Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Felines and Frenchmen

The few have appealed to reason, to honor, to law, to freedom, to the known, and to happiness here in this world. The many have appealed to prejudice, to fear, to miracle, to slavery, to the unknown, and to misery hereafter. The few have said, “Think!” The many have said, “Believe!”
—Robert Green Ingersoll, “Lecture on Gods”

recent posting on this blog was about an amazing individual, Frank Zindler. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding and speaking with him on a few occasions, during which he shared some remarkable recollections from a long and fruitful life.1 There is a common theme to a couple of those stories that deserves its own posting (the one you’re now reading) about extraordinary claims and the commensurate quality of evidence required to support them.

Frank is a prominent atheist who has made skepticism about religion (and other unprovable things) part of his life’s mission. As such, he lives without the expectation of any afterlife, which is an almost universal element of religion—at least for adherents who follow its rules. We were talking about how non-believers reconcile themselves to this finality of mortality, and the sad void left from Ann’s death last year, when the subject turned to—of all things—cats.


The Zindlers each had a cat of their own. Frank’s is Mugsy, an exotic shorthair who he says is a “prototype for the Garfield cartoon.” Mugsy doesn’t appear to know that he’s a cat. He rests his chin on Frank’s left hand while he’s on the computer, and plays fetch like a dog.

Frisky, my 18-pound companion
for backwoods walks and
photography  [Flickr page]

Ann is survived by her flamepoint Himalayan, Fafnir. He is very independent, and wouldn’t have anything to do with Frank. At bedtime, Fafnir would come up to Ann’s side of the bed for her to pet him. He’d pay his respects and be on his way. Then, in the wee hours of every night, he would come back into the bedroom carrying his toy mouse, yowling. Ann would say, “Oh thank you, Fafnir, that’s a nice mouse. Now let’s go to sleep.” Then he’d drop the mouse. It was a ritual carried out for years.

On the third or fourth night after Ann died, Frank was in that bedroom, a lonely one now. Fafnir came in yowling. Frank tried to repeat Ann’s litany, to assure the cat what a nice mouse it was. But it didn’t work. He just wasn’t the right one to say it.

Fafnir went on making a racket for a dozen minutes. When he wouldn’t stop, Frank tried to pick him up, but he ran away. It was heartbreaking, Frank says. These animals know more than we give them credit for.

Frank went on to talk about another cat with an even odder story. When the Zindlers lived in Upstate NY, they had a Maine Coon cat named Pnuwer, which is Egyptian for “great mouse.” (Remember, the man is a linguist who uses a dozen languages every week.) This was a very accomplished cat, Frank says. He lived in both the city and the country. He was adept at life outside, inside, in traffic. The cat’s really remarkable skill, though, turned out to be in cardiac home care.

Frank has suffered bouts of atrial fibrillation since the 1980s. In 1984, Pnuwer woke him from a sound sleep by licking his face. The cat had never done that, ever. As soon as Frank awoke, he realized he was in atrial fibrillation. It was the only time he’s gone into that state while asleep, and that’s when it’s dangerous. Things can spiral down without you knowing about it, and there might be no waking up the next morning, or ever.

Thanks to Pnuwer, Frank was able to realize he needed to get to the hospital. He remained there for a couple of days, and was released with his heart still fibrillating. It took a day and a half at home for his heart to convert to a normal rhythm, and this very independent cat remained by his side the entire time. Pnuwer was with him when his proper heartbeat finally established itself, and then, within fifteen minutes, he meowed to go outside. Frank never saw him again.

Somehow, they know. I’ve heard a story like this from another older friend, whose Border Collie herded him into the bedroom where his wife was having a heart attack. And the story of Oscar the nursing home cat, who is said to have accurately predicted the deaths of about 50 patients, is well known.2 In all these cases, though, the answers will ultimately prove to be entirely natural ones. (Possibilities include the animals’ uncanny abilities to read our emotions, note our behaviors, or detect tell-tale smells.) Assigning what is poorly understood to the supernatural has had a very bad track record.

The (Imagined) Frenchman

We returned to the topic of the afterlife and Frank’s deconversion from a tepid Christianity at age 18. Did you ever mourn the loss of a promised life to come, I wondered, as I still do sometimes? Of course, he replied, he would love it if there were such a thing as immortality. But immortality without any of the pleasures of life wouldn’t be much, would it?

Heaven is very poorly defined in Christian theology. Indeed, Paul goes out of his way to say how little it is known: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Islam has a more vivid picture of at least a man’s paradise, Frank noted. Seventy-two virgins and all that. We joke about the vague notions of people playing harps while sitting on clouds, but even that’s more definite than what the Bible describes.

