Thursday, November 28, 2019

SAPIENS BY YUVAL NOAH HARARI: From Human to Posthuman



Writing a review of a book one has loved deeply is difficult. This is one of the matters, which the unsung heroes of book reviewers often unite upon. Sapiens is one such book. I could click a picture of the cover of the book, with its blackened human thumb impression and multi-colour typesetting on the cover with a white background, post this picture on various social media pages. However, that does not mean I reviewed it. For me, to be able to articulate the many nuances of the book is a herculean task. To make my job easier, therefore, I'd like to point out some of the important points and areas in the book. Sapiens is a nonfiction book about the origin and growth of the human species. 
Sapiens underscores the Cognitive Revolution as the decisive geological/biological event that carved out a trajectory for Homo sapiens. The author raises several arguments to suggest that an animal of no special importance became a geological force 1500 years ago. The book tries to answer a few questions such as: 
1. What is the significance of addressing human history regarding the cognitive revolution?
2. How is the agricultural revolution significant? What are the disadvantages the agricultural revolutions brought to humanity? 
3. What's the importance of unification of a large number of members of the Homo Sapiens?
4. How does the scientific revolution endow the human species with superhuman potential?
Each question is dealt with a clarity that could be attributed to the skill of the writer. Under several crucial subsections, each of these questions receives deeper elaborations. The text analyses the rise of the early species of humans under the part that discusses cognitive revolution. Several species of humans populated the earth until 70000 years ago when the Cognitive Revolution was triggered in Homo Sapiens in Africa. Gradually, Sapiens dominated all the other species of humans on the earth. In his evocative language, the author points out many research outcomes that prove that just as the only extant human species, the sapiens crossed paths with any of the other ancestral species of humans the population of those other species has deteriorated. Although the author does not point out the exact reasons for the disappearance of all the other early human species the certainty that their demise and their contiguity with Homo Sapiens is indisputable. 
The point of view that the author adopts to describe the agricultural revolution is a multidisciplinary one. When it says the agricultural revolution is history's biggest fraud, one has to wonder if history itself is alive, has a mind of its own. The major difference between animals and human sapiens is that sapiens can cooperate, coordinate, and function as a system under an idea. Animals are limited by a certain biological determinism. For example, a large number of ants can cooperate, often better than humans. However, the laws that govern their genes and biological systems bind them to function with a queen ant. No ant colony would ever revolt against an ant queen. Homo sapiens overthrew monarchies and ruling parties with a set of ideas or stories. Religion and money are shown as two major forces that played in favour of unifying sapiens across the globe.  
Finally, the scientific revolution transforms the potential of sapiens and makes them "god-like" in their capability to transcend their natural barriers. By using advanced instruments on their body sapiens can magnify their natural strength, be it vision, heartbeats, or memory. The book argues that 1500 years ago, sapiens became a geological force. The final triumph was not just that of science in unifying and strengthening sapiens. There was yet another claim for the space of influence- from colonialism. The relationship between science and colonialism is narrated in detail. 
First published in 2014, Sapiens is a book written with a post-humanist perspective as if the humanist tradition is a mere prelude to the more majestic and cosmic changes wrought by the posthumans. Certainly, this will make the reader wonder if Homo sapiens itself would give way to another, technologically empowered being. 
Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History and runs an online course titled A Brief History of Humankind. He now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) is another nonfiction book written by Harari. It is interesting to note that the questions he tackles in Sapiens, are the same questions he investigates as a researcher: Is there justice in History? What's the relationship between biology and history? Did people become happier as history unfolded? 
I read the paperback volume of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It's priced at Rs 499. I received a discount from a major online store. We must give this book to our younger generation to read. A copy of this book should be in our home library. With its detailed Notes and Indexes, it is easy to use as a reference book. The typesetting is commendable. The cover has a white dominance. This catches dirt easily. Looking at it now, after more than a month that I took to read it, the book looks well worn and used. This is a rare case in my way of doing things since I keep the book as much neat as possible and many of my books even after rough handling, still look just as fine as the new volumes we buy from bookstores. Should we blame this on the production quality of the book? 
The shortest chapter of Sapiens is the "Afterword" titled "The Animal that Became God". The title of this chapter veritably portrays the journey of the "self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company." The author concludes the one and a half page long chapter by asking an evocative question: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?" Perhaps, he answers the question in his other book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016).  

