By Hiranmay Karlekar
14 June 2014
We are losing the power of profound reflection that flowered in the forest hermitages of ancient India. In turn, this has led to a wrong sense of priority and values amongst us
It is perhaps not without significance that a searing heat wave descended on north India almost immediately after the World Environment Day on June 5, and just when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government was getting down to business. Nature’s message to the Union Government was simple — the environment, especially global warming, is one of the most serious challenges facing it. Doubtless, a number of countries are far more culpable than India in spreading pollution. Also, the rich nations have been trying to transfer the burden of responsibility to the poorer ones and do comparatively little themselves. India must act in its own interest.
At stake is the country’s and the world’s survival. Unfortunately, a most critical issue, the evolution of intelligence, is rarely mentioned in the national debate on the environment. Intelligence, a key factor in humankind’s ascent to its present civilisational level, is shaped by evolution, which has also produced the contemporary Homo sapiens as a species, and the plant and animal lives essential for its survival.
Human intelligence has evolved through the physical development of the brain, which, in turn, has been shaped by the brain’s activities, which has increased the brain’s size and capacity for functioning at more complex levels. The entire process is closely related to ecology. Paul Shephard writes in his seminal work, Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence, that the advent of plants, particularly flowers, and the insects the latter hosted, marked an important turning point. The plant-insect symbiosis created soil and humus. This led to the emergence of the deep, dark forests as well as vast grasslands. The “era of reptiles, played out in the vast swamps and low-lying forests”, constituted the background to the development of the mind. In the grasslands, the dynamics of pursuit and escape by the predator and prey respectively, involving continuous improvement in strategies of capture and escape, has been, in Shephard’s words, “the great sculptor of brains”, enhancing their capacity in response to more challenging demands.
Attention defines the kind of intelligence favoured in the interplay between “smart catchers” and “keener escapees”. It is “that aspect of the mind” that “carries consciousness forward from one moment to the next. It ranges from a passive free-floating awareness to a theta or slow-wave rhythm which is investigatory, and to a highly focussed, active fixation. The range through these stages is mediated by the brainstem structure, the limbic or arousal system, a network converging from the sensory systems to the integrating centres.”
Through their interaction, predator and prey improve the part of their attention that is vigilance. The encephalisation of the brain provided capacity for memory, the cortical integration of visual images into a continuous visual world flowing from the past to the present. The transcendence of the present enabled the extension of the process into the future. The ground was prepared for imagination to the soar and the development of a historical vision tracing the journey of the past to the present.
Imagination, Shephard points out, found expression in speech and language, which emerged in the proto-human stage after the species’ separation from other primates. The process, enabled by an increase in the size of the brain, has its roots in the social nature of primate life — particularly in the constant interaction among monkeys on almost every issue in life. The second factor was the constant communication among predators and prey themselves respectively during hunts, due both to the need for maintaining intra-group cohesion among predator primates in a situation of heightened tensions and rivalries created by the hunt, and the need for consultation during the hunt for cornering and killing the prey.
From simple, elementary beginnings, speech and language evolved into complex media of communication through interactions among humans in the matrix of the environment, and the evolution of social and political — including the governmental-systems, ideologies and technology. The advent of writing, which undermined deniability and made for more rigorous scrutiny of the contents in terms of factual accuracy and logical consistency, led to what Alvin W Gouldner called the “elaborated discourse” in The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar and Future of Ideology. A process in which arguments were systematically developed from premise to conclusion, supported by carefully checked facts and explanation of all references, elaborated discourse enabled the rise of both ideologies and scholarly and philosophical publications extending the frontiers of knowledge.
The elaborated discourse acquired a new reach with improvements in printing technology and the manufacture of cheap paper which made the mass production of books and other publications possible. This, the climate of rational inquiry and intellectual freedom created by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the emergence of democratic orders in Europe from the end of the 17th century, and the geographical explorations which began from the end of the 15th, the industrial revolution, the increase in international trade and the age of empires, brought the human mind into contact with new environments. The challenges of coping with these — including new people, cultures, plants and animals in other countries — further evolved and sharpened human intelligence.
Environments profoundly influence the nature of intelligence. The remote forest hermitages of ancient India, with their deep silences, conduced to profound reflection on nature, its origins, life, death, morality and action and the cosmology of the universe as the manifestation of the Universal Spirit, the Brahman. The result was the profound, monist philosophy of the Upanishads. The contemporary technological civilisation, increasingly shaped by the market economy, and oriented to specific governmental, managerial, economic or technological goals, throws up a predominantly target-oriented approach operating on the basis of a purely instrumental reason powered by information technology. One is focussed on solving the problem at hand and increasingly unaware of developments around one, to say nothing of the universe or eternity. This not only makes one oblivious of the social, political, cultural and economic trends around one, but unable to foresee and prevent crises. Equally, it makes one incapable of coping with the challenges of globalisation and or even comprehending the consequences of further environmental deterioration fully enough to take concrete action.
What is needed is a change in the priorities and values of the society around us, and a vision that transcends the immediate and can take a wider view of things. It will take a huge amount of time and effort to bring about the social consensus essential for such a transformation. Steps to prevent further loss of forests and animal lives would be a good starting point.