The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The opiate of the masses


For any algorithm to run, some minimum input data is required. Now imagine an algorithm that can fetch for itself the data that it requires in order to run. Stressed by the exercise? No problem, just think of the lowliest creature you can think of - maybe a virus.

A virus is essentially a strand (single or double) of nucleic acid - which is basically the algorithm with the purpose of replicating itself - enclosed in a protein coat. When it comes in contact with a suitable host cell, it injects its genes into the host where it is transcripted and translated into the proteins and replicated - basically, copies are made. these are assembled into new viruses, which flood the host cell till it bursts, and then are sent out. When not in contact with anything alive, it simply lies there, doing nothing.

This was life, from the virus' point of view. I draw your attention to the way it spends its lifetime.

If you're of the view that creatures can be grouped from least evolved to the most evolved, then consider a ceature from the middle of that ranking - a butterfly, maybe.

Upon hatching, the caterpillar does nothing but eat, so it can pupate properly and become a butterfly. This creature spends its time pollinating flowers of the plants that it knows will be food for its future generations, mates, lays eggs (if female) and then dies.

Notice again how it spends its lifetime.

Look now at a lion. A highly evolved creature. The leader of the pride, in fact. He doesn't hunt, but gets the biggest share of the spoils. He defends his territory and his position in his pride, and mates when his lionesses are 'on heat'. Apart from that he only sleeps.

What a waste of talent, isn't it?

Idea is, at both extremes of lifeforms, we've creatures with a lot of 'free time'. I'd define free time as any amount of time not spent in doing survival tasks. Basically, free time seems to follow an inverse bell curve.

The difference is, can this free time be utilized?
Back to our algorithm. It needs minimum input data to run. So does every lifeform, to survive.

A sapling needs to find water, sunlight and nutrients - therefore it has a rudimentary sensory and motor system that attracts its shoot to light and away from gravity and its root towards water and gravity.

The more things a creature needs in order to survive, the better sense and locomotory systems it has.

It so happens, the more evolved a creature is, the more things it needs to survive, and hence, we have the creatures with the most 'free time' also having the best sense and locomotory systems.

Somewhere along the evolutionary ladder, this double convergence of time and resource turns into a triple convergence. A creature with highly developed sensory processing centre with time to spare from tasks of survival. How does it engage the idle yet powerful system? Simple, by probing into things apparently unconnected to its survival. And thus are generated the first probing questions and their first attempts at answers.

Sometimes, the business of Q & A seemed more interesting than survival itself. So here was Homo sapiens neanderthalis, a social animal, with an ice age to survive, and abstract questions to answer. What did he do?

Simple, he invented religion. An institution that had the following functions:
  • Define socio-political relationships and hierarchies
  • Define the ways and means to subsistence i.e. the processes of hunting, farming, etc.
  • Define the judicial system
  • Provide the answers to abstract questions, such as about genesis and destruction
  • Provide spiritual and psychological guidance
These were the functions of the institution of religion, as concieved by our close cousins the neanderthals, and adopted/propagated by our own ancestors.

The ages passed by, each time stripping religion of one of its functions till at long last only the last listed function was relevant to it.

Religion has been a very useful tool, as well as a potent weapon. Which of these conflicting roles it will predominantly play in the future, will depend on the practitioners of the religion.

Meanwhile, the wealth of answers constituted from all religions of the world (living and extinct), and the customs that stem from them, create the massive corpus of knowledge known as Mythology.

On this pensive note, I leave you dear reader, to attend my OB project meeting.


Gurdit said...

I'd have to disagree with you. With the cacophonous calls for Creationism to be introduced into the education system in the US, and the strength of the faith in the orthodox Christian beliefs of Genesis and the 7 days, religion still explains the creation and the origin of life to those who seek that explanation.

The "problem" with religion is that it is very vastly and unfortunately subjectivised (ok, I made up that word). People interpret religion the way they want to, and they use it in the same vein. Sad as it may seem, the fact that Indians, in general, treat religion as a way of life lets it run our lives a lot of times. On an ideal world, a religion would provide us with the moral and spiritual guidance we need, and nothing more.

Ishita/Aritri said...

@ gurdit:
When I said religion was stripped of certain functions, I meant that it merely lost the capacity to cater to those functions. However people, as you rightly pointed out, still perceive it to be capable, which is sad.