This is surely an incendiary topic. Dr. James Watson, the Nobel Laureate of 1962 in Medicine/Physiology lost his job for his racially discriminatory comments on the intellectual superiority of the whites. I, being a retired person – though not a white -- don’t run the risk of losing a job, so I don’t mind taking a daring step in support of him.
The idea struck me long back out of empirical observation of things around. Being a small fry I never bothered to assert my opinion in any forum. But I used to tell my wife and my students about this quite often. To arrive at a decisive conclusion on this controversial issue is well-nigh impossible. To define ‘intelligence’ itself is a sticky issue. Simply put, it is the ability to learn about, learn from, understand, and interact with one’s environment. (Quoted from About.com:Gifted Children on 02.12.’09).This definition suits me well. Depending upon the environment – which can be anything an individual or a group is exposed to -- it may or may not be contingent on any formal education.
Before I come to my main contention a serious allegation about Indians made by Heinrich Zimmer in his book “Philosophies of India” is worthy of note here. He was all praise for the ancient Indian sages, who could contemplate highly on metaphysics and compose exquisite hymns in the Vedas. They were, in his opinion, at the pinnacle of the highest civilization. But -- he further adds -- that their descendants couldn't prove to be worthy of their forefathers. To justify his argument he brings in the analogy of Anaxagoras of Greek civilization. Anaxagoras could not conform to the prevailing concept that the Sun was God Helios; on the contrary, he thought, it was just another celestial body. Not only did he think it differently but also said it openly knowing fully well what punishment it could bring to him. His brazen courage brought him banishment from Greece. He accepted the punishment gracefully. Zimmer contends that such an incident never took place during the long interval of post-Vedic Indian history. It is common knowledge that there were so many Anaxagorases who dared to challenge the established concepts – religious or scientific -- in European history ushering in the modern civilization, engendering revolutionary ideas, and providing relentless momentum to move forward.
The whole world is reaping the benefits of their contribution today. Everything of the modern amenities we enjoy today is because of their endeavor. Can we deny that? This is besides the fact majority of scientists engaged in the prestigious lab CERN in Europe are Indians. And the much talked about Silicon Valley is dominated by Indians.
In Zimmer’s view, it is due to the authoritarian system of our society, where elders are respected for their age and wisdom; we are not supposed to challenge them on any count: nobody traditionally refutes the views of superiors or gurus. It puts a power brake on creative thinking. Don’t we generally believe whatever has been said in the Vedas is irrefutable, absolute, and eternal even today? There is nothing more to add or alter.
As of me, it is not that we are less intelligent but our intelligence is directed to otherworldliness. In most of the cases it is never targeted at the enhancement of material or physical comfort: emphasis on stoicism remained predominant always. A systematic and analytical approach is lacking in our day-to-day living. A casual incident gives a meaningful clue to understanding this aspect of our dominant characteristic. While taking some snaps in Lalbagh, Bangalore with an old-fashioned camera – now obsolete -- requiring adjustment of aperture, shutter speed, distance setting, etc., I bumped into a white youth and picked up a talk with him. He queried to know whether I noted down the parameters of adjustments for each snap I took. Surprised getting a negative reply, he further said then how I would compare the quality of the snaps without knowing those features for each individual shot.
Here lies the greatest secret. Like me, he too was not a professional photographer but the attribute of this crucial trait was deeply ingrained in him, whereas I was totally blank. Will it be an exaggeration if I say the entire population is devoid of this important characteristic? I will restrict myself to environments requiring no formal education to illustrate my point. In these examples, long foreign domination, lack of finance, or laboratory facilities, strenuous training is of little significance.
All the tribes of the world except the Eskimos had a traditional local brew. Our” somras” was known since Vedic times. But crude local brew of Europe graduated to finest whiskey and wine over time and our local brew remained frozen in eternity. High yielding milch cows like Holstein, Jersey, and Swiss Brown didn’t fall from the sky; they were raised by ordinary farmers from the original variety like that of ours by continual selective breeding. Swiss farmers periodically move their herds of cows to the higher altitudes during summer and come down to the plains in the winter just like our Gujjars do. The Gaddis too do the same thing with herds of sheep and goats. The Swiss developed long-lasting delicious cheese and other milk products and Gujjars couldn’t move beyond producing time-honored ‘ghee’ and “khoya”, having no guarantee of quality, with whatever meager yield they get from the brood. They were least bothered to find out which buffalo gives more milk, which doesn’t yield any milk and why. No sheep were developed to give better and more wool. On the other hand, it is amazing to note that these illiterate people possess an uncanny knack of identifying which lamb – little limping identical balls of wool -- belongs to which ewe out of the flock of over a thousand. Honey was harvested from the wild by burning the entire hives since time immemorial. Nobody ever tried to find a better way of harvesting honey far from thinking of taming the bees and developing an apiary. In the entire belt of Himalayan foothills use of waterwheels are common for grinding wheat and pulses. None could devise a method of using the same power for sawing and lifting water. There are thousands of such examples to demonstrate the outcome of lacking this trait.
Now moving to the environments requiring formal or other training. Many decades ago when Goodyear tyre and McCleans toothpaste used to be manufactured in India, a comparative study revealed the number of units produced per man-hour, using the same raw materials and equipment was less and quality poor than those produced in the U.K. A similar study showed Japanese duplicate of Ronson lighter was better than the British original. (working from memory, other items forgot now). Could we say confidently this gap no longer exists? A notable feature in the West is that whenever a new invention is made a flurry of activities goes on to apply it in as many different fields as possible. Imagine the ingenuity of those people to design the workable steam car after the invention of the steam engine by James Watt. A news report says a hospitalized British electrical engineer, disabled due to muscular dystrophy to turn over the pages of the books he wanted to read, designed an appliance to do the job for him in the hospital itself. How many of our Indian electrical engineers would be able to do the same without being in the hospital bed is very doubtful. We are incessantly importing new ideas and equipment from the West. There is time lag even in imitation. The seat belt in vehicles introduced many decades after it was in force in the West. We couldn't enforce the use of helmets by motorcyclists and pillion riders yet. In the west even a child uses a helmet while riding small bicycles. Whenever we talk of modernization of equipment/factory production we mean replacing it with the latest machinery/method developed in the West. The management technique we follow, the accounting procedure we use, the economic theory we apply, games we play are all of the western origins. The list tends to extend indefinitely. We are in fact, under virtual dominance of western "intellectual colonialism"
To borrow a term from space technology we are yet to attain “escape velocity” to move out of the gravitational pull of intellectual superiority of the West. So, instead of fuming at the statement we better look inward, and try how “we learn about, learn from, understand, and interact with the environment we are in” and find means for its continuous refinement. I don’t think it is unattainable, but certainly, needs a new focus and direction.