Monday, July 27, 2015

How Microbes Created Our Atmosphere

Paul G. Falkowski has produced a fascinating little book titled Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable.  He holds the Bennett L. Smith Chair in Business and Natural Resources at Rutgers University.  Falkowski’s intent with this book was to provide to the non-specialist an explanation of how all forms of life share common ancestors and how we owe our existence as humans to the efforts of the tiniest of creatures. 

Much of the text is devoted to illustrating the basic set of molecular engines (nanomachines in Falkowski’s terminology) that were developed to power cells and manufacture the proteins and other chemicals necessary for their function.  Falkowski makes clear that many of “life’s engines” that developed in bacteria remain the engines that drive life in all its current forms.  Along the way, he provides an interesting tale of how microbes played a role in providing the atmosphere that allowed animals like us to evolve.  That will be the topic here. 

By definition microbes are creatures too small to be visible to the naked eye.  Consequently, they were essentially unknown until the seventeenth century when Hooke and Leeuwenhoek acquired microscopes of sufficient power to detect them.  It was Leeuwenhoek who first identified bacteria and showed that we are not only surrounded by such creatures, we are also inhabited by them.  Despite the great significance of these discoveries, Falkowski indicates that it was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that the study of microbes began as an active area of science.  He attributes to Ferdinand Julius Cohn the prescience to recognize the potential these little creatures had to alter the earth’s environment.

“The renaissance of the study of microbes began only in the middle of the nineteenth century.  It was championed by an almost forgotten hero, Ferdinand Julius Cohn.  Cohn was a Jewish wunderkind who had been born in Breslau, Prussia (today’s Wroclaw, Poland), in 1828.  It is reported that Cohn learned to read before he was two years old, began high school at seven, and entered the University of Breslau at fourteen.”

“Cohn was not focused on the role of microbes in causing human disease.  Although he worked on microbial diseases of plants and animals, and was far less famous than Pasteur, he had an even broader vision.  He saw microbes as organisms that helped shape the chemistry of the Earth—the planet’s metabolism.”

Little creatures can accomplish great things if there are enough of them.  This source provides us with a way to visualize the numbers involved.

“There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water….forming a biomass which exceeds that of all plants and animals.”

“There are approximately ten times as many bacterial cells in the human flora as there are human cells in the body, with the largest number of the human flora being in the gut flora, and a large number on the skin.”

And that neglects the various viruses and other parasites that inhabit us.

The key requirement for the evolution of complex, multicellular structures was the availability of free oxygen in the atmosphere.  This source provides a chart illustrating the history of the atmospheric oxygen abundance.

The red and green lines indicate the highs and lows of the various estimates of oxygen abundance as a function of time.  The x-axis records billions of years in the past.

The Earth is thought to have been formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  There is evidence that single-celled bacteria existed about 3.5 billion years in the past, but oxygen as a free molecule doesn’t become available until about a billion years later.  Since life began before free oxygen was available, the first cellular organisms would have to use other elements to produce the materials needed for energy, nourishment, and reproduction.  For example, bacteria capable of ingesting hydrogen sulfide and producing sulfur as a waste product (with and without the utilization of sunlight to drive photosynthesis) predate the photosynthetic microbes capable of replacing hydrogen sulfide with water and producing oxygen.  These creatures would have consumed any resident oxygen as they died and their decay produced carbon dioxide.  Other sinks for free oxygen molecules assisted in limiting its concentration.

Oxygen is important for biological evolution because it reacts readily with many elements and provides considerable energy when it does.  That is exactly the property that would have rendered it rare as a free molecule in the early atmosphere.  It would be readily coupled with the abundant hydrogen atoms to form water or reacted with other elements to form oxides. 

Water is much more difficult to break down than hydrogen sulfide.  It would take a very long time before the mechanism capable of that feat would be developed.  From Falkowski:

“The first photosynthetic microbes were anoxygenic—that is they were not capable of splitting water.  It took several hundred million years before microbes evolved the ability to split water.  Water is an ideal source of hydrogen on Earth’s surface because it is far more abundant than any other potential electron donor, but splitting it takes a lot of energy.  The responsible nanomachines evolved only once among prokaryotes: in the cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.  When these organisms finally were able to split water, they produced a new gaseous waste product: oxygen.  The biological production of oxygen changed the evolution of life on Earth forever.”