I asked if he ever entertained the possibility of any afterlife after losing his Christian faith. Yes, he did, very briefly a few years later. And here we came to another remarkable story.

In 1960 or 1961, at age 21 or 22, Frank was studying experimental psychology using hypnosis. There had been something of a reincarnation craze due to a best-selling book The Search for Bridey Murphy, about a Colorado woman who had “recalled” a past life under hypnotic regression. Frank wanted to test this idea of age regression. How accurately could people recall their pasts under hypnosis?

During his studies, he found himself asking one hypnotized subject, “Who are you, where are you?”, with the time frame in question being open to even before the man’s birth. Everything was silent. Then his subject began speaking English with a French accent, describing a scene during the French revolution.

Adapted (obviously) from Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

Frank asked for details: What are you wearing, what does the scene look like? The reply was amazingly realistic. He described the clothes he had been wearing, where he was, what he’d been doing. Frank went to the library, checking maps and historical records. Everything sounded exactly right. He played the tape back to the man, who was astounded at what he’d been saying under hypnosis. It was a total surprise to him, hearing his hypnotized self recalling all this, now listening to it in a fully conscious state.

So Frank spent a week investigating, and the vocal atheist managed to convert himself to a belief in reincarnation. Just in the nick of time, though, before he called a press conference to announce this amazing development, a friend of Frank’s returned from a trip to South America. He was a doctoral student in anthropology. Frank didn’t tell his friend anything about the hypnosis, but simply played the tape to him.

The anthropology student’s reply began as follows: “In the movie version of the story…” Frank laughed at the memory: His friend was a movie buff, and was well acquainted with the story that had been “recalled” by his subject. It was, of course, about the French Revolution. He knew the actors who had starred in it, and who had produced it.

It turned out that Frank had been interrogating an insomniac whose habit was going to sleep with the TV on, playing late night movies, whatever was airing at the time. Frank’s best reconstruction is that his subject, half asleep, had seen this movie about the French revolution. Under emotional duress, to satisfy the inquiry of the one who had put him under the power of hypnotic suggestion, he had been forced to pull out memories of what he’d seen playing out on the screen. He conveyed them as his own, from the past life whose existence he was being suggested to recall.

Parting Ways With the Paranormal

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good,” writes the author of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. It’s a remarkably sensible bit of advice from one of the books in this collection we call the Bible, which has been responsible for so much tragically irrational behavior based on blind faith. Really, though, such caution is out of place even in the book in which it appears. The preceding words urge prayer, openness to the Spirit, and respect for prophesyings—none of which involve much in the way of proof.

Dr. Susan Blackmore: Not buying it
anymore. [The Stephen Charles Studio]

It’s very difficult for us to be rational about things. We are mammals evolved to see patterns everywhere and flee from noises in the brush.

Dr. Susan Blackmore devoted 25 years of her life to investigating paranormal phenomena, and finally “had enough of fighting the same old battles,” of “being told that I do not have an open mind.” She had long since discarded her “own previous beliefs in a soul, telepathy and an astral world.” But, even then, she “kept on searching for evidence that [her] new skepticism was misplaced, and for new theories that might explain the paranormal if it existed…” It doesn’t, and so she didn’t find them.

She turned to claims of psychic powers, doing experiments and investigating. But, finally, “I have given up that too.”3

For Frank, nearly getting duped by the hypnosis fiasco fifty years ago was a close shave with Ockham’s razor. As he explains in his essay “What Does it Mean to be Scientific?”, that principle discourages basic assumptions from being

multiplied beyond necessity. According to this principle, when there are competing explanations for a fact or phenomenon, the simplest adequate explanation should be chosen, the explanation that requires the fewest basic assumptions or postulates.4

It is far from simple to envision how any aspect of self—memories or consciousness or a fondness for departed family members—could possibly survive the death and decay of the billions of neurons whose intricate networks form all that inside our skulls. The idea of hypnosis dredging up and personalizing memories of a drowsy late-night TV session is a bit odd, amusing even, but compared to the utter implausability of post-mortem memories (preserved where?), there’s no contest.

Now, the Sunday school catch-all “God did it” is indeed a very simple explanation. Creationists across the spectrum from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute all fall back on it at some point, no matter how sophisticated they try to be in their varying grudging acceptances that some sort of evolution might be going on. But it is not adequate. It’s just intellectual surrender.

River and Rainbow  [Flickr page]

If “God did it” is your only assumption, then Okham instructs you to invest in another one. That rainbow in the sky is the heavenly signature memorializing a promise from a regretful deity after he carried out a worldwide genocide? Look a bit further, please. The alternative that every sane thinker now accepts (prism refraction from suspended water droplets) is not much more elaborate, and it has the immense advantage of being plausible.

