Sunday, June 05, 2016

Skills trump passion

So good they can’t ignore you”, that is the title of Dr Cal Newport’s not so latest book (he wrote it around 2011 between his postdoctoral work and his present tenure), which I am planning to review here.

Book Cover
I normally avoid self-help or popular psychology and “how to” books unless the author's credentials, reviews, and recommendations suggest that it is grounded on solid peer-reviewed research. This is not a “research for laymen” book, it is a straightforward “how to” book of advocacy.  but I took the time to time reading more because of the subtitle than anything else “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love”. There are other ‘Rules’, designed to help someone build a successful career based on work one loves, and I will cover them in brief later in this review. But if there is one take away from the book, one key aspect to remember if all else is forgotten, it is this - skills determine a sense of fulfillment and joy at work which passion alone cannot supply.

Cal Newport - The Author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You"
But to start with a  brief introduction about the author: Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, who specializes in the theory of distributed algorithms. He previously earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 2009 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004.

He is also the author of a series of popular  books of unconventional advice for students, which he wrote in part when he was a student himself! How to Be a High School Superstar (Random House, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student  (Random House, 2006), and How to Win at College (Random House, 2005).

Cal began his research for this book when he was completing his student life and was about to embark on an academic career, and he set out to answer for himself the question, “How do people end up loving what they do”?

The book is organised into Rules that Cal goes on to illustrate with anecdotes gathered from interviews with successful folk as well as those who had to face failures. Summarised briefly as below:

Rule #1: Do not follow your Passion.

Simply put, the passion hypothesis is wrong. Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. But survey results, research and detailed interviews of successful people  gave rise to 3 interesting conclusions about the passion hypothesis.
Conclusion #1: Career passions are rare
Conclusion #2: Passion takes time to develop
Conclusion #3: Passion is a side effect of mastery
This ties in with research that shows that enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment at work - which leads to people loving their jobs derives from 3 basic psychological needs:
  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important 
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do 
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people
“matching work to pre-existing passions” did not come up as being important for motivation in scientific research. The traits they did find, by contrast, are more general and are agnostic to the specific type of work in question. Competence and autonomy, for example, are achievable by most people in a wide variety of jobs—assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work required for mastery. This message is not as inspiring as “follow your passion and you’ll immediately be happy,” but it certainly has a ring of truth. In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

Cal goes on to argue that “following your passion” can be dangerous advice as it motivates people to keep searching and jumping jobs without applying themselves to develop skills and mastery required to truly enjoy work!

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Or, the Importance of Skill)

The fulcrum of the book, in my opinion. There are no shortcuts, no magic wand called “passion”. Self-actualising work, cannot come about with prodigious skills and mastery. And this is precisely what makes the passion hypothesis dangerous because it gives the impression that work becomes ‘effortless’ if one only finds the right kind!

And to gain mastery what one must do is:

  • Adopt the craftsman mindset: focus on what value we are producing on your job, rather than thinking about on what value the job offers us. And this is not a call to selfless dedication to job slavery because, this is the only way to become valuable, to focus on becoming better, which leads one to
  • Develop career capital: that is, build up skills that are rare and valuable. Focus on capabilities over calling.
  • Deploy deliberate practice: the only way to develop skills leading to mastery is deliberate practice. This entails identifying the skills that are rare and valuable - defining what is good, the practicing those skills at the limit of one’s present abilities - stretching oneself. This requires effort of focus and concentration and is tiring and often not enjoyable, but it is the only way to expand one’s abilities. Actively seek feedback - quick, almost immediate feedback from those better than you - this is the only way to identify skill areas to practice on, the present limits of one’s abilities. And finally, to diligently and patiently continue to do so. In Cal’s words “You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion (Or, the Importance of Control)

A critical attribute of loving the work one performs is having control over what one does and how one does it.  In most traditional organisations, when one has put in the hard work in the early years, developed competence and reached senior levels in the hierarchy - that alone gives far greater autonomy and control. However, more and more organisations these days have come to realise that (in Cal’s words) “Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.” This has given rise to organisations that adopt Results Only Work Environments or ROWEs.

