Nayan Chanda Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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In the book you asked yourself the question, "How globalized am I?" Tell us about your search for your ancestry in your own DNA.
Yes. The premise of the book is that the world is increasingly connected, but before you connect you are obviously disconnected. So, what was the state when you were disconnected, when people lived far apart and did not know each other? That led me to ask the question how people did get dispersed, which led me to the answer that our ancestors, the human community, lived all in Africa. Now it is clear from DNA studies that between 200 to 2000 people left Africa and spread to the rest of the world. So, I wanted to find out how my ancestors -- did they really come from Africa? So, I sent a swab from inside my cheek to ...
DNA, to the National Genographic Project, which actually does analysis of your DNA on payment of a small fee. I gave them the serial number -- they provide you with serial numbers, so they only knew my serial number, they did not know who I was. Several weeks later I checked on the web, typed in my serial number, and it told me that I was Indian, that my DNA marker, "N52," was an Indian marker and that my ancestors came from East Africa some forty to sixty thousand years ago. [From] the Y chromosome traces in my DNA they could tell me the trajectory they took to come to India.
So, it was just fascinating that they passed through Middle East, Persia and then landed in India when it was the coast of India. The fact is that the earliest Y chromosome in my DNA is marker M168. That is the DNA marker that you have and every single male human on this planet has. And that I find very uplifting knowledge, that we all are members of the same family, and that is undeniable because the DNA tells you that we all have M168, all males have M168, and the females have the same mitochondrial DNA that links you to one African mother.
So, in exploring the world, in reaching out as a preacher, an adventurer, a warrior, a trader, what human impulses are at work here? There is a sense, when you read the book, that these ideal types reflect something in the human spirit which gets further into this question of who we are beyond where we came from. Talk a little about that. What distinguishes each of these different categories? Or are they more alike than we realize?
It's a very interesting question. First of all, the desire of the humans to live in security and comfort and lead a better life than one has, improve one's living standard, that is a desire which is leading traders to leave home and go somewhere, to indulge in what Adam Smith calls "track and trade." There's a human impulse to track and trade. And track and trade for what? To actually make profit. So, one of the earliest examples I found in a Mesopotamian clay tablet written by a wife of a trader to her husband who lives 800 miles away in Cannis. She writes to him that "Ever since you left our neighbor who is a trader has doubled the size of his house, so when can you do ours?"
And that doesn't sound familiar at all!
Yes, exactly. And this was 4000 years ago. And then you have a letter by a Jewish trader from Cairo who lived in India in the tenth century, and his correspondence has now been found in a synagogue in Cairo. The synagogues there have a practice of not destroying any piece of paper if the word "God" is on it, and since all the letters were written "by the grace of God we have made this transaction," "by the grace of God we have made this journey," all this commercial correspondence actually was protected. So, in one of the letters written by someone called Abraham Izu, he says that "I have now made enough money, I'm returning from India," (writing to his brother) "that we can now live happily with the money I have made in India." This was in the tenth century. So, it is the same desire that traders go out.
Look at preachers. The desire to bring fellow human beings to your faith -- you have found God, you have found prophet, and you want everybody to embrace that God. That desire led Christian missionaries to set out and go far distances. Buddha, of course, was the world's first evangelist, if I may use that term, "evangelist for Buddha." But Buddha, after he attained Bodhi, he told his disciples, "Now go out and preach the faith, preach the doctrine, the dharma, that it is the way to lead your life, and you can actually attain Nirvana so that you no longer suffer from pain and death." This desire to preach is again very innate in human beings. That is what leads people like Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International. He set up this organization in 1961 because human beings cannot be abused, they have rights, and this is a truth he wanted everybody to embrace. This is one motivation. He even said this motivation is to lead an enriching, fulfilling life by helping others. When I mentioned this fact to the Human Rights Watch executive director in New York, Ken Roth, he kind of demurred. He doesn't want to be called a preacher, but he admitted that people who do this kind of job, they do make a sacrifice, because they have a goal in life, a mission to help, and so they are making a personal sacrifice to go long distances to find out about human rights abuses and bring world focus on that.
It's a recognition of a universalism that should be a gift to everyone, a right.
Adventurers, same thing. The desire to find out what is behind the next mountain. What is there if I cross the river? This curiosity to find is also to enrich life. And to enrich one's life one takes enormous risk. And now to enrich one's life, you have people carrying a backpack and a Lonely Planet guide, going out to different parts of the world. So, the same desire is there.
The desire to have a universal empire, universal control [over] human beings, territory, resources so that there could be one guiding principle -- Alexander the Great wanted to create a universal empire, and what I think the United States wants is an empire of democracy. They want to have everybody to be democratic, you know? And then behind that there is desire to control resources, territories which are critical for national interests. So, these wishes are, again, universal and very long lasting.
In what sense do you believe that seeing this continuity in history, so that the Buddha and his disciples somehow morph into the present-day reality of environmental activists -- what is the benefit of seeing that? There definitely seems to be such a thing that one has a sense of the continuity of this human enterprise.
The benefit is to recognize that globalization as we define it is an outcome of these forces working over a long period of time. There's a secular force which is hard to stop because it is not one, two, three people, it's a whole mass of people, their desire, their fear, their ambition. This is all coming together to produce this force so that it is something that is impossible to stop forever. It can be slowed down, it can be even blocked for a period, but the force behind it is so inexorable because there are so many people involved here that it is an impossible notion that you can actually stop it.
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