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Darwin and the mystical monkeys

Rohit Gupta | Updated on October 03, 2014 Published on October 03, 2014

The gills have it: Vishnu in an incarnation of Matsya, the fish by Offert Dapper (Amsterdam, 1672)   -  Wellcome Library,London

Rohit Gupta

If all of us descend from apes, perhaps we all are equal

“The multitude will copy the actions of the enlightened,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, while laying down the Swadeshi doctrine for all Indians to boycott the use of British goods. Unknowingly perhaps, but as a strategy Gandhi was invoking ‘mimicry’, one of the fundamental processes that guide biological evolution.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) involves several phenomena by which certain species protect themselves from predators, such as camouflage and mimicry. A flower will take on the appearance of a female insect to get pollinated, a frog will wear warning colours declaring itself unpalatable, and tiger moths can send misleading auditory signals to echolocating bats. Mimicry in behaviour is also associated with our ancestor primates, like the three famous mystical monkeys gifted to Gandhi by an unknown Oriental traveller.

One wonders then if Gandhi saw the independence of India as a form of human evolution. Was the lion of Empire being told by the peacock, by way of symbolic communication, that it was actually an elephant? It is well-known that Gandhi was a great semiotician, a master of symbolic communication. His own attire mimicked, simultaneously — the fakir’s poverty and the saintly cotton shroud of Christ the king, thus encompassing every social class in between. His choice of cotton as a strategic tool against the Empire was itself a kind of mimicry.

In the early 1700s, the popularity of Indian cotton created serious problems for the East India Company back in the motherland. Gavin Weightman writes in The Industrial Revolutionaries (2009): “In the woollen-weaving and silk-producing districts of England, cotton became a dirty word. In France and other European countries too, the threat that these wonderful Indian goods presented to the established textile industries brought a swift reaction. Women seen wearing cotton gowns were attacked in the Spitalfields district of London in what became known as the ‘calico riots’; calico being the term for all cotton goods derived from the entrepot of Calicut.

The selling and wearing of pure cotton goods was outlawed to protect indigenous industries. In Britain the ban lasted from 1721 until 1776...”

This event in England would find its amplified mirror-image almost a century later in the Swadeshi movement, and as the single most powerful symbol used by Gandhi — the cloth-spinning wheel (or cosmic charkha) against the British Raj. Gandhi was not just re-directing material flows to disrupt British commerce, he used clothing design to become an embodied message, rather like a butterfly evolves wing patterns. Susan Bean observes in Gandhi And Khadi: The Fabric of Independence, “The communicative power of costume transcended the limitations of language in multilingual and illiterate India. The image transcended cultural barriers as well. His impact on the West was enhanced by his resemblance, in his simplicity of dress and his saintly manner, to Christ on the Cross.”

While in London, Gandhi met with Joseph McCabe — the English translator of a book by Ernst Haeckel, one of the most popular writers on Darwinian science at the time. Gandhi offered to render his book, The Riddle of The Universe ( Die Welträtsel, published 1895–1901) in Gujarati. Haeckel was specifically known for a controversial theory called Recapitulation, which roughly suggests that the stages in the evolution of a specie, play out again at a smaller scale in its embryo. In other words, the embryo is a compressed artefact (or “recap”) of the organism’s entire evolutionary history. This is why, Haeckel argued — stages in the development of a human embryo resemble the gills of a fish.

Coincidentally, the first avatar of Vishnu in Hindu mythology is represented as Matsya, or a human torso attached to the rear half of a fish. Numerous Hindu gods are biologically mixed-up species, or chimeras. Some gods have four or more arms, like a spider or an ant. Four-headed Brahma sits meditating on the top of a flower, (often lotus) like a bee pollinating the garden of Eden. All these themes of biological transmutation strongly resonated with the evolutionary trend in colonial science during the British Raj. If all of us descend from fish and apes, Gandhi seemed to whisper — no race is superior.

There were thinkers who went on to suggest that even societies behave and evolve like animals, notably Herbert Spencer ( The Social Organism, 1870) — “Societies slowly augment in mass; they progress in complexity of structure; at the same time their parts become more mutually dependent; their living units are removed and replaced without destroying their integrity; and the extents to which they display these peculiarities are proportionate to their vital activities. These are traits that societies have in common with organic bodies.”

Is it then possible that societies, cultures and nations mimic each other — like butterflies, frogs and moths? Or perhaps they lose complexity at higher levels of order, mimicking a lower form of life — and behave on the surface like simple microorganisms.

The Partition and independence of India in 1947 would then begin to seem like a natural form of mitosis and cytokinesis, a far more violent and large unfolding of microbial cell division, with a faint embryonic echo of the origins of life.

( Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)

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Published on October 03, 2014

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