Maybe she’s born with it

Our genes. Those basic units of heredity of ours; the segments of our DNA that inform – or, determine – our characteristics. The knowledge that we are these moving, thinking, breathing human beings – with so much going on within us, maintained via the presence of roughly thirty trillion cells (!!!), innate forms of information, and communication between all these microscopic parts. Mind-blowingly fantastic, amazing.

A while ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘Three Identical Strangers’, and it is safe to say that its contents – the topics explored through it – blew my mind; I would strongly recommend it to anybody who is even vaguely interested in psychology.

The documentary is centred on the story of three identical triplets who had been separated at birth, and who had been adopted into three different families. So, they had been practically the same on the ‘nature’ front, but brought up within three distinctly different household-types, of different social classes and such — and so, they had ended up being quite unalike on the ‘nurture’ front.

This had been a real-life occurrence; not something plucked from some work of fiction:

Nineteen years after being separated at birth, two of the three biological brothers meet, by ‘chance’, at university. One of them walks in, as a new student; his fellow students are already acting awfully familiar with him. He wonders why. Turns out, there is another student at the university, who looks just the same as him, and whom he is now being mistaken for. [Once again, I would truly recommend watching the documentary, for the details of the triplets’ story, and for more about… the experiment they later discovered they had furtively been made a part of, from birth. An absolutely astonishing story, which had given rise to a number of fascinating findings and resulting questions…]

The young men discover that they are indeed twins; later discover that there is a third brother: they are a trio. They looked pretty much the same: almost entirely identical facial features; hair type; build. Moreover, the brothers discover that they exhibit very similar behavioural characteristics too (in terms of ways of walking, of sitting, and such); they favour the same brand of cigarette; they even have the same ‘type’ (the same ‘taste’ in women)!

Tragically, one of the brothers eventually ended up taking his own life, after a battle with bipolar disorder, the actualisation of which had been pinned to social/environmental factors: namely, the man’s difficult relationship with his own (adoptive) father.

But I guess what I am trying to express, in this particular article, is how awesome it is, that we have, within us, these forms of innate knowledge, and how elusive the answers to these questions about ‘nature’/’nurture’/’autonomy’ really are.

We operate on information that is in-built, pre-existing, and here we are, as experiencers. We did not get to choose the colours of our skins; the texture of our hair. We did not choose whom we had been born to; whom we are connected to ‘by blood’. All of those ‘bigger’ things. And… so many of the ‘smaller’ ones, too.

Last year, I decided to purchase a ’23andMe’ test for myself. To find out more about my genetic predispositions, and also after years of being asked,

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, where’s that?”

“Oh, but you look Moroccan/Mauritian/Pakistani…”

Within my immediate-extended family, some of us look more ‘South Indian’, while others look more ‘Northern Indian’. Some look more Turkish, North African, Persian. The list goes on. For example, one of my first cousins and I attended the same primary and secondary schools together. We’d mostly been in the same classes, but nobody really ever suspected that we were cousins, or even that we had been ‘from’ the same country, until we told them so. People assumed he was Algerian or something, and some people guessed correctly that I’m Bengali, while others insisted that I look like I’m from “somewhere else”. [“Where, though?” “I don’t know. Just… somewhere else”]

I wanted to find out more about the story of my ancestry: about the people who had come before me.

Outside of my familial circle (which is actually so huge that we could probably easily populate a small country) some of my friends who are Bengali look quite like they could be Malaysian; some look more European; some look more Arab.

From what I know, on my mother’s side, my great-great-great-great (with eight ‘greats’ in total, I believe) grandfather had been from Yemen. Other than that, ‘we’ are from the Bengal region in India – a large fraction of which became ‘Bangladesh’ (literally, ‘Land of the Bengals’) in 1971, when the region declared its independence from Pakistan.