Producing a source for molecular oxygen does not immediately produce a ready supply.  The sinks for oxygen would have to be overcome.  In fact, the algae that produce oxygen using photosynthesis will respire carbon dioxide and water when no light is available, thus negating a fraction of the oxygen production.  These same bacteria will die and decay and thus consume more of the oxygen.  For oxygen to build up in the atmosphere, decaying creatures would have to be stashed somewhere where they would not have access to oxygen.  This is where all that oil and gas we have been using for so long enters the story.

“By far the most important storage areas are in shallow seas and along the coasts of continents.  But even there, on average less than 1% of the organic matter produced by phytoplankton reaches the sea floor, and only about 1% of that is subsequently buried in sediments.  This means that less than 0.01% of organic matter is actually buried, but over millions and millions of years, this very small fraction becomes significant on a global scale….”

Having these sediments ultimately incorporated into sedimentary rock still does not necessarily protect the oxygen gas from being consumed.  Yet another mechanism is required to keep it safe.

“Some of the sedimentary rocks, which contain the organic matter, are subsequently uplifted onto the continents to form mountains….Without uplifting the organic matter onto continents, the organic matter would be subducted into the interior of the Earth by tectonic processes, heated, and returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide from volcanoes—and little or no oxygen would accumulate.”

Producing an atmosphere containing a significant oxygen component was no easy matter.  For the planet itself it was revolutionary.  As in most revolutions, death and chaos ensued.  The emergence of oxygen in the atmosphere led to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event.

Many species of microbes had evolved in a low oxygen or oxygen free environment.  An excess of oxygen was poisonous to many.  Species that produced methane were common and methane was a significant component of the atmosphere.  The availability of oxygen not only harmed the methanogenic microbes it also reacted easily with methane and removed it from the atmosphere.  Unfortunately methane is a very efficient greenhouse gas and the Earth needed it to maintain its surface temperature.  As this source puts it:

“Free oxygen is toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms, and the rising concentrations may have wiped out most of the Earth's anaerobic inhabitants at the time. Cyanobacteria were therefore responsible for one of the most significant extinction events in Earth's history. Additionally, the free oxygen reacted with atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas, greatly reducing its concentration and triggering the Huronian glaciation, possibly the longest snowball Earth episode in the Earth's history.”

Note that after the Great Oxidation Event the oxygen content of the atmosphere leveled off at just a few percent.  Further buildup would require additional evolution.  That would come in the development of multicelled eukaryotes (made up of cells with nuclei), particularly the phytoplankton.  These could be larger and produce more oxygen and, more importantly, could sink faster and more efficiently hide its decaying bodies in sediments.  This is the mechanism that generated the rise in oxygen that began about 700 million years ago in stage 4 on the above chart.

Yet more magic is required to get us to our current state.  At this point in time there are no land-based plants or animals.  As the oxygen level rises, simple animals that now depend on oxygen can arrange themselves in more complex configurations without worrying about oxygen limitations.  Stage 5 contains the Cambrian Explosion when nature experimented with many species, discarded most, and kept the ones that provided the major species classifications of today.  This unique period occurred around 540 million years ago and lasted a few tens of millions of years. 

Falkowski provides this perspective:

“The evolution of animals seems to have preceded the evolution of plants on land by approximately 200 million years….Terrestrial plants are derived from a single group of green algae and began to colonize land about 450 million years ago.”

The rise of oxygen respiring plants greatly boosted the oxygen level to higher values than currently exist.  The result was that animals began to invade land from the oceans encouraged by this abundant supply.  They would provide a healthy sink for oxygen as they consumed it and respired carbon dioxide and water.  Eventually equilibrium would be established.

What to take away from this story?  One thing is that life forms were created early in the earth’s history, but life as we know it, life based on an oxygen-rich atmosphere, occurred only through a sequence of not inevitable events.  Quite a bit of luck was involved.

