the ‘lesbian’ virus?

Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: the New Science of the Meme

Three years ago a woman achieved high office, amidst a resurging a virus threatening large parts of the United States. During Elena Kagan’s US Supreme Court nomination, she may have expected news media to assess her judicial philosophy. For reasons later explained, they focussed almost entirely on her single status and questioned whether it indicated she was a lesbian. Though Kagan had made no public statement of sexuality, CBS News published an online column. Kagan could , it read, become “the first openly gay justice”.

Justice Elena Kagan [Photo: Wikipedia]

“If Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time. This is a measure of how far women have come,” announced The New York Times. It then demurred, “Two will be single and childless. This may be a measure of something else entirely”. That ‘something’ remained unexplored, left to the implicit concerns of its readers. Even the liberal Slate Magazine headlined Kagan’s nomination ‘An Unnatural Woman’ among a short-list of nominees the magazine judged “overpopulated by women who are single, childless, or divorced”.

The now rapidly spreading virus remained unreported.  Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme explores why some ideas continue to resurface and spread, often regardless of any truth value. A ‘meme’ is any idea or packaged concept that humans come in contact and share with each other, for example by talking. Other behaviours spread memes too: language patterns, mannerisms, signals, or a song. Memes reproduce from one brain to any witnesses’ brain. They are retained in memory and may remain dormant for long periods, only to resurface and multiply at later times. Often, memes survive because they fulfil some very basic patterns of human behaviour, often without our conscious understanding. As the original author for Microsoft Word, Brodie offers the computer as a metaphor for understanding our relationship to memes.
Would we expect a computer to “understand” its own program? No! It just needs to run. And our brains evolved not to understand themselves, but to perform very specific tasks… Meme evolution selects for the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and myths that we pay the most attention to.

Phantom Dominances are memes about power roles, writes Richard Brodie [Photo: Uncyclopedia]

As memes, packaged concepts spread not only down generationally, but across from person-to-person, much like the ‘virus’ of Brodie’s title. 
Brodie cites the attention men have paid since prehistory to the opportunities for power. Power represents a place in the dominance hierarchy, governing access to resources, including perceived access to women.
Attaching ‘lesbian’ for example- a potent concept around ‘rejection’ of men-  acts like a fear response in the presence of female challengers to power roles.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash refers to these power plays as ‘phantom dominances’, responses which reinforce no longer existing roles. Yes, gay rumours seem a far-fetched reflex for a Supreme Court judicial appointment. At the level of memes however, it’s a widespread and potent ‘virus’ that can be documented at short intervals in today’s public mind.
What astute American news viewers may notice in the ‘lesbian meme’ is its unhelpful attachment time and again in response to female achievement, especially in a country traditionally emphasising the importance and power of public office. It seems an implausibly long list to remain so undetected. To include just some of the ‘lesbian meme’ victims; former US Attorney General Janet Reno, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Reaching positions of prominence, each have been rumoured in the media as lesbian. Fascinatingly, each instance appears from its media vantage point as a profound rupture to the status quo, despite the meme’s repeated (and repeatedly debunked) emergence.

Brodie’s Virus of the Mind is not an abstruse reasoning for prejudices or bigotry. It explores instead the genealogy of ideas, how they come to spread, which ideas have a tendency to survive and reproduce. Through understanding the science of how ideas blend and reproduce, we better understand forces behind some of our knee-jerk responses and deeply held beliefs. In so doing, we may take further steps to raise the level of our modern consciousness. To be aware of memes is to take part in steering them to more productive ends ♦


grandeur, without delusion: dawkins

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Think ‘primal urges’, and a picture of greed, hunger, fear, and sexual lust bounds readily from the cave of our imagination. Indeed, Natural Selection easily and readily accounts for our early survival instincts, writes biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Through The God Delusion, Dawkins also explores evolutionary explanations for our higher moral codes – common values like compassion, giving and the care we extend beyond the bounds of our immediate family. How did these seemingly unselfish traits arise in furthering survival?

Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’

The human origins beneath our developing moral codes are among many scientific questions tackled by Dawkins’ The God Delusion. All known human societies for example, have extended beliefs in a supernatural order, of spiritual beings and divine punishments. Many religionists argue for this reason that without faiths, humans would be without moral compunction.

Arising across different cultures, races and geographic origins, religious beliefs, with the usual aim of benefitting a particular ‘in-group’, carry similar and often repeated patterns of ritual and belief. These suggest the powerfully reinforced behaviours designed with benefit to mutually excluding groups. They may have genetic origins that furthered early group survival.

As Dawkins argues in The God Delusion however, these offer a poor basis for moral decision making.

[This book] is intended to raise consciousness- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

Science now offers a logically simpler origin story that takes into account the multitude of solar systems and galaxies, replacing the mythically central human position in the cosmos. By decentering the human from cosmology, many of the divine claims of race and subjugation are revealed to be false and damaging.

Rembrandt, (1634) Abraham and Isaac.

Genetics have linked us within the animal kingdom, and debunked racial justifications in the Torah, Holy Bible and Quran for genocide and tribal exclusion. Biological recognition has similarly allowed feminism and tolerance to replace patriarchy and the scripturally codified values of the tribe.

Given the religious claims of moral guidance, it would be expected that various religious and non-religious people would act differently in moral situations. Scientific study does however support Dawkins’ contention that “our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past”. Thought experiments have shown underlying moral universals do cross seemingly disparate ethnic, religious and geographical lines.

The subjects were asked to choose in various hypothetical situations which actions were morally ‘obligatory’, ‘permissable’ or ‘forbidden’…The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer’s study was that there were no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments.

In a generously referenced, orderly and readable prose, Dawkins offers an alternative cosmological grandeur. The God Delusion not only measures the improbability of a designer more complex than our own universe, but illustrates an historical pattern of human movement – albeit with periods of regression – toward a more modern liberal behaviour. As scientists unravel the natural workings of the human brain, they find a morally urgent being capable of goodness without fear. That too, is a basis for not only our own guidance, but genuine optimism aswell ♦

Richard Dawkins has been previously reviewed in imodernreview’s ‘a new turing test’ (The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing) and ‘genesis and the genius’ (documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin ).

genesis and the genius

This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to  a human mind. The idea is Evolution-by-Natural-Selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins

The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4 series presented by Richard Dawkins

Incredible though it may seem, with the weight of evidence accumulated since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, 4 out of every 10 British people still believe a god created every species as you see them today. It is with this daunting task of re-education that popular biologist Richard Dawkins presents a modern and exciting first hand look into Charles Darwin’s discovery in the Channel 4, 3-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin. 

Richard Dawkins, Presenter. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and author of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and most most recently, ‘The Magic of Reality’.

Author of The Selfish Gene, which built on Darwin’s theory with more recent discoveries and proof of genetic evolution, Dawkins is a uniquely credible source of certainty. More than a theory, “Evolution is a fact.” The viewer is transported with Dawkins as he travels around the world, from the modern English classroom, to the Galapagos and Kenya, in search of the same clues and evidence by which Darwin discovered Evolution.

Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Photo by Laura Nunes.

It is, in Dawkins’ words, “nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of human life”.

The series offers fascinating insight into Darwin’s personal life, the genius’ personal struggles and reluctance to spread a knowledge that would undo centuries of belief in a supernatural order. Born in 1809, science could not as yet supply Darwin the proof we have today, the genetic coding of our species’ ancestors and relations. By naked observation however, Darwin’s five year round-the-world voyage yielded  samples of hundreds of species, where tiny differences among sub-species in neighbouring islands yielded huge heretical questions. Lifeforms were not fixed, but changed over Time and circumstance. On the Origin of Species was the result of 20 years’ research, combining the best scientific opinion from geologists such as Charles Lyle, and the study of fossils dating specie developments over millions of years.

Dawkins takes us through the historic collections of Darwin’s studies. A ‘pigeon fancier’ Darwin could observe first-hand how characteristics in the species could be bred out or encouraged, demonstrating the ‘plasticity’ of a species over generations. Similarly, chance cycles of variation occurred in Nature over an extended period, and favoured those variations most successful in being reproduced.