Investing the ‘career capital’ acquired from following Rule #2 in gaining greater control over one’s working life is the “cashing in” to love one’s work! However there are a couple of “control traps” to be wary of:
  1. it’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange. Control is seductive. Often people quit stable jobs to “follow my passion and start something of my own” - this obviously gives people the ultimate control over their work; however if the job quitter has not obtained the career capital, valuable skills before hand - the control afforded by independence is NOT sustainable. Enthusiasm alone is not rare or valuable and not worth much in terms of career capital.
  2. once you have enough career capital to acquire more control in your working life, you have become valuable enough to your employer that they will fight your efforts to gain more autonomy. This is largely self explanatory. And in fact, this becomes a key test of whether or not one has the right amount of career capital - do they try to retain you?
To avoid either of these control traps, Cal recommends applying what he calls the law of financial viability, which says “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on”.

This is because, “money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.” While hobbies, leisure time and recreation are clearly exempt from this rule, it is critical “when it comes to decisions affecting your core career, money remains an effective judge of value”.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (Or, the Importance of Mission)

Building a career around a clear and compelling mission is a great source of happiness - this is self-actualisation realised. Mission provides a sense of purpose, energy, and enthusiasm which encourage one to persevere through disappointments and put in the hard work required! To summarise Cal’s words, “People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.  . . . can leave you more energized than when you started—”

Of course, finding a valuable mission worth dedicating a career to is not easy, so Cal recommends “systematically experimenting with different proto-missions to seek out a direction worth pursuing.” He also warns that. “Missions are hard. ( but also that) Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.” The key requirements for articulating a mission are:

  • Missions Require Capital; a mission chosen before one has relevant career capital is not likely to be sustainable
  • Missions are identifiable in the “adjacent possible” - the realm of ideas and innovations just beyond the present cutting edge of expertise in a field. This makes it clear why mission requires career capital - one cannot be at the cutting edge of one's profession without putting in the hard work, the deliberate practice and acquiring the knowledge and skills!
  • Missions Require Little Bets -  great missions leading to great success are identified by embarking on and delivering small and achievable projects—little bets—to explore the concrete possibilities surrounding a compelling idea, at the cutting edge of one’s profession. act. Many people have lots of career capital, and can therefore identify a variety of different potential missions for their work, but few actually build their career around such missions. Once you have the capital required to identify a mission, you must still figure out how to put the mission into practice. If you don’t have a trusted strategy for making altogether.
  • Missions Require Marketing  - great missions are transformed into great successes as the result of finding projects that satisfy the law of remarkability, which requires that an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a venue where such remarking is made easy. The venue where these remarkable projects have the visibility are often unique to a profession - in Cal’s examples they were the peer reviewed publications of a field and the message boards that programmers working on a specific technology use. Again none of the above is doable without career capital - in depth knowledge and skills in short mastery -  in one’s chosen profession


My thoughts on this thesis for career happiness? Some of it coheres with research that is over 20 years old. Specifically, the idea of happiness at work deriving from mastery brings to mind the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who created the psychological concept of flow, a mental state of completely focused motivation, a single-minded immersion in performing and learning, such that emotions are contained, channeled, positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

Mastery and Flow
This ties best with the concept of mastery or deliberate practice that Cal talks about, this needs to happen in what Csikszentmihalyi has described as the “flow channel” (see image below), where skill improvement happens at the limit of one’s abilities by means of challenges (the stretch) accompanied by feedback that can lead to skill improvement.

Other ideas, around career capital, control and mission, seems intuitively right when one compares with the successful people who love their work that one sees around them.

The book does not quote sources or cite detailed research studies either way - and as an academic, this was something Cal could certainly have done if he so wished. No, this is intended as a “how to” book in the tradition of his students series. Something for readers to evaluate and adapt based on what works best for them. For this, I would encourage a reading of Dr Newport's book.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

India’s election: Can anyone stop Narendra Modi? - asks The Economist

"Can anyone stop Narendra Modi?" The Economist asks, perhaps rhetorically. Then goes on to conclude that "He will probably become India’s next prime minister. That does not mean he should be."