“Oxygen is unique to Earth’s atmosphere.  The gas has not been found in high concentrations on any other planet in our solar system, nor has it been found in the surrounding neighborhood of stars that have planets.  Although it is highly likely that other planets will be discovered to have oxygen, it does not seem to be a common gas on terrestrial planets.”

The evolution of life forms may not be that difficult on other planets; the evolution of life forms like ours might be quite a bit more unlikely

Another conclusion one might draw is that Earth is a complicated place and small changes can produce dramatic effects.  The pollution we generate and the carbon dioxide we spew into the air are hardly noticeable to us.  However, they are major factors affecting our oceans.  Acidity levels are rising, food chains are being disrupted, and species populations are being altered.  This is risky business.  The oceans produced life; they can also destroy it.  Since the Cambrian period there have been at least five mass extinction events.  Our current era has already been referred to as the sixth.  There is no law of nature that prevents humans from being victims.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Christianity, Evolution, and the Purpose of Pain

Joanna Bourke, a British historian, has produced a fascinating book on the subject of pain: The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  She convinces us that pain is an elusive quantity. There is no way of measuring it directly.  A physician must depend on the description of the pain by the patient or draw her own conclusions based on evaluating the signals of pain being expressed by the patient.  It is well known that expression of pain is a learned response that varies from one culture to another, from one gender to another, and from one generation to another.  It is also well known that extreme physical injuries can be endured with little or no pain, and extreme pain can be experienced with no discernible cause.  Given that background, Bourke details how people have struggled with pain, both as sufferers and as witnesses, and how the interpretations of pain and how it was thought to vary by culture, race, gender, and age have evolved over recent centuries.

Bourke also addresses the meaning of pain as it applies to human existence.  What purpose does pain serve?  She limits herself to the English-speaking world and the British and Americans in particular.  Not surprisingly, initial thoughts on pain were highly colored by religious beliefs.

“In Anglo-American societies, religious dogma and practices have provided the most robust materials from which the meaning of bodily pain has been constructed.  Although significant Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities have existed in Britain and America for centuries, the most pervasive theological presences have been Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity.  Their engagement with bodily pain has relentlessly insisted that pain has a divine purpose.  Deciphering that purpose has not been easy.  The unreasonableness of bodily torment has unsettled theological minds throughout the centuries.”

The problem for Christians is the age-old issue of how to explain why bad things happen to good people in a world micromanaged by an all-seeing, all-knowing God.  Scriptural references provided constraints on any interpretation with respect to pain.

“In Christian doctrine, pain is the consequence of sin.  Biblical passages are unambiguous: from Genesis 3:16 (which decreed that ‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’) to Numbers 12 (which portrayed pain as a punishment for evil desires and a lack of faith), pain and transgression have been inseparable.  The Christian position was summarized by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) in 1747.  At creation, humans were wholly innocent, he explained, and ‘as he knew no sin, so he knew no pain’.  After rebelling against God, however, the ‘incorruptible [bodily] frame hath put on corruption’ and the ‘seeds of weakness and pain’ became ‘lodged in our inmost substance’.”

Thus humans (and animals as well?) were condemned to a life threatened by pain due to the original sin of Adam and Eve and also due to any transgressions they might be guilty of in their own lives.  This belief provided a framework within which all things could be explained, although the logic could be quite convoluted.  For example, the parental pain suffered with the death of a newborn infant could be explained as God saving the parents from some future sin of indulgence in the child at the expense of the piety expected by God.

Since pain was an expected feature of life and the reward for a life poorly led was everlasting pain suffered in the fires of hell, the usually episodic pain experienced on earth came to be viewed as redemptive.  Suffer pain now as a way of paying for your sins so that you may sooner enter into heaven.

“Whether sin was intrinsic to what it meant to be descendents of Adam or a punishment for personal misbehavior, Christians could be cleansed of its stain through the experience of pain in this world, an intermediate world (for Roman Catholics) or the everlasting world of hell.  To avoid the latter, purification through bodily suffering was necessary.”

If pain was inflicted on a believer, it could be interpreted as God delivering a message informing the person that some changes needed to be made.

“Pain was not only sent as a reminder of the need to purge the soul of sin in anticipation of a fine ‘mansion’ in the next world: it was also intended to provide guidance on the conduct of Christians here on earth.  Bodily distress was a formidable instrument of instruction.  Its message was clear: pain informed people that they were transgressing the laws of Mother Nature or the commandments of that great architect of all things, God the Father.”

