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Metamorphosis 1

In the course of human evolution, the transformation from Bhimbetka to Ajanta is a mere flash in the pan. If it took 4.5 billion years to get to the first cave paintings, it only took another 2000 years to blossom into the art of the Ajanta Cave paintings.

But note the presumptuousness here- I almost said it aloud- that Ajanta is more “evolved”.

Are we sure? What was the purpose of Bhimbetka? Instruction? Maybe. Celebration? Possibly.

We are not sure if the cave paintings were meant to guide young students in the art of hunting. If such was the purpose, then the first instruction manuals far predate accepted ideas regarding manuals. We normally accept that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the first “manual” (yes the RTFM kind). It was a treatise on operating the Astrolable, written for his son.

Interesting. Some would consider the astrolable to be the first computer the world ever had.

Check this link:

So to get back to our early cave painting. Suppose they were instructions. Then this could be our first Audio-visual education system. Imagine the audio from the aged presenter, relating the process. And then, add to that his story of how he did it when he was young. And you’ve got storytelling, celebration, oral tradition, transfer of knowledge and graphic design all thrown into one neat little multimedia package.

In the degrees of abstraction, we accept that design, or plan, (as in floor plans) is the most practical form of art, moving through architecture, sculpture, painting, dance and music into more and more abstract forms. We also naturally tend to believe that the more abstract forms must have evolved later, the more practical forms having arrived earlier.

But if storytelling, visual communication, instruction and planning all came in one package, then those boundaries or degrees of abstraction that we ascribe to the arts may have been all fuzzy and meaningless in the context of history, time-lines and evolution.

In the early stone age, hominids would rely upon found pieces of stone or other objects to fulfill their objective. These were the first “tools”- no different from the kind of utilization you would find today amongst chimpanzees. In due course our ancestors learnt to shape flint into sharp objects for the purposes of scraping, cutting, digging. Thus the earliest stone age tools were so created. Even so, the stone tools remained stone pieces.

The transformation began when the first stone-age axe was built. For the first time, here was an example of a design. A plan that is now transformed into a constructed product. Stone + wooden handle. It is the implementation of an internal thought. It is no longer a stone, no longer a stick. It is far greater than the sum of the parts- it is the execution of a “plan”, a thought.

In the scale of “abstractness” that we use today, this “plan” and its realization, is pretty low- in the sense that it is a design, and a mere tool. But as a milestone in the evolution of human intelligence, it is a giant leap from “adaptation” to “creation”- a metamorphosis into abstraction.

Primordial Soup

Life, or rather proto-life, first appeared on earth some time around 4500 million years ago. The crust of the earth cooled down, the oceans formed and the atmosphere emerged. All these created conditions favourable for life to begin. Earth’s pre-biotic oceans were very different from today’s. They formed a “hot dilute soup”, which was ideal for the formation of organic compounds.

First came the self-replicating heavy molecules. Laboratory experiments simulating early earth conditions have been able to recreate some of these molecules, such as nucleobases and amino acids. The process of living matter evolving from self-replicating but nonliving molecules is called biopoesis.

RNA, or ribo-nucleic acid, appeared: the first form of proto-life and the first genetic code carrier. It is at once both a catalyst and a self-reproducing program. How the progression from molecule to nucleic acid exactly came about was unclear. In May 2004, Simon Nicholas Platts proposed the PAH world hypothesis to try to fill in this crucial missing link. Mind you, it’s still more chemistry than biology, yet.

But evolution soon kicks in. Because the conditions and resources necessary for the replication and reproduction of these molecules become scarce. Competition begins. Natural selection prefers those programs that are more likely to survive in the long run. Interestingly, the proteins that the RNA start to create, themselves become more likely candidates to survive the harsh conditions. The RNA thus becomes relegated to simply carrying genetic code. In due course DNA becomes a better candidate to carry genetic code. More importantly, when this genetic material becomes encased in a membrane, it provides a chemical equilibrium and a safer, protected environment.

They thus become the precursors to multi-cellular life on planet earth – protobionts.

It has taken approximately 1 billion years from the time the earth formed, to the time of the first appearance of life on the planet. Nearly another 1 billion years go by before the next gear shift.

Single celled prokaryotes make their appearance. The cells are primitive and have no nucleus in which genetic material can be aggregated. Most bacteria we encounter these days are prokaryotes- but they may not be the same bacteria that existed then.

