The limits of us

I had taken this photo of the youngest niece when she was six months old and sitting in a baby bathtub. She’s fifteen now, and growing into a very personable adult. I looked into her eyes in this photo and had the disconcerting feel that her glance has not changed. I know it is not possible; she did not have control over her head movements then, and her eyes probably did not focus. But somewhere in that glance is evidence of the mind that she has. I’m sure many of you have similar experiences with people you love.

My first thought is that it is a matter of personality. But I read that a personality takes time to develop. Instead, what I think I’m seeing is her temperament; that is the word that experts use for the mental orientation that develops into personality. That probing curiosity, that skeptical openness to new things, am I reading too much into that glance of a six month old? I’ve been with her on too many of her explorations to mistake that. That look in her eyes has not changed.

A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them

The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick (1994)

The most believable models of the early development of the brain take us to the very limits of what we now know. Behaviour that we know and recognize is the surface; behind it are layers of processes no one really comprehends. At the bottom of it all is the neuro-chemistry which scientists are beginning to get a handle on. How does the genetics of neurotrasmitter densities map on to temperament? No one knows. This is why the astonishing hypothesis still remains a hypothesis; even after a quarter century of astonishing progress. Part of the problem may be that the question is not precise enough. These are wonderful questions, and they take us right to the limits of understanding who we are. It is a pity that the subject was born so late, I’ll not be alive when it is able to satisfy my curiosity.

Angry birds

The jungle babbler (Turdoides striata) is rather common. You can see them easily in any jungle or copse of trees near farmlands. They travel in flocks of several individuals which chatter constantly with each other. Listen to their constant calling, and you can follow the sound to see them hopping from branch to ground and back again, looking for insects to eat. They are supposed to have beautifully coloured eggs, but I’ve neither seen an egg, nor a nest.

The uniform grey specimens with yellow beaks which we saw in and around Pench National Park belong to the subspecies T. striata orientalis. These are the quintessential angry birds. They look so much like some of the birds in that game that I wonder if the creators took inspiration from these birds. Apparently they coexist with T. striata somervillei, which are a little darker and have a rufous rump and tail. I didn’t notice any, but they could have been around in Pench.

Jungle babbler in Pench National Park

I’ve most often seen these birds flit about in the semi-darkness beneath trees with a heavy canopy, making it hard to photograph them. I was lucky with these specimens. It seems that the more birds there are in a pack, the larger the area they commonly use for feeding. I saw the individuals in these photos perhaps just after their breeding season. A large fraction of the female chicks (but less of the males) usually leave the flock at the end of a year. As a result, flocks are a mixed group of related and unrelated individuals. The related birds would usually be the males. This means that territory is inherited by males within a flock!

The mixture of genetically related and unrelated birds in a flock would also make babblers an useful group for studying the spread of altruism. Indeed, non-breeding members of the group share time in incubating eggs, although they do not participate in the building of nests. Are these helpful non-breeders related to one of the breeding pair? I don’t know of a study.

Many such unanswered questions make the babblers an interesting group of birds for further study. DNA analysis indicates that the group as a whole may have evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago in the middle east. From here the group probably radiated out: one branch into Africa and another into southern Asia. Understanding the natural history of the evolution of families may eventually depend on our understanding babblers better. In fact, angry birds defending their eggs may not be such a bad metaphor for babblers.

How China is totally different

familyOne Sunday morning we sat in a park and watched families relaxing. Children skipped about or chased each other. Parents kept an eye on them, while talking to grandparents. The grandparents, in their turn, were unpacking large baskets of food for the children. There were photos being taken all around. The Family was relaxing into a deep sense of the universality of this scene.

I had to knock it down. We had already discussed the fact that China enforces a single child policy. So I followed the logic: each child grows up with two parents and four grandparents lavishing all their attention on her or him. This leads to the lovely scene we saw before us.

What takes some time to sink in is the rest of the logic. The child has no brother or sister, there is no rivalry at home, no need to learn to accommodate to a sibling, no lessons from parents on how to deal with disagreements. But more: no uncles or aunts, no cousins. No slightly older kid to help you grow up, no younger kid to whom you are a hero for a few years. No adults who disagree with your parents when they try to discipline you. Families in China are totally different from those in India, or in the rest of the world.

The Family and I grew up in a family full of aunts and uncles, forever changing our plans and putting everything into disarray. We grew up with cousins with whom we formed a secret society of non-adults inside the family. The most important part of this was the difference during one’s teenage years. As teenagers grow apart from parents and grandparents, the bonds with siblings and cousins deepens; they keep you tied firmly to a family. None of that in China! Behind the universality of human love that we see every day, there must be gulfs of difference modulating its expression.

What replaces these bonds? Do childhood friendships run deep? Are college friends a different family? The cracks in our understanding run out through everything we see before us. It will take time to understand China.