Saturday, November 23, 2019

READINGS ON LIFE AND NATURE- Major Terms Explained

English Common Course (ECC)
2A03 ENG

It is important to understand the following concepts before reading the prescribed text. The prescribed text for Readings on Life and Nature is Nature Matters. The text shall be made available soon.

Ecology: According to Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Ecology is the study of the relationship of plants and living creatures to each other and their environment.
           Remember, Ecology is not just a study of nature, as some would misinterpret. It is the study of the relationship, everything in nature has with the environment of the planet earth. The term 'relationship' is of utmost importance. A discussion of ecology in the present century is essentially a discourse about the rupture in this relationship. This notion, we have to keep in mind.

Environmental Movement: To denote the Environmental Movement, another term is often used- Ecology Movement. It includes scientific, social, and political movements regarding the issues related to the environment.  

Environmental Studies: It's a discipline that studies "the interplay between the social, legal, management, and scientific aspects of environmental issues". Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary subject. This means that Environmental Studies looks at a particular issue from multiple perspectives, from the insights gathered from various disciplines of studies. This is one of the reasons Environmental Studies is part of our syllabus.

Ecosystem: According to Britannica Encyclopaedia, "ecosystem is the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space." For more details on the Ecosystem, please visit this link:

Further Reference:

Refer to the book titled Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson. This is the book that inaugurated the Environmental Movement. For the first time, Rachel Carson drew the attention of the word towards the harmful impact of the use of pesticides, the impact of blind exploitation of the environment, etc.


Friday, November 22, 2019

NATURE MATTERS: Readings on Life and Nature- Course Introduction


KANNUR UNIVERSITY
English Common Course (ECC)
Readings on Life and Nature
Prescribed Textbook: Nature Matters by MainSpring Publishers
2A03 ENG
Welcome
Dear students welcome to the second-semester classroom. You may be sitting in the same classroom and meeting the same teachers. This might force you to think that everything is just the same. This is a misunderstanding. You are in the second semester, a semester older since you first joined college. Now, it's time to move forward with some new and exciting plans. You may have committed several mistakes in your academic as well as personal life. Please do not repeat them all. Try as much as you can to avoid mistakes. Your intelligence is visible in the way you avoid committing the same mistakes again.
Introduction
One of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is the mistake of thinking that the earth and nature are abundant with resources.
Human beings in almost every culture have been using natural resources, like water, petroleum and its many by-products, other fuel sources like coal, etc for enhancing cultural experiences. By cultural experiences I mean, the so-called material development, agriculture, development of industrial societies, setting up of villages, the founding of cities, etc.
In this course, we will study three modules. The first and second modules have five chapters and the third module has four. The syllabus is a combination of poetry, articles, life writings, and responses on contemporary issues.
The End Semester Evaluation of the course shall carry 40 marks and the Continuous Evaluation shall carry 10 marks (5 for internal exams and 5 for assignments).
Every student should familiarise oneself with the "Course Outcomes" of Readings on Life and Nature.
For more details and "Course Outcomes" use the following link and download the syllabus of Readings on Life and Nature.
Every student should keep a print out of the syllabus in a neat file folder. The Course Outcomes should be read and understood with the help of the teacher before starting the class. At the end of the syllabus, the Course Outcomes should be evaluated again based on the classes conducted. You should asses your progress based on the evaluation of Course Outcomes at the end of the course.


References for Teachers

The following books and essays can be used for further reading and reference by teachers and can also be suggested to students. I have soft copies of the materials. However, I cannot share them openly as it may raise copyright claims.

