Our empathy must move up along with mercury

When I was driving back for lunch in the afternoon, I encountered a phenomenon common on roads of Ahmedabad. The free left turn was blocked by a rickshaw that I can see had no intention of turning.

Angered by this, I pressed hard on the horn that led the rickshaw driver to turn around to look at the source of indignation. I could see that he was an emaciated old man with dishevelled hair and sunken eyes wearing tattered clothes, and he was really angry.

If I evaluate him from legal perspective, here was a wrongdoer and yet, instead of being apologetic about it, he was actually showing aggression. It was clear that he deserved more honking and even some fine for committing a traffic offence.

But, as a person interested in biology, I was forced to look at a completely different context, and that is endothermic body in which his brain was residing.

If we look beyond his identity as a law-breaking rickshaw driver, he was an animal body that is designed to function within a narrow window of body temperature and, at this point, he was suffering from a massive overload of heat. While his body required to remain at about 37 C, it was getting subjected to 44 C and hence was struggling to cope up with enormous heat stress.

If I was to step out of the 22 C comfort of my car and enter his body, I would have experienced a brain on the edge of survival crisis. His metabolism would be falling apart as the heat would be on the verge of disrupting the homeostasis required for enzyme function. In simple words, it would be a brain in panic mode facing death that must find ways of dissipating heat at any cost.

So, the likely reason that he had opted to stand in the free turning lane was not his disrespect or disregard for the law. It was because his brain saw a survival need to be on the move as soon as possible so that the air movement caused by motion can speed up evaporative cooling through perspiration.  

It is easy to look at the above narrative as an escapist explanation driven by false empathy that we offer to the poor people of India. It was obviously not too difficult for the driver to follow the rules that many others were following at the same time on the same road, but I have a small point to offer here from biological perspective to evaluate jurisprudence of heat.

As air conditioners are now getting common, many of us are not experiencing heat as what it is, i.e. a very real survival threat.

When temperatures soar above 40 C, as they are since couple of weeks, for endotherms like the poor rickshaw driver who has no access to artificial cooling and have no option but to engage in physical activities, heat is a matter of life and/or death. As their brains are perceiving heat as a dire threat, their behaviour is bound to get heat-impacted as heat dissipation is given highest priority by the brain.

Let us realise that jurisprudence also recognises that (otherwise considered law-violating) acts of self-preservation under extreme duress are excusable under the law. The heat wave that we are having does qualify as a life-threatening situation and hence we must accommodate it when we pass judgement about the behaviour of those suffering from it. 

So, if you are enjoying the privilege of not having to suffer the heat, please cognise the suffering of those who have don’t have that option. As they are fighting heat for their lives, let us not get too demanding from them.

Our empathy needs to move up along with mercury by understanding the metabolic plight of those who are suffering the heat. 

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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