Thursday, November 29, 2012

Innocence undefined

One of my friends expressed a thought [1] – short and sweet, yet packing a punch – that went something like his students are innocent, just like a calf is. OK, I have no purchase on his assessment of his students, but on the calf’s innocence? Yes, I do.

I will try to be brief, but I am warning you that I may end up being longwinded. You have been warned.

Can a calf be innocent?

There is this field, which is evolving amidst a sea of controversies and contentions, that tries to explain actions / behavior of organisms as an outcome of biological evolution through natural selection. For the human species, it goes under the name of evolutionary sociology.

More than 35 years ago, Prof. Richard Dawkins stirred up arguments for natural selection by positing the gene as the basic survival unit – the unit that struggles through self-agency mediated through a community of genes towards its survival. That is, the gene survives. The organism, the group etc. are higher levels of organizations of genes but bereft of the compulsion of survival. Naturally he called this unit, given its penchant for survival and possibly the author’s desire to sell more copies of his book by courting controversy (the controversy meme), the Selfish Gene. The rest is continuing history. And, I wish to add to this brew.

Now, if a gene can be selfish, can it also be innocent?

Apply evolutionary sociology to deer. Apparently, in a herd of deer in the wild, there will be one individual who will be a showman – jumping high, running fast – when a predator has been espied. So far so good. But, for what does it indulge in show-boating is a matter of intense debate. One group of experts says that it is a signal to the herd. Further, it also attracts the predator to the show-off itself, as a measure of altruism, standing out like a thumb inviting the predator to itself.

Another group of experts: true it is standing out like a thumb, but not as a sore thumb. The claim is that the showman is exhibiting its agility to the predator as a challenge, “You see, I can jump this high, run this fast, which is six sigma for the group. Better you go after someone else.” The exact antithesis of selflessness.

So, what is going to be? The deer is altruistic or selfish? The jury is out on that one. But, shifting to Dawkins’s perspective not based on group survival but on what the gene does for its own survival, the matter is resolved – the gene for jumping in the show-off is selfish that just happens to endow survival benefits for the group.

Look at the photographs of the calf in the reference. The eyes have dollops of dolefulness. It invites feelings of sympathy. But, this is crucial, does the calf know it is inviting sympathy, thus it is manipulating humans? Probably not, as sympathy, and so also manipulation, are traits of more evolved mammals. (This is my conjecture, pure and simple.) That look – the phenotype which endows the gene with its own survival – the calf gets to eat, drink etc. (what is its ultimate fate depends on a host of factors, speculating on which I will avoid).

The relevant point here is that it is very difficult to ascribe “innocence” to the calf in the sense we understand it. Indeed, a new born baby has no innocence; it struggles to survive. In fact, we can go even beyond – the fetus fights for resources in the mother’s womb. It is a fight between the mother and the fetus (after all, the half the fetus belongs not to the mother!).

I understand metaphors are good for us – to understand complexities. Yet, we must understand that a metaphor is only a metaphor. Dawkins came to lot of grief because his Selfish Gene was a metaphor for how the gene survives, by outcompeting and cooperating with the other genes in its environment. This metaphor just did not register.

If I have argued that the calf is neither innocent nor not innocent, this can only mean that the metaphor was overhead transmission for me.

Innocence is innocence. It cannot be defined, definitely not by metaphors.

Raghuram Ekambaram




palahali said...

i had read somewhere that in a herd of animals like deer, elk etc some of them (presumably the older) ones fall behind so as to offer themselves for the predators. It seems this could be attributed to ' altruism'

Even a smile (as in humans) need not be innocent. just pure survival

mandakolathur said...

That is great pala. My take on what you have said is this: the "older" ones have already done what they can do for the genes - beget. Therefore, the genes have already ensured their survival, let the organism be sacrificed! It is, then, the genes that are truly selfish!

Dawkins asks us to look at all such instances from the viewpoitn of the genes and I have fallen for that idea,right or wrong.


dsampath said...

my understanding of the definitions of a human being is that he makes choices.A deer does not make a choice.
man becomes a human being when he goes beyond the pull of his genes..innocence to me is a pull of the genes.

mandakolathur said...

DS Sir, you just defined meme! I believe I have mentioned it sideways in the post. Thanks for validating my thoughts within this perspecttive.


Tomichan Matheikal said...

It's nice that a simple post of mine evoked such a profound blog from you. My own response to your comment in my blog was a lighthearted request to keep the "original sin" out of the discussion.

Working in a residential school, I have seen how some children lose their smiles too quickly merely because of the environment. The environments steals "innocence" in the sense it makes the child/student (sometimes even the older ones, like those in class XI) give up many of the simple responses he had learnt at home. He is forced to become cunning and even abusive sometimes.

Mine was not a philosophical or scientific treatise, Raghuram. But yours is.

mandakolathur said...


I have not yet read your response to my comment on your post! When I commented on your post that I want to think, that was a little bit dishonest; I had already thought how I would respond! Obviously I would not give this post as my comment on your post :)

Thanks for categorizing my post something serious, whatever it may be :)