Needless to say, these materials shall be immensely valuable for the second-semester students as they study the Readings on Life and Nature. Especially, assignments can be given based on the following materials.
[MLA CITATION:
Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007. PDF file. ]
            This book deals with the question of humanity's impact on the planet.
2. Two essays by Dipesh Chakrabarty: Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories, The Climate of History: Four Theses.
            These two seminal essays by Chakrabarty discuss the concept of Anthropocene in detail. He elaborates on how the impact of the human species is not just a species-level interaction upon nature but has become an ecological force.
[MLA CITATION
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories”. Critical Inquiry. 41.
(2014). 1-23. Web. 20 September 2015. 
-----------. “The Climate of History: Four Theses”. Critical Inquiry. 35. 1 (2009): 197-
222). Web. 20 September 2015.  ]

WALK WITH THE SCHOLAR PROGRAMME: How to Read and Review an Academic Book?



On 20 November 2019, I received the privilege to visit Government College, Thalassery at Chokli as a resource person to teach students how to read and review an academic book. The class was composed of fifty brilliant students. The session was part of the Walk With the Scholar Programme conducted by the Department of Collegiate Education. Here are some of the insights that I planned for the class. I hope those who are unable to attend the class and those who are less fortunate to have a formal education in government colleges could get a glimpse of the concepts I discussed and benefit from it.    

Reading

Reading is a very complex activity. Researchers are done on the activity of reading. There are many reasons for reading. In the early stages of growth, a very young reader goes through simple texts, often short in length. Such reading involves reading aloud. This early reading phase is for a very short period. After that, the readers move to 'real' reading, which involves reading texts that carry complex grammatical structures, vocabulary, and expressions. In this case, reading for meaning involves silent reading.

When we compare reading aloud and reading silently, the first style of reading consumes more energy. It involves observing a word in relation to the next word and the word before it, understanding the context of the word, and then uttering it aloud. Some of these steps are not involved while reading silently. 'Reading silently' can also be called 'reading for meaning.' In this method, we can grasp the total meaning of the text quite fast. Another significance of 'reading for meaning' is that while we read for meaning, or reading silently, we do not need to read every letter of every word in each sentence. One can make guesses based on a few letters from a word and a few words from a sentence. 

For example, I w-s ta----g ab--t y--. 

Reading is an active process. The reading process is essentially a process of decoding. 
During the writing of a text, the writer has some common assumptions with the reader. Problems in a text arise when the assumptions of the reader do not match that of the writer and the common set of assumptions fails to establish itself. 

Regarding the meaning of a given text, there are many theories. A reader's prior life experiences influence the meaning a reader constructs concerning a text. The vocabulary, syntax, and form of text also influence the meaning.

Reading an Academic Book:

Reading skill involves literal reading, interpretive reading, creative reading, and critical reading. All these skills are required while reading an academic book. 
Literal reading- The reader's focus is to comprehend the text. 
Interpretive reading- Also known as "reading between the lines". This means, reading for hidden meanings in a text.  
Creative reading- Creative reading is the rendering of new ideas, applications, methods, and reflections. 
Critical reading- involves analysis of the text to reach a judgement regarding the text. 

Three major modes of reading are: 

Skimming: It means skimming over the surface of a piece of writing, or glancing rapidly through a text, to find out its general content, central idea, or gist. We do this, for example, when we want to find out whether a certain article is relevant to our area of study or research, or when we glance over a page of a newspaper to see if there is anything worth reading in detail, or when we leaf through a book to find out its subject matter.

Scanning: It means darting over much of a text to search for a specific item or piece of information that we wish to discover. This skill therefore also involves the ability to reject or pass over irrelevant information. It is the kind of reading we do when, for example, we read a biographical account to find out the date on which a certain event happened, or when we go through the table of contents in a book to see whether a certain aspect of a problem has been dealt with in the book. Another method to scan a book is to go to the Index section at the back of the book. Most academic books have a page marked as "Index" in the back of the book, where important words in the book would be given with their page numbers. This shall be used to locate the precise information regarding the particular word you are seeking. Also one can use the content page to locate the specific information.  