So - I am going out on a limb by trying to explain why I think a stable NDA/BJP led government, is probably the best bet for the Indian electorate, at this juncture.

Primarily, I believe this is a 3 way contest between the Congress led UPA, the Incumbent, the Kejriwal led AAP, the Upstart and the Modi led BJP, the Challenger.

The regional parties (and yes, the CPI/CPM motley is a regional party, nothing more); have been unable to coalesce into a third front and thus haven't even tried to proffer a credible option. Their skin in the game is, in my cynical view, primarily "support on sale to the highest bidder".

The Incumbent: 10 years of economic capitulation interspersed with systematic loot. That summarises the two UPA terms in a straight sentence. The second term (2009 to 2014) is the real tragedy. In May 2009, the Congress was given a historic mandate and put in charge of an economy, which largely due to a combination of luck and a diligent Central Bank (the RBI), had escaped relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis. This was the perfect opportunity to power ahead with reforms - GST, clarity on FDI and Taxation, sweeping land reforms - starting with e-governance on land ownership, use of biometric social security identifier (AADHAR) to target and subsidise people instead of wastefully subsidising goods (fertilizer, fuel, food). None of this was done - a great sin of omission. Top it up with their numerous sins of commission – 2G Spectrum, Common Wealth Games, Coalgate, land deals, Adarsh Housing – to name but a few. “Crony Capitalism” doesn’t begin to describe the extent and scale of the loot. Having reduced an eminent economist and the architect of India’s economic reforms to a dumb puppet, the Congress led UPA, has in all but words preferred Rahul baba, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family as their prime ministerial candidate. A candidate who comes across as well-meaning but naïve at best, and a clueless dynast at worst; does not offer any change from the present status quo of loot, dole and sops. For our nation, 5 years more of the same is simply not sustainable.

The Upstart: The Common Man awakes, arises and rids the country of corruption. A true triumph of rule for the people, of the people and by the people; for a few fleeting weeks, earlier this year,  this dream seemed to come true, with the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP’s) stunning performance in the Delhi state elections. India is fed up with corruption and voters booted out the corrupt. As if in acquiescence of this mandate, the AAP formed the state government. A party born little over a year back from the popular anti-corruption movement led by the veteran Gandhian, Anna Hazare, AAP existed to combat corruption. And people voted for them with precisely this expectation. Unfortunately, AAP in power spent more time agitating on the streets than legislating in the assembly; focused more on citizen activism than on policy making. Well intentioned they did seem, but they came across as immature and unprepared. But the biggest disappointment was their resignation on the eve of general elections on the pretext of a failed legislation. Of course the legislation was going to fail; they were a minority government and did not have the numbers in the state assembly! AAP’s decision to resign from the state government and contest the nation-wide general elections came across as incompetent and opportunistic. AAP’s leader, Mr Kejriwal, is highly intelligent and articulate, no doubt – but so far, his claim to fame is activism and street demonstrations rather than governance and good policy implementation; not a safe and credible alternative to form a central government.

That brings us to the Challenger: The BJP led National Democratic Alliance. Out of power for 10 years after a decent 5 year term which got the brisk growth rates for the India economy started, this is now the principle “opposition” party. Historically, they have had undeniable right wing leanings and are often described as a “Hindu Nationalist” Party by critics. The focus of their first full term in power (from 1999 to 2004) was largely economic development; and in the run up to this election, development remains their key electoral agenda. Their proposed Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi has ruled the state of Gujarat from 2001 and has won three state elections in a row. While economic statistics and rankings are always debatable, many visitors to the state have remarked about the good roads, vastly improved electricity and water supplies, telecommunications coverage and such visible measures of development. The media, historically somewhat hostile to Mr Modi, has criticised many aspects of his rule, but so far no major corruption scandal has been unearthed – reason to surmise that as politicians go, Mr Modi appears to be relatively clean. SO here we now have a party that seems focused on development and has a leader with a credible track record of having delivered it. If it were just this, the choice would be a no-brainer. Of the feasible alternatives, Mr Modi led BJP offers the best chance of delivering economic growth – something the country direly needs.