According to ’23andMe’, modern-day Bengalis are mostly the descendants of Central Asians who had migrated southwards, roughly four thousand years ago. Bangladesh is also bordered, on one side, by Nepal – which forms a sort of ‘bridge region’ between ourselves and China. It has (or, should I say, ‘we’ have?) been under Mughal – so, Turco-Mongol – rule, and under British colonial rule, in the past.

I never really realised how alike Bengali ‘culture’ is, with Nepali ‘culture’ until I met one of my cousins’ friends, at my uncle’s wedding. Language, ‘cultural dress’, food. Extremely similar. [Also, I’ve used inverted commas around ‘culture’ because this word seeks to describe the entire way of life of a particular group of people. But, of course, ‘culture’ is never really static, not really reified — but it is useful when it comes to describing what might ‘generally’ be the case].

From reading about my own genetic analysis results, I learned that, in addition to the ‘big’ things that are genetically determined: hair colour, eye colour, susceptibility towards particular illnesses… many of the ‘smaller’ things are thought to be genetically predetermined too. How likely you are to… be averse to coriander, for instance. Preferring sweet foods, or savoury. Being more of a ‘night owl’ or a ‘morning person’; whether you’re more likely to be a ‘deep sleeper’, or a ‘lighter’ one. Earwax type. Finger length ratio. ‘Asparagus odour detection abilities’.

Maybe she’s born with it: maybe it’s in her genes.

So much of ourselves would appear to be… predetermined. But where does predetermination end; where on Earth does auturgy (acting independently, without external influence) begin?

I know for a fact that my genetic makeup has been greatly affected by the actions, the decisions, of those who had come before me. Migrations, and marriages, and perhaps far, far more than these. Perhaps one of my Yemeni ancestors had developed a real penchant for coffee, and maybe that is why I love it so much, today.

Why do I love the things I love? Why am I who and how I am? Is it just a ‘self’ that I am presented with, which I myself can only ‘discover’ and never actually creatively contribute to?

Maybe it is that we start off with a lot of these things, which are predetermined. Perhaps it is the case that within these given features and factors, we have the ability to act with auturgy.

When you receive the ’23andMe’ testing kit, the box reads, in large print, “Welcome to you.”

You: an alive, breathing, and conscious part of the story of humanity. Our very beginnings. A world to get to know, and to be conversant with; our selves, and other people, too. And every single thing that had to happen to get here, to you. The migrations; the meetings. The language barriers – and the breakthroughs – between Bengali and Arabic perhaps, and then came English.

Selfhood. The journeys of our lives. The innate information that tells us how – and when – to begin. Two cells fuse together; growth occurs. Majestic and precise. The innate knowledge within a woman’s body – cycles, circles – which knew how to nourish you, converting the food your mother ate, into food for you. The capacities we have, to learn. How words – language – sounds from our mouths, and scratches on paper, fit into our minds like puzzle pieces into gaps, ready for them, and waiting.

Our bodies know to begin to decline, too. The forthcoming, the inevitable. We are here for a while, and then we return.

We are not the creators of our own selves; it is not each of the trillions of cells that make us – nor the atoms that make up them – that are sovereign. How do they know what to do? How do we know what to do?

Strangers on an island, we are. We “[discount] all this learnedly”. We “[grow] accustomed to these mysteries and [ignore] them, just as [we ignore] the miraculous throbbing stars.” [William Golding, Lord of the Flies]

It is all just too amazing for words. Subhan Allah.

Also, a free pick-up line to use on your Bengali friends:

“Are you Bengali? Because I think you are… peng…-ali.”


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

On Evolution

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

We are all products of evolution. Whether to a theist, or to an atheist, this is an undeniable fact. To ‘evolve’ means ‘to change over time’. We all change over time, always: both physically, and in terms of our non-physical qualities, such as personality traits.

As the Qur’an states, after the conception process, we begin, in our mothers’ wombs, as ‘Alaqas – as clinging substances. There is no life within these clinging substances; the cells that they consist of do not simply ‘know what to do’. They are clearly drawn towards doing what they do by some kind of force (although atheists maintain that this information – this process they must follow to achieve the perfect end product of a human foetus – comes ‘naturally’ to them) and, ultimately, via an evolutionary process, we end up with a human baby. This baby, whose heart begins to beat, at some point, while it is in a state of uterine obliviousness and bliss, will go on and evolve to become a petulant toddler, and then a curious child, and then a moody preteen, and then a hormonal teenager, and so on, and so forth.

The concept of evolution is not one that is antithetical to the Islamic tradition. There may be some intellectual disputes on the topic of macro-evolution, but ultimately, even if it is true that certain processes can lead one species to branch off into a completely different one, this does not disprove God. Moreover, with further regard to the atheistic notion that such evolutionary processes – whether on a macro- (e.g. concerning an entire species) or more micro- (e.g. within the womb) level – occur based on unguided principles [every cell, every atom, involved, simply ‘knows what to do and when to do it’], the proponents of this view would appear to disprove themselves when they claim that an external creative force is not behind these creative processes: things like genes are. Genes are, essentially, ‘bio-historical documents’; they contain information. Do they write themselves? Or is it an external force that writes them? Once again, as with many atheistic ideas and ideals, we enter into a cyclical argument.

How do these genes know what to ‘pass on’, and what to filter out? Are genes what we should come to see as the supremely intelligent creative force? Are they our creators? Such considerations bring into my mind the following Qur’anic verse:

 

“Were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]?”

– Qur’an, (52:35)

Indeed, the Qur’an covers, in its topics of discussion, practically every academic pursuit known to man. [Fascinatingly, Ibn Khaldun, the father of the social sciences, based much of his book – which went on to inspire the modern discipline of Sociology – on Qur’anic statements]. This particular verse, from Surah Toor, adeptly addresses the topic at hand – a topic that combines philosophical considerations with more biological ones.

According to popular atheistic discourse, we did indeed come from “nothing”. And then, by consequence of some unguided evolutionary process, we were ultimately the “creators [of ourselves]”. Physical beings are beings that are a) finite, and b) constructed of parts. We adhere to both criteria. So do our genes – which are some of the ‘parts’ that we are constructed from. According to this view, we are, in response to the Qur’anic existential challenge, both products of nothing, and products of ourselves.

            When I first read Yuval Noah Harari’s infamous book Sapiens two years ago, I was absolutely mesmerised. I thought the book was wonderful, in particular in how it took ideas from a broad range of disciplines, and wove them together into one eloquently-constructed storyline. It was simple and comprehensive; I consumed its content more or less uncritically. But eloquence can be deceiving: both Noah Harari and Richard Dawkins are clear testament to this fact. It has been strange but enlightening – reading such staunchly atheistic works a first time, without thinking to deeply question their premises, and then, again, for a second time, after having actually done my own broad research.

Harari’s book is widely recommended among world leaders, renowned university lecturers, fellow train commuters, and more. But neither its eloquent style of construction, nor its popularity, satisfactorily remedy the fact that there are many flawed assumptions that are presented as concrete fact, within this book. The authors of such books must recognise that they have a huge scholarly responsibility: their central role lies in bringing often esoteric academic knowledge to the generally book-loving masses. So why on earth has Harari omitted the reams of anthropological theories and their corresponding evidence, which threatens to wholly undermine what he is trying to say? I understand that a book consists of a finite number of pages (and, it is a physical object since it consists of parts. But did the book create itself? Or did it have an author? But, alas, I digress.) and so it would have been more or less impossible for him to have included every alternative view. But a simple statement in which the author acknowledges that what he is theorising may just be at least partially incorrect (just as Charles Darwin included an entire chapter, in his first book on evolution, on why his theories may be incorrect or flawed) would do much to prevent people from blindly consuming such ideas.

It is more than possible for a person to be a theist and to also subscribe to a notion of evolution, at the same time. But it is also possible to question such notions as the only possible purpose of human life being to procreate; that ‘natural selection’ has an agenda and an end goal [according to the atheistic view, it is a blind process, and yet one that is somehow very heavily goal-orientated]; that religion is just an unfortunate by-product of this biological process, which branched out – evolved, even – into becoming a social one, too.

The universe itself has been in a constant state of evolution, since the dawn of time. The concept of evolution involves both the dimensions of space, and of time: it comprises changing physically (thus, the changing of an object’s relationship with space) over time. But, upon what information did this massive process occur? The Big Bang was undoubtedly triggered by something. But was this something self-aware and intelligent? Theists and deists say: yes. God. Atheists, essentially, say: no. Every atom that acted towards the culmination of this universe somehow just knew exactly what to do… Are atoms the ultimate creative, intelligent objects? But we consist of atoms – they are components of our physical being. Did we, in line with this view, give birth to ourselves?

To better understand this all, I would strongly recommend watching lectures delivered by Subboor Ahmad, who is a speaker for iERA (the Islamic Education and Research Academy). What I like about his academic work is that a) he does not outright reject all notions of evolution. But he explains, rather well, that these notions do not, at all, disprove God; b) his theories concerning the Fitrah and, within this paradigm, why there exist myriad religions today, as opposed to a singular one; c) he speaks, at great length, on the topic of the non-contradictory relationships between science and Islam, and d) his claims are well-researched and well-balanced. His eloquence clearly does not disguise beneath it a stark weakness of argument.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

 

Gender Socialisation

Recently, during a school trip to Kings’ College University, I had the privilege of meeting the head of the university’s Psychology Department- Professor Richard Brown. Having a keen interest in societal ideas of gender, I naturally became very fascinated by the nature of one of Professor Brown’s observations:

In a social experiment, Professor Brown laid out a complex scientific activity. He put the participants into groups according to gender, and timed how long it took for the groups to obtain the correct answer. He found that, whilst the girls were interested in organisation and the avoidance of conflict, the boys were far more assertive, if slightly aggressive, and this allowed them to delve into the finer details of the task at hand. They called each other “idiots” and were far more competitive in their approaches. They favoured competition over cooperation, as opposed to the girls.

Much has been written about how boys are typically more ‘independent, assertive and competitive’ than girls, even at early ages, but are these characteristics biological or learned? Many sociologists argue that the idea that they are intrinsic and ‘critical to the survival of our species’ is wholly mythical, and that such characteristics only arise as a direct result of gender socialisation.

From a young age, boys are encouraged to play with cars, action figures and science sets. Thus, they are channelled into their gender roles as ‘protectors’, and favour careers in science and technology. As a result of this, only 5.3% of women in the UK are involved in SET compared with 33% of men, according to the Women’s Engineering Society.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 15.13.19
‘Boys’ Toys’, according to Google

Meanwhile, young girls are encouraged to be sensitive, passive and supportive. They are often canalised into playing with dolls, tea sets and simulation toys, and therefore favour careers in teaching, nursing and other nurture fields.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 15.13.34
‘Girls’ Toys’

In my view, gender roles are fundamentally stupid: they are restrictive and irrational, and damage young children and young potential.

Do you have any views on this topic? If so, feel free to comment below. 

Alternatively, you can email me at sadiadventures@outlook.com, and I shall endeavour to respond within three days. 

A Space Adventure

The Royal Observatory in London is paradise for every astronomer aficionado in or around London. Located in Greenwich (near three other prominent museums) the Royal Observatory is home to an exceptional astrodome, numerous fascinating artefacts and exhibits, and the renowned Meridian Line.

 

 Since ancient times, human beings have been observing the skies for religious, navigational and timekeeping purposes. Through substantial technological advancements, we have discovered thousands of unprecedented and extraordinary secrets, regarding our creation, existence and place in the universe.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are”

We now know that our Earth is awe-inspiringly unique, as it is the only known habitable planet that nurtures life, and so many different variations of life. Human beings, elephants, whales and even the tiniest ant- nothing of the sort appears to exist anywhere else in our observable universe. But our observable universe (the vast portion of sky that may be seen through powerful telescopes) is only an infinitesimal fragment of our universe, which by the way, is rapidly expanding. Some believe that our universe is infinite, but this is one speculation that cannot be proven for sure.

“The important thing is to never stop questioning”- Albert Einstein

My trip to the Royal Observatory was extremely informative and stimulating; even my cousin Shahara (who generally detests sci-fi, stars and all things technical) thought the planetarium was, and I quote: “sick”, which (contextually) is a colloquial term meaning “remarkable”. There were exhibits regarding dark matter, spectroscopy and the evolution of telescopes, which had been absolutely integral to knowing what we do today. Essentially, telescopes are time machines, as they look back in time: it takes millions of light years for the light of even proximal stars to reach us.

After viewing and handling a few artefacts (including a 4.5 billion-year-old clump from a meteorite, which we were informed would be the oldest physical thing we’d ever handle) we proceeded to the picnic area to enjoy the contents of my aunt’s hefty picnic bag.

We then made our way (through a complex maze of padlocked gates, no-go areas and a very stern security guard, who insisted that we must walk at a leisurely pace) to the astrodome, in order to view a showing of ‘Dark Universe’, narrated by American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. To express my thoughts about the atmosphere, the factual explanations and the show itself in a concise manner, it was absolutely epic, though the duration was far too compendious for my liking. Given the chance, I’d be more than willing to spend at least three hours in the astrodome.

“We are all made of stardust”. Quite literally, too.

Amongst the many spectacles the Royal Observatory has on offer, the Prime Meridian (the exact geographical line that divides the East and West hemispheres- longitude 0° of the world) could be the most popular. This line is so bewilderingly popular that masses of people are willing to pay a dear fee merely to stand upon it (and post corresponding pictures online), so that one foot is on the literal east side of the world, the other on the west. 

 

 I found it witty that they sell pairs of socks in the gift shop, consisting of an East one and a West one.

Directly adjacent to the Prime Meridian line is an elevated hill that overlooks an outstanding view: the O2 Arena in the far right corner, the cluster of bank headquarters and media organisations that make up Canary Wharf, hundreds of houses stretching beyond the horizon, all clashing with the tranquility of the surrounding green space.

 

  We enjoyed a spot of footy, took several snapshots of the scenery (as you do) and climbed a tree.

The tree was broad and sturdy, one of hundreds of neighbors. I’m no dendrochronologist, but this tree had to be at least 120 years of age. After climbing the tree with a surprising amount of confidence, I dithered as I looked down. Nervously outstretching my foot to find an orifice in which to rest my foot, I must have taken five minutes to find a route back down. 

 

 A nearby young girl, with her arms folded, a look of complacency and impatience across her face, remarked: “I could get up and down by the time you come down.” Her arrogance was met with a simple, “I don’t care” by me.

After this tree debacle, which left me flustered and abashed, we visited the gift shop. There was a wide variety of aesthetically intriguing (especially for an astronomy fanatic like myself) products for relatively pleasant prices. I purchased a postcard for 75p (for my collection, of course) a ruler for £2 (which depicts the planets in our solar system, and a few congruent facts about them) and a NASA pin badge for 75p. I was very satisfied with my purchases.

After the show, my three-year-old cousin Isa (who, much to my astonishment, did not fall asleep or fidget once) exclaimed enthusiastically, dynamically gesticulating with his hands: “I loved seeing the planets and shooting stars! When they exploded, they looked like fireworks! It was so cool!”

 

  In retrospect, the Royal Observatory is highly recommended for a great family day out, and for an insight into the mysterious universe around our home planet.

 Peering into darkness, we stand on the threshold of great discovery.