déjà vu

They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.

In the Afghanistan-US collision I imagine I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common . . .

I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the remote past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language?

Our common ancestor evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Then, over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. That’s the working hypothesis anyway.

At least 21 human species existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.

It’s well known that some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia, and the indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. How do these manifest?

For example, I recently read somewhere that scientists have found a Neanderthal gene variant on chromosome 3 that significantly increases the risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms and one on chromosome 12 that appears to protect against severe COVID-19. If certain genes can influence the functioning of the immune system, other genes might influence nerve cells that control thought processes as well?

Are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?

Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life! Are we aggressive as an ethnic group and need to attack other countries? Are we squeamish about killing and bloodshed? Are we greedy and acquisitive? Are we insecure and need to subjugate others to feel good about ourselves?

We don’t consider all members of the species Canis familiaris (dog) to have the same personalities and proclivities. We associate certain traits with certain breeds, like Mudhols are fearless, Rottweilers are aggressive, Labradors are easygoing, etc. But we agree that they can all be trained to fit our purpose if necessary. If there were a democratic canine world, canine rights activists would insist they were all exactly alike in nature, and would brand them racist if they disagreed!

Wolf, Dog, Coyote all belong to Genus Canis. They can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The offspring will have the characteristics of Genus Canis but the species differences will be on a spectrum.

Wolf – Canis lupus

Dog – Canis familiaris

Coyote – Canis latrans

So why do we regard all Homo sapiens as similar in nature just because we all belong to the Genus Homo? What if different ethnic groups of Homo sapiens carry genomic signatures of remote ancestors like heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis or erectus that influence their behaviour? Agreed, it all started thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean the averaging caused by the mixing has reached steady state and we are now cookie-cutter identical!

People, when transplanted into a different environment, assimilate within one or two generations. In effect, they get trained exactly like dogs do. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Of course, I don’t want to stereotype citizens of any country. I don’t suppose they are all like the dictators or oligarchs ruling them, but I don’t know their national character, or even if they have one, and can’t make a case in their favour either.

Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow street protests in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air. Simply put, citizens don’t count, especially if a country is not democratic.

The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. I do wonder if the Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?

India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.

We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.

Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.

Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of rules.

Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.

But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.

We empathise, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in the history of our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.

One thought on “déjà vu

  1. India didn’t forge a friendship, very true, and your comparison with college roommates is very apt. Since it’s not an elected government the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us – I agree with this point. Very nicely you have narrated history, informative.


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