 Writing a Review for an Academic Book

While reviewing an academic book elaborate on the following concepts:

  1. The subject of the book
  2. The objective or aim of the book: Does the book establish any new information, meeting the demands of the time? 
  3. The politics of the book: Are there fresh perspectives? Or is the book a rehash of existing notions?
  4. The context of the book. Where does the book stand in the existing stream of knowledge? Make a comparison with other similar/dissimilar books.  
  5. The gist of the book: elaborate on the subject of the book and summarise it in a minimum number of words. 
  6. Is there any lacunae or gap in the book? Critically comment on the shortcomings of the book. 
  7. Judge the reliability of the book regarding the facts shared in the book.  
  8. The conclusions made in the book, if any. 
  9. Other matters: such as comments on price, cover design, availability, etc. 
  10. The relevance of the book. 
  11. Concluding remarks: Any particular concepts that you liked or disliked as a reviewer. 
  12. Works Cited (use "Works Cited" as a title with bold letters in the centre of the page, after your concluding paragraph. Follow the instructions given in the latest edition of MLA Handbook for filling this section. Or use guidance from your teachers/supervisors)

If you follow these points and write in the elaborate format of an essay-that is, with paragraph divisions and with a beginning, middle, and conclusion,- you could create a successful book review and garner good grades and impression from your peers and teachers. You could also blog about your book reviews and make a fan following. The same can be sent to publishers of academic journals for publication. 

I wish you the very best. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

KANNUR UNIVERSITY: UG Even Semester Classes, Semester Break, Exam Date

Classes for second semester UG students shall start on 20 November 2019.

The date is subject to change as per the decision of the University.

Semester Break: 25 November to 6 December 2019 (for all semesters)

Dates for End Semester Exams:
Even Semester
Sixth Semester: 4 March 2020
Fourth Semester: 16 March 2020
Second Semester: 6 April 2020





Sunday, November 10, 2019

THE NAME OF GOD IS MERCY BY POPE FRANCIS: Themes, Summary, and Analysis


The Name of God is Mercy is an exploration into the heart of Christianity in general and the Catholic faith in particular. This volume offers a reading experience like none other to anyone interested in the philosophy and ideologies of world religions. Andrea Tornielli, renowned Vatican journalist converses with the present Pope to answer some of the most crucial questions faced by our contemporary culture. In the introduction to the book, Andrea Tornielli affirms that mercy has always been at the centre of Pope Francis's preaching.

Andrea Tornielli paints a picture of Pope Francis at the beginning of the book. In this picture, we see Pope Francis celebrating his first Mass after his election as Bishop, at the church of St. Anna.

In his homily, the Pope refers to the Mercy exhibited by Jesus Christ and he tells the people that the strongest message given by Christ is the message of Mercy. In the introduction, through a specific reference to the Gospel According to John, the message of mercy is established as the central concern of the book.

"Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more." (John 8:11)

According to Pope Francis, "He overlooks no openings, no matter how small, in attempting to give the gift of forgiveness. God awaits us with open arms; we need only take a step toward him like the Prodigal Son." To substantiate the point, Andrea Tornielli refers to the novel To Every Man a Penny, in which the protagonist is a priest named Father Gaston. He faces a young German soldier to hear his confession. The young soldier is about to be put to death by the French revolutionaries. Before his death, the young man "confesses his passion for women and the numerous amorous adventures he has had." The priest advises the young man that if he wants to receive forgiveness from God, he should repent. The soldier openly states that he had enjoyed all the deeds he had committed. He doesn't have any repentance on the deeds he had done. The priest, Father Gaston asks, "But you are sorry that you are not sorry?"
The young man responds that indeed, he is. The soldier is sorry that he is not sorry. "That sorrow is the opening that allows the merciful priest to give the man absolution."

The Name of God is Mercy has nine chapters excluding the Introduction.
1. A Time for Mercy
2. The Gift of Confession
3. Looking For Even the Smallest Opening
4. A Sinner like Simon Peter
5. Too Much Mercy?
6. Shepherds, Not Scholars of the Law
7. Sinners Yes, Corrupt No
8. Mercy and Compassion
9. Living the Holy Year of Mercy

In each chapter, Andrea Tornielli asks Pope Francis questions regarding Mercy, Confession, How to put Mercy in practice, the question of absolution, is there a limit to Mercy?, the stand that should be taken by priests, the difference between sin and corruption, mercy and compassion, and the Catholic lifestyle through the Holy Year of Mercy respectively.

The Appendix of the book is the "Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy" or Misericordiae Vultus. The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy ( Iubilaeum Extraordinarium Misericordiae) is announced in this Bull of Indiction.

The Name of God is Mercy is originally written in Italian language and is translated by Oonagh Stransky, who has translated several writers such as Roberto Saviano, Pier Paolo Pasolini, etc. Published by Blue Bird Books for Life, The Name of God is Mercy is a volume handy to read while travelling. The small size of the book is also adequate in such circumstances. However, this is not a book for reading on buses or trains. 

The Name of God is Mercy calls for a deeper understanding of the most powerful qualities of God and our ultimate liberation from the chains of the world. Mercy is a contemporary subject, what we most need at this time of frustrating 'political correctness'. The topic is raised from the convictions of a person who has given hope to everyone on this planet, Pope Francis.  
    

Friday, November 8, 2019

ORIGIN BY DAN BROWN: Major Themes, Characters and a Review



Origin is a novel written by Dan Brown whose character Robert Langdon is also the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, which is more popular than any other novel on the earth. Origin is a good work; good, not in the same way as The Da Vinci Code. Origin explores a contemporary subject with a futuristic twist to it while exploiting all the thrilling-strategies of the novelist.
Edmond Kirsch, Ambra Vidal, Winston, Valdespino, Suresh, Garza, Prince Julian, and Agent Fonseca are the main characters in the novel along with the unstoppable Robert Langdon. The coterie of non-living characters includes the surreal museum of Bilbao, where Ambra Vidal works and Robert and Ambra first meet. The Museum of Bilbao appears to be one of the major characters in the novel. It becomes the ground zero of devastating events, which dictate the fate of many characters, including Robert Langdon. It is also noteworthy how museums find their special place in The Da Vinci Code and now in Origin.
Another significant non-living character is the city of Madrid, in Spain. The many landmarks of Madrid appear in the novel as crucial places where the story takes place. Casa Milà, also known as the "stone quarry" designed by architect Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia also known as the Basilica of the Holy Family and Barcelona Supercomputing Centre are some other landmarks that you'll see in Origin, neatly knitted into the fabric of the story. While reading, it was difficult to tell which was part was the story and which part was real. Before the beginning of the novel, the writer informs the readers about what are the facts in the story. A reader is entering into the world of the novel by being fully aware of the facts they will encounter in the story. These very facts would later guide the reader in sustaining the belief that everything he or she reads is also unbelievably real. These are valuable points that any aspiring writer can take away from Origin.
On a personal note, let me add that Origin inspired me to read the following books: Pope Francis's The Name of God is Mercy, Yuval Noah Harari's SapiensOrigin raises questions about the post-human world order. It tackles some of our unspoken realities like the still-raging battle between science and religion. It does not deal with these issues in isolation though. The brilliant historian in Dan Brown is fully awake and is doing his intricate analyses of historical events while performing this urgent discussion on technologically supported human existence. He also takes the arguments of creationism, turns it around, and places Artificial Intelligence at the centre of it. I urge all the readers to read Origin to clearly and enjoyably understand what I have been trying to tell you.
In Origin, you will also see Robert Langdon's emotional and spiritual growth. Origin leaves us with many questions unanswered about the world we live in and our future. It also urges us to go back to our roots and understand it deeply.
Published by Corgi Books, Origin comes with a symbolic cover with the image of the La Sagrada Familia and the helical structure of its famous (or rather infamous) spiral staircase. Dan Brown's previous books are Inferno, The Lost Symbol, etc.