The one blotch that scores against Mr Modi the most (and which very likely cost the BJP the 2004 general elections) stems from the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims that rocked Gujarat in 2002. Over 1000 died, and Mr Modi is believed to have either actively connived with the rioters (less likely) or stood by passively and allowed the carnage to continue (more likely). He therefore is a strongly divisive figure, quite open about his Hindu Nationalist right-wing inclinations; albeit in the last few years he has shifted focus sharply away from Hindu Nationalism to Economic Development. As the Economist has warned in this article, many fear that he may relapse to his right wing leanings once in power. I wouldn't call these worries unjustified; in the event of a Hindu – Muslim riots or much more likely, provocation by terrorist agents of the Pakistani state, Mr Modi is more likely to respond aggressively than a pusillanimous Rahul Gandhi, let alone the geriatric Dr Singh. No doubt, allies within the NDA or any that support his government from outside would act as restraints, nevertheless the chance remains that “peace and harmony” may be disrupted.

Do I still believe that a BJP government remains the best choice amongst those available? Yes. Simply because of the various choices available, a BJP led government is our best bet to mend a broken economy. So do I choose economic growth over peace and harmony? No I don’t. I however firmly believe that while a BJP led government MAY, disrupt peace and harmony, a non BJP government that cannot bring back economic growth WILL CERTAINLY disrupt peace and harmony.

Here's why. India’s “demographic dividend” it’s young population, the 100 million new voters added to the electorate since 2009 (i.e., youth who turned 18 in the last 5 years), need jobs. If we don’t want our youngsters to go rioting we must educate them and put them in factories and warehouses, call-centres and garages, shops and bazaars! If we leave them uneducated and jobless on the streets a number of them will certainly take to crime – theft, robbery, murder, rape, drug peddling, smuggling and of course rioting too! The problem will only be aggravated by India’s appalling sex ratio of 940 women per 1000 men (as of 2013); basically 6% of men are not going to find mates and naturally the odds stack against uneducated and jobless men. 6% seems small? Well in India, 1% means 10 million people! We are talking millions of uneducated, jobless, unmarried/unmarriagable men here! Fertile ground for criminal recruitment leading to an unmanageable law and order situation – what chance does peace and harmony have?

No matter how secular a government we have, there are always going to be communal minded hate-mongering leaders around; the most effective way to blunt their hate-mongering is to deprive them of cannon fodder – disaffected youth! And for that we need growth – a government that hands out dole and ramps up quotas will not be able to create jobs; but a government that builds roads and power stations and irrigation canals DOES create jobs and also creates incentives for private companies to build factories, warehouses, software parks and malls – which create even more jobs.

So the conclusion is clear, if we want any chance of preserving peace and harmony in India, we need economic growth and hence – ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar!

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a blogger.

He used to blog regularly. About things he saw and things he thought about, things cynical and things philosophical, matters of religion and politics, musings deep and mundane.

The best part of this was not so much the blog-posts, but the buzz of discussions that followed. The comments agreeing, disagreeing, provocative and evocative - always vocal rarely equivocal.

And so it came to pass.

Many moons passed, and the blogger blogged infrequently. With longer gaps of time elapsing; the posts too shrunk in weight and content. In the words of another fellow blogger "real life" was making it's impact felt.

Mind-space and vocabulary were diverted for other pressing uses. Self-time was pervaded by mental exhaustion and hence dissipated in mindless pursuits. But as Gotama Siddhttha Sakyamuni, the Buddha had surmised - striving needs to be mind-ful, not mindless.

So perhaps a fresh attempt is warranted. Inspired by a friend's attempt to shun silence.

Lets give it another shot!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In search of a community . . .

Inspired by the Sentinel's Blogpost about whether the internet based communities can survive / be resurrected in the era of Facebook -

Clichéd though this will sound - I put it down to the "markets versus community" tension. Community and the relationships it fosters is a basic human need. In as much as community has been part of hominid evolution for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years (since the time of the baboon troupe), community is probably a defining element in the human environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA). Human social interactions with and in its community are thus foundational to human nature - defining its distinction from monkey nature.


Industrialisation brought about migration to cities with nuclear families (disrupting kinship groups) and dense populations (too large to aggregate into a new community) - stable "village" community groups of the pre-industrial era were disrupted. No alternative to the stable - durable community of old emerged. Congregational religions - through church / parish based aggregations may have provided an alternative in some measure - but they too were no where as durable.


In the last 15-20 years - the internet provided the chance to aggregate interest based communities by wiping out geographical distance. It is debatable to what extent this could simulate the close-contact of pre-industrial communities. But internet communities have the advantage of avoiding the unpleasant side-effects of cheek-by-jowl community living.


Social networks tap into this very human need for community. But driven by the market dynamic of the network effect - where the larger the network the greater the benefit to those deriving revenues from the network - social networks soon grew even larger than post-industrial cities. Too large to aggregate as a community.


Nevertheless, social networks are by definition malleable, and shold allow for enough internal mobility for interest based communities to aggregate within the gigantic superstrtucture. So where as in an industrial city - say Shanghai - it would be difficult for a community of say dim-sum lovers to get together and decide to live together in a single city block; such aggregations are much easier within social networks. This is where I think Google+'s idea of "Circles" has significant potential.


The biggest downside of internet based communities can be their very freedom - where village-communities had natural barriers to exit, forcing people to adjust, accomodate and resolve differences - in online communities people can just up and away at the click of a button. Valuable social skills that develop through growing and living in communities may never be learnt!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Once upon a time . . .

. . . children's fiction consisted of tales of faries, elves, brownies and well behaved little boys and girls who got rewarded with goodies and treats. They had all sorts of fun and adventures, along with their friendly unhuman friends - they were courageous anmd truthful (in most of the cases) and saved the world - like the heroes that they were.

Sounds a lot like the collected works of Enid Blyton, doesn't it?

And then there was Roald Dahl, I suppose, at some level, it was his work that made a little-bit of the dark side acceptable in literature for children. I suppose that has now reached a certain level of fruition with the best selling works of avada kedavra and other interesting adventures such as those of Percy Jackson and his Olympic escapades. (Yes, literature for kids is something I read and enjoy for somewhat similar reasons as I enjoy watching Tom and Jerry cartoons!!)

When I first read the immortal works of J K Rowling, a little after she started Rowling in money . . ., (yeah bad pun, I know, but I could not resist that one . . ), I noticed certain parallels between her works and those of other fictioners who had consumed much ink before her. I remember thinking, when I first read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"", that it felt like a cocktail of Enid Blyton's bedtime fairy tales, the Addam's Family chronicles and the big daddy of the fantasy genre - Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

And yes, I am a big fan of LotR, I can't help intoning in deep slow tones -
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

I cannot but feel a sense of awe and respect at Tolkein's creative genius. And traces of Sauron are unmistakable in Voldemort.

The horcruxes though are interesting - as a kid I recollect hearing tales where wicked wizards or ogres hide their 'life'in some other object so that they are unkillable by conventional means, so the concerned Prince Charming has to deploy unconventional tactics to rescue the distressing damsels.

The parallels between the burden Harry and his friends experience when wearing the locket horcrux, and the burden of the Ring bearer are also unmistakable. A pity poor Frodo (or more likely the practical minded Samwise) did not think of sticking a Basilisk fang into the One Ring instead of trudging all the way to Mount Doom!!

Anyway, I will now conclude this meaningless rambling deconstrution, and resume my routine vacation programming!!

Cheers all!!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

And the Bankers lived happily ever after . . .

No, this is not a Wall Street saga of government bailouts and astronomical bonuses. It is a dull review of a work of fiction.

