Hypothetically Speaking…

Suppose I was a monkey… may be I am! But I think I am a human. Irrespective of whether I am a human or not, because I think I am a human, I will behave in accordance with what I believe is the right human conduct. My actions would therefore be in synchronicity with my ‘concrete’ world of ‘human’ beliefs. If then someone came to me and said you are just an ape, I might – no I’m sure I will – smile at his ignorance, his inability to see me as a human.

Let me become a little more specific in my definitions. Suppose I believe a monkey climbs trees, eats only bananas, doesn’t speak English and cannot ride a horse. I also believe a human does not climb trees, does not eat bananas, speaks English and rides a horse. Hypothetically, for some reason, these definitions get interchanged in my mind. I now begin to believe a human would do all that the monkey does – climb trees, eat bananas, not speak English or ride horses; and vice versa – that monkeys do the opposite of this. With this new set of beliefs, despite being a human, I would behave like a monkey for I now define a human with the attributes of a monkey. The reverse is equally true.

Ultimately it is not about whether I am a monkey or a human. It is what I believe I am. Or rather my definition of how I believe ‘I’ as a ‘___’ ought to behave (fill in monkey or human in those blanks).

Generations ago, people lived in a ‘concrete’ definitive world with highly rigid role plays with uni-dimensional vision. They had highly codified ways of what was to be ones behaviour, ones action and ones thought process – all predefined by existing societal norms. In the late 1800s well into 1900s there were ‘human zoos’ with people from Africa living inside cages, entertaining the so called advanced species of humans, poorly fed and totally dehumanised – because the perception was they were not ‘human’ enough! This was not just in a single place or a random event. Such human zoos existed all over Europe in cities like Paris, Germany, Spain, London, Poland and even New York City with millions of visitors seeking entertainment! As a race, we no longer approve of using colour as the basis of discrimination, no longer deprive women from voting or use ethnicity to isolate. But are we any where close to an acceptance of humanity as a whole, living things in general, universe in its entirety – devoid of any demarkations?

A hundred years ago the average IQ of an individual was 70 – which by todays standards is considered retarded according to James Flynn, the ‘intelligence’ researcher and moral philosopher from New Zealand. Todays average IQ score is 130 – a score which was considered to be for the ‘gifted’ a century ago! Elaborating on ‘why our IQ’s are greater than our grandparents’, Flynn attributes the consistent increase in IQ scores year on year (called the Flynn effect) to three contributing factors. The first he say, we have moved away from a concrete world to a complex world. We are able to see the world from the shoes of ‘similarities’ rather than from the perspective of ‘differences’ or ‘definitions’. Based on the research of the well known neuropsychologist Luria, Flynn believes the mental artillery picked up by us over the generations through our varied exposures and experiences, is the primary cause of the increasing IQ phenomenon. Just as how in 1865 people could put only one bullet in a minute in the bullseye, five in a minute by 1898 and a hundred by 1981 – all because he has moved from using a musket to repeating rifles to machine guns in that span of time, today we have moved from postal communications to emails to short messaging services! Oh yes! Didn’t you know the email is dead? Nobody wanted to write a ‘from’ or ‘to’ when correspondence became electronic, for the sender’s and receiver’s information was already available in your email account. But now they don’t even want to begin with a greeting or end with a wish. It is now more ‘conversational’ – picking up the thread from earlier bits of information without needing to represent the whole thing again. So if you are still an old-timer and expect people to start with a ‘Dear’ and finish with a ‘Thanking you’ you may be in for some disappointment!

Coming back to Luria, when he interviewed rural Russians in the mid 1900s and asked them ‘what do crows and fish have in common?’ they often replied ‘nothing!’ In their mind’s eye, crows fly and fishes swim – they didn’t really have anything in common. You may be secretly smiling at their naive answer, believing we have come a long way. Of course, now every child is taught crows and fish are classified as ‘animals’, are living creatures. But it pains me to remind you that we haven’t indeed moved from that world of concrete definitions at all !