In Kenya, Richard Dawkin’s birthplace, Dawkins shows that there is “nothing orderly about the relations between predator and prey”. Nature leads animals in a generational “arms race” to greater speed and physical weaponry in the pursuit of finite resources. As Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species,

Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing the world every variation and even the slightest, neglecting that which is bad and preserving all that is good, silently and insensibly working. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of Time has marked the lapse of Ages.


In 1859, the possibility another biologist named Wallace might ‘scoop’ his discovery finally encouraged Darwin to publish his findings and its explosive implications. Still timidly afraid of presenting the mountain of evidence gathered, observed and deliberated before him, Darwin’s book was finally released to the public, selling out in its first two days of release. 152 years later, it has never again been out of print.

The genius of Charles Darwin, his personal struggles and domestic losses, are presented against a viewer backdrop of Darwin’s own home and grounds, lending elegant and historic setting to Darwin’s step by step development as biologist and author. Dawkins’ own genius has been to present the soundness of this at once complex and “elegantly simple” solution to the origin and diversity of lifeforms inductively. That is, we are lead through each stage to observe as Darwin did, the sameness and variety by which variation led from prehistory to the present.

Popularly conceived as a dry theory devoid of moral import, Dawkins’ feat of genius is to present to the layperson the grandeur of the evolutionary world view. We humans are the result of a long line of millions of the most successful pairings of gene and generation, developing brains that can examine our self origin like no other species can. We are a ‘nervous system’ for a planet at last waking up. Over 150 years old, evolution-by-natural-selection represents the most modern and genius of ideas. What’s more, Dawkins shows, it’s true ♦

[Charles Darwin’s complete works are now available online. imodernreview has previously reviewed Richard Dawkin’s editorship of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing in a new ‘turing test’. The TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin is available to order on DVD]

enlightened doubt: christopher hitchens 1949-2011

Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. Left behind are a modern legacy of articles and essay collections projecting his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview.  In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of its values in contemporary journalism.

‘Hitch-22: Confessions and Contradictions’ (2010) by Christopher Hitchens

‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 , and Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on his much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his analysis of world events. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Taken as a whole however, it is consistency that encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind. Through his own, there lies its proof in the tremendous output of his journalistic career, where his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.

The modern Enlightenment, with its corollary values of scientific inquiry and individual rights he argued, are a sustained outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. It’s darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomfortingly close analysis of the war zones he witnessed.

We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.

(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)

A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.

Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.

(‘Minority Report’, 1989)

A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and instead championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He visited for himself the chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. He also won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.

Hitchens argues for humanist values in literature and art in ‘god is not Great’ (2007)

Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from a lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,

Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.

Therein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, identifying the ‘enemy’ of the modern as the uncritical and totalitarian mindset (See also his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman). The Enlightenment, were it to hold any fixed element, would be to codify the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through this consistency.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.

(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)

‘Pursuit’ finds worthy and serious meaning in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist who found his permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦

Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994)  Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.

a new ‘turing test’

Alan Turing [Photo from mark_am_kramer]

Away from the front lines of the world’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy making the calculations to save the lives of millions.

During WWII, Alan Turing’s logic broke apart the seemingly impenetrable random code messages of the Nazi ‘Enigma’ device, and thus delivered into the hands of Allied forces intelligence in numerous battles. Much of our knowledge of ‘machine intelligence’ can also be attributed to Turing’s pioneering theories and development of Pilot Ace, the world’s first multi-task computer.

In 1950, Alan Turing posed the question, ‘Can Machines Think?’ He proposed the key to achieving a thinking machine was not to replicate the adult mind, but that of the child-learning mind. A process somewhat akin to evolution could be imitated, gradually mutating a device through ‘education’, that is, overlaying new programming by introducing algorithms of increasing complexity. In this way, connections established from base knowledge, adjusted by mutation and selected on a basis of success would achieve the best approximation of human thought, teaching a machine to think.