Ravi Subramanian
Category: Fiction
Number of pages: 264
Published in: 05/01/2007
Available in: Paperbound
ISBN_PB: 9788129111470
Perhaps the title should have been "And the Bankers lived happily ever after". Perhaps the title derives from the Indian proclivity for apotheosis of the saintly and honest and the virtuous protagonist is the 'God' referred to in the title. Apart from this tenuous rationale the narrative does not connect with the title.
As such the plot is fairly common place, and a similar tale could have been told in the setting of any multi-national corporation. Why banking?
Then again, where as the narrative is well paced, the characterisation is weak. A more skilled novelist might have been able to make the characters more true to life. As such they lack depth and complexity. The polarisation of the two main protagonists as paragons of virtue and weakness respectively is too simplistically black and white. So where as the basic idea of the novel has potential, the way it has developed doesn't do it justice. In the hands of a Jeffrey Archer or a Sidney Sheldon - better still a Jhumpa Lahiri or a Vikram Sheth - this novel could have been memorable work of modern fiction, perhaps even a master-piece.
Yet for a first novel and from the pen of one who is not a professional writer - this could have been worse. In fact, I see in it the seeds of a fairly decent Bollywood flick! Ram Gopal Verma, Madhur Bhandarkar, Ashutosh Gowarikar - are you people listening?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

On what ‘marriage’ is and whether it can be ‘gay’

Much debate, often fiery,  on “gay marriage” is being waged on various fronts – in courts, the media and of course on the ubiquitous ‘internet’. It is a surprisingly emotive issue for parties on either side of the debate and for many the very concept of marriage is at stake – and that is indeed a very grave matter. Personally, my views on the matter have tended to be ambivalent. However a dispassionate un-emotive analysis of the issue and its wider implications are essential before any reasoned stand can be arrived at. And one of the most useful techniques of doing so is to touch base with the first principles – what is a marriage – what is the purpose of a marriage? One can then look to conceptualise what a ‘gay marriage’ would constitute – and try to answer how it would differ from a ‘traditional marriage’, and whether a ‘gay marriage’ can serve and enhance, or at least, not impede, any useful purpose that ‘traditional marriage’ serves.

So then to start – what is a marriage?

The description as provided by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is quoted in the following paragraph. I have underlined some of the key attributes which need to be looked at closely. Highlighted in red is the qualifier which we are trying to examine. The description also enumerates some of the basic functions of marriage which will be useful for our evaluation.

“a legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any). The universality of marriage within different societies and cultures is attributed to the many basic social and personal functions for which it provides structure, such as sexual gratification and regulation, division of labour between the sexes, economic production and consumption, and satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; perhaps its strongest function concerns procreation, the care of children and their education and socialization, and regulation of lines of descent.”

marriage." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010.

To look at the attributes of marriage then.

It is a legally and socially sanctioned union –  In most modern jurisdictions, marriage has definite legal articulation as a consensual ‘contract’ between two adult individuals which imparts them certain legal rights with regards to each other and with regards to their off-spring. Typically the marriage contract is can only be dissolved through a legal procedure – divorce. The legal sanction of marriage crucially extends into a legal basis for inheritance – for the partners as well as for their off-spring. The social sanction for marriage is wider in scope. Traditionally in human communities where ‘family’ has been the basic unit – a marriage constitutes the creation of a new family unit as well as an extension of the existing extended family unit. Often the social sanction of a marriage derives from the kinship ties within and without the extended family. The legal and social elements than translate into regulations and prescriptions.

  1. regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes – the contractual nature of marriage is touched upon above. The rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes are spectacularly diverse – but often the absolute core consists of rules concerning incest taboo. Then there are rules concerning endogamy – the social, economic and / or ethnic ‘in-group’ within which it is ‘permissible’ to marry, and exogamy – the marrying outside a specified group – often a kinship group, and thus in many ways an extension of the incest taboo. Attitudes of course are often driven by social and cultural expectations – but at individual levels can be surprisingly subtle and mutable.
  2. prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring – the rights and duties of the partners are often extra-legal and pre-legal in the sense that they been in force and in practice before formal legal frameworks evolved or were legislated. As a matter of fact some of the core ‘rights and duties’ of the partners and the ‘status’ accorded to off-spring are out-right pre-historic – pre-dating the advent of civilisation.

This pre-historic attribute if often left out of definitions of marriage, but that may be on account of the singular arrogance of our species in trying to place itself at the pinnacle of the phylogenetic scheme of which we are a part. Marriage after all is at its core pair-bonding – a partnership between a mating couple that lasts at least through one mating season, serving primarily in the cooperative rearing of young. In humans it is observed to, and as recorded in literate communities, has been known to, last a life-time.

The neuro-harmonal, and hence ultimately genetic, basis of pair-bonding has been indicated in several studies; which seem to hint at three kinds or levels of ‘love’ that might be involved in pair-bonding.

  1. lust or sexual passion (independent of personality of a partner) – the most basic and observable in the mating behaviour of many non human animals as well
  2. romance or limerence (dependent upon a particular personality), – tending to short term attachment (few months to few years), and usually also has a strong element of sexual desire (lust or sexual passion)
  3. attachment (pair-bonding over extended time) – tending to long term, even life-long attachment; often seen to commence as limerence,

Limerence tends to be more common amongst adolescents and young adults as compared to mature adults – there may also be a gender difference with men being more likely to enter into short term pair-bonds as compared to women. This is significant when we consider that the other large terrestrial primates – the gorillas and chimpanzees – do not form pair bonds and the dominant male in the troupe tends to monopolise coitus with ovulating females. These great apes also display much higher levels of sexual dimorphism.

However mate selection by the human female seems to value not just dominance and aggressiveness in males, but the proclivity to form longer term attachments – which implies much higher levels of participation in parental care and child-rearing (protection and nourishment) – seems to have been positively selected for. Two interesting clues seem to reinforce this conclusion – the prevalence of male-child bonding (affection) which is largely absent in the other great apes is one. The other is the quirk of hidden ovulation in the human female – which has the consequence of necessitating more frequent coitus to achieve insemination. This is significant because coitus is known to stimulate activity in the dopamine system and oxytocin and arginine vasopressin systems – which reinforce mate preference (preference accorded to the mate over other males/females); hidden ovulation could therefore significantly serve to encourage pair-bonding.

As such, long term pair-bonding as outlined above seems to have the distinct characteristics of the male-female union described as marriage in humans. But this type of human pair bonding, with the associated man-child bonding has the ancillary effect of the father knowing the identity of his child and the child knowing the relatives of its father. Pair-bonding in context of the ‘social group’ of humans leads to the identification and establishment of kin-ship ties. From which derives the status of the off-spring and promotes kin selection. The distinctly social attributes and functions of ‘marriage’ start to emerge from mate selection and pair-bonding.

What then are we to make of the ‘gay marriage’?

Let us begin with pair-bonding. As humans, gays should ordinarily be quite capable of forging long term pair-bonds. The increased tendency amongst human males to engage in short-term (limerence) pair-bonds may tend to make marriages amongst gay men less durable – but then increasingly ‘durability’ is no longer a commonly observed attribute of traditional marriages either. Furthermore, the if legal sanction were to be provided to gay men to ‘marry’ and start a ‘family’ through adoption – the man-child bond, and the mate-preference induced by frequent coitus afforded by the marital alcove could have a salubrious effect on the durability of such a union. Legalising gay-marriage then may dampen promiscuity amongst gay men, which in turn will have its own benefits in terms of potentially lesser incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Legal sanction for gay marriages should also be relatively straightforward to establish – legal templates are already evolved to govern traditional marriages and to a large extent the same can be employed. Contractual obligations around marriage, the rights and responsibilities of the gay spouses, nuptial agreements, joint ownership of property, inheritance and right of ‘survivor’ benefits in the event of bereavement, status and inheritance for any adopted children, and tricky as it may seem, gay divorce and alimony-palimony laws, can all be framed with only slight modification to those applicable for traditional marriages.

It is when we start talking about social sanction for gay marriages – with all the trappings of custom, tradition, religion, beliefs and attitudes – that things become rather tricky. Social recognition for gay marriages has to evolve and emerge gradually – it can neither be legislated nor brought about by fiat. Questions such as – will a gay couple be welcomed to a neighbourhood, will they be accepted in the PTA at the schools of their adoptive children, can a lesbian take her partner along for a with-spouses party at work (well she can, but will she and her spouse be welcome and accepted), will a family be comfortable leaving their young boys in the care of a gay teenaged baby-sitter (yes, paedophilia is not known to correlate highly with gayness, but we are talking feelings not fact here), the answers to all these questions will wary greatly from person to person and situation to situation. And yet, I think (though I have no data to establish it), for a while at least, even in some of the most ‘liberal’ societies, the answers to these questions will be distinctly more uncomfortable for gay couples than for traditional couples. May be, at differential rates in different societies, the critical mass amongst the general population will give the ‘liberal’ answer to the above questions – but till such time, gay marriages cannot be said to be socially sanctioned, for whatever that is worth.