Pain perceived as an instrument of God could often be more easily endured.  However the apparent randomness was always a problem for theologians.  One had to jump through hoops to justify extreme suffering when imposed upon small children.

This Christian view of pain as a necessary and unavoidable feature of life was not helpful in encouraging the use of newly discovered chemicals that could be used as anesthetics.  These were around for decades before they came into frequent usage.  It would take another century before the benefits of pain were discredited.

“….medical technologies relieving earthly torments could pose heavenly dangers….As a consequence, chloroform was nothing less than ‘a decoy of Satan’ that would ‘harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble for help’ as one clergyman informed James Young Simpson (the first physician to use chloroform to ease a woman’s birth agonies).”

As might be expected, it would be the women who would be required to suffer the most.  Male physicians and male clergymen were convinced that birth without suffering was unnatural and against God’s will. 

It would be the mid-twentieth century before the link between pain and sin (original or otherwise) would finally dissipate.  Yet one constraint on pain relief continues to this day: the fear that an analgesic might cloud the mind of a dying person and prohibit her from whatever preparations were necessary to meet her maker.  Consider this from a publication issued in 1956:

“Peter Flood (a Benedicine [Catholic]) began by insisting that people-in-pain must accept suffering ‘as permitted by God for our betterment.  More importantly, pain was ‘our privilege, in union with the redemptive sufferings of Christ, with whom we die in the security of unity and Christian hope’.  For this reason, it was vital that every opportunity was given to allow the person to die ‘consciously, to achieve contrition for our sins, to seek forgiveness of God before it is too late’.”

It was allowed that conditions might arise when severe pain might be counterproductive and threaten a loss of faith on the part of the sufferer.  Pain relief could be provided but not without further exceptions.

“The main proviso was that the patient should consent to the drugs, after being told that he was dying and warned that the medication might shorten his life.  Even in such cases, Flood insisted, physicians might still withhold pain relief.  If the dying man was known to have led an ‘evil life and has not repented’ (for example, if he was ‘a lapsed Catholic who has not received the sacraments’), then it was forbidden under any circumstances to proffer relief….In the final reckoning, the Catholic physician and his spiritual advisor were authorized to withhold pain relief for a higher good.”

Is this type of directive still being issued to Catholics?  It seems that it remains critical that people be forced to face death awake and as alert as possible.  Consider this quote from Palliative care from a Catholic moral perspective (April 17, 2015):

“Catholic moral teaching accepts that although pain management can relieve physical suffering, it can also result in the patient’s loss of consciousness. If unconsciousness or a shortened life is not the intention of the pain medication, administering high doses is morally permissible.”

Those millions of “lapsed” Catholics who think they have escaped from the clutches of that religion might want to check on the faith of their physician and find out who is running the hospital before checking in with a major illness.

Bourke suggests that while religion has had trouble dealing with the meaning of pain, science may have done little better.  The current thinking is that pain evolved as a means of issuing a warning that an activity or an injury was dangerous.  Bourke suggests that there is little gained by a Neanderthal whose tooth has decayed and is required to suffer pain interminably.  She hints that pain might just be some kind of cosmic joke.

This brief comment by Bourke is rather intriguing.  A Darwinian could see decayed teeth playing a role in natural selection.  It would be necessary to assume that bad teeth, then as now, played a role in sexual reproduction.  Perhaps losing the ability to chew was at that time a death sentence. 

Bourke might still have a point.  People tend to assume that wondrous evolution through natural selection tends to optimized solutions.  One only needs to look through a book with pictures of the various breeds of dogs that have emerged to consider that cosmic jokes are indeed possible.

In thinking about humans, evolution, and pain, an interesting article by Ann Gibbons was encountered: Human Evolution: Gain Came With Pain.  She describes the conclusions arrived at by anthropologists in studying the sorry construct known as the human body.  In their view it is not an engineering miracle but rather a hastily constructed entity using whatever parts were available.  Since we began our existence on the chimpanzee branch and only diverged a few million years ago, we had to utilize the materials we began with as best we could.  Our feet began as grasping “hands” designed to hold onto branches.  As we decided to stand upright and walk on those “hands” they had to somehow become proper feet.  What was arrived at was something functional, but much more complicated than necessary, and much more subject to injury (and pain) than required by the functionality.