There are still those who believe a woman’s role is definitive, concrete and rigid; specific timings she can be out in public; clothes she is permitted to wear; people she is allowed to interact with; ways she is permitted to be treated by society – all in all a different form of a human zoo! The tragic event that happened in India (Nirbhaya) and continues to happen all over the world every minute, simply reminds us that in our mind’s eye a fish and a crow may have a common classification; but a man and a woman are still concrete conceptions that need a social bomb to shatter. You don’t have to look far – it is happening all around you, may be in not so gross ways but in subtle almost unidentifiable ways.

But yes, we have begun to move from a ‘concrete’ conception of world reality to a more dynamic and complex understanding of how life unfolds because we are understanding similarities and broadening our classifications. The second contributing factor according to Flynn for the IQ score increase, is our ability to take the hypothetical seriously. We are willing to use our imagination. When Luria asked a man in mid 1900s – ‘There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there camels in Hamburg?’, he promptly replied ‘there ought to be camels there’ for to him every village had camels and he could not conceive of a possible world without camels. He was unwilling to consider the hypothetical – what if camels no longer exist?

Aren’t we still there with many of us still unwilling to consider the hypothetical? When asked ‘what if it were your sister or daughter out there at night’, the narrow rigid reality constructed within, prompted him to reply that any women – sister or daughter, would still deserve such a treatment if they behaved in such ways that did not validate his concept of the role of women. Hypothetically speaking, if it had been you – irrespective of your gender, if you had been the victim to such abhorrent acts, if you had been India’s daughter (or son for that matter), would you truly, even for a moment, believe you deserve to be treated as such? Without the hypothetical, we can never evolve for we do not live in a concrete world of rigid rules. We live in a participatory world of inner richness – or poverty – that manifests to create our outer reality. 

It is not about increasing IQ scores, for intelligence is not about ‘acquiring knowledge’ but more about ‘applying knowledge and skill’. There is so much talk on a need to change our education system, to bring in more experiential learning, to educate people into taking the hypothetical seriously, to use abstractions and link them logically. But to even begin that journey the concrete world constructed in our minds ought to first be dissolved. The journey of rebuilding can begin only if we are willing to let go of our ‘inherited attitudes’ and archaic role definitions.

The third attribute for increased IQ scores according to Flynn is the application of logic on abstractions. Luria’s interviews on this concept with the people of the mid 1900s, elicited a common response at that time ‘How can we solve things that aren’t real problems?’. But today most of our scientific discoveries and understanding are based on this willingness to apply logic on abstractions. It doesn’t have to become a real problem to get solved. We don’t have to loose planet Earth to appreciate the sentiments of Interstellar or Avtar; we don’t have to accept aliens to understand the message of a ‘PK’ (Hindi Film); we don’t need another daughter or son from any country to teach us the need for human dignity!

Charles Darwin proposed in his theory of evolution, ‘survival of the fittest’ meaning the one most adaptable to change will survive. Or rather the traits of the ones most adaptable will get passed on to the next generation to keep them alive. Those traits that brought them harm will be dropped to avoid extinction. There might have been a time when you couldn’t have survived without being physically fit to hunt for food and win the challenges of your counterparts. Yes you still need to be physically fit, but in an all new way. There was a time when basic safety, food and shelter had to be the most important ‘change’ that had to be adapted for survival. This was controlled by economy, availability of resources or rather understanding of how to use those resources. This is true even today, where the survival of the fittest will remain the prerogative of those economically unchallenged. But if you are reading this, I think we have a very new definition of survival of the fittest emerging today. It is no longer about only physical fitness, monetary success, adaptability to relationships or even bringing up capable children. It is the willingness to break free from inherited bias; adaptability to see the larger picture – the similarities;  exploring the hypothetical to find new answers and applying logic on these abstractions to arrive at a new world vision of how humanity should live.

In simple words – it is time to dream intelligently and work even harder to make them come true!

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Published in infinithoughts in June 2015


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