Religion, tradition, custom and culture – deeply intertwined as they all tend to be – will probably be the most formidable obstacle; these are the most difficult to change. My own religious tradition – the Hindu family of religious traditions – are so deeply enmeshed in ritual, tradition, custom and culture, I find it impossible to visualise a gay Hindu marriage. What mantras should the priest chant when consecrating it? Which of the two ‘fathers-in-laws’ will perform the gift of the bride (kānya-dān)? Will acquiring a gay ‘bride’ afford the gay Hindu the right of yajna? Who amongst the gay couple will perform the role of the ‘lady of the house’ and place yoghurt on the palm of the deity prior to immersion – visarjan? Will the gay husband wear the double sacred-thread while the gay wife wears none? Who amongst the gay couple will anoint his husband’s fore-head with vermillion and perform ārti on Diwāli? Who amongst the gay couple will place the nose-gay and gold ring he is wearing for Lakshmi Pooja? Trivial and anachronistic these questions will seem to many – yet they are not irrelevant because they are illustrative of the gap that needs to be bridged; that may perhaps never be bridged.

In terms of the functions of marriage, it is fairly straightforward to check which ones are discharged effectively by a ‘gay marriage’

  1. sexual gratification – I expect a gay marriage should ordinarily be able to secure this for the persons concerned
  2. regulation, division of labour between the sexes – this can be tricky, where in traditional marriage the woman tends to be the nurturer and care giver and in many societies the home maker while the man is the protector and in many societies the sole bread-winner; however these distinctions are increasingly blurred in most ‘modern’ marriages, which then becomes an easier target for gay marriages to achieve
  3. economic production and consumption – difficult to visualise how a gay marriage would differ from a traditional one on this matter – except perhaps to the extent 2 above is not clarified
  4. satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; – again like 1 above, gay marriages should probably achieve this at least as well as traditional ones
  5. procreation, – this then is the clearest short coming, yes a gay couple can adopt, but unlike a traditional marriage, a gay marriage, at least presently cannot procreate a meotically recombined offspring with a genome composed entirely of two random halves of its parents genomes
  6. the care of children and their education and socialization, – unclear how this can be evaluated, clearly the mother-child bond triggered by the oxytocin rush induced by a suckling infant will probably be difficult for gay men to replicate, less so for a lesbian couple perhaps. However the existence of relatively strong and as compared to other terrestrial primates a far more nurturing father-child bond, coupled with the significant neuro-plasticity of the neo-cortex should enable a gay couple to care for, educate and socialise their children if they are so resolved
  7. regulation of lines of descent – inheritance for adopted children should be relatively straightforward, complications could arise if the property is ancestral and the inheritance is challenged by kin (though the same can happen in traditional marriages as well);  as far as acceptance of any adoptive offspring into kinship ties with the extended families of the gay couple is concerned, that would remain a factor of whether the gay couple were able to maintain those kinship ties themselves. In any case, with increased incidence of nuclear families, and corresponding rise of extra-familial social support networks would tend to significantly reduce the need for kinship ties anyway

To sum up, gay marriages seem to display some of the key attributes and can probably discharge many of the functions to extents comparable with traditional marriage. Some of the significant attribute gaps being the ambivalence of social sanction, and the near total absence of religious, ritual, and custom or tradition based framework governing gay marriages. In terms of functions – the inability of gay marriages to constitute a procreative union and the potential concerns around, kinship ties, and unchallenged inheritance for the off-spring are the two notable gaps.

Consequently, it may seem appropriate, at this stage for nation-states with suitably ‘liberal’ polities to enact full legal equivalence of ‘gay marriage’. This should pave the way for increased social acceptance of the institution gradually.