Imagine 10 people in a room. Now visualize 100 people in at a party. Envisage 1,000 students of a school standing in the school assembly. Think of a major Navratri garba gathering of 10,000 people at an indoor stadium. With me as yet? Okay good. Picture 1,00,000 people gathered on International Yoga day in the coaching town Kota which set the world record of maximum “yogis” at one time in 2018.
Let’s step up now. In your mind’s eye, see all the 10,00,000 people living in Kota come together in a large open space to do yoga. Are you still with me? Let’s keep pushing our imagination. Visualize all the 1,00,00,000 people living in the city of Jakarta coming out on the streets to protest against perpetually jammed traffic (talk about irony). Now imagine 10,00,00,000 people Filipinos standing in the largest maidan that you’ve ever seen to welcome the Pope. What size would that maidan be? Imagine now 1,00,00,00,000 people.
If you are still following me, you would recognize that the earth has about 25% less people that this last figure. Care to say it in words? The last number is 1000 Crores or 10 billion, with the earth’s population estimated at 750 crores, or 7.5 billion people circa 2018.
My question to you now is at what point could you just not imagine the number of people? For a few people it might occur at 1,00,000 (1 Lakh or hundred thousand), but for most by the time you get to 10 Lakhs or 1 Million it becomes very difficult to imagine that many people – whether congregated in one place or not.
Our Number Sense (or the lack of it)
What’s the point of this exercise? That beyond a point, we stop seeing the point of those extra zeros! A few years back, India’s Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai came up with an astronomical figure of Rs. 1.76 Lakh Crore as the loss to the Indian exchequer as a result of malpractices in the allotment of the 2G mobile spectrum. Now, I tried to make sense of this figure Rs. 1.76 Lakh Crores = Rs. 1,76,000 * 1 Crore = Rs. 176000,00,00,000, but couldn’t make much headway.
I actually wrote down this figure and but it still didn’t make sense to me. I tried to think about how many years would it take the average Indian earning Rs. 1 Lakh per annum to make this much money: 1,76,00,000 years (1.76 Crore years). Well that didn’t make much sense either. Perhaps we need to use the Ambani Family’s income to make sense of this? Then I figured out the advantage of being Indian – that we are very familiar with 100 crores, that being the population of India around that time give or take a few crores!
So I did long division – but before all you math teachers rejoice, long division here means that it took me long to figure out how to fit in these figures into my plain non-scientific calculator to get the division done: Rs. 1,760 per Indian. Now that doesn’t seem like much. So what was all the hullabaloo about then?
As it would turn out, CAG Vinod Rai was severely castigated by the Supreme Court for dreaming up the phantasmagorical figures based on some very rosy assumptions, but well after the 2G scam became the starting point of the downfall of the Manmohan Singh government. Coming back to my point here, beyond a point figures stop making sense to us – whether it’s Earth’s population (7.5 x 109), or the number of cells in my body (estimated between 37-70 trillion or 3.7 to 7 x 1013), or the GDP of USA ($ 20 trillion or Rs. 1.4 x 1016), or the number of stars in the observable universe (1 billion trillion or 1 x 1021).
The readers of this piece despite being “smart well-educated” adults by now don’t care about the number of zeroes. We are like – potato, potato (po-tay-to, po-tah-to). Our ability of making sense of numbers decreases as exponentially as the numbers themselves increase. And so does our empathy. So when the neighbour’s only son fails to get an extension to the H1B visa dashing the family’s hopes of getting a green card to the US eventually, you commiserate wholeheartedly with them, but when the morning headline says 4 million left out of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, your reactions may vary from – “Finally! The government is doing something about India’s population problem. Modi Zindabad” to “Isn’t Assam like a small state with a tiny winy population? Do 40 lakh people even live in Assam?” to “Eh – what?” and you move on.
The point here being that it’s simply not in our genes to be able to sympathize for 40 Lakh people in the way that we can sympathize with our neighbour (forget empathizing with anything in double digits). We haven’t evolved to deal with large numbers. Most of humankind’s history, we dealt with 5 (immediate family), or 50 (extended family); later came 500 (tribe) and much later came 5,000 (a big town), or 50,000 (the largest cities of the old). To get an idea of how skewed that timeline really is, let’s look at the time of some major events in the human civilization:
As you can see, we have been hunter-gatherers for most of our existence of about 216,000 years as Homo Sapiens. I am not counting the other “Homo” species which have been in existence for between 2-3 Millions years, which is more than 10 times of our existence as Home Sapiens. We became farmers only about 10,000 years ago which represents only 4.6% of our existence in terms of time. Recorded civilizations have existed for about five thousand years, with all the period from Industrial revolution to IT revolution to social media revolution not being visible even as a blip on the graph above.
To make sense of large numbers, one way is to use the scientific notation as done above. The other neat trick is using a logarithmic scale, one of those many awesome tools of Mathematics for which Mathematics is feted (mainly by Mathematicians and Physicists) as the religion of nature:
You can now see the last 3 periods – but logarithmic scales are so not intuitive – they only make sense after you’ve used them long enough to understand that a difference of “a few orders of magnitude” is a really really really big difference – as is the case in the order of magnitude of the Social Media log value of 1.14 and the Hunter-Gatherer era with a log value of 5.3, which means an order of magnitude difference of more than 4. So for most people, this scale too doesn’t really help make sense of big numbers.
Lest you infer early that this post is going to be high on numbers, let me assuage you by saying that only the introduction had the “big” stuff – now we will look at the “small” stuff, our genes which tell our bodies how to function, including our brain. Genetic evolution has happened over 2-3 million years to bring us where we are – but has genetic evolution kept up pace with the changes over the last five/ten thousand years, and especially the rapid industrialization in the last 250 years and the explosion of information technology in the last few decades?
There’s sufficient evidence to say that we haven’t really evolved to deal with modern-day. Why else would your body release adrenaline and cortisol, also known as the stress hormones, when you are getting late for an “critical” office meeting, which no matter what you feel is not a do or die situation. These hormones are produced by the body to make you more alert mentally and give you a surge of physical energy in critical situations – for e.g. when a predator attacks you. That’s truly a do or die situation for a hunter-gatherer living thousands of years ago – that’s when the instantaneous decision of fight or flight needed to be made and acted upon.
Eating and living naturally?
We have evolved to be physically active – that’s actually an understatement. We have evolved to be able to outrun all other mammals in a long-distance race as we sweat from our 2 to 5 million sweat glands present all over our body as compared to other mammals who can only cool down by panting despite having sweat glands as they are far lesser in number as well as less effective because of the fur covering their body, which humans lost as part of evolution1. Hunter-gatherers ran between 6 to 16 km daily through difficult and treacherous terrain often carrying heavy loads including meat and other goods for the whole family for a few days2. Even farmers living 7500 years ago are said to have average fitness levels matching those of ace cross-country runners of today3.
On the other hand, even the more active among us common people barely get 3-4 hours of exercise weekly – the intensity and quality of which varies. In addition, for many of us our work means sitting on chairs meaning very little activity. This combination of a sedentary modern lifestyle along with the body’s natural responses tuned into a lifestyle of 50,000 years ago has led to serious health issues related to hormonal imbalances. The big whammy of course is the easy access to food – which has led to a situation that looks something like this:
How did this happen?
Fruits (or honey or other naturally occurring sweet things) that are sweet in the right way are also the ones that gives out maximum nutrients and calories and therefore valued by our ancestors. A study seems to indicate that growing up kids are hardwired to prefer sweet-tasting foods based on the correlation between a preference for sweet tastes and height children4. So evolutionary advantage over millennia has cemented our preference for sweet (and fatty) food. However, our ancestors had to forage or hunt for hours or days to get access to sweet stuff or fat from meat / seafood ensuring minimal access to fat and sugars. On the other hand, most of humanity today has practically unlimited access for things fat and sweet along with what seems to a never-satiated desire.
What it means is that evolution got us to a place where eating sugars and fat was good for us; but we haven’t evolved enough biologically (or emotionally) to be able to stop ourselves from eating excess sugar, fat or even carbohydrates (especially of the mass produced kind which are high on calories and low on nutrients) as indicated by this timeline below:
With our lifestyles not giving us enough time, motivation, space to grow or even cook your own food, our eating habits have gone wonky. We don’t know how to eat, when to eat or how much to eat and therefore we have numerous eating fads that promise to make us healthy within months or even weeks, most of which fail because we haven’t really evolved to figure out “what’s natural”.
People often take this to be the cue to fallback to ancient natural ways. However, often what we think of as natural is not really natural. For e.g. does the above mean that a paleo diet is good for us? Maybe, maybe not. I really don’t know because a. I don’t eat meat anymore. b. Human brains won’t have become the powerhouses of thinking that they are without cooked food. c. I don’t know enough about nutrition to give out any advice.
And it gets really confusing when you consider that something as staple to the food & diet of Indians as potatoes and tomatoes were introduced to India by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 1600s and got sown widely in India only in the late 1800s and early 1900s5. Not surprising then that we might it difficult to figure out what’s true to our genes considering our short lives and the onslaught of industrialized globalized economy which makes us crave for pasta arrabiata or mashed potatoes or cakes and muffins wherever you are in the world, at any time of the year.
Despite awareness of what’s bad, whether it’s food or physical activity, we find it very difficult to make changes. Losing weight or getting fitter is a perennial favorite of new year resolution makers and yet over 90% of them stop working out by February6. Even those like me who think they are fitness conscious and do proper workouts for at least 3-4 hours a week don’t really understand the impact of our sedentary lifestyle, which has led to the declaration by some researchers that “sitting is the new smoking7”, i.e. sitting for long periods in one chair is likely to reduce your lifespan significantly. And while most of us are don’t care at an action level about likely long-term consequences, even in the short term, we know we have issues like lower back strain or cervical issues due to prolonged sitting (or tight glutes or hamstrings which start hurting after a while as the case with me).
Based on the evidence presented, if at this stage I were to claim that we haven’t really evolved to deal with modern lifestyles, you might argue that the conclusion seems premature and retort that we have indeed been evolving – the law of the survival of the fittest is what has made us the “master” of our world. Look how fast we have adapted to tools in the past and behold our mastery over modern day tools such as computers and phones. You would indeed be right in saying that even our 2-3 year olds can easily access what they want through touchscreens.
However, before the claim “we have evolved to deal with the modern world” is refuted, we need to unravel two matters of importance, a task which shall be undertaken in the next post:
- What does evolution & adaptation really mean and over what periods of time does evolution take place?
- Does adapting to tools means we are really adapted to modern lifestyles?
Till you get to the next post give these questions some thought.
1. The naked truth, Scientific American
2. The characteristics of hunter gatherers, Marks Daily Apple
3. How humans lost hair, Scientific American
4. Growing kids are hardwired to prefer sweet tasting foods, Independent
5. How the humble potato has a more personal resonance for most, Economic Times
6. Why do people quit the gym by February end?, Indian Express
7. Sitting increases the risk of death, CNN
Featured Image Credit: By Johanna Pung, Wikimedia Deutschland via Wikimedia Commons