Evolution may seem slow in our time frames, but it is being pushed rapidly by extreme conditions on earth. The moon’s proximity gives rise to tides a thousand feet high. Hurricane force winds and changes in the pH stimulate evolution.

Another billion years go by before the first eukaryotes evolve. A eukaryote is an organism whose cells contain a nucleus enclosed in a central membrane, containing the genetic material. This is a vast evolutionary leap from the prokaryotes which contain no nucleus.

Now the rate of progress increases. Sexual reproduction kicks in another billion years later. This further stimulates rapid evolution.

4.25 billion years after the earth formed, the first mammals start to appear.

There are several theories on the beginning of life on Earth. So any story is likely to have chinks in the armour, and therefore, challengers.


The human brain is a paradox. It’s about 1400 cc in volume, and approximately 1.5 kg in weight. It contains approximately 86 billion neurons that fire away to produce our senses, our intelligence, and indeed, constitute our “self”. All that we are capable of, as an intelligent species, is possible due to this little mass of cellular network. Yet with all our intelligence, we have not yet fully deciphered how the brain actually does it.

Even as early as childbirth, a baby can already recognize her mother’s face, and likes it more than strangers’ faces. By about three months, the baby starts to read expressions on human faces, and can distinguish emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, and sorrow. In fact babies can even read these emotions from hearing voices.

How is it that a baby comes equipped with such amazing ability to detect these subtle nuances? Could a super-computer do that?

Here’s a little story- a minor digression, if I may. It is a famous story about Pablo Picasso, that you may have heard. He was sitting in a cafe in Paris one day. Another patron, recognizing the great artist, approached him and asked him to do any sketch for him on the back of his napkin. He also offered to pay any reasonable sum that the artist might demand.

So Picasso agreed, and did a quick sketch on the napkin. While handing it back to the gentleman, Picasso demanded  a rather large amount of money for the work.  The admirer was horrified: “How can you ask so much? It only took you a minute to draw this!” “No”, Picasso replied, “It took me 40 years.”

The point is, although the baby looks like it is only three months old, we are the result of 4.5 billion years of evolution. Some “knowledge” we acquire from books, from our environment, from our teachers, from life itself.

The other vast repository of knowledge is the one that we carry- in our genes. It is not surprising that the baby does what it does, because it carries that knowledge inside.

We are programmed to pass on knowledge through our genes onto our progeny. Indeed, it may almost seem like our only purpose here is to pass on knowledge, ensure the continuity of life through reproduction, and thereby, ensure the continuity of knowledge.

To that end this blog may be Δ+

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Have you seen this picture before?
Can you possibly take a guess who the artist might be?
Okay, which period?

If you ask me, it looks pretty “today”. I mean, this could be a digital-oil paint hybrid. Or maybe a piece created completely in Corel Painter.

Shockingly though, it is a prehistoric cave painting from Gua Twet in Borneo. They are stencils of human hands, made by placing the hand against the wall and then blowing a mixture of red ochre and water around them.

Those guys must have been high!

We almost believe evolution started with the iPad. Or maybe it started with the Beatles and LSD.
But then how do you explain the cave art in Lascaux, or Bhimbetka, or Borneo?

Did we become intelligent when we invented the wheel? Discovered how to make fire? When did it all begin?

What is intelligence?

Carl Sagan said that intelligence is the tendency of an organism to control its environment for the purposes of survival. By that definition, intelligence must have started with the first appearance of life. Even the single-celled amoeba moves away when the environment turns acidic. That’s intelligence at the basic level. It tries to acquire a better environment. (Although I can’t say we show the same level of intelligence in dealing with our environment).

Without intelligence, a species cannot survive. It cannot continue to exist through the hurdles of “Natural Selection” and “Survival of the Fittest”- the two strongest tenets of evolution. If intelligence is about survival, then it is the central facet of evolution. It transformed  us from hunter-gatherers to community dwellers. It gave us our domestic hearth. It gave us our literature, art, mathematics and medicine. All that we do or have done, is guided by the sole purpose of the survival of the species.

At one end of the intelligence spectrum lies the amoeba, at the other, the human brain.

The Gua Twet painting depicts the journey of a Shaman into the spiritual
world. The picture is in the public domain.