in a life time? Perhaps in thousands. Similarly if we think of human females producing children when they can, that is taking into consideration their biology; perhaps one child in a year, considering all other factors, the total number will be max at 2 dozen or so. So it is the males who would are more likely to be mating more than women to produce children and that too with many different ones, if they have the capabilities.

This particular observation is not general, and of course does not apply to all species. There are species of sea-horse in which the males rear the young ones, in almost all birds the rearing of offspring is the joint responsibility of the couple. In animals who have social structures, as in case of humans and monkeys, the young ones are raised socially.

But we being humans, do not copulate just for procreation, we do also copulate for recreation [of ourselves that is]. They say that dolphins and chimps are the only other creatures which do so, no wonder they are called intelligent. All other animals copulate when their natural cycle tells them to. So in this light of recreational copulation the above verses acquire a different meaning. There are women and men who copulate and want to copulate for recreation, it is perhaps their nature to do so, but perhaps they are bound too strongly by the social sanctions that surround them.

The next question to ask is that is it right for them to do so?

Well, the answer depends on what one thinks of such social norms. Are they to be followed in to to, or they have an interpretation dependent logic.

The answer is something that I do not know…

PS: Perhaps the essay might sound silly, it is; I have to expand on certain sections.