The scientific thinker feels that everything is explainable in principle, Frank writes, and only by natural explanations:

Supernatural explanations are ruled out not because scientists are prejudiced against them, but rather due to the practical reason that they exemplify the fallacy known to old-time logicians as ignotum per ignotius—the attempt to explain the unknown in terms of the more unknown.5

It can be painful to lose trust in comforting and familiar assumptions, in the words of beloved old men who authoritatively preach from their oaken pulpits. But there is also a delicious clarity that opens up in the mind like a sparkling stream. The truth matters, and it can indeed set you free: from a nightmare of fear, superstition, and needless guilt. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. I remain grateful to Frank for the very kind words he had to say about Evolving out of Eden: “If I ever have to teach another workshop on how to debate creationists, this volume will be my textbook. Everything is there: comprehensive deconstruction of the Christian bible and its several myths of creation, comparative mythology and folklore, and all the relevant science from astronomy and quantum physics to molecular genetics and population biology. It clearly exposes the fatal flaws of biblical creationism, scientific creationism, creation science, intelligent design, and, yes, theistic evolution.” 

  2. Oscar’s story has not been without skeptical questioning, however. See Joe Nickell’s book review in Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 34.4, July/August 2010. 

  3. Susan Blackmore, “Why I Have Given Up,” in P. Kurtz (Ed), Skeptical Odysseys: Personal Accounts by the World’s Leading Paranormal Inquirers, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 2001, pp. 85-94. Available online at Chapters/Kurtz.htm

  4. In Through Atheist Eyes (American Atheist Press, 2011), Vol. 2, pp. 119-35, at p. 122. 

  5. “What Does it Mean to be Scientific?”, Through Atheist Eyes, Vol. 2, at p. 123. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Memes Shall Inherit the Earth

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.
—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Replicators galore, these ones biological rather than cultural  [Flickr page]

We are all familiar with the deep-seated biological drive to replicate our DNA into new packages, to form a next generation of couriers who will carry this ancient genetic blueprint when our short-lived bodies no longer can. We may not understand or even accept the evolutionary basis for this procreative imperative, but few of us have been aloof to its power.

Every one of us is the product of it, after all. Somewhere, decades ago, two people messily mingled their chromosomes in the most intimate of acts and, nine months later, bestowed you unto the world. And another pair did the same to produce me, my proud father being older than I am now when he cradled his late-in-life newborn son. Each of those parents of ours was in turn the results of earlier sexual encounters from a sepia-toned age. There’s been a lot of that going on, a grey-haired old attorney once said to me with a smile as we ate our workday lunch in dress shirts and ties next to a table where a young couple groped and kissed. Thou shalt be a father of many nations, Abraham was promised.

Offspring  [Flickr page]

Even when we don’t have the end (a baby) in mind, or actively take steps to prevent its fulfillment, the means certainly preoccupies us to no end. A laughable amount of our attention and effort is devoted to pursuing an act whose fleeting peak moments will add up to mere days over a lifetime. For most of us, this long project begins in earnest before we’ve yet spent twenty years on the planet. But that was already middle age for those prehistoric forebears whose liaisons by the fire ultimately gave rise, a few thousand generations later, to the kids now pretending not to notice each other in high schools, malls, churches, and on Facebook.

The project never quite ends, either, at least not mentally. Long after the boiler quits producing enough steam to move the engine of actual reproduction, the whistle still blows. Whatever our age or sex, we still admire the curves or square shoulders, fair faces or rugged jawlines, of the beautiful people we encounter, both on the sidewalk and in the staged scenes playing out on our video screens. We continue to preen and posture, adorn ourselves with cosmetics and ornaments, and demonstrate our genetic fitness by preaching rousing sermons, writing books and blogs, taking selfies.

This behavior is signaling for sexual selection, which is an important mechanism behind biological evolution. It’s not just about the “survival of the fittest,” as the misleading but common phrase goes, but the replication of the fittest. What is “fit” is determined not just by how well organisms survive until they can reproduce, but how successful they are at the business of reproduction. And that, at least in sexually reproducing animals where both parties have a say in the matter, usually begins with a choosy female—faced with the investment of bearing and raising offspring—selecting the male whose feathers, fanny, or financial status are pleasing to her.

Once our species developed some cognitive abilities, demonstrations of brainpower became an important part of this signaling. Look at me, I’ve drawn some cave paintings! Invented a religion of which I, coincidentally, am shaman and seer! Written a poem! (The process can get carried away with itself, with runaway selection occuring for features that really have no importance for actual fitness or even signaling of fitness.) But all this strutting about was accompanied by—perhaps even led to—another realm of mutation and selection entirely apart from biology: cultural evolution.

Gaining a Foothold  [Flickr page]

Cultural evolution is a big topic, as witnessed by the size of Paul Ehrlich’s fine book on it. But one aspect I find particularly compelling (that enthusiasm not shared by Ehrlich, I might add) is the idea that units of culture propagate themselves for their own sakes, using the brains and information-conveying apparatus of humans as their hosts. “These proposed evolutionary units are memes rather than genes, propagating themselves through the minds of human beings instead of the gonads.”

So says our chapter “The Memes Shall Inherit the Earth” in Evolving out of Eden. (Look, ladies, I co-authored a book!) I’m very proud of that chapter. Memetics pioneer Susan Blackmore praised it as “one of the best descriptions” she’s seen “of how the memes of religion work.” So now I will take the liberty of using a few paragraphs excerpted here and there from it.

These memes compel me to reproduce them.


We are now well acquainted with the foundational idea of biological evolution: The genes in the DNA recipe for the best-adapted organisms are the ones that wind up replicating the most. Today’s evolutionary survivors among the genes are being propagated in beetles and basketball players rather than dodo birds and dinosaurs. Memetics posits memes as cultural equivalents to the biological replicators: Those memes that have replicated the best—via books, videos, blog postings, sermons, gossip, etc.—are the ones that now occupy the most cognitive territory in our brains.

Certainly, the success of the ideas we cherish and spread isn’t an accident. It is these ideas that won the struggle for our attention, having the right attributes to survive in our brains and replicate from one brain to the next. They are cultural equivalents to the genetic winners who are now alive rather than vanished from the earth with only fossils as their legacy.

Seed Pod  [Flickr page]

Kate Distin, an independent scholar of cultural evolution, views attention as the meme’s limited resource, analogous to the limited ecological resources for which genes compete. “There is a struggle for existence because a vast array of memes is competing for the limited resource of human attention, and therefore the fitness of any given meme will be influenced chiefly by its ability to gain and retain attention.”1

Brains constitute “a world full of hosts for memes,” and there are “far more memes than can possibly find homes,” says Blackmore.2 So they must be selfish and competitive, like genes; “their success depends on the advantages they confer on themselves. In the struggle for brains’ attention they must in some way be ‘better’ than their rivals.” This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the effects the memes “have on the genetic success of their possessors.”3 Contraception usage is an example of an idea that has flourished despite the direct and drastic effect it has on the genetic propagation of individuals adopting it.

Often, however, there is indeed a symbiosis between a meme and the person bearing it. Luther’s revolutionary theological ideas put his life in danger, but they also greatly impressed the Elector Frederick of Saxony. Spared Rome’s wrath by the interventions of this powerful friend, Der Reformator had a full lifetime to refine and spread these ideas, and also to procreate his genes: He had six children. There are genetic descendents of Luther walking around today, as well as countless Protestant churches with doctrines that incorporate Lutheran memes of sola scriptura and justification by faith alone.

The organisms, religions, and political parties produced by genes and memes don’t need to be appealing or useful in the grand scheme of things. Neither “gene nor meme theory has anything to say about the intrinsic value (i.e., ‘goodness’) of the information that its replicators carry.”4 They just need to be good at replicating, and they are happy to use you as a host.


It is a bit unsettling to step back and view yourself as a mere carrier of genes and memes. My entire life, it seems, is devoted to the propagation of information. The payload is not just the hard-won result of a billion years of evolutionary experiment that are encoded in my body’s cells and half of the encoding in my kids, but also the raw ideas that I convey with every word I speak and write. The memes want me to spread them around, for the same reason that mindless genes “want” to replicate: Those that do so (because their ancestors did) are the ones that now exist. And they are using me to achieve that goal.

We are helpless to resist the pull of the memes that have colonized us. My own urge to share ideas and, on some primal level, hope that others will adopt them (despite my conscious protests about the necessity of individual thinking) is as strong, in its way, as the sweet and tingling drives that led to these eleven kids of mine. And thus I sit here and type out yet another essay on this blog, fussing about the placement of pictures and the rhythm of my prose. Thus I bared my soul last week about a religion lost and science found, in an interview that will have been heard a hundred thousand times next month.

Now those memes packaged in the book my co-author and I spoke about in that interview, some of which just got themselves propagated again here, give Bob and me little food-pellets of satisfaction at seeing more copies sold, hard work appreciated, carefully written words read. Good humans. Keep on writing.

We are products of our genes, and now servants to our memes. We might as well revel in the absurd complexity of what we have become: walking primates who spend our days siphoning information from place to place and pretending that a little of it is our own.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Kate Distin, The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. New York: Cambridge University Press (2005), pp. 14, 57. 

  2. Susan Blackmore, The meme machine. Oxford University Press (1999), p. 37. 

  3. Distin at p. 11. 

  4. Distin at p. 75.