Perhaps the best example provided by Gibbons is the human spine.

“Turning up the pain threshold a notch, anatomist and paleoanthropologist Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, limped to the podium, dangling a twisted human backbone as evidence of real pain. ‘If you want one place cobbled together with duct tape and paper clips it’s the back,’ said Latimer, a survivor of back surgery.”

“When humans stood upright, they took a spine that had evolved to be stiff for climbing and moving in trees and rotated it 90 degrees, so it was vertical—a task Latimer compared to stacking 26 cups and saucers on top of each other (vertebrae and discs) and then, balancing a head on top. But so as not to obstruct the birth canal and to get the torso balanced above our feet, the spine has to curve inwards (lordosis), creating the hollow of our backs. That's why our spines are shaped like an ‘S.’ All that curving, with the weight of the head and stuff we carry stacked on top, creates pressure that causes back problems—especially if you play football, do gymnastics, or swim the butterfly stroke. In the United States alone, 700,000 people suffer vertebral fractures per year and back problems are the sixth leading human malady in the world. ‘If you take care of it, your spine will get you through to about 40 or 50,’ said Latimer. ‘After that, you’re on your own’.”

As we age and our experience with pain increases, pain is no longer a warning mechanism; it is merely a sign of poor engineering.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Education, Sex, and the New Economy

Much of what has often been referred to as the “sharing economy” consists of a company with a website and software that matches people with a need for a service with people who have the motivation and means to provide that service.  In this way one can procure a ride, rent a car, rent a room, and even borrow a tool.  All of this is provided for a fee.  There is another class of service that can be procured on-line that is best thought of as contingent labor.  In this case the website allows someone with a need and money to spend to propose a task while those with a need for money and a relevant skill can bid for the job.  Taken together these might be thought of as the “new economy” because this is the direction in which innovation seems to be taking us.

One might suspect that such an economy where contingent labor is the new norm would inevitably focus on that most contingent of marketable commodities: sex.  One might also suspect that the sale of sex would be patently illegal and take place surreptitiously or in deep, dark corners of the internet.  An article in The Economist, Paying for college: A teaspoon of sugar, alerts us to the fact that the characteristics of sexual transactions are evolving quickly and moving in surprising directions.  The article begins with this lede:

“A very old solution to a new problem”

The problem referred to is exploding student debt.

“Nearly three-quarters of the graduates now leaving America’s colleges are saddled with debt. On average, they owe $35,051. By comparison, roughly half of all graduates carried debt in 1995 and it averaged less than a third as much, says Edvisors, which tracks student aid…. As the cost of university has risen, so has the number of ‘sugar babies’ who pay for it by selling companionship and sex to wealthy older men. Monthly pay for this is typically about $3,000, though some ‘sugar daddies’ offer much more. According to SeekingArrangement, a firm based in Las Vegas, two-thirds of sugar-baby graduates have no student debt.”

The front page of the SeekingArrangement website is quite clear about what is being offered.

“8 Sugar Babies Per Sugar Daddy”

“The odds are in your favor with thousands of attractive women looking to meet now.”

Included are pictures of presumably typical “sugar babies” in poses designed to illustrate their qualifications for the job.  The website also makes clear to the “sugar babies” what they should expect to gain from any transaction.

“Unpaid bills no longer have to be a concern.”

“Start dating gentlemen who leave the dating games alone.”

“Established Sugar Daddies offer valuable guidance for long-term stability.”

“Indulge in shopping sprees, expensive dinners, and exotic travels.”

The sales pitch seems to be working.  According to the article:

“Students who post profiles on know what they want, so ‘it’s almost like a business partnership’, says Angela Bermudo, a spokesman for the company. The site hosts some 900,000 profiles of sugar babies enrolled in American universities, up from 458,000 two years ago. Their ranks swelled during the recession and are still growing fast, says Brandon Wade, the site’s founder. A year ago nearly 1,200 students with an e-mail account belonging to an American university posted a profile on the site every day; the daily average has risen to about 2,000.”

This is not the fee for services model, but, staying with healthcare analogies, rather more the concierge model.  The goal is the acquisition of a desired lifestyle—for both the buyer and the seller.  Consider the example of one 23-year-old student with the online name of Barbiewithabrain.

“Her college, rent and car expenses have been covered since she was 18 by monthly allowances of $5,000-10,000 from three successive sugar daddies.”

There is more than this one company out there providing a similar service.  The even more explicitly named Sugardaddie is also referenced by the article. 

“The company’s site gets more than 5,000 new profile uploads worldwide every day. A quarter are students.”

So why isn’t all of this illegal?  Isn’t this equivalent to prostitution?  It turns out that prostitution is all a matter of style.  The type of arrangement promised by these websites has been deemed legal in court.  Frustrated critics have discovered that relationships between sugar babies and sugar daddies are uncomfortably close to that of a traditional marriage.

“States that attempt to close that loophole fail, says Scott Cunningham, an economics professor at Baylor University in Texas who has studied prostitution markets. Proposed legislation against the practice might, he says, inadvertently prohibit marriage—which could, after all, be defined as intercourse for financial support.”

There is, of course, little participation by "sugar momas."  Young men must get through college the traditional way.  One wonders how much all this contributes to the higher graduation rates attained by females.

One also has to wonder how all the starve-the-government conservatives who have cut back on support for college education would view this unintended consequence.  Would the conservative free-market enthusiasts welcome this development?

SeekingArrangement claims to have scored its first arrangement in 2006, almost 10 years ago.  It advertises an active membership of 4.5 million and offices in Las Vegas, Ukraine, and Singapore.  Learning of its business model does not, today, generate shock, outrage, or even moral disapproval.  It is merely interesting.  The world is an interesting place and it just keeps getting more so.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Fragility of Civilization

The definition of the term “civilization” can take many forms.  It is used here to describe a human society that has reached an advanced stage of development where members have generally agreed to live by certain rules that ensure a high degree of social, economic, and cultural stability.  What is of interest is the rapidity with which certain conditions can lead to the breakdown of civilization and produce aberrant human behavior that is almost beyond comprehension.

William Dalrymple provides an example of such a breakdown in an article in The New Yorker: The Great Divide: The Violent Legacy of Indian Partition.  The first Islamic conquests of Indian territory occurred in the eleventh century.  In Dalrymple’s telling these were historically considered more as ethnic conquests than religious conquests.  Peoples from other regions moved in and gradually assimilated.  Islam and the native religions managed to coexist for nearly a thousand years.

“….the last Mughal emperor, enthroned in 1837, wrote that Hinduism and Islam ‘share the same essence,’ and his court lived out this ideal at every level.”

“In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings, and where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith. A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.”

It would take a war, and the expected consequences of war, to begin a religion-based confrontation.  It became clear that World War II would spell the end of British control of India.  With independence becoming inevitable the competition for political dominance became more fevered. 

“Hindus and Muslims had begun to turn on each other during the chaos unleashed by the Second World War. In 1942, as the Japanese seized Singapore and Rangoon and advanced rapidly through Burma toward India, the Congress Party began a campaign of civil disobedience, the Quit India Movement, and its leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were arrested. While they were in prison, Jinnah, who had billed himself as a loyal ally of the British, consolidated opinion behind him as the best protection of Muslim interests against Hindu dominance.”

“From that point on, violence on the streets between Hindus and Muslims began to escalate. People moved away from, or were forced out of, mixed neighborhoods and took refuge in increasingly polarized ghettos. Tensions were often heightened by local and regional political leaders.

“The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946….The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who had witnessed the opening of the gates of a Nazi concentration camp a year earlier, wrote that Calcutta’s streets ‘looked like Buchenwald’.”

As the violence spread, it was concluded that the only solution was partition setting up two regions that would be home to the minority Muslim population.  These physically separated regions would become Pakistan and Bangladesh.  The British made the decision to depart as soon as possible and leave the natives to sort things out.  Chaos was the predictable result.

“Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.”

It is the violence that ensued that is so startling, a violence of unimaginable cruelty.  An ancient civilization had been provided stability by a foreign power for centuries.  When the British left, the social bonds that allowed (or coerced) differing populations to coexist dissolved and civilization ceased, for a time, to exist.

“Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.”

“Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, ‘Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits’.”

“By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead.”

As unimaginable as the violence was, it was not by any means unique.  In fact it is reminiscent of episodes in central Europe during World War II—just a few years earlier.  Niall Ferguson considers the origins of the violence that permeated the twentieth century in his history The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.  Consider one example of a political situation that was analogous to that of India.

There was a region of mixed Ukranian and Polish populations.  These people coexisted for centuries while political rule resided in a far-off capital.  With the end of World War I and the subsequent redrawing of borders, the possibility that one group could gain political control over the other became real and the two groups began to segregate themselves politically if not physically.  During World War II the area was successively occupied by the Russians, the Germans, and the Russians again.  It was time to prepare for dominance in the postwar era.  The constraints of civilization disappeared and violence ensued.  Consider Ferguson’s description:

“The Ukraine was perhaps the most blood soaked place of all.  In Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), egged on by the Germans, massacred between 60,000 and 80,000 Poles.  Whole villages were wiped out, men beaten to death, women raped and mutilated, babies bayoneted....As another Pole recalled, ‘Stories abounded of Polish mothers being held by the Ukrainian Nationalists and forced to watch as their families were dismembered piece by piece; of pregnant women being eviscerated; of vivisected pregnant women having cats sewn into their bleeding abdomens; of Ukrainian husbands murdering their Polish wives; of Ukrainian wives murdering their Polish husbands; of Ukrainian fathers killing their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own Polish mothers; of sons of Polish-Ukrainian heritage being sawn in half because, the Nationalists said, they were half Polish; of children being strung up on household fences; of helpless infants being dashed against buildings or hurled into burning houses’.”

One could argue long over what the documented capacity of humans for cruelty means in terms of our fundamental nature.  Are we by nature violent with only the thin veneer of civilization keeping us barely under control?  Does the tumult of war and conflict force us to resort to violence, or does it merely provide the excuse for violent behavior?  Ferguson describes the period after World War I and extending through 1945 as a succession of ethnic conflicts.  One can argue that World War II didn’t really end until the victorious allies went about sorting the ethnically-mixed populations of Central and Eastern Europe back within national boundaries.  Can ethnicity itself be such a prolific source of bloody conflict?  Is religion even more insidious than ethnicity in dividing populations into identifiable groups?

The one thing that is clear is that circumstances can arise when the rules and regulations that keep a society functioning are nullified.  When that occurs, terrible things can happen before the blessings of civilization can be reestablished.  Have we settled down into such stable societies that excursions into communal violence are unlikely?  Unfortunately, the answer is a clear “no.”

The United States still struggles with discrimination and racial violence 150 years after that issue should have been resolved.  The Middle East continues indefinitely as a zone where religious and ethnic strife causes death, destruction, and political turmoil.  Developing countries around the world are burdened by religious, ethnic, and political conflicts.  These types of disturbances have always been with us.  However, there is the potential for disruptive change in the near future that could rival the twentieth century wars in terms of effect.

The one event (barring a massive asteroid strike) capable of causing worldwide disruption on a grand scale is global warming and the associated climate change.  Rising sea levels and coastal inundation, threatened food production, and massive migration to escape environmental changes will all follow sooner or later.  All countries will be confronted with dramatic effects requiring responses.  If those responses become confrontational rather than cooperative, the world could become a much nastier place.

Ironically, the first countries to come in serious, if not violent conflict over climate change are probably India and Bangladesh.  Given that the seas are rising, Bangladesh is subject to severe cyclones, and the majority of the country is less than 20 feet above sea level, the entire country seems unsustainable even in the near future.  A map of Bangladesh makes it clear that the 160 million residents have no place to go to escape environmental change except back to India.  The bloody partition will have to be thrown in reverse and the flow increased by an order of magnitude.

Our societies need to be strong and our governments need to be responsive to change.  Instead we are lulled into a false sense of security as we forget why we needed activist governments and a sense of civic duty in the first place.  The time will come and we may not be ready.
Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged