Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Natures of India and the U.S.A.

In the U.S.A., there is a sense that India is on the brink of something like a world takeover and is about to catapult itself into advanced-nation-dom. Many Indians have also started believing that this will be so, without paying attention to the fundamental systemic differences between the natures of the so-called advanced countries and India. This belief is no doubt spurred by the rapid expansion witnessed since economic liberalization in 1991.

But I think our pre-1991 economic structure accounts for only part of the backwardness. The rest is due to our ancient social structures. A long time ago, Indians invented a social structure that ensured stability and internal safety and removed much of the uncertainty associated with everyday life. This had its merits, but it also led to a society that is non-confrontational, too scared to assume leadership roles and afraid to innovate if it involves taking risks. Oh, it's easy to come up with counterexamples: in a country of 1.1 billion people, there are bound to be some who do all those things. But the average Indian is more likely to be a sheep than the average American, and less likely to be a lion.

Looking at this whole issue through a Dennett-ish Darwinian lens, one can see pseudo-evolutionary forces at work everywhere. Indians are probably among the most inbred people on the planet, and it shows in the number of congenital diseases and the general state of health. Our safety nets, which include nearly guaranteed intra-tribe marriage, seem to have nibbled away at our gene pool over the centuries until we remain a tired and spent population. In social terms we remain "safe", preferring life paths that lead to stability rather than achievement. Removing the bonds of what Gurcharan Das calls the License Raj is only the first step. The important question is, can we shed the bonds of our own degenerative culture?

The answer seems to be in the affirmative, as Western influences and the powerful new media wear down cultural barriers and our own Bollywood films encourage us to rebel against ancient socio-cultural mores. Cross-cultural marriages and heterodox life patterns are increasingly taking hold. But in adopting such novelties, is India headed towards a major shark-jump? Will the India of tomorrow be so different that it is not recognizably Indian? I think the answer is yes.

The U.S.A., in contrast to India, is founded on principles of evolutionary efficiency. America is not just a country, although it is strongly tied to its real estate. America is a meme, a concept: a country defined by the intelligence and ability of its inhabitants at any given point of time. The inhabitants themselves are less important than what they can contribute to this Amerimeme. An immigrant is only as important as the brains or labour that he or she brings into America; amazingly, this also applies to its citizens. The state gives citizens the opportunity to be useful -- but if they're not, they (and likely, their bloodlines) are doomed to oblivion.

India is a little more forgiving. A less-than-important man may, and usually does, father a multitude of offspring, some of whom may end up useful. No doubt this happens in America, too -- but less frequently. America is less forgiving of inefficiency and error than India is.

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