Alan Turing, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950) in Richard Dawkins (Ed) The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008)

He would devise an experiment referred to as the ‘Turing Test’ for theoretically evaluating machine intelligence.

These ideas are presented chapter-form in Richard Dawkins’ superbly edited collection, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

For his weighty contributions, Alan Turing might justly have held a position of wide fame and honour today. The tragic story of Turing’s own life and the circumstances of his suicide however, reflect a new challenge for the modern age.

As Richard Dawkins writes,

After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed for a ‘crime’, [homosexual activity] committed in private, which harmed nobody.

Turing was arrested, forced in 1952 to undertake ‘chemical therapy’ for his homosexuality and was removed from any official position. He died 2 years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Just 2 years ago, a petition in Britain lead to a full apology from the British government for its treatment of Turing, delivered September 2009 by then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The upcoming centenary of Turing’s birth has brought a new focus to honouring his legacy to modern innovation. The University of Auckland, and the UK Newton Institute will both be devoting entire lecture programs to his mathematical and computing legacy. He is already the subject of a play, an opera, and a new film focussing on his important work.

A new UK petition seeks to posthumously pardon Turing of his criminal record. As of this writing, the petition has already garnered 15,000 UK signatures. If successful, the petition would be a fitting symbol,  if only a symbol, for a greater modern challenge for society, a new ‘Turing Test’ if you will.
The ‘test’ would be to discover and reward the eccentric innovators in our midst, while developing more complex programming to successively overlay and cancel our own obsolete ‘programming’ – our prejudices. In so doing, we may hope to evolve our own human intelligence, ironically like one of Turing’s machines:
We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all the intellectual fields…We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Alan Turing
When they do, this competition will form a fitting test. We need only think ♦

Trailer for upcoming ‘Alan Turing Decoded’ viewable hereThe Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) Richard Dawkins (Ed.) is available from Oxford University Press. [Turing photo attributed and sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]

celebrating reason: ayaan hirsi ali

They were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life

 Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ardent feminist, atheist and best-selling author. Her autobiography Infidel details her escape from a life of oppression under her Muslim clan in Somalia to live in the comparatively secular West, first in The Netherlands, where she became a member of Parliament, and later as a political activist and founder of the AHA Foundation in the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, AHA Foundation, Author and Rights CampaignerHirsi Ali will be attending as one of the keynote speakers at next year’s Global Atheist Convention A Celebration of Reason to be held in Melbourne Australia. (April 12-15) The event is expected to attract 4000 convention goers, and include other freethinking speakers, including authors of The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Hirsi Ali has endured death threats, not for escaping an arranged marriage in her ‘home country’, but from Islamic extremists in Europe for her screenplay of Dutch filmmaker Theo VanGogh’s documentary Submission, which details the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Theo Van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street.

On fleeing Somalia she writes,

I [had] escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies- Allah’s societies- were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

Ali’s roles as parliamentarian and activist for the plight of women and political refugees, and brave storyteller, will offer listeners to the Global Atheist Convention much to ponder. They will owe the greater measure of gender equality in the West that allows Hirsi Ali’s intellect to be read, heard and appreciated, the benefit gained from her insights and experience of life under tyranny. The audience will no doubt acknowledge the generally secular nature of Western democratic society for Hirsi Ali’s ability to critique the dogmas and rules that oppress populations of, curtail opportunity for, millions throughout the un/developing world.

One question remains; what role can Australia play in gaining the wisdom, intelligence and fierce bravery of those seeking political asylum to our shores, as Hirsi Ali had in Europe? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy both for they and us, if like the regimes they attempt to escape, we not accept and reward the contributions they have to offer? To turn away and turn them away?

Next year, Australians will owe Ayaan Hirsi Ali for coming so far to celebrate reason. That would indeed be lucky for us, and a responsibility to share with others ♦

[Quotes also taken from Ali, A.H. (2007) ‘How [and Why] I Became an Infidel’ in Christopher Hitchens Ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer. Hirsi Ali is also author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason and Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations]