Category Archives: World

Kaali: Choose Love and Champion Humanity

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following articles and studies were located on the Humanists International website and in several online publications.

Humanists International is deeply concerned to learn of the judicial harassment of poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who is currently facing accusations of “hurting religious sentiments” in connection with her latest documentary short ‘Kaali’.

Leena Manimekalai – a published poet and award-winning filmmaker, who is studying for an MFA in Canada – was selected to produce a creative piece on multiculturalism in Canada as part of the national level academic programme ‘Under the Tent’ organized by CERC Migration – Toronto Metropolitan University. Her project, ‘Kaali’ was launched at Aga Khan Museum on 2 July 2022.

The short film shows the Hindu goddess Kali wandering the streets of Toronto at night during a pride festival, observing groups of people out on the town, riding the subway, stopping at a bar, taking selfies with members of the public, and sharing a cigarette with a man on a park bench. The poster for the film shows Kaali – played by Manimekalai – smoking, holding an LGBTI+ flag.

She is quoted in the New Indian Express as saying: “Kaali, the film is all about choosing love and championing humanity. Trolls who are witch-hunting me are fueled by hate. They have nothing to do with faith. If they are patient enough to watch the film they might choose love. But that’s exactly why they want the film to be banned.”

Manimekalai announces the screening of her film ‘Kaali’ on social media

Since sharing the poster which went viral on social media, Manimekalai has faced a barrage of death threats, a campaign of harassment on social media – with the hashtag #arrestleenamanimekalai trending on Twitter India – and legal complaints filed against her by right-wing Hindu nationalists in India.

On 4 July, the High Commission of India in Ottawa issued a statement calling on the Canadian authorities and event organizers to withdraw her film. Her film was subsequently withdrawn and her name removed from the ‘Under the Tent’ programme by Toronto Metropolitan University, while Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum host to a screening of her film apologized for any offence caused by the film.

Speaking to The Hindu, Manimekalai stated, “My intention is not to provoke. […] By succumbing to fundamentalist elements, Toronto Metropolitan University and Aga Khan Museum have compromised on academic and artistic freedom.

To date, Manimekalai is aware of at least nine First Information Reports (FIR) – an official legal complaint that initiates a police investigation – filed with local authorities in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, and Madhya Pradesh. The petitioners allege that Manimekalai has breached a range of laws, including Article 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.

de facto ‘blasphemy’ provision, Section 295A of the IPC allows up to three years imprisonment for “whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class.”

In addition, a court in Delhi has reportedly issued a summons for Manimekalai and her company to appear in court on 6 August in connection with a civil complaint filed against her.

Humanists International fears that filmmaker Leena Manimekalai is being targeted for her peaceful exercise of her rights to freedom of religion or belief and expression. The organization calls on the Indian authorities to drop all investigations relating to the film, and to repeal its ‘blasphemy’ laws.

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Humanist Movement of Cordoba: Forging A Culture of Nonviolence in Argentina

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In a communiqué entitled “Nonviolence, an urgent commitment”, the Humanist Movement of Cordoba welcomed the initiative of the League of Governors to “make visible the need to install Peace and Nonviolence as guiding principles of life in common in Argentinean society”.

The mention refers to the document signed by the governors of 15 Argentine provinces a few days afterwards the failed attack against Vice-President Cristina Fernández, which, among other issues, expresses the recommendation to President Alberto Fernández to create a “Commission for Peace and Non-Violence”. We want to reaffirm the need to contribute together to a climate of national pacification,” the governors said.

For their part, the militants of New Humanism pointed out how their movement has worked since its origins “to forge and expand a culture of non-violence, promoting numerous actions in all fields of social activity”.

It is important to remember, in the context of this statement, the hostile framework in which the movement emerged. Its first public event took place in 1969, in the midst of the Onganía dictatorship, in a mountainous area near the Andes, due to the military regime’s repeated prohibitions on making its message heard in urban centres. Proscription and persecution continued and forced many of its activists into exile.

Already in that first harangue, its founder, Silo, would expand the vulgar conception of the term “violence” by saying: “Violence in man, moved by desires, does not remain only as a disease in his consciousness, but acts in the world of other men, exercising itself with the rest of the people. Do not think that I speak of violence as referring only to the armed act of war, where men tear other men to pieces. That is a form of physical violence. There is economic violence: economic violence is violence that makes you exploit another; economic violence is when you steal from another, when you are no longer a brother to another, but a bird of prey for your brother. There is also racial violence: do you think you do not exercise violence when you persecute someone who is of a different race to you, do you think you do not exercise violence when you defame them because they are of a different race to you? There is religious violence: do you think that you do not exercise violence when you give us work, or close the doors, or fire someone, because he is not of your own religion? Do you think that it is not violence to encircle someone who does not agree with your principles by defamation; to encircle him in his family, to encircle him among his beloved people, because he does not agree with your religion?

In line with this message, the signatories of the communiqué affirm that non-violence should be the central axis of a state policy that aims to “transform the conditions that generate different forms of violence.

The statement released affirms that, in addition to overcoming unworthy social situations, it is necessary “a profound process of reflection so that the universal premise of relationship is to treat others the same way we want to be treated.”

Image Courtesy Pressenza

Finally, it calls on each person to actively commit themselves to Nonviolence, from their place of influence, in order to “build the world that we want, need and deserve as human beings”.

Below, we reproduce the original text of the statement, to which collectives and individuals can adhere by clicking on the link

Nonviolence, an urgent commitment

The Humanist Movement of Cordoba welcomes the initiative of the League of Governors to make visible the need to install Peace and Nonviolence as guiding principles of life in common in Argentinean society.

Since its origins, New Humanism has worked tirelessly to forge and expand a culture of Nonviolence, promoting numerous actions in all fields of social activity.

We believe that Nonviolence must become the axis of State policies aimed at transforming the conditions that generate different forms of violence.

We also affirm that well-intentioned declarations and regulations will not be enough to achieve this goal if people do not intend to initiate a profound process of reflection so that the universal premise of relationships is to treat others in the same way we want to be treated.

We call on society as a whole to make an active commitment to Nonviolence in order to build the world we want, need and deserve as human beings.

Cordoba, September 2022

First adhesions:

World Without Wars and Without Violence Cordoba
Centre for Humanist Studies of Cordoba
Humanist Party Cordoba
The Community for Human Development Cordoba
Humanist Feminists
Cassandra Base Team Humanist Party
The Community for Human Development Salta
Intentional Community Abriendo Futuro (Opening the Future)
Social Humanism. Puerto General San Martín, Santa Fe
Humanist Neighbourhood Movement Moreno
THE COMMUNITY for Human Development (Aso.Civil)
Humanist Feminists La Pampa.
Humanist Feminists Cordoba
Community of Silo’s Message, Cordoba
Community of Silo’s Message
Humanist Party of Entre Rios
Humanist Feminists Alberti
COPEHU- Cordoba. Universalist Humanist Pedagogical Current of Cordoba
Convex Concave
Community of Villa Crespo CABA
Collective for nonviolence Mar del Plata

Individual supporters

Pamela Facello, humanist from Entre Rios
Diana Varela, retired.
Alejandra Elena Vittar, Teacher
Tala Gonzalez,
Arturo Lorusso – retired
Alberto José Castro, teacher
Nélida Ester Rey, retired.
Claudia Monica Varela, Kinesiologist
Ana Tolcachier, Student
Eloy de LLamas, visual arts
Haro Paz Juanito, computer scientist
Margarita Ponce de Leon, retired
Conny Henrichmann, translator
Andrea Franco, Humanist activist. Mum, trader.
Noe Costas
Silvia Tabarini – retired
Ochoa Graciela, Humanist feminist.
Sandra Lewy Smith
Marello, Danilo. Teacher
Guillermina Rodríguez, Peronist, Mataderos
Ana Maria Ferreyra, Pensioner
Hugo Alberto Cammarata
Gerardo Spidalieri
Omar Abraham, Trader
Cynthia Fisdel, Humanist
Javier Tolcachier, Communicator
Bernardita Zalisñak
Gabriela Inés Adorni, Psychologist.
Susana Malvasio, Pensioner
Paulina Peralta, student
Valentina Cusmai, student
Pamela Taverna – Psychologist
Juan Armando Caro – Designer
Pablo Sequeira, Salesman
César Almada
Carmela Acebedo, student
Carlos Alberto Flores, Independent
Juana Aurora Barragan, Socio Therapist Operator
Agostina Beccaria, employee
Sol Arrieta, work in an electronics repair shop
Alejandro Tolcachier, Lic. in Mathematics, Doctoral Student
Hugo Omar Moyano, Humanist
T. Miriam Moyano, retired teacher

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Toyin Falola: When the Core Principles and Values of Humanism are in Deficit, a Vacuum is Created

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Toyin Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 1991, and has also held short-term teaching appointments at the University of Cambridge in England, York University in Canada, Smith College of Massachusetts in the United States, The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, Nigeria. Falola is author and editor of more than one hundred books, and he is the general editor of the Cambria African Studies Series (Cambria Press).

Excerpt of the Convocation Lecture

2021 Nigerian Academy of Letters

Many would agree that when the core principles and values inherent in humanism–rationality, reason, compassion, human dignity, fellow-feeling, freedom, love, and kindness–are in deficit in society, a vacuum is created and all manner of dogmas, doctrines, superstitions, theories, and abstractions hold sway. Human values are required to be reassembled and restored as a result of these failings and pitfalls– which include war mongering, stoked by the availability of superior and sophisticated weaponry, moral bankruptcy such as corruption and the corruptibility of power, pride, greed, rapacious avarice, religious fanaticism, ethnic irredentism. They defray from humanism and all need to be eliminated for the re-affirmation of humanity. Among these pitfalls, also is the “robotization” and “thingification” of humanity, resulting from advanced technological innovation and artificial intelligence.

By electing to deploy literature, music, and the media among the diverse tools and fields of the humanities, to mediate its ideology, humanism, the thought of the choice of three, just three, rests on the three witches at the opening of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There is tempo-spatiality (time and space–of when and where); There is so much metaphorical witchcraft in the arts–all of them, literature, theatre, film, music, and the media. When you fold or scaffold time and ages into a few hours, “hold eternity in the air,” take on persons and characters into oneself, remove costumes and make-ups, and wake up instantly from death to active life without the miracle of Christ, confer immediacy upon news and news paces, record events into soundtracks and sound bites, and make them live in the real world, you confront the witchcraft and the magic of the arts–the humanities. So, the idea of echoing the witches and their witchcraft is not too far-fetched; after all; it is not stretching the imagination too thin, as is done in our vocational engagement in the arts.

The Yoruba Nollywood talks of Idan, which is magic. Apidan, the magic-makers, the theatricians, the actors, the storytellers, and the whole process of their art of creation on stage, screen, studios, and so on. And timing (the duration) of the clap-trap of lightning–the age of cataclysm, violent eruptions in the streets, outright warfare, which is actually what the witches were referring to, plagues, epidemics and pandemics, tornadoes, massive flooding, ravaging fires, earthquakes; chaos, banditry, kidnapping, dystopia, and the likes. These do not make the echoes of witches, magic, and the cult of Iyas (mothers) too intriguing or too dissimilar to the world of the arts.

In all the ages, writers covet the news space for self-expression to say the things that must be said urgently and to test the waters of their creation as they form words from their thoughts–poetry, prose, drama sketches. In that sense, there is an intriguing love relationship between the media and literature. Throughout time, men of letters seek refuge in the media as they mold their blocks of expression that are later turned into books. The role of newspapers in the evolution of literature drew the writers into the waiting arms of the media, newspapers to be specific, in a relationship that has become permanent, as the newspapers, periodicals, and journals and their creators themselves became a new type of literature and literary artists. Therefore, from the 18th century on, the inventors of the periodical essays extended the tactic of the fictitious self into the new territory and became writers.

All over the world, including in Nigeria, overt and subtle control proved incapable of stemming the growth of the media industry. The creeping in of censorship to control the opinions and feelings expressed in rapidly popularizing media had begun to accommodate issues and topics on politics, the lives of public individuals and businesses. Its popularity generated the desire of governments to control what would come out in the newspaper the following morning. Patricians and politicians tried hard to control the press, to dictate its views, and to contain its criticisms, but in Britain (and I daresay everywhere, including in Nigeria), the media and literary realms and phenomena proved too large for such ‘arrant limitations.’

Getting too hot and pinching the skin and the nerves, the government created “licensers of the press” to hunt down heretical and seditious publications and through strict licensing laws to limit the flow and narrow the range of newsprint, but whenever these laws lapsed, innovations in newspapers abounded before new forbidding laws are created. The bid to kill freedom of speech, arising from the gradual dehumanizing capacity and strategies of the powerful, had been there and it remains with us today. We must reach out to our society where the contribution of the media in those early days of independence struggle was valiantly resisted by the colonial authority. The politicians (civilian and military) inherited that strategy to control and censor the media. The draconic decrees to muzzle and snuff out freedom of the press and literature are evidence of the descent from humanism, derived from debased and depraved corruption of power in our country and continent.

Literature stands as a bridge-head between music and the media. Just as the media and literature are inextricably linked in a Siamese-twins relationship, so do literature and music bond in close affinity such that, many times, it became difficult to draw distinct lines between the two. Poets were considered as failed musicians and musicians as failed poets, and when those whom the world considers pop culture musicians began to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Bob Dylan, for instance), the separation line between the two blurs and melts into oblivion. Music became a friend of the media as literature, a friend of music, is the original friend of the media. So much for the justification of the meeting of three subfields of the humanities for mediating humanism!

As succinctly captured above, humanism, which I consider the ideological plank of humanity, reclines on the principles of reason and rationality. To attain a better society where love, humane value, and freedom reign, away from excessive religiosity (not religion), the human agency places the power for individual action in some other forces outside of the self and has brought so much human destruction since many centuries ago. There abound myriad theories of humanism since the age of the Renaissance. For instance, humanistic psychology emerged in the mid-20th century as a rebuttal to the limiting cynicisms of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, and B. F. Skinner’s behaviourism provides “a perspective that emphasizes’’ and ‘stresses concepts such as free will and self-efficacy.” In line with my offering above, humanism has been rendered as a “philosophy that stresses the importance of human factors rather than looking at religious, divine, or spiritual matters.” It is perceived as being “rooted in the idea that people have an ethical responsibility to lead lives that are personally fulfilling while at the same breath, contributing to the greater good for all people.”

The essence of humanism is its advancement of the significance of human values and dignity. People possess the capacity to solve their problems through rational and scientific means to attain the fulfilment of individual and communal ideals and to transform the world into a better liveable place for all people. For many centuries, the tragic emotions and irrationality that dominate religious dogmas and fanaticism, leading to extreme violent movements on intra-religious bases, have had lethal and mortal outcomes on humanity. To the media, the question is, how much information have they rendered to us in recent times, and in our search for truth which ought to promote peace but have provoked wars and battlements?

I will like to write on the passionate assessment of the descent to the barbarism of the media–traditional and social–in Nigeria and elsewhere to get a perspective of the state of our and the world’s media. On February 21, a prominent Nigerian female journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, gave a very passionate, captivating, and no holds barred address titled “My Message to the Nigeria Media,” whose altruism has been challenged by other prominent journalists. Kadaria Ahmed’s address would have simply gone down as a classic on the need and essence of media practitioners to shun ethnic profiling and return to the traditional, noble profession of truth-telling and leading the nation aright in times of national crisis. Kadaria wrote thus:

It is with a heavy heart, worried of Nigeria and a sense of impending doom

That I am sending this to you, my colleagues,

Let me begin with a question;

What exactly will we gain if Nigeria descends into war?

How does it advance us if our fellow citizens turn on each other

And begin large-scale ethnic killings against each other…

How does enabling ethnic strife help to achieve this objective?

For some time now, a lot of us has thrown away the book on ethical reporting

Propelled by emotion, we have betrayed every moral consideration

That assigns our noble profession

But the critical probing to the other side of the coin happily carried out by Tayo Olu in The Whistler of February 15, 2021, titled “Attack on Nigerian Media,” has helped to put the “attack” by Kadaria in context without necessarily defraying from the value of her address.

Tayo Olu shed light on the reaction of Kadaria’s colleagues’ overt “scathing criticism of journalists’ reportage of the herdsmen crisis in the country” and for “fanning the flames of ethnic hate through their coverage of the crisis involving mainly the Fulani ethnic group.” Reactions came first from the Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) FCT Chapter, Emmanuel Ogbeche, Ibanga Isine of Next Edition, and Ekhator Ehi, among others. The rationale of these accusations and counter-accusations among media practitioners is the reality of crass partisanship in the media at a time when they should be the true watchdog of the common folks on whose behalf they ought to speak truth to power and denounce agents of violence and crime. At a time when our humanity is badly assailed on all fronts, the media should be a rallying point and not a house of raucous voices.

Social media, on its part, has nearly swamped the traditional media in this digital age. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Linked In, and the likes have become dominant tools of engagement all over the world, and our country has embraced it irreversibly. Whereas it has increased the democratic space and has been deployed by both government and the citizens, it is radically redefining the nature of engagement (especially political) between the citizens and the state all over the world. It has also generated a lot of conflict and tension because of its massive usage and has brought the two into more direct interaction, and the government can no longer monopolize free speech. Its power (the power of technology that it uses) lies in its immediacy, speed, political reach, and its uncontrollability.

It is projected that in the next few years in Nigeria, the deployment of social media will increase “by more than 80 percent with more than 44 million people accessing online forms in a demography of about 200 million.” The state worries about the potential of social media abuses to undermine the state and ‘threaten the corporate existence of the nation. Yet, apart from its capacity to widen dialogue space, its economic development/utility reality, put at about 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and used by nearly 25 million people, makes it unstoppable in Nigeria. There is the debate of the mutual advantage of communication technology (in which Twitter is critical) to both government and the citizens and, thus, the increasing local, national, and international criticism of Twitter’s censor as impeding the nation’s humanity and freedom of expression. As this debate rages, the state must tread softly in its drive to hammer social media, recognize its universal nature, its mutual advantage in a democracy, and its humanizing power.

And to music, I find the danger of the descent of humanism pointedly depicted in the music of I. K. Dairo, as far back as the early sixties, and which still rings screamingly prophetic today. His album Ise Ori Ran mi ni mo se (loosely translated as “I do the job assigned to me by destiny”) ramifies this message of the need to restore humanism in society. Every line of this album warns against the dehumanizing power of greed and self-debasement in the search for sudden and filthy wealth. The inordinate search for crass materialism demeans and dehumanizes the world and sets it on the path of descending humanism. Many of our musicians; Fela, Idreez, and so on, make this frantic call on all of us, especially the state, to pursue the path of humanizing society.

As we all know, literature is a reflection of society, in the manner of a mirror. Beyond mere reflection, it refracts society in the way that the soul breathes life into the body. Literature, therefore, as an arm of the creative industry, endows, ennobles, and enriches a nation’s humanity. It advertises and tells its story. Politics and matters of an imperatively political nature have, for instance, in the African experience, preoccupied the literary establishment. Since the colonial aegis, our writers have put their songs and stories in the service of humanizing our society, committed to the fact that “the poet speaks not for himself only but also for his fellowmen. His cry is their cry, which only he can utter.” All this is in the project of reconstructing society in the moment of declining, degenerating humanity, and the pursuit of viable nationhood and the world order.

Generally speaking, Nigeria’s literature predating the fratricidal war of 1967 to 1970 was essentially in search of a certain socio-spiritual and cultural stability. This is especially so during the cultural nationalism phase, which set the tone for political independence from the hegemonic clutch of colonialism and imperialism. But the war, with all its absurdity and catastrophic devastation of the individual writers, due to suffering and considerable loss of lives at very close and personal levels, compel the literary characterization of the decline or indeed descent of our nation’s humanism.

Even though I had described in a previous study on the Civil War, that the war wrought a serious body of national literature, its blight compelled a certain kind of dark pessimism and cynicism in the emerging visions. This may have been caused by the deep sense of loss, personal and collective, which the war generated. Okigbo died in the war, Soyinka suffered protracted solitary confinement, and Achebe and Clark, on different sides of the nation’s pole, carried huge emotional and psychological burdens. The sowing of regenerative seeds in the flesh of the country carried tragic overtones, as we found in some of the war and post-war writings. Additionally, the Nigerian Civil War is used as a background against which the human condition is examined in its perverseness. War is absurd and irrational. The regime of bestiality characterized by war–pogroms and genocides–which tend toward the deployment of technology and war weaponry can lead to ultimate human extinction. Through war, wanton killing of one’s kind is the expression of the philosophy of the absurd and the descent from humanism.

With the ravaging impact and the trauma inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts of creation and creativity, with a positive, cathartic sensibility, have moved on, as we find in Of Shadows and Rainbows: Musings in Times of Covid (2021), a COVID-19, PEN Nigerian publication of poems, short stories, playlets, and essays edited by Olu Obafemi and Folu Agoi. Leaping out of the pages of this publication are lines from the authors “gripped by emotions, paroxysms, compassion, searching for startling enlightenment, illumination and, in many cases, reconstructive tropes” as an affirmation of humanism. Other evolving creative works include the Platform, All Poets Network (APNET), created to promote poetry in English and native languages in this pestilent era and administered by Dzukogi, Khalid Imam, Ola Ifatimehin, and Ismael Baba to “give voice to young and established poets from all continents of the world,” and many more.

The Nigerian society is going through a transition of bleakness and blight, which has raged since the war and truly never ended, reaching very precipitous climaxes even under civil democracy. I have called it the descent from humanism which I have chosen to illustrate with music, the media, and literature. Unorthodox warfare through insurgency, insurrection, frightening banditry, armed herdsmen, lethal violence, dystopia, and wild social incoherence manifests our nation’s descent from humanism. The mediatory and recuperative essence and power have been explored here somewhat. Part of my recommendations is that the media, music, and literature should become more prophetic and politically more engaged in raising mass awareness to restore, rekindle, and promote humanism and humanity. Also, the essentialist principle of humanism, which deals with identity retrieval and identity marking, should be more robustly engaged by the media through investigative and development journalism in tracking the concrete character and identity of the bandits, herdsmen, and other agencies of insurrection and insurgency on our land.

Taking due cognizance of the present realities in the country as imposed by the pandemic, we must wake to the need for science, technology, and the humanities to focus conversations on humanistic issues, and human and social welfare. We must also concentrate our efforts on the centrality of the human race rather than building knowledge that will lead to its destruction and extinction. Innovations should focus on the discovery of the human inner strength and capacities through critical and constructive reasoning to sustain humanity and the security of the coming generations. To conclude, in order to establish an inclusive democratic society for everyone, the nation, the states, in particular, should work in collaboration with agencies of humanism, as extolled in this essay, rather than foster mutual distrust and resentment.

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Humanism and Witchcraft: Advocacy for Alleged Witches

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following articles and studies were located on The Maravi Post and in several online publications.

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By Leo Igwe

The Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) is organizing its first seminar on witch persecution and superstitions in Benue Central Nigeria. Benue is a hotbed of witchcraft imputation and witch hunting because belief in the occult force called Tsav among the Tivs is pervasive. To properly situate this historic event, a local advocate explains the significance of the meeting. He said: “This event is very important because it would allow us to understand the different perceptions of witchcraft and the various ways that alleged witches are persecuted in.

Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW ) is a humanist organization that campaigns to end witch persecution in Africa by 2030. As the advocate noted, “Witchcraft belief is a big issue in Benue! Everyone believes in it, and anything can be linked to it. As kids, it was normal to tag along this path, imbibe these superstitions and live in deep fear of occult forces”.

Witchcraft is popular and entrenched because people are socialized to believe, and not question witchcraft claims from childhood. And as adults, they find it difficult to abandon the superstitious mindset. People pass on these irrational beliefs to their children, perpetuating the cycle of ignorance, unreason, and misconceptions. These misconceptions are not innocuous sentiments; they drive abusive treatment of suspected witches. Incidentally, it is not everyone that is a target witchcraft accusation and witch persecution. A local advocate further states, “The most vulnerable, the people most likely to be accused of witchcraft, are the elderly. Aged people, who are perceived to have lived long while losing family members, children or grand children; those considered different/unusual, like those with autism, including atheists and members of the LGBTQ community”.

In Benue, alleged witches are believed to cause illness, death, and accidents. They are subjected to horrific abuses. A local source told AfAW that the “accused are often treated as horribly as can be imagined, but this depends on the scale of social frailty and vulnerability. A person who has people who could stand up and defend them would be less at risk than those who seem to have none like widows or orphans. When accusations originate from within the family, the accused are worse off, the support base weakens and the protection cover quickly disappears. The stigma and name soiling do much damage. They make suspected witches lose their humanity”.

Witch hunting ended in Europe centuries ago but this wild and vicious phenomenon rages in Africa. An advocate in Benue explains why this is the case: “Witch persecution persists because religions, traditional, Christian and Islamic use witchcraft claims to manipulate people and attract followership and patronage. Knowing the cultural depths of this supposed evil, there are mass healing centers and crusades where people go. In these places, people want to hear that an uncle or mother-in-law or a husband’s girlfriend is the cause of the instability in their lives and that something can be done about it. Religion feeds that want”. Witchcraft belief is used to scapegoat individuals; incite persecution and violence against an innocent family or community member.

In a recent incident, some youths attacked an elderly woman after consulting a local diviner who confirmed that the woman bewitched a young man who had cancer. Angry youths attacked and destroyed the woman’s house. Family members were able to rescue the woman and took her to a safe location. In many cases, accused persons are not lucky. They are tortured to death or lynched by an angry mob. In some parts of Benue, witch hunters strangle or stone accused persons to death. They act with impunity. These atrocities continue because perpetrators are seldom punished. Victims of witch persecution and their families often reign to their fate because of the notion that justice would not be served or that efforts to ensure justice would lead to further victimization. The police expect victims and their relatives to come and lodge complaints before they could intervene in cases of witch persecution. Even when complaints have been lodged, the police often expect the complainants to bribe or mobilize them before they could arrest the suspects or investigate the incident. In situations where the cases are charged to court, the matter suffers so many adjournments. Victims or their families are forced to abandon their case.

On what could be done to end witchcraft accusations and witch persecution in Benue, a local source said: “Education could play a great part in changing the mindset of the people. Nowadays, any sickness is presumed to be inflicted through witchcraft. Maybe, people need to understand that there are other causes of diseases and misfortune that can be verifiable through scientific testing”.

Indeed, education could loosen the grip of witchcraft and other superstitions on the minds of people in Benue. But the tragedy is that educated Nigerians, nay Africans, are part of the problem. Many educated Africans are witchcraft apologists. They defend and justify witchcraft as a codification of African science, philosophy, and logic. Like western anthropologists, educated Africans espouse an exoticized notion of African witchcraft. They propagate the stereotypic idea that, unlike westerners, witchcraft is not a form of superstition; that witchcraft is a demonstration of black power. This mistaken, prejudicial misrepresentation of African witchcraft will be keenly challenged, interrogated, and examined at this event in Benue state.

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

OMG, you can’t write that – Banned Books Event(s)

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Did you Know that September 18-24 is “Banned Books Week“?

The Banned Books Week Coalition is an international alliance of organizations joined in a commitment to increase awareness of the freedom to read. The coalition seeks to engage various communities and inspire participation in Banned Books Week through education, advocacy, and the creation of programming about the problem of book censorship.

Humanist Society of Scotland

Join Humanist Society of Scotland for an online evening of discussion to mark Banned Books Week 2022. In light of the recent horrific attack on Salman Rushdie and the increase in book banning in schools in the US driven by Christian fundamentalists, we wanted to create an event that highlights religious censorship of books. OMG, you can’t write that! Books, Censorship, and Religion 

Join the event online on Thursday 22nd September, 7:30pm-9pm

The panel discussion will be hosted by our CEO Fraser Sutherland and will include playwright and Lyceum artistic director David Greig, cartoonist and Executive Director of Cartoonists Rights Network International Terry Anderson, Emma Wadsworth-Jones of Humanists International and formerly of PEN International, and Professor Emerita of Royal Conservatoire Scotland, theatre director, and co-chair of Humanist Society Scotland Maggie Kinloch. The panel discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A. 

The event is free to attend, with donations to the legal fund of former Scottish Award for Humanism winner Mubarak Bala welcomed. Bala is serving a 24 year sentence in Nigeria after being found guilty in 2022 of 18 counts of public disturbance in relation to a ‘blasphemous’ Facebook post that he wrote.  

Citations, References And Other Reading

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Amsterdam 2022: Humanists International’s 70th Anniversary Update of its Definitive Guiding Principle

Humanist International defines itself as “the global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diverse community of non-religious organizations and individuals. Inspired by humanist values, we are optimistic for a world where everyone can have a dignified and fulfilling life. We build, support and represent the global humanist movement and work to champion human rights and secularism.”

In other words, Humanist International strives to be the global voice for humanism. The organization held its annual General Assembly (i.e. governance and policy meetings) in Glasgow, Scotland (UK) from June 3-5 this year. The 2022 assembly represented a landmark as it marked the 70th anniversary of the first World Humanist Congress.

Back in 1952, the first World Humanist Congress launched The Amsterdam Declaration, a document which intended to articulate a set of agreed-upon fundamental principles of “modern humanism“.

Somewhat parenthetically, visitors to may observe that we use the term “contemporary applied humanism” to describe our content rather than “modern applied humanism”. This choice is a deliberate choice as there are philosophical and semantic implications of the term “modernism” which are, to say the least, problematic.

Qualms and quibbles over terminology, such as we’ve just touched-upon, can be a necessary thing. Which is, presumably, why Humanists International included in its celebration of 70 years of existence, an update and relaunch of the 1952 original (and its 2002 revision) which is currently being called The Amsterdam Declaration 2022. It seems a bit odd that the new document hasn’t been called The Glasgow Declaration or even The Glasgow Revision of the Noordwijkerhoutu Update of the Amsterdam Declaration – but such is the nature of geo-political sentimentalism, traditionalism and authorial pride. It weens its way into just about everything to the extent that a “global” declaration must necessarily be tied to a specific set of meetings and those who attended.

How about “Global Declaration of Humanism III” and let everyone own it in the time and place of their own? Just a thought.

Humanists International have published an educational video for those who may be interested in the history and details which includes recitations of the text.

On the Humanists International website, the organization explains that the original declaration was a “child of its time” . The implication is that the original needed revision to bring it into alignment with contemporary perspectives and issues – that is to say, the tastes and attitudes of organization-based humanists of 2022.

Here is what the organized and political Humanists have establishes as the fundamental principles of humanism in 2022:

Humanist beliefs and values are as old as civilization and have a history in most societies around the world. Modern humanism is the culmination of these long traditions of reasoning about meaning and ethics, the source of inspiration for many of the world’s great thinkers, artists, and humanitarians, and is interwoven with the rise of modern science. As a global humanist movement, we seek to make all people aware of these essentials of the humanist worldview:

1. Humanists strive to be ethical

  • We accept that morality is inherent to the human condition, grounded in the ability of living things to suffer and flourish, motivated by the benefits of helping and not harming, enabled by reason and compassion, and needing no source outside of humanity.
  • We affirm the worth and dignity of the individual and the right of every human to the greatest possible freedom and fullest possible development compatible with the rights of others. To these ends we support peace, democracy, the rule of law, and universal legal human rights.
  • We reject all forms of racism and prejudice and the injustices that arise from them. We seek instead to promote the flourishing and fellowship of humanity in all its diversity and individuality.
  • We hold that personal liberty must be combined with a responsibility to society. A free person has duties to others, and we feel a duty of care to all of humanity, including future generations, and beyond this to all sentient beings.
  • We recognise that we are part of nature and accept our responsibility for the impact we have on the rest of the natural world.

2. Humanists strive to be rational

  • We are convinced that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human reason, and action. We advocate the application of science and free inquiry to these problems, remembering that while science provides the means, human values must define the ends. We seek to use science and technology to enhance human well-being, and never callously or destructively.

3. Humanists strive for fulfillment in their lives

  • We value all sources of individual joy and fulfillment that harm no other, and we believe that personal development through the cultivation of creative and ethical living is a lifelong undertaking.
  • We therefore treasure artistic creativity and imagination and recognise the transforming power of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. We cherish the beauty of the natural world and its potential to bring wonder, awe, and tranquility. We appreciate individual and communal exertion in physical activity, and the scope it offers for comradeship and achievement. We esteem the quest for knowledge, and the humility, wisdom, and insight it bestows.

4. Humanism meets the widespread demand for a source of meaning and purpose to stand as an alternative to dogmatic religion, authoritarian nationalism, tribal sectarianism, and selfish nihilism

  • Though we believe that a commitment to human well-being is ageless, our particular opinions are not based on revelations fixed for all time. Humanists recognise that no one is infallible or omniscient, and that knowledge of the world and of humankind can be won only through a continuing process of observation, learning, and rethinking.
  • For these reasons, we seek neither to avoid scrutiny nor to impose our view on all humanity. On the contrary, we are committed to the unfettered expression and exchange of ideas, and seek to cooperate with people of different beliefs who share our values, all in the cause of building a better world.
  • We are confident that humanity has the potential to solve the problems that confront us, through free inquiry, science, sympathy, and imagination in the furtherance of peace and human flourishing.
  • We call upon all who share these convictions to join us in this inspiring endeavor.

Is this a perfectly-achieved declaration? Certainly not. There are plenty of quibbles and nuances that probably need to be given some attention. But it may well be more adequate to serve most contemporary humanists needs and preferences when it comes to something like this than its 1952 and 2002 predecessors. Or maybe not.

Setting qualms and quibbles aside – it is a good thing that Humanists International and the growing number of national and local organizations continue to update and revise their public positions. Any organization which believes that it has nailed these things down once-and-for-all begins to dance the dance of dogma. We wouldn’t want that.

Nor would we want a Global Declaration of Fundamental Principles that we fully agree-with and are satisfied-by. A document like that seems like it would probably find itself out of relevance pretty damn quick. So let’s embrace those qualms and quibbles for what they are – indicators of the kind of progress we’d like to see within contemporary and future applied humanism.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Miriam Beerman: Nothing Has Changed

Miriam Beerman: 1923–2022 NOTHING HAS CHANGED Opens Fall Season at Monmouth University

Exhibition shines a spotlight on the late Miriam Beerman, a New Jersey artist whose works are included in the permanent collections of over 60 museums worldwide and a female pioneer in the 20th-century art world

WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ—The Monmouth University Center for the Arts announces the launch of its fall 2022 season with Miriam Beerman: 1923–2022 NOTHING HAS CHANGED.

The exhibition showcases Beerman (1923–2022) as one of the 20th-century’s most provocative artists, whose humanist expressionist works highlight her talent as a colorist. A pioneer as one of the first female artists to be given a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Beerman is part of a canon of 20th-century women artists who were nearly lost to obscurity due to their gender in a male-dominated art world.

The show runs from September 6 to December 11 in the Rechnitz Hall DiMattio Gallery in the Monmouth University Center for the Arts. The opening reception is September 22 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Influenced by the social injustice seen around her, Beerman shines a spotlight on the horror and pathos of man’s inhumanity to man. The themes prove to be timeless, resonating today as much as when they were created in the 20th century. Her life and art were explored in the 2015 documentary Miriam Beerman: Expressing the Chaos.

Nearly 20 large-scale canvases by Beerman will be represented. The show is guest curated by gallerist James Yarosh and draws upon the recent exhibition Miriam Beerman – REDISCOVER, shown at James Yarosh & Associates Gallery in Holmdel, N.J., which opened in spring 2022. The exhibition, Miriam Beerman, 1923-2022 NOTHING HAS CHANGED marks the second guest curator role at the university for Yarosh who curated Sheba Sharrow: Balancing Act in 2017. A companion show of Beerman’s works on paper and collages is simultaneously on view at James Yarosh & Associates Gallery.

“Living with Miriam Beerman’s paintings at the gallery with the current exhibit REDISCOVER, one cannot help but be both moved and stirred to be in the presence of the colossal works, heavy with paint, laden with subject. When you see these humanist expressionist works existing silently, holding the weight of the world, you begin to understand the gallery’s presentation,” says Yarosh, a gallerist fueled by curatorial activism in recent years. “As I described Miriam’s art with clients, it occurred to me that those words also described the role of female artists of the 20th century whose voices were more stifled in favor of male artists—and of women’s roles in a patriarchal society.

“If our art history is male-dominant, and the artists before us our teachers, we are only getting half the lessons to be learned,” he continues. “We have an opportunity to do better. This presentation with Monmouth University allows the conversations to continue and include a younger generation.”

“NOTHING HAS CHANGED picks up the dialogue from the 2017 Sheba Sharrow: Balancing Act exhibition. Although their art is different, the mission is similar: A female artist who rails against social injustices in her art as a call to action to evoke change,” says Scott Knauer, Director of Galleries and Collections, Department of Art & Design, Monmouth University. “Much of the subject matter that Miriam Beerman delved into is still so relevant and threatened today: political, social, religious rights, women’s rights and threats against minorities.”

The show’s title piece, Beerman’s 1999 canvas Nothing Has Changed (shown above) is described by Yarosh as “a later work, a portrait of a monumental female face, whose eyes are closed in resignation of her role. She disappears behind the facade of joyous yellows and pink, and yet her hopes are painted on the right—an abstract dream vision of her imagined joy, to run away, to color outside the lines and create her own ideas of ‘happy ever after.’ The archetypal portrait is Beerman’s Mona Lisa, except here, the smile is upside-down.”

Gallerist Mitchell Algus and artist Heather L. Barone (a mentee and longtime assistant of Beerman) and Corey Dzenko and Theresa Grupico in the Monmouth University Department of Art & Design are contributing to the catalogue. A smartphone tour is also being planned with a potential online discussion with artist, author and former Asbury Park Press art columnist Tova Navarra. Other planned events include a series of salon evenings, a Q&A evening with the Expressing the Chaos filmmaker and an event closing show. For details on upcoming events, visit the “What’s New” page on the James Yarosh Associates Fine Art & Design Gallery website:

ABOUT MIRIAM BEERMAN: Miriam Beerman studied painting at the Rhode Island School for Design, where she earned a BFA. Afterward, she spent two years in France as a Fulbright Scholar, working in Atelier 17 and having her painting critiqued by Marcel Brion. In New York, she studied with Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the Art Students League and Adja Yunkers at the New School for Social Research. She has had over 30 solo shows, including at the Brooklyn Museum, Graham Gallery, the New Jersey State Museum and the Everson Museum.

Beerman’s work is included in many major collections, including Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum, LACMA, National Gallery of Art, Phillips Collection, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in England, the MEAM in Spain, the Israel Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., among others. Beerman’s painting “Scorpio” is also currently on display as part of The Vault Show exhibit at University of Arizona Museum of Art through fall 2022. She has won many awards, including awards from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, RSID and others.

ABOUT MONMOUTH UNIVERSITY: Monmouth University is the region’s premier private coastal university offering a comprehensive array of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degree programs in a dynamic and personalized learning environment. Located in West Long Branch, New Jersey, Monmouth University’s magnificent coastal campus is approximately one hour from both New York City and Philadelphia. Innovative academic programs, individual faculty attention, and nationally ranked Division I athletics make this private university a great place to find your future.

ABOUT JAMES YAROSH: Established in 1996, the James Yarosh Associates Gallery in Holmdel, New Jersey, was founded upon and remains loyal to its vision: to represent fine art for art’s sake and to curate gallery collections and thoughtfully present art and interior design specification with an artist’s eye and understanding. Yarosh, an artist and well- published interior designer, offers a full-scale gallery and design center where clients can associate with other like-minded individuals located just one hour outside Manhattan.

Yarosh advocates for what greatness looks like in the arts, showcasing at his destination gallery the works of both new and established museum-recognized artists of merit in a space designed to replicate the intimacy of an artist’s home. Current exhibitions such as Miriam Beerman – REDISCOVER (2022), The Humanist Show (2021), Sheba Sharrow: History Repeats (2020) and the NYC art fair Art on Paper (2021) help foster the idea of art as intellectual engagements that sit above decoration in design hierarchy, adding exponentially to the experience of living with art.

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

APA Research and Atheism

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following articles and studies were located on the APA website and in several online publications.

Self-referencing affects perceptions of workplace discrimination against atheists.

Cantone, J. A., Walls, V., & Rutter, T. (2022). Self-referencing affects perceptions of workplace discrimination against atheists. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication.


The number of self-identified atheists and nonreligious individuals is increasing, yet research examining discrimination toward atheists in the workplace remains rare. The present study expands prior work on religious hostile work environment complaints to one involving an atheist employee alleging discrimination. In the present study, 234 students and community members (gender: 133 women, 93 men, 6 nonbinary/transgender, 2 unreported; religious status: 126 religiously affiliated; 75 “none”; 10 atheist; 6 agnostic; 17 unreported) were recruited to complete an online legal decision-making study. Participants read the complaint of an atheist employee alleging that an Evangelical Christian supervisor’s proselytizing constituted discrimination. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions varying the complainant’s gender (male; female) and student status (student; worker) to examine the role of similarity. Participants completed legal measures from both the objective perspective required by the law and their own subjective perspective to examine the role of self-referencing. Participants’ subjective ratings of whether the conduct would constitute discrimination if it happened to them generally affected their objective ratings of whether the atheist employee had been discriminated against. Religious status similarity, as well as gender, affected participants’ legal ratings. In particular, nonreligious, atheist, and agnostic participants were more likely to see the conduct as discrimination, while Evangelical Christian participants were less likely. Results show that self-referencing and similarity affect how people perceive workplace discrimination faced by atheists. Recommendations for future research and workplace trainings are discussed. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved)

Being agnostic, not atheist: Personality, cognitive, and ideological differences.

Karim, M., & Saroglou, V. (2022). Being agnostic, not atheist: Personality, cognitive, and ideological differences. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication.


Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term agnostic in 1869.

Why do several nonreligious people self-identify as agnostic and not as atheist? Beside epistemological differences regarding what is knowledgeable, we hypothesized that such a preference reflects (a) personality dispositions, that is, prosocial orientation, open-mindedness, but also neuroticism, (b) cognitive preferences, that is, lower analytic thinking, and (c) ideological inclinations, that is, openness to spirituality. In a secularized European country (Belgium), we surveyed participants who self-identified as Christian, agnostic, or atheist (total N = 551). Compared to atheists, agnostics were more neurotic, but also more prosocially oriented and spiritual, and less dogmatic. Strong self-identification as atheist, but not as agnostic, was positively related to analytic thinking and emotional stability but also dogmatism. Nevertheless, spiritual inclinations among both agnostics and atheists reflected low dogmatism and high prosocial orientation, and, additionally, among agnostics, social and cognitive curiosity. From a personality perspective, agnostics compose a distinct psychological category and are not just closet atheists. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved)

Explaining anti-atheist discrimination in the workplace: The role of intergroup threat.

Rios, K., Halper, L. R., & Scheitle, C. P. (2021). Explaining anti-atheist discrimination in the workplace: The role of intergroup threat. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication.


Based on the common ingroup identity model and Intergroup Threat Theory, as well as the fact that atheists are among the most stigmatized groups in the U.S., the present experiments tested whether and why people would be less willing to accommodate atheist (relative to Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) employees’ religion-related requests in the workplace. In three studies, participants responded to vignettes depicting an employee who requested to express his/her religious beliefs (or lack thereof) at work—for example, by displaying a quote at his/her cubicle or wearing a pin with a religious (or non-religious) symbol. As predicted, participants were especially unlikely to honor the atheist employees’ requests; this effect was driven by participants’ perceptions that the atheist employees posed a symbolic threat (i.e., were trying to impose their beliefs onto others; Studies 2–3) and, to a lesser extent, a realistic threat (i.e., jeopardized the organization’s economic status and resources; Study 3) in the workplace. Though the effects of participant religiosity were inconsistent across studies, the tendency for reluctance to accommodate the atheist employees’ requests was slightly stronger among religious than non-religious participants. Implications for how anti-atheist bias at work arises and can be mitigated are discussed. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved)

Citations, References And Other Reading

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Humanism in Education: With Hope that a Broad Curriculum May Lead to Broad Minds

Under legal pressure from a humanist parent, a school without a religious character in Worcestershire has radically altered its planned Key Stage 4 curriculum for 2022/23, in order to make sure that its religious education is fully inclusive of humanism.

Humanists UK, which supported the parent, said the decision marks a ‘significant win’ in making sure that schools do not force a narrow curriculum on children, and says the Department for Education and other schools must now make sure that such a broad curriculum is also offered everywhere else. In a timely coincidence an amendment to the Schools Bill, to replace RE with ‘religion and worldviews’ education in schools without a religious character, is due to be debated during Report Stage of the Bill on the afternoon of 12 July. The amendment is being proposed by crossbench peer Baroness Meacher.

Humanist parent James Hammond launched the case after learning that his child was being mandated to study an RE GCSE with a syllabus that was not inclusive of non-religious worldviews. No additional teaching was to be provided to make up for this exclusivity. All other schools in the academy trust apart from the one in question appeared to provide inclusive RE. Furthermore, since the school did not provide alternative GCSE options for those withdrawing from RE, if Mr Hammond withdrew his child, then they would have missed out on one GCSE qualification compared with their peers.

The academy has agreed to meet the parent’s request by providing, in addition to the GCSE course, two other units of RE, one for Year 10 and one for Year 11, focusing on non-religious worldviews and taught from a critical and objective perspective. Each unit will run for 6-7 weeks, and will meet the requirement to accord equal respect for non-religious worldviews in RE, as established in 2015 by the Fox case.

Parent James Hammond said: 

‘I’m delighted that the school has conceded in this case, and by so doing accepted that its RE provision for years 10 and 11 was unlawful, due to not being inclusive of non-religious worldviews.

‘It was wholly wrong that a school of no religious character was imposing such a narrowly-focused RE curriculum on 15 and 16 years olds: at that age they are developing advanced powers of reason and thought, so to deny them the ability to learn about non-religious beliefs and values was both discriminatory and short-sighted, given the increasingly non-religious demographics in Britain.’

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘This is a significant win. The Fox case in 2015, which was supported by Humanists UK, clearly set a legal precedent – this school should never have forced Mr Hammond into taking this action in the first place, and we are glad that it eventually conceded the case.

‘But the fact that the school was able to behave in this way in the first place was due to a failure of leadership by the UK Government. We’d much rather not be going through the courts – the Government must enable the Schools Bill to bring this case law onto the statute book, by accepting today’s amendment on religion and worldviews education.’

Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar said: 

‘While my client is pleased that the case has been resolved in a way that enables his child to be taught RE in a more inclusive way, it should not have required the threat of legal action to resolve this. Mandating a GCSE course focused exclusively on religious worldviews for all pupils, at a school without a religious character, and as the entirety of their RE provision, was always going to run into legal trouble. The school has sensibly acknowledged the need for a significantly wider offering.

‘My client hopes that other schools will take a cooperative and responsible approach to providing non-discriminatory, inclusive education for all children, and no other parents will need to instruct solicitors to ensure that their  concerns and beliefs are taken seriously.’

Citations, References And Other Reading

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The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

How Molecules Became Signs

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following article was located in the Biosemiotics Journal Volume 14, Issue 3 (December 2021).

By: Terrence W. Deacon 


To explore how molecules became signs I will ask: “What sort of process is necessary and sufficient to treat a molecule as a sign?” This requires focusing on the interpreting system and its interpretive competence. To avoid assuming any properties that need to be explained I develop what I consider to be a simplest possible molecular model system which only assumes known physics and chemistry but nevertheless exemplifies the interpretive properties of interest. Three progressively more complex variants of this model of interpretive competence are developed that roughly parallel an icon-index-symbol hierarchic scaffolding logic. The implication of this analysis is a reversal of the current dogma of molecular and evolutionary biology which treats molecules like DNA and RNA as the original sources of biological information. Instead I argue that the structural characteristics of these molecules have provided semiotic affordances that the interpretive dynamics of viruses and cells have taken advantage of. These molecules are not the source of biological information but are instead semiotic artifacts onto which dynamical functional constraints have been progressively offloaded during the course of evolution.


When Erwin Schrödinger (1944) pondered What is Life? from a physicist’s point of view he focused on two conundrums: how organisms maintain themselves in a far from equilibrium thermodynamic state and how they store and pass on the information that determines their organization. In his metaphor of an aperiodic crystal as the carrier of this information he both foreshadowed Claude Shannon’s (1948) analysis of information storage and transmission and Watson and Crick’s (1953) discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. So by 1958 when Francis Crick (1958) first articulated what he called the “central dogma” of molecular biology (i.e. that information in the cell flows from DNA to RNA to protein structure and not the reverse) it was taken for granted that that DNA and RNA molecules were “carriers” of information. By scientific rhetorical fiat it had become legitimate to treat molecules as able to provide information “about” other molecules. By the mid 1970s Richard Dawkins (1976) could safely assume this as fact and follow the idea to its logical implications for evolutionary theory in his popular book The Selfish Gene. By describing a sequence of nucleotides in a DNA molecule as information and DNA replication as the essential defining feature of life, information was reduced to pattern and interpretation was reduced to copying. What may have initially been a metaphor became difficult to disentangle from the chemistry.

In this way the concept of biological information lost its aboutness but became safe for use in a materialistic science that had no place for what seemed like a nonphysical property. This also made the concept of biological information consistent with the engineering conception of communication described by Claude Shannon (1948) in the introduction to his famous “Mathematical theory of Communication.” In the introductory paragraph he says that “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.”

Notice the near identity with Dawkins’ conception of replication. Both approaches only consider the properties of the communication medium itself and ignore all referential and functional properties. Shannon acknowledges this when he follows this by immediately pointing out that “Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” As the information theorist Robert Fano once remarked, when discussing Shannon’s theory:

“I didn’t like the term Information Theory. Claude didn’t like it either. You see, the term ‘information theory’ suggests that it is a theory about information – but it’s not. It’s the transmission of information, not information. Lots of people just didn’t understand this … information is always about something. It is information provided by something, about something.” Interview with R. Fano (2001)

But Dawkins makes no such distinction. Unlike Shannon’s “engineering problem,” however, the “biological problem” cannot be adequately addressed with out taking into account the function of molecular information. A physical pattern by itself is not about anything. The sequence of nucleotides in a DNA molecule is just a molecular structure considered outside the context of a living cell. For this structure to be about something there must be a process that interprets it. And not just any process will do.

So, is replication such a process?

The Centrality of Interpretation

Shannon’s analysis demonstrates that replication characterizes the communication or transmission of information, irrespective of any considerations of meaning or use. This is a conception of information in terms of intrinsic properties alone. But this use of the concept of information begs the question: In what sense are the intrinsic properties of a communication medium able to be about anything? This question has a semiotic counterpart: In what way do the properties of a sign vehicle determine its reference? Does similarity in form determine iconicity? Does regular correlation determine indexicality? Clearly this is too simple. Determination is not operative here, since there are unlimited classes of similarity and correlational relationships in the world. Though it is a common shorthand to treat portraits as icons and thermometers as indices, this has more to do with what they were created for and what a community assumes is their “proper” interpretation. But when an art critique recognizes the style of a particular portrait and infers from it who it was painted by, it is an index, and when a thermometer reminds someone of a drinking straw, it is an icon. This demonstrates that if we equate semiotic properties with sign vehicle properties or with the multitude of different uses that are possible, we are forced to say that portraits and thermometers are at the same time each both icons and indices.

This leads to a principle that will frame the remainder of this essay. Perhaps it could be (ironically) described as the central dogma of semiotics. It can be stated as follows:

Any property of a physical medium can serve as a sign vehicle of any type (icon, index, or symbol) referring to any object of reference for whatever function or purpose because these properties are generated by and entirely dependent upon the form of the particular interpretive process that it is incorporated into.

Thus, we should not ask what it is about some sign vehicle that makes it an icon index, or symbol. These are not sign vehicle intrinsic properties. Intrinsic properties are not what make something semiotic. Sign vehicle properties aren’t irrelevant, of course. But intrinsic properties are merely semiotic affordances (to borrow a concept from ecological psychology). They may or may not be utilized for any semiotic purpose. Often the semiotically relevant property of a sign vehicle is only one of its many attributes, and not necessarily the one most salient. What matters is how the relevant property is incorporated into an interpretive process, because being interpreted is what matters.

This does not mean that Shannon’s analysis of the mathematics of communication is irrelevant for biosemiotic analysis. Indeed, semiosis must be consistent with the constraints on communication, storage, and rectification that Shannon’s theory specifies. It’s just that semiotic properties involve something more: interpretation.

So when in the title of this essay I ask “How molecules became signs?” I am actually asking “What form of molecular process is necessary and sufficient to interpret some property of a molecule as providing information about other molecular properties?” In Peircean terms, this amounts to asking what sort of molecular system is competent to produce the interpretants that can bring this re-presented property into useful relation with that system?

In many respects, this question focuses on an attribute of semiosis that Peirce assiduously avoided: talk of interpreters. In his care to avoid the fallacy of psychologism—i.e. not falling into the trap of attributing semiotic processes to some unanalyzed homunculus—Peirce bracketed any description of how interpretation is physically implemented and instead focused on its logical structure.

In an age when neuroscience was in its early infancy and molecular biology was not even imaginable, it is not surprising that he avoided speculating about what sorts of dynamical systems were competent to be interpreters. Because of the vast complexity of brains and despite remarkable advances in neuroscience, it may still be premature to speculate about the neural implementation of mental semiosis. On the other hand, there are reasons to be more hopeful that insights into the physical implementation of interpretation might be obtained within molecular biology.

Origin of Information?

Ironically, I suggest that one of the most enigmatic unsolved mysteries in biology can provide the best place to look for insight into the physical implementation of interpretation. I am referring to the mystery of the origin of life. Why should this unlikely subject offer a privileged view of the issue? First, because it arose by accident, not design, the first life-forms almost certainly were constituted by quite simple molecular processes. Second, despite its simplicity, this molecular complex must have locally inverted one of the most ubiquitous regularities of the universe: the second law of thermodynamics. Though living functions act to compensate for this increase of entropy internally, organisms accomplish this by doing work that ultimately “exports” entropy to the environment at a rate higher than if they were just dissipating heat as they fell to equilibrium. So the origin of life problem brings together three seemingly incommensurate properties. It involves an extremely simple spontaneously produced molecule system that persists far from thermodynamic equilibrium (unlike almost all other chemical processes), and selectively interacts with its immediate environment in ways that support the persistence of these processes. This latter disposition is what demands a simple form of interpretive competence. To persist and even reproduce its unstable far from equilibrium condition this tiny first step toward life required an ability to re-presentFootnote1 itself in ever new substrates ultimately borrowed from its environment. In other words, it was adapted to its environment.

It is precisely in this origins of life context that the eliminativist perspective on biological information is alive and well, and squarely in the mainstream. It is currently recapitulated in the dominant scenario for explaining the origins of Life: the RNA-World hypothesis. This approach was originally motivated by the discovery that RNA molecules could serve both as replication templates for copying its structure and as catalysts potentially able to facilitate this copying (though to date neither of these essential steps of the process have been demonstrated). The problem with a “naked replicator” approach, as Fano (above) recognized, is that replication isn’t about anything, nor does it contribute to anything except increasing numbers of similar objects. And although there can be something analogous to “selection” eliminating modified sequences that fail to replicate, the “external” environment does all the work. Replicating molecules are passive artifacts. They don’t actively adapt to their environment, and so their structure does not contain or acquire information about the environment and they do not have any intrinsic disposition to correct “errors” because the very concept of error has no intrinsic meaning. There just is what gets copied and what doesn’t, and whether something gets copied or not is only interpretable as success or failure from an external observer’s point of view. Nevertheless, the RNA-World hypothesis does have one thing going for it: its simplicity.

Some of the most significant advances in science have been based on the analysis of idealized simple model systems. A good model system captures the essential features of the problem without obscuring the critical assumptions in unanalyzed complexities. Examples include: Boltzmann’s molecule in a box, Maxwell’s demon, Bohr’s atom, Turing’s machine. A good model should include no unknown or undescribed processes, insure that all operations are physically realistic, include no opaque (black box) properties, and provide unambiguous exemplification of the properties of interest. It is precisely because of its simplicity that the weaknesses of the naked replicator approach are easily recognized.

A different Simple Model System

To investigate how a physical process could come to treat a molecule as information about something else I will employ a different but equally simple model system, but one that makes fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of information than do replicator models.

The model I will use for this purpose is a hypothetical but physically realizable minimally complex molecular process. I first introduced this sort of molecular model in a 2006 paper and have modified it slightly in the years since to ensure that it is both empirically realizable and adequate to its explanatory purpose.

It is modeled after virus structure. In this respect it is not an idealization, just an as yet physically unrealized chemical system. It can be described as a non-parasitic virus that can reproduce autonomously. In this regard it is an autogenic virus, able to autonomously generate copies of itself. A simple virus, like the polio virus, consists of a container or “capsid” shell typically made of protein molecules that assemble themselves into facets of a polyhedral structure that encloses an RNA or DNA molecule. When incorporated into a host cell the viral RNA or DNA commandeers the cell’s systems to make more capsid molecules and more copies of the viral RNA or DNA. Since viral replication requires these complex protein synthesis and polynucleotide synthesis processes, and the molecular machinery to do this involves dozens of molecules arranged in complex structures, viruses replicate parasitically. So a non-parasitic virus would need to use a different and much simpler molecular process to reproduce its parts.

One candidate process is reciprocal catalysis. The simplest form of reciprocal catalysis occurs when one catalytic reaction produces a product that catalyzes a second reaction which produces a product that catalyzes the first, and so on. When provided with appropriate substrate molecules this circular network of catalytic reactions becomes a chain reaction that can rapidly produce large numbers of catalyst molecules. Reciprocal catalysis can involve multiple steps, so long as the circle of reactions is closed, though as we’ll see below, increasing the numbers of interacting molecules is problematic.

Viral capsids self-assemble (as do cell membranes, microtubules, and many other complex molecular structures within cells). Self-assembly is essentially a variant of the process of crystalization. Because of the way that the regular geometries and affinities of these molecules cause them to associate with one another they can spontaneously form into sheets, polyhedrons, or tubes.

These two processes—reciprocal catalysis and self-assembly (depicted in Fig. 1)—are chemically complementary to one another because they each tend to produce conditions that are necessary for the other to occur. So reciprocal catalysis produces high locally asymmetric concentrations of a small number of molecular species while self-assembly requires persistently high local concentrations of a single species of component molecules. Likewise, self-assembly produces constraint on molecular diffusion while reciprocal catalysis requires limited diffusion of interdependent catalysts in order to occur. In this way reciprocal catalysis and self-assembly are molecular processes that each produce the boundary conditions that are critical for supporting each other.

figure 1
Fig. 1

These process can become coupled and their reciprocal relationships linked if one of the molecular side products generated in a reciprocal catalytic process tends to self-assemble into a closed structure. In this case capsid formation will tend occur most effectively where reciprocal catalysis occurs. But this increases the probability that capsids will tend to grow to enclose a sample of the reciprocal catalysts that both produce one another and capsid-forming molecules.

As a result, catalysts that reciprocally depend on one another to be produced will tend to be co-localized, and prevented from diffusing away from one another. While contained, catalysis will quickly cease when substrates are used up, but in the case that the capsid is subsequently damaged and spills its contents, more catalysts and capsid molecules will be synthesized if there are additional substrate molecules nearby. So damage that causes an otherwise inert capsid to spill its catalytic contents into an environment with available substrates will initiate a process that effectively repairs the damage and reconstitutes its inert form. Moreover, depending on the extent of the damage, the distribution of catalytic contents, and the concentrations of substrate molecules the process could potentially produce a second copy of the original from the excess catalyst and capsid molecules that are generated. This makes possible self-repair and even self-reproduction. I will call such an autogenic virus an “autogen” for short (two variants of autogens along with a reaction diagram are shown in Fig. 2).

figure 2
Fig. 2

This constitutes what can be described as an autogenic work cycle. A work cycle consists of a linked sequence of thermodynamic processes that involve transfer of work into and out of a system … and that eventually returns the system to its initial state (paraphrased from Wikipedia). A familiar example is provided by a motor. It is designed to operate continuously when supplied with a constant or periodic throughput of work that changes its configuration through a series of states until the system returns to its initial state. In this way it is able to repeat this cycle again and again. For example, an internal combustion engine uses exploding gasses to move it through a series of configurations so that eventually it expels the exploded gasses and is ready for new fuel and air to be taken in and exploded. The power or (endergonic = “ingoing” + “work”) phase and the exhaust and relaxation (exergonic = “outgoing” + ”work”) phase are matched so that energy doesn’t continually build up within the system.

An autogenic work cycle is similarly composed of two phases distinguished by their difference in chemistry and thermodynamic directionality (see Fig. 3). Catalysis lowers the threshold that must be exceeded in order to initiate a chemical process but once this threshold is crossed an energy gradient difference from reactant to product drives the reaction. Thus the process is endergonic. In contrast, self-assembly (and crystallization in general) enables molecules in a higher energy state in solution to precipitate out of solution into a lattice that absorbs and dissipates this kinetic energy (i.e. of motion, rotation, and vibration) and so spontaneously proceeds from a higher to lower energy state. Thus the process is exergonic.

figure 3
Fig. 3

So, analogous to the two phase cyclic dynamics of an internal combustion engine, the energy that drives the autogenic cycle is provided by energy released by catalysis. This energy—liberated from chemical bonds of the substrate molecules—is the source of work that produces additional catalysts as well as capsid molecules. Self-assembly in turn accumulates the capsid molecules thereby produced and in the process dissipates this energy in the form of heat and an increase in surrounding entropy. But unlike an engine in which the work produced by its changes of state is directed externally to alter some extrinsic state of things, the autogenic work is directed inward, so to speak, to regenerate the very conditions that drive these changes.

This produces a higher order work cycle in which the entire molecular system cycles from disrupted to reconstructed, dynamic to inert, and open to closed. When returned to the reconstructed inert phase the system has been returned to an initial state from which the cycle can again be repeated. At this point the work of self-reconstruction has produced a far-from-equilibrium structure with a relatively high threshold required to dissipate it (in the form of capsid damage). And yet when loss of integrity due to extrinsic damage is sufficient to initiate change toward equilibrium the re-initiation of catalysis and self-assembly works against this.

It is in this way that each of these self-organizing processes produces the extrinsic boundary conditions that the other requires. As a result the critical boundary conditions are internalized and constantly available to channel the work necessary to maintain and reproduce these same constraints. The two self-organizing dynamics are in this sense co-dependent. Each is in effect the permissive environment for the other and in this sense each “contains” the other. This creates an intrinsic source of causal dispositions so that external influences and fixed properties no longer determine its behavior. An autogen is therefore self-individuated by this intrinsic co-dependent dynamical disposition, irrespective of whether it is enclosed or partially dispersed.

Autogens are not only able to self-repair, but because of their cycling from open to closed organization they will also tend to acquire and exchange molecules with their environment. Captured molecules that incidentally share catalytic inter-reactivity with autogen catalysts or capsid molecules will tend to be incorporated and replicated. This will create variant autogen lineages. Those captured molecules that don’t interact with autogen-intrinsic molecules or impede the process without being lethal will tend to get crowded out and eventually passively expelled into the environment in successive reproductions because they are not replicated. This provides a capacity to correct error and to evolve.

So autogenesis provides what amounts to a constraint production and preservation ratchet. During the dynamical phase new components are produced but because of their co-dependent relationships to one another the constraints that provide the reciprocal boundary conditions are also produced as the probability of occurrence of the component self-organizing processes increases. Together these reciprocal and recursive relationships would make autogenic viruses minimally evolvable.

Constraint, Work, and Information

This exemplifies an important inter-dependency between constraint, work, and information that Stuart Kauffman and colleagues (2008) described in a paper titled “Propagating Organization: An Enquiry.” They point out that “… it takes constraints on the release of energy for work to happen, but work for the constraints themselves to come into existence.” In autogenic terms, the co-localized system of constraints that is preserved passively in the inert phase is regenerated and re-co-localized in the dynamic phase. And co-localization itself is one of the critical constraints that is preserved and replicated.

This circular relationship between constraint and work is exemplified in autogenic self-propagation and self-repair (see Fig. 4). The analogy to viral genetics shows why information is based on constraint. Both the reciprocity of chemical boundary constraints and the constraint on their linkage due to sharing a common molecule are preserved from one cycle to the next despite complete substrate replacement. This preservation of constraints both provides a record and a source of instruction for organizing the work required to preserve this same capacity. The critical property of constraint that makes this possible is its substrate transferability. This enables constraints to preserve a trace of past instantiations and past work—i.e. reference—demonstrating that these constraints are analogous to the genetic information of a virus.

figure 4
Fig. 4

To summarize the argument so far: there are 5 holistic properties that even a simple autogenic system exhibits that are not reducible to the physical–chemical properties of its components and are emergent from the intrinsic dispositions of the whole integrated system. They are 1. individuation (it intrinsically maintains an unambiguous self/non-self distinction); 2. autonomy (it intrinsically embodies and maintains its own boundary conditions via component processes that reciprocally produce the external boundary conditions for each other); 3. recursive self-maintenanceFootnote2 (it repairs and replicates the critical boundary conditions that are required to repair and replicate these same critical boundary conditions); 4. normativity (it is disposed to produce these results but can fail); and 5. interpretive competence (by being able to re-present its own boundary conditions in new instantiations it intrinsically re-presents and reproduces its own conditions of existence).

How can we characterize this most basic and simple interpretive competence in semiotic terms? The point of this model system is to establish what can be considered the ground of interpretive competence. In this respect it is effectively a “zeroth” level semiotic process. As such it “interprets” the most basic semiotic distinction; i.e. between self and non self. Thus disruption of integrity is a sign of non self and the dynamics that ensues and reconstitutes the stable state is the generation of an interpretant which actively reconstructs this self / non self distinction. So a cycle of autogenic disruption and self-repair treats every form of disruption as indistinguishable from each other—i.e. as iconic—because the system can only produce one form of interpretant. In this respect, iconism is the most basic semiotic operation because it marks the limit of what can be interpretively distinguished.

As G. Spencer Brown (1969) puts it: “That which cannot be distinguished must be confused.” Or as Abraham Maslow’s (1966) famous aphorism suggests: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat everything like a nail.”

All semiosis must therefore originate from and terminate with iconism in this most generic sense. It marks the point where no more developed interpretant can be generated. Importantly, this treats iconism not as a feature of a sign vehicle but rather as a function of interpretive in-distinction. This again reiterates what in the introduction I proposed as the central dogma of semiotics: that semiotic properties are not identified with sign vehicle properties but rather with how these properties provide affordances for an agent’s interpretive competence. This shift of emphasis becomes especially important for biosemiotic analysis because it helps to disambiguate the use of the icon-index-symbol terminology, originally derived from phenomenological reflection, from analogous uses at many levels of the biological hierarchy. In what follows, I will therefore focus on the way that different interpretive processes make use of different affordances provided by the available semiotic media (in this case molecular properties).

An Autogenic Analogue to Indexical Interpretation

From this most basic form of self-re-presentation two canonical complications of interpretive dynamics can be derived. An additional capacity beyond self-interpretation involves the ability to interpret different environmental conditions with respect to their relevance to the recursive self-maintenance of the interpreting system. This can be provided by incorporating a subordinate similarity plus correlation-dependent disposition into the basic autogenic process.

This slightly more complex interpretive capacity is exemplified by an autogen (see Fig. 5) that is selectively sensitive to its environment because 1. the capsid surface has structures (epitopes) onto which potential substrate molecules will tend to bind, and 2. capsid integrity is made increasingly fragile as the number of surface-bound substrates increases. This will make containment more likely to fail and release catalysts in reproductively supportive conditions. Moreover, the threshold level at which capsid integrity becomes unstable is a variable that is subject to a form of natural selection. So, over time, autogenic lineages more likely to break open when the concentration of external substrates is optimal for successful reconstruction and reproduction will tend to replace those whose sensitivity is less well correlated with successful self-reconstitution.

figure 5
Fig. 5

Although conceived to apply to radically different domains of semiosis (i.e. molecular and mental), I think that a correspondence can be discerned between the phases of this molecular interpretive process and Peirce’s ten part taxonomy of semiotic relationships which he developed in the period from 1904 to 1909.Footnote3 Thus, I would describe the sign vehicle (representamen) as the change in fragility of the capsid that causes it to rupture; the immediate interpretant as the disposition to change from inert to dynamical state that the sign initiates; the dynamical interpretant as the work that accomplishes autogenic reconstruction; the final interpretant as the system’s total disposition (or habit) to initiate self-regeneration in response to these conditions; the immediate object as the potential suitability of the environment with respect to this habit that this process signifies; and the dynamical object as the actual physical state of the environment.

Though the exegetical legitimacy of this comparison is irrelevant to the explanatory adequacy of this molecular process, the parallels suggest that similar principles may apply across very different levels of semiotic processes. So to develop the analogy further, in semiotic terms, the number of substrates bound to the autogenic capsid effectively indicates the presence or absence of extrinsic supportive conditions for persistence and reproduction of this same interpretive capacity. In this respect the interpretive process provides normative information about the environment that can potentially benefit the perpetuation of this same interpretive capacity.

This analogy is instructive in another sense. It demonstrates that the competence to interpret immediate conditions to be about correlated conditions is dependent on the more basic interpretive competence to re-present self. It is the self-correcting, self re-presenting capacity of simple autogenesis that enables the correlation between changes in capsid fragility to be about the value of the environment for that self and its interpretive capacity. To put this in semiotic terms, it suggests that indexical interpretive competence (grounded on correlational affordance) depends on more basic iconic interpretive competence (grounded on isomorphic affordance). As we will see below, this pattern of nested dependency in which different levels of semiosis are hierarchically constructed can be recursively iterated level upon level.

An Energetic Interlude

So far the account of the origins of biological information that I have presented does not involve either DNA or RNA. Instead, it has demonstrated that the constraints constituting a recursively self-maintaining molecular system provide the mnemonic, instructional, and normative attributes that we identify with biological information. But, as the title promises, it is the purpose of this model system approach to go one step further; to eventually explain how a molecule like DNA could come to be used as a source of information about the relationships among other molecules.

In order to accomplish this I will offer a somewhat more speculative scenario, that invokes a bit of currently uncharacterized chemistry (though it is also a critical missing step in the RNA-World and all other nucleic acid based scenarios). A hint as to why nucleic acids have become the primary carriers of information in living systems was originally suggested by the physicist Freeman Dyson (1985) in his book Origins of Life. Dyson suggested that, given their complexity, it is unlikely that nucleic acids could have developed fully blown prior to other metabolic processes. Instead he proposed a two stage process in which the building blocks of RNA originally served an energetic function and only later became repurposed (exapted) for information-bearing, information-preserving, and information-replicating. He based this on the fact that some nucleotides can serve dual roles. Besides being the building blocks of RNA and DNA molecules, nucleotides are also some of the principle molecules for acquiring, storing, and transporting chemical energy within a cell. This prompts the question “Why this curious chemical coincidence?”.

Applying Dyson’s insight to the autogenic approach sketched above, this dual functional logic suggests a two phase autogenic evolutionary scenario for the origin of RNA.

Consider the following enhancement of simple autogenesis. If another of the side products produced by autogenic reciprocal catalysis is a molecule like the nucleotides ATP and GDP that can acquire and give up energy carried in pyrophosphate bonds, the availability of this generic free energy could potentially facilitate more effective catalysis and drive otherwise energetically unfavorable reactions. This could provide a sort of energy-assisted autogenesis which would tend to out-perform spontaneous autogenesis and be favored by natural selection. This could also enable a wider variety of potential substrate molecules to be useful, because the energy to drive reciprocal catalysis would not need to be derived from substrate lysis. The logic of this hypothetical energy-assisted autogenesis is diagramed in Fig. 6.

figure 6
Fig. 6

But the availability of high-energy molecules is only useful during dynamic endergonic processes and can be disruptive of exergonic reactions and stable molecular structures. So energetic phosphates could cause potential damage during the inert phase of autogenesis. To be preserved safely and intact so they can be available when again catalysis is required they need to be somehow stored in an nonreactive form.

Nonreactive nucleotide-based molecules are of course well-known. They are DNA and RNA molecules. In these nucleotide polymers the phosphate residues serve as the links between adjacent sugars and so are nonreactive. By linking them into a polymer with phosphates unexposed, they can be effectively “stored” for later use via depolymerization. In this evolutionary scenario, then, the initial function of polynucleotide molecules is presumed to be energetic, and only later in evolution do they become recruited for their informational functions.

From Storage to Template to Information

The capacity to transfer constraints from one physical medium to another quite different one makes possible the transfer of the holistically embodied dynamical constraints of autogenesis onto a different sort of material substrate such as a nucleotide polymer.

This provides a means to overcome a critical limitation on the evolvability of autogenic interpretation. This limitation arises due to the threat of combinatorial catastrophe. A molecular combinatorial catastrophe can arise for autogenesis when the number of interdependent molecular interactions required to produce successful autogenic repair or reproduction increases. As the number of molecular species that need to interact increases linearly, the number of possible cross-reactions that could occur between members of the set increases geometrically. This is a problem because only a small fraction of these interactions will be supportive of autogenesis. The proliferation of alternative interaction possibilities will therefore compete with supportive interactions—using up critical components and wasting free energy. This will decrease efficiency and impede reproduction. So autogenic systems like the ones described above have limited evolvability, making autogenic evolution improbable beyond very simple forms. So unless non-supportive reactions can be selectively suppressed, autogenesis cannot lead to more complex forms of life.

But looked at from the perspective of living organisms, the suppression of all but a tiny fraction of possible chemical reactions is one way to view the function of the template molecules of life, the nucleic acids RNA and DNA and their roles in orchestrating cellular chemistry. In simple terms nucleic acids limit the kinds of proteins that are present in the cell, which in turn strongly biases the types of chemical reactions that tend to take place. Death of the cell or organism allows the myriad of previously suppressed chemical reactions to be re-expressed. So, although we generally tend to conceive of DNA-based synthesis of proteins as a generative process, it can also be considered to be the principle constraining influence that keeps deleterious reactions at bay.

To develop this scenario to show how these polynucleotide molecules could evolve to serve semiotic as well as energetic functions it is necessary to recognize that all five of the major nucleotide molecules (adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine, and uracil) are capable of carrying and transferring phosphates. Among other related molecules, they could each have played slightly different energy transfer roles in early autogenic evolution due to their different purine or pyrimidine correlated nitrogenous bases, which affects the bonding affinities of these nucleotides. The phosphates are, however, attached to the opposite end of the nucleotide (to the ribose sugar) and so this difference in base minimally affects phosphate interactions. This results in the lack of any preferred phosphate bonding affinity between nucleotides during polymerization (a critical property for their informational role in living cells). As a result, diverse nucleotides will tend to form polymers of random order. And yet, although the sequence pattern of nucleotides is arbitrary, the specific nucleotide sequence produces a slightly different three dimensional conformation of the polymer at that location.

But as a relatively inert linear molecule, the structural properties of nucleotide polymers make them ideal to serve as templates. This is because conformation differences along the length of the molecule caused by the local nucleotide sequence provides a heterogeneous linear surface onto which other molecules can weakly bind. These structural differences will determine corresponding differences in how other molecules will tend to attach to the polymer due to their shape and charge complementarities. Since there will be both catalysts and polynucleotides within the inert autogen capsid, free catalysts will tend to associate with free nucleotide polymers with respect to these structural complementarities. The attached catalysts will therefore tend to be arranged into distinct sequences along the length of an extended nucleotide.

The spatial correlation relationships between catalysts aligned along a nucleic acid polymer will thereby tend to constrain the probability of particular catalytic interactions, increasing some and suppressing others. In this way the structural constraints of the template molecule can bias and constrain the interaction probabilities of the catalysts (see Fig. 7).

figure 7
Fig. 7

This can lead to sequence-specific selection, since the order of nucleotides can affect the probabilities of catalyst interactions. Sequences that constrain catalyst interaction probabilities closer to the optimal interaction network will be selectively retained because of higher reproduction and repair rates, and the nucleotide sequences that correspond to this will be more likely preserved and replicated. In this way the template molecule can, in effect, offload some fraction of system dynamical constraints onto a structure that is not directly incorporated into or modified by the dynamics.

Whereas previous to the availability of the template molecule interaction constraints were entirely the result of specific chemical affinities with respect to one another, the availability of analogous biases provided by a template renders the intrinsic interaction affinities of the catalyst redundant and dispensable. Spontaneous degradation of these intrinsic interaction constraints can thus take place without loss of specificity. The result is that dynamical constraints previously provided by chemical interaction probabilities are transferred to the structure of an individual molecule. They are displaced from one substrate property and onto a very different substrate and its properties.

Because it is supported by template structure and not by any catalyst-intrinsic interaction tendencies this shifts the source of interaction constraints from catalyst properties to template properties. Since the template is not transformed by chemical reactions it can serve as a more stable source of memory and instruction allowing catalysts to be replaced by other kinds of molecules with chemical properties that might have superior catalytic capacity irrespective of their interaction specificity. The template is also subject to quite different chemical and physical influences than is the rest of the system. But the informational codependence between template and dynamics means that template modifications will have consequences for the dynamical organization of the whole system. Thus continuity of constraint across the change in molecular substrate can bring otherwise dynamically unrelated and independent physical–chemical properties into interaction with one another in ways that exploit their possible synergies.

Translating this into Peircean terminology again, two levels of semiosis can be distinguished in a system relying on a template—one offloaded from and nested within the other. First there is template interpretation, in which the template pattern can be considered the representamen (sign vehicle). The order of binding of the catalysts on the template can be considered an immediate interpretant. Their subsequently constrained interaction pattern can be considered a dynamical interpretant. And the habit that links these into a synergistic system can be considered a final interpretant.

Referential Displacement

In semiotic terms we could describe the result as creating a code-like relationship (though distinct from the so-called genetic code). It is code-like because it is based on a component-to-component mapping between the elements in two sets of otherwise unrelated substrates. In comparison, Marcello Barbieri (2015) attributes the code-like nature of the relationship of DNA sequences to amino acid sequences (the genetic code) to what he describes as “adaptors;” molecules that provide a physical link between distinct paired types of molecules. The paradigm example of a molecular adaptor is tRNA which physically links a particular amino acid to a distinct three nucleotide anticodon.

Although the genetic translation process is far more complex than the template-assisted autogenesis described here, there is an underlying abstract similarity in the way that the code-like (“arbitrary”) mapping in both is dependent on a particular combination of isometry and correlational relationships. In living cells distinct tRNA molecules become aligned with respect to mRNA template structure by virtue of codon-anticodon matching; i.e. isomorphism. And the correlation between a specific tRNA anticodon and the amino acid that is attached to that tRNA molecule enables correlational relationships between adjacent mRNA sequences to constrain corresponding correlational relationships between the amino acids constituting a protein. Analogously, the physical linkage between template and catalyst in template assisted autogenesis is also due to isomorphic similarity. This determines that structural correlations of template structure are additionally correlated with catalyst interaction constraints.

The substrate transferability of constraints thereby fractionates the previously holistic system of dynamical constraints, displacing some onto a comparatively inert substrate. As a result the structure of the molecular template literally re-presents the topology of the dynamical network of interactions that functions to re-present and re-produce itself. The result is what might be described as recursive self-representation; i.e. self-representation of self-representation. The circularity implied by this description refers to the way a part of a system is able to re-present the critical constraints of the whole system of which it is a part.

The template serves as both a record and a means to instruct the dynamics that reproduces the whole. This segregation of dynamical constraints and material structural constraints was originally described by the system theorist Howard Pattee as early as 1968 (and further developed in Pattee, 196920012006, and many others). It was held up as the defining property of living processes.Footnote4 Offloading interaction constraints onto a static structure enables that structure to reliably re-present and preserve those critical constraints irrespective of any potentially degrading effects of dynamical interactions. This is because the correlated structural and dynamical constraints are embodied in otherwise unrelated physical properties linked only due to the functioning of the whole.

In summary: these variations on the autogenic model system exemplify a three tiered interpretive logic by which referential and instructional information can be derived and evolved. First there is simple autogenesis which is entirely determined by holistically embodied isomorphic (similarity) constraints distributed in its many components that preserve their own codependence despite damage and substrate replacement. Second there is context sensitive autogenesis which is determined by an augmentation of simple autogenesis in which the capsid surface presents structures with forms that are similar to the forms of useful substrates facilitating their binding to the surface where binding weakens capsid integrity. And third there is template-mediated autogenesis in which catalyst interaction constraints become offloaded onto a molecular structure. Offloading is afforded because complementary structural similarities between catalysts and regions of the template molecule facilitate catalyst binding in a particular order that by virtue of their positional correlations biases their interaction probabilities. In this way modifications of the structure of the template molecules can indirectly suppress potentially non beneficial interactions in favor of those that are conducive to autogenic repair and reproduction. The offloading of interaction constraints onto a physically separate and distinct structure preserves referential continuity while linking it to unrelated sign vehicle properties that can be harnessed for distinct semiotic functions, including semiotic recursion.

As noted above, it takes constraint on dynamics to perform physical work, but it takes physical work to produce new constraints. So separation of the source of constraint from the dynamics enables the dynamical interpretive process to re-interpret itself iteratively over time; i.e. to be recursive. This is the key to open-ended evolvability.

The Structure of Biosemiotic Scaffolding

This three-tiered structure of interpretive processes is general. Thus diplaced affordance (in which the information-bearing medium is segregated from the constrained dynamical medium) is made possible by the way that coupled isomorphic (similarity) and correlative (contiguous) affordances can mediate the displacement of constraints from one physical substrate to another. This provides a bridge that maintains continuity of information despite discontinuity of substrate. Since this change in substrate provides new isomorphic and correlational affordances, interpretive processes that take advantage of these properties simultaneously reinterpret the lower order interpretive processes. This enables what can be described as interpretive recursion, making it possible to evolve level upon level of interpretive complexity.

Semiotic scaffolding logic was introduced by Hoffmeyer (2007) and further developed in Hoffmeyer (2014a2014b2015) and subsequently explored by many other biosemioticians.Footnote5 Semiotic scaffolding is well exemplified by the regulatory logic of molecular genetics. As discussed above, the genetic “code” enables the transfer of constraint from one kind of molecular substrate to another. Thus the sequence properties of DNA molecules inform the three dimensional interaction properties of proteins via the mediation of isomorphic and correlative relations between DNA and RNA molecules. In this way continuity of reference is maintained despite change in sign vehicle (molecular substrate). The displacement of constraint from one semiotic medium to another quite different one is what enables the scaffolding by which simple molecular semiosis can be recursively iterated level upon level. As discussed above, the local nucleotide sequence of a DNA molecule affects the twist of the DNA double helix at that locus. This facilitates selective binding of proteins able to alter adjacent gene expression. In this way protein structure specified by DNA sequences can act to promote, inhibit, or regulate the transcription of many other DNA sequences and the protein structures they determine (see Fig. 8). Thus, displacement of functional constraints onto a different molecular medium (i.e. from nucleotide sequence to protein structure) opens the door to recursive information dynamics.

figure 8
Fig. 8

By enabling recursive regulation of large suites of genes from a single locus, this regulatory logic provides the ground for semiotic scaffolding and the emergence of progressively higher levels of interpretive competence. The coordinated expression of large suites of genes can have large-scale phenotypic effects, both due to cell-intrinsic regulation and regulation of gene expression by whole suites of other cells. Thus semiotic constraint is progressively transferred from molecules to cells to tissues to body structure. With each higher level of displacement to a new level of substrate, a higher order form of recursion emerges. This is enhanced by the effect of gene duplication. In particular, the duplication and degeneration of regulatory genes creates the possibility of higher order displacement and interpretive affordance by virtue of similarity of gene expression despite differences in substrate correlations. For example the evolutionary duplication and variation of homeobox genes has been critical for determining the homologous anterior–posterior segmental morphologies of animal bodies and a similar family of genes is responsible for the theme and variation morphology of flowering plants (see Fig. 9).

figure 9
Fig. 9


The sequence of hypothetical molecular models discussed here falls well short of explaining the origins of the “genetic code.” Indeed, it posits an evolutionary sequence that assumes that protein-like molecules are present long before nucleic acids (possibly arising from the prebiotic formation of hydrogen cyanide polymers; see Das et al. (2019) for a current review). This inverts the currently popular view that replicating molecules intrinsically constitute biological information. This popular assumption has implicitly reduced the concept of information to pattern replication without reference. As a result it begs the question of the origin of functional significance.

The logic of the autogenic approach, though not able to directly account for the evolution of the DNA-to-amino acid “code,” provides something more basic. It provides a “proof of principle” of a sort, showing step-by-chemically-realistic-step how a molecule like RNA or DNA could acquire the property of recording and instructing the dynamical molecular relationships that constitute and maintain the molecular system of which it is a part. In short, it explains how a molecule can become about other molecules. Importantly, this analysis inverts the logic that treats RNA and DNA replication as intrinsically informational and instead shows how the information-bearing function of nucleic acids is due to their ability to embody constraints inherited from the codependent dynamics of an open molecular` system able to repair itself. This may point the way to an alternative strategy for exploring the origin of the genetic code. Rather than thinking of the problem from an information molecule first perspective (how nucleic acid structure came to inform protein dynamics), it might be instructive to ask the question the other way around (how protein dynamics came to be reflected in nucleic acid structure). In other words, it might make sense to invert the order of Crick’s central dogma when considering the evolution of the genetic code.

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  1. I will use this hyphenated version of the term representation in order to avoid any implicit psychologism and instead to highlight the more basic sense of being presented again in some other form.
  2. Recursive self-maintenance (i.e. the self-maintenance of self-maintenance) is a term introduced by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Mark Bickhard to distinguish the structure of living self-maintenance from the self-perpetuating dynamics characteristic of non-living self-organized processes. His example of the latter is a candle flame that generates sufficient heat to vaporize wax that fuels the flame to vaporize additional wax. Such a system is self-maintaining, but is not organized to additionally maintain this capacity to maintain itself. See Bickhard (1993) for an early account.
  3. See for example Peirce’s discussions in CP 4.536, 8.314, 333, 343; EP 2:404–9; and SS 111.
  4. Pattee often referred to the passive constraint-bearing medium as a “symbol”—by which he meant a generic sign vehicle—and emphasized that although these “symbols” function to constrain the dynamics, their different physical form allows them to be manipulated and modified independently of the dynamic processes they inform. He anticipates the autogenic approach when he says, “Boundary conditions formed by local structures are often called constraints. Informational structures such as symbol vehicles are a special type of constraint.” From Pattee (2006),
  5. For example Volume 8 Issue 2 of Biosemiotics edited by Jesper Hoffmeyer (2015) was a special issue dedicated to a discussion of the concept of semiotic scaffolding, and included articles by more than a dozen scholars discussing its relevance across many fields.


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Partial support for the preparation of this manuscript was provided by The Human Energy Project and the Stanford University Boundaries of Humanity Project.

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  1. Department of Anthropology & Cognitive and Brain Sciences Institute, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USATerrence W. Deacon



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