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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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War in Ukraine 2022: What are the Humanists Saying?

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine. Whether this conflict should be considered any more or less serious than other global conflicts may be a matter for historians to consider at some future date. Currently, however, this seems to be a very concerning situation as it is viewed by some as the largest military assault in Europe since the 1940’s. This attitude seems to ignore the Bosnian war of the early 1990’s, which was no small incident.

Setting aside comparisons, the conflict in Ukraine may well be a world-changing situation. So is interested to know what humanists and humanist organizations have to say. Following is a sample of what we’ve found. Are you a humanist and have something to say? Do you know about a humanist position on this situation that we ought to cover? Let us know.

February 28, 2022: Humanists International Says “Human Rights Council must act in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”

Ahead of an urgent debate at the UN Human Rights Council on the Human Rights situation in Ukraine following the unprovoked and illegal invasion by Russia, Humanists International is calling for the creation of a UN mechanism to monitor and report on the situation in Ukraine and for Russia to be suspended as a member of the Human Rights Council.

During the opening of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council – which began this morning – Ukraine called on the Council to approve the holding of an urgent debate following the Russian invasion on 24 February.

When requesting that the debate happen, the Ukrainian Ambassador, said, “The reason for this request is known to the whole world. Russia, a member of this Council, perpetrated an unprovoked and unified attack on Ukraine.” She noted that, “Russian aggression is accompanied by a massive flow of disinformation that aims to distort the truth and mislead the international community. Some of it we will hear today, as well as in other rooms of the [UN] Palais des Nations.”

Members of the Human Rights Council approved the request of an urgent debate to be held, with 29 out of 47 countries voted in favor. China, Cuba, Russia, Venezuela and Eritrea voted against having the debate. Armenia, Cameroon, Gabon, India, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Uzbekistan abstained.

The debate is scheduled to happen on Thursday 3 March and Friday 4 March.

Ahead of the debate, Humanists International is calling for the debate to lead to the adoption of a resolution unequivocally condemning Russia’s violations of international law, including international criminal law, international human rights law and the UN Charter. It should recognise that Russia’s actions against Ukraine constitute an unprovoked and illegal invasion, and one which has, and will, result in massive human rights violations.

It is also calling for the resolution to:

  • Call on the UN General Assembly to suspend Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council (in line with GA Resolutions General Assembly Resolution 60/251);
  • Create a Commission of Inquiry, to monitor and report on the situation in Ukraine and to promote accountability for all human rights violations;
  • Mandate a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The oppressive human rights climate in the Russian Federation itself (including the severe restrictions on free expression, the widespread propagation of disinformation, the repression of civil society, and the intimidation, censoring and criminalisation of journalists) all contribute to the Russian government being able to wage a war of aggression without accountability at home.

March 1, 2022 on Pressenza: A Guide for Peace in Ukraine: A Humanist and Nonviolent Proposal

The Centre for Humanist Studies “Exemplary Actions”, the Portuguese branch of the World Centre for Humanist Studies, an organism of the Humanist Movement, is disseminating a non-violent proposal for the restoration of peace in Ukraine, inviting citizens and non-governmental organisations who identify with it to sign it and send it to the Russian, Ukrainian and American embassies, as well as to the United Nations (UN), the European Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of their respective countries, to sign it and send it to the Russian, Ukrainian and American embassies, as well as to the United Nations (UN), the European Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of their respective countries, in order to produce a popular outcry capable of influencing the course of events.

For your information, we transcribe here the humanist proposal in its entirety:


  • A nation is defined by the mutual recognition established by people who identify themselves with similar values ​​and who aspire to a common future – and this does not necessarily have to do with race or ethnicity, or with language, or with History understood as a long process that begins in a mythical past;
  • This mutual recognition between people can lead to the formation of national or plurinational States, as well as the existence of nations spread over several States, without this implying the loss of the individual’s sense of belonging to their community or preventing the possibility of convergence in diversity;
  • States do not have the potentiality to constitute, by themselves, nations and can, therefore, be transformed throughout history, since they are, for all intents and purposes, changeable social and political constructions, as models of governance of peoples ;
  • National minorities have, in any case, the right to have their cultural specificity recognized, as well as the right to self-determination, within the framework of a democratic federative organization and respect for human rights.

And recognizing that,

  • Peaceful conflict resolution requires each party to put itself in the other’s shoes, opening itself to a process of cooperative negotiation and reciprocal treatment;
  • National interests must be reciprocally attended, as far as possible, but they do not justify everything, nor can they override the human being as a central value and concern;
  • The freedom of choice of individuals and peoples only exists if it can be exercised without external pressure and interference, imposed in a violent way;
  • Humanity’s progress is not made through the constitution of empires or supranational entities that alienate the power of the social base in favour of particular economic interests, but through the construction of a Universal Human Nation, diverse and inclusive, governed by freedom, equal rights and opportunities and non-violence;

We propose the following guide for peace, given the difficult situation currently experienced on Ukrainian territory, with a view to halting the unacceptable return to war on European soil, which has caused so much life and destruction in the recent past:

  1. Immediate ceasefire between the warring parties and opening of humanitarian corridors for assistance to civilian populations;
  2. Withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory and creation of a multinational peacekeeping force, constituted under the aegis of the United Nations (UN), for the Dombass region;
  3. Temporary demilitarization of Dombass by the belligerent forces and the possibility of the return of refugee civilian populations;
  4. Organization of a fair and free referendum on the self-determination of Dombass territory, under UN supervision, with a commitment to the acceptance of the respective results by the interested parties;
  5. Organization of a fair and free referendum on the self-determination of the territory of Crimea, under UN supervision, with a commitment to the acceptance of the respective results by the interested parties;
  6. Adoption of a status of political-military neutrality by Ukraine and recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, depending on the results of the aforementioned referendums, by Russia;
  7. Lifting of all economic sanctions between the parties and resumption of international political and economic cooperation.
  8. Conducting international talks on nuclear and conventional disarmament at regional and global levels.

March 4, 2022 : The Ontario Humanist Society Condemns Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

OHS calls for Russia to cease its illegal and unprovoked actions, and to cease all challenges to Ukraine’s independence. Russia must terminate its violation of international law and of the UN Charter, and withdraw from Ukraine immediately. There is no justification for this aggression and the cost will be borne by innocent Ukrainians. As Humanists we can NOT turn away from this humanitarian crisis. We encourage OHS members to stand behind the Ukrainian people through the many opportunities available to us, some suggestions are listed below. Our Ethical Actions Committee will further examine steps we can take to continue to show our support for Ukraine.

If you would like to donate to support Ukraine, here are some charities that you might wish to consider:

Canada/Ukraine Foundation

Ukrainian Red Cross

Canadian Red Cross Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal The Canadian Government will match all donations by Canadians dollar-for-dollar, to a maximum of $10 million.

United Nations High Commission on Refugees Canada

If you would like to provide input into Canada’s response to the situation in Ukraine:

Write to our Prime Minister

Or seek out an on-line petition that supports your point of view. Thank you for joining the OHS board in condemning this travesty that is unfolding before us.


Kerry J. Bowser President, OHS

March 14, 2022: The Gold Foundation’s Statement in Support of Ukraine and Humanism

These tumultuous and uncertain times demand of us the greatest possible expression of humanism. As Dr. George Thibault, Trustee of the Gold Foundation, has said in his defining essay on this topic,  “It will be hard to have humanism in medicine if there is no humanism in the world around us.

We are reminded of these words as the crisis continues to unfold in the Ukraine. Russia has attacked not only military targets and soldiers but civilians, schools, homes, and hospitals. More than 30 hospitals have been destroyed, including the horrific bombing of a children’s hospital in Mariupol.

These attacks are the essence of anti-humanism, sparing no human interests, values, and dignity. They are both direct attacks on humanism in healthcare, the sphere of our work, and on the wider humanism in our world, literally the foundation of freedom, compassion and science.

Still, through the scenes of rubble and destruction, we see humanity. Humanity in the healthcare heroes dodging artillery as they work tirelessly on the frontlines of the conflict. Humanity in those rising to defend their homes, their country, and democracy at large. Humanity in the charitable donations and mobilization here in the United States and around the globe. Humanity in a time where home can be everywhere and nowhere all at once, an unfortunate truth that tells the story of so many refugees from war and conflict throughout our world.

At the Gold Foundation, in thousands of ways, we’ve seen Gold community members apply compassion, collaboration, and scientific excellence in practical, real-life ways throughout their clinical work, teachings, talks, and relationships. The culture of humanism in healthcare is the bedrock of the Gold Foundation, influencing all of our work, creating the structure and draw of the Gold community and its Gold Humanism Honor Society, whose Advisory Council voted unanimously to publish a statement on the inhumanity of the tragedy in Ukraine. It is joined by the entirety of the Gold Foundation family in standing with the efforts of humanists around the world who rally together and further humanism in all its forms. The Ukrainian people and all people affected depend on the shared mission of humanism, in this crisis and in the years to come.

March 16, 2022: Humanists International says: Belgian Humanist convoy reaches Ukraine border with humanitarian aid

After a journey of 1,500km, employees from and Centre d’Action Laïque reached Medyka, a village on the Polish-Ukrainian border, on Monday night.

Four vans, packed with medical supplies and other necessities, were unloaded at the tent camp yesterday, then sorted and distributed to Ukrainian refugees .

“We are all very impressed by what we have seen. It is quiet in the car, words fail everyone . Despite the confrontation with a lot of human suffering, I am particularly proud of our humanist community, which has shown its full force,” says Yasmina El Boubkari. is still collecting funds to help Ukrainian refugees. You can donate to BE 55 9734 2242 6344.

With this money, and CAL are buying bandages, syringes, infusions,, paracetamol, ibuprofen, isobetadine, styptic drugs, antibiotics, haemostatic agents, but also baby food, milk powder, wet wipes, sanitary towels, candles, diapers, thermal blankets, gloves, hats, stockings, backpacks, thermal clothing, ski clothes, sleeping bags, food preserves and ready meals.

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“Don’t Say It…or Else”: Blasphemy in the 2020s

Up to recently, news coverage in the 2020’s has been overwhelmingly dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the many considerations, concerns and controversies it has led to. Not least of these has been recurring concerns over the nature of public discourse about COVID-19, mRNA vaccines, the roles of big pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, government, churches and community organizations. One hopes that the world is emerging from active concern over the uncertainties of a global pandemic.

But our experience so far in these 2020’s out to make one think about the nature of the freedom of expression and about the various kinds of laws designed to curtail it. And it makes us think….so what is the state of blasphemy these days?

Well, as always, the Pew Research Center, has some information. A recent headline on the Pew website states that 40% of countries wordwide still have a blasphemy law on the books. That’s 79 countries. 22 countries have a law against apostasy.

A map showing that eighteen countries in the Middle East-North Africa region had blasphemy laws in 2019
Image Courtesy of Pew Research Center

As the infographic implies, most of the countries where this is a fact are in Africa and the Middle-East. With that, there’s more than a billion people on the planet for whom blasphemy, in its more original speaking-against-god(s)-and-religious-authoritarians context, is still a clear and present restriction of their fundamental human right to the freedom of expression.

Do a modest internet search at any given time, and you’ll still read such headlines as:

A list of headlines (and the situations they describe) is not, unfortunately, exhaustive, authoritative and final. There’s certainly more going on in the world of “Don’t Say it….or else” than this. But with all the pandemic distractions in mainstream media, maybe the fact that some ideologues don’t intend to tolerate ideas they don’t agree with has been escaping our collective notice? Maybe.

Maybe it’s time to catch up on some 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.

UNESCO Releases Judiciary Toolkit for Freedom of Expression

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we locate articles and information published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following information is drawn from UNESCO’s website.

On February 7, 2022, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) launched the Training Manual for Judges on International Standards on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, a comprehensive toolkit for supporting judges to take into account international human rights standards on freedom of expression in their decisions, has been launched. The toolkit was prepared by the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) in collaboration with International Media Support (IMS), UNESCO and the Judicial Institute of Jordan, and piloted at a training of judges in Amman, Jordan in September/October 2021.The toolkit is divided into six main modules, namely: International and National Guarantees of Freedom of Expression, The Legitimate Scope of Criminal and Civil Law Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Expression, Legal Resolution of Attacks on Freedom of Expression, The Right to Access Public Information, Media Regulation to Promote Free, Independent and Diverse Media, and Regulating Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era. It also has a number of annexes addressing common questions and answers, and containing exercises to support the training and additional resources.

The 126-page toolkit contains six modules, covering International and National Guarantees of Freedom of Expression, The Legitimate Scope of Criminal and Civil Law Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Expression, Legal Resolution of Attacks on Freedom of Expression, The Right to Access Public Information, Media Regulation to Promote Free, Independent and Diverse Media, and Regulating Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era.

The key objective of the toolkit is to promote freedom of expression by helping judges integrate international standards on this fundamental human right into their domestic decisions. It builds on work in this area by UNESCO in Latin America and Africa but is specifically tailored to freedom of expression issues that are commonly found in the Arab World.

The launch of the tool followed a recent Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) conducted by UNESCO and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford.

Close to 5,000 judicial actors, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers and representatives of judicial training academies, as well as civil society representatives from around the world were trained on international standards and regional jurisprudence on freedom of expression. The highest numbers of participants joined the MOOC from the Philippines, Kenya, United States, Brazil, India, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Zambia.The 5-week course, from 10 May until 07 June 2021, was unique in its global scope on freedom of expression issues, and particularly targeted judges and members of the judiciary, given their essential role in the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression. The course strengthened the knowledge and capacities of judicial actors on regional and international human rights standards through five Modules, including, (1) the general principles and scope of freedom of expression; (2) the limitations on the right to freedom of expression; (3) the right of access to information; (4) the question of the safety of journalists; and, (5) challenges created by the digital world .Notably, the course raised awareness of judicial actors on the legal protection and rights of journalists under international law, particularly addressing the threats, attacks and killings of journalists, the specific nature of threats against women journalists, as well as the importance to protect the secrecy of sources for journalists.

Since 2013, UNESCO’s Judges’ Initiative has trained judicial actors and representatives of civil society on the international and regional standards on freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists in Latin America, Africa and the Arab region. Following the global MOOC on freedom of expression, a total number of 23,000 judicial actors and civil society representatives from 150 countries have been trained on these fundamental issues. While the first global MOOC was in English, subsequent editions will be rolled-out in additional languages in the future. The course received support from the Multi Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.

In continuity with these efforts to raise awareness on issues related to freedom of expression, UNESCO has also developed an explainer video on the role of the judiciary in ending impunity for crimes against journalists, available in 6 UN languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.

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What Does a Humanist Need to Know About Global Risks in 2022?

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we locate articles and information published via other venues that we think readers may enjoy.

Following is a collection of information pertaining to global risks in 2022

What Do You Have to Say?

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What does the World Economic Forum Have to Say?

Based in Geneva, the World Economic Forum describes itself as the premier organization fostering cooperation between the public and private sectors of the economy. WEF claims to be independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests; it also claims to adhere to a stakeholder principle which requires organizations to be accountable to all parts of society. The 50th annual meeting of the WEF was held in 2020 and was titled “The Great Reset” and which garnered some attention and concern regarding the idea and agenda that it advocated.

On January 11, 2022 – the WEF has published the 17th iteration of its Global Risks Report. It may be reasonable to adopt a critical eye when studying a document of this type, but it is also reasonable to consider the 117 pages a valuable source for informing a humanist perspective on the world and our human events. If wading through 117 pages is a bit much, WEF provides a key findings page. Or here’s a few infographics.

As a big picture overview, WEF enumerates the following existential risks as a kind of top-ten. In pondering this list, it is necessary to remember that this is the World Economic Forum’s report as opposed to the “World Something-Else Forum”. What might this list look like for a World Humanist Forum?

Climate changes concerns and issues takes up a considerable and leading place in the WEF’s 2022 report. In the below infographic, WEF provides global temperature scenarios for the coming 80-years. Should this inform a humanist’s priorities?

The report also provides a series of chapter-ending, what-if-styled “Shocks to Reflect Upon” that may be worth more than casual consideration:

Identifying, assessing and addressing risk is, of course, an inherently “what if” exercise. Anybody undertaking risk assessment may be vulnerable to accusations of doom-saying (or whatever term one may care to adopt) – but that des not mean that it isn’t an important exercise.

WEF also provides a “top five” risk for each national economy based executive opinion:

Canada’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
China’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
United States of America’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
Russian Federation’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
Turkey’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
Nigeria’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
India’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
Brazil’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF
Germany’s Top 5 Risks per the WEF

Noteworthy: Maybe the editor’s old eyes couldn’t find it, but there didn’t seem to be an entry for Afghanistan, Syria, in the chart of Top 5 national risks. What does that omission imply?

What Does Export Development Canada Have to Say?

Export Development Canada is a Canadian crown corporation “dedicated to helping Canadian companies of all sizes succeed on the world stage.  We equip them with the tools they need – the trade knowledge, financial solutions, equity, insurance, and connections – to grow their business with confidence. This in turn, creates jobs and increases prosperity at home.

In 2020, the EDC stated the top global risks as:

  • A prolonged COVID 19 pandemic
  • USA-China competition
  • Global protectionism
  • Rapid increase of “sovereign” debt
  • Surge in corporate debt
  • A global depression
  • American political paralysis
  • US Isolationism
  • Social unrest
  • Cyberwar

What Does the Global Challenges Foundation Have to Say?

The Global Challenges Foundation  was founded in 2012 “by the Swedish financial analyst and author Laszlo Szombatfalvy. Its goal is to stimulate ideas on how to develop new decision-making models, able to better and more equitably reduce the major global catastrophic risks that threaten humanity, or even eliminate them. The foundation’s work is made possible by a donation from Laszlo Szombatfalvy of SEK 500 million (approximately USD 53 million).

According to GCF, their mission is to “prevent, or at least reduce the probability, of a catastrophe that would cause the death of over 10% of humanity, or cause damage on a similar scale. This is known as a global catastrophic risk.” The top risks identified by this organization are:

  • climate change
  • weapons of mass destruction
  • ecological collapse
  • artificial intelligence,
  • asteroid impact
  • pandemics
  • solar geoengineering
  • supervolcanic eruption
  • unknown risks

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World Humanist Forum – Asia

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 found on Pressenza on August 16, 2021.

Pressenza is a space open to the expression of the social base. We endorse a universalist humanist perspective…(more about Pressenza at the bottom of this article).

By: Karina Lagdameo-Santillan

A Filipina from Manila, Philippines. A longtime Humanist. A Creative Director and Advertising Communications professional for many years, she has been active in the Community for Human Development, facilitating workshops for personal and social change to help build a culture of peace, nondiscrimination and nonviolence. She is currently a freelance writer and a volunteer editor-writer for Pressenza in Asia.

August 15, 2021. The World Humanist Forum- Asia was officially launched with the participation of over 105 individuals, many representing humanist organisms and other NGOs/groups, all sharing the same vision of a non-violent and non-discriminatory humane world, and working in their different fields towards that vision—humanizing the earth. The Forum connected and linked participants coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Japan, Australia, also from Africa, Europe, North and South America.

Sudhir Gandhotra facilitated so that the participants could discuss, interchange and be inspired by each other to continue with their actions and to reach more people in the region, to address crucial issues of violence and discrimination that all face in their personal and social lives.

To start the forum, he defined that the humanist is someone or anyone who believes in non-violence and is against discrimination and violent action. He quoted from Silo, founder of New Humanism and the Humanist Movement:

“Namer of a thousand names, maker of meanings, transformer of the world, your parents and the parents of your parents continue in you. You are not a fallen star but a brilliant arrow flying toward the heavens. You are the meaning of the world, and when you clarify your meaning you illuminate the earth. When you lose your meaning, the earth becomes darkened and the abyss opens.

I will tell you the meaning of your life here: It is to humanize the earth. And what does it mean to humanize the earth? It is to surpass pain and suffering; it is to learn without limits; it is to love the reality you build.

I cannot ask you to go further, but neither should it offend if I declare, “Love the reality you build, and not even death will halt your flight!”

You will not fulfill your mission if you do not apply your energies to vanquishing pain and suffering in those around you. And if through your action they, in turn, take up the task of humanizing the world, you will have opened their destiny toward a new life.”

The opening remarks given by Antonio Carvallo set the tone further:

Dear Dr. Mathai, dear Mr. Rajagopal, dear Ms. Sudha Soni, dear Sudhir, dear Ajeet. Dear friends representing the organisms of the Humanist Movement and Silo’s Message, dear friends who accompany this occasion.

I am delighted to be celebrating the launching of the Asian Humanist Forum, with all of you. Our aim is to communicate to the world Silo’s message of Humanization with the goal to construct a Universal Human Nation. What better a day than today, the anniversary of Indian independence so strongly associated with the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and his universal call for non-violence.

The Forum aspires to send a renewed and powerful appeal to overcome suffering, capable of sounding meaningful and providing direction to every individual.

That message is a message of faith, of compassion, of recognition and trust in our own inner force, capable of guiding us through the most difficult circumstances. A message that persuades us to treat others as we like to be treated.

A message that helps everyone to connect with themselves, to access the profound and sacred that lies in our hearts and minds.

In times of big instability and confusion, like the present one, when even nature appears unpredictable and threatening, we need to hold together and find support in our center of gravity.

We think that the world is changing for the better and that we are at a turning point in our civilization, in the process of transforming into a universal human nation. This is new and unprecedented; we are facing the need for a profound change both socially and individually. The human being must be the central value in this change. We must learn to eradicate violence from our minds and our societies, since both are inextricably intertwined. This task needs to be undertaken now by every one of us.

This is in summary the message the Humanist Forum should aspire to deliver everywhere and to everyone. Because it is good, because it is just and because it is urgent.

To make it possible we all need to work together.”

After this, a tapestry of missions and visions, of actions and campaigns strung together with the thread that humanizes, commenced. Participants heard from Ghandians about their peace and non-violence programs, from grassroots NGOs addressing the different needs of the communities and sectors of society they work in, be they Muslims or young women who need education, about foot marches across India being planned from September 21, Day of Peace to October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, which is the International Day of Non-violence. And more…

Representatives from the five organisms of the Humanist Movement talked about what they do and stand for. The Community for Human Development works in the social field, helping “to raise the level of consciousness”. The Humanist Party is in the political field which greatly affects everyone, aiming to restore real power to the people and not resting on the interests of a handful. The Convergence of Cultures organism espouses the need for all the cultures to coordinate, coexist and learn from each other, acknowledging and respecting cultural diversity. Aspiring towards no borders, World without Wars and Violence, the organization that launched the Global March in all continents in 2009 calling for an end of nuclear arms and disarmament, is launching another World March. Now, it is expanding its scope from war and armaments to all forms of violence and aiming to educate the youth, the next generation, on the principles of peace. The World Center of Humanist Studies analyzing the crucial issues affecting the world today, looking for proposals and solutions. And, as all human beings have a spiritual part within, the messengers inspired by the book, The Message of Silo, works to carry peace within themselves to others.

The forum was spirited and lively, even going beyond the foreseen time as everyone shared and started connecting with each other. After an Asking to strengthen the resolve to carry on with the Forum’s mission, closing remarks pointed out that the internet was and is able to create and forge links. Thanks to this, it is helping to connect like-minded people within the environment of the World Humanist Forum which was just officially launched and will help it to go forward into the envisioned future. The website can play a big role to connect people across countries as organizations and individuals can join the Forum, inform, get in touch and collaborate with others. (

Everyone left, greatly inspired to expand this Humanist Work even to other Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. As a participant, Pradeepan Madathil, commented, “ This is the voice of the times. The unity of non-violent peoples around the world, the togetherness of the volunteers, and the current global community waiting for such unity”

Here is the link to the recorded video of the Forum inauguration:

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Roadrunner: Anthony Bourdain and How Humanism Infuses Everything

Featured in the trailer for Roadrunner, a documentary about chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, is a comment which argues that, “It was almost never about food…he was about totally learning to be a better person.”

Whether by design and intent or not, this singular comment provides a measured, rich and delicious metaphor for how a deeply-lived humanism infuses everything.

Human connection and humanism rarely separate us from our world. Humanism tends to deepen our care for all of the people, things and processes that surround us.

In Emily Zemler’s interview (Inside the Hurt and Humanism of Anthony Bourdain Doc ‘Roadrunner’), Morgan Neville, the film-maker says, “For somebody like Keith Richards or Iggy Pop, they’ve survived because they don’t care about anything, in a way that is enlightened. They don’t care what people say about them. They don’t care how they come off. They care about the people in their lives and, as Iggy says in the people, the people who love him. They are family people. But they have a relaxed way of being in the world. It’s carefree, which is enviable. And Tony was the opposite. He cared about everything. Every tweet. Every review. Every episode. As much as he tried to walk the walk, constitutionally he was not a Dionysian figure.

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide evokes a great sadness. But a person’s life is not entirely understood by cutting consideration of the person down to nothing more than the nature of their death. When has it been more necessary than today to understand that none of us are entirely defined by our best moments, our worst moments or even our final moments?

Morgan Neville said, “He was such an humanist, but also so fucking funny — and dark.” Considering Anthony Boudain’s humanism and considering all others via a humanist perspective opens inquiry and curiosity rather than shuttering it with a grieving-veil of emotional taboo.

In the essay Why People Loved Bourdain, Jaron Gilinski argued that “Tony stood for more than mere writing, travelling, and eating. In pursuing those three actions with gusto, perhaps to his chagrin, he became a cultural icon for the 3 ism’s of humanism, pluralism, and globalism, values held sacred to many across the planet. Anthony Bourdain had a trademark formula for human connection that is so simple, so replicable, and yet so lost in today’s world. His ingenious discovery was that when you sit down and share a meal with someone, anyone, you have a better chance of understanding them. you ask the right questions over intoxicating aromas, a real connection can be made.

Olivia Durif (Pouring One out for Anthony Bourdain) was inspired by Bourdain to write, “Eating, for Bourdain, was ultimately a humanist act. It is a good thing, he believed, to care about strangers, especially if you cannot imagine how they live their lives. It is also good to eat in many different kinds of places: at a restaurant, on the street, at the home of a friend, with a stranger.

This is a lesson of humanism. Whether one experiences life as a chef, a teacher, a corporate executive a dentist or any other occupation that you care to mention – human connection can, if you open up to it, infuse every part of that experience.

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Human Solidarity and Nature Conservation

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think readers may enjoy. The following article was published on Manuel Garcia, Jr.’s personal website on April 11, 2021.

By: Manuel Garcia, Jr.

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Carl Gustav Jung [1]

Life is the actualization of potentialities embedded within the biochemical processes that form the mechanisms of genetics and evolution. Does life have a purpose, or is it entirely a statistically random fluke made possible by the astronomical number of possibilities available for the expression of molecular chemistry in the wide array of physical conditions interspersed throughout the vastness of space? To believe that life has a consciously intended purpose is to believe that life is an intentional creation by a conscious supernatural entity or entities. If so, what is that purpose?

We know that the most elementary organisms of proto-life, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that infects people with the deadly COVID-19 disease, have no purpose beyond the mindless mechanical continuation of their genetic formats, by feeding their metabolisms through parasitism. But, what of more conscious organisms, like: plants, animals, us?

We humans pride ourselves as presumably having the most highly developed conscious minds of all life-forms on Planet Earth (though very deep ecologists and naturalists disagree with this presumptuousness). From this human-centric point of view, the various levels of consciousness of living organisms are all evolutionary adaptations enhancing the survivability of individuals, to thus enhance the likelihood of the propagation and continuation of their species as environmental conditions change.

For believers in the supernatural there is an imposed obligation, or supra-natural goal, or “higher purpose” to human consciousness, which can be most generally characterized as finding union with God. For non-believers, the fully conscious experience of being alive is the totality of that higher purpose. In either case, the realization of that purpose is to be had by the combination of human solidarity and nature conservation.

Homo sapiens are social animals, and their full development as individuals — their realization of purpose — requires social connection and connection with Nature.


“Tales by Light” [2] is an Australian television series (in 3 seasons) about the use of photography and videography to tell stories visually so as to change society for the better: activism. Here, I am only writing about episodes from Season 3. By its very nature this series is visually “beautiful” — in terms of the technical perfection of the image composition, capture and presentation — even when abysmally grim and ugly situations are being shown in order to advance the complete story. This is about emotional punch delivered visually. And of course, incredibly happy bursts of emotion are delivered in the same way by the presentation of images of lushly colorful nature, and joyful and inspiring scenes of human warmth, kindness and sheer exuberance. The three stories (each given in two parts) that affected me were:

1, CHILDREN IN NEED: This story, by Simon Lister, is about the children of Dhaka, Bangladesh, who scrounge through the most disgusting, unsafe and unsanitary heaps of rubbish to find scraps of material that can be recycled locally — like plastic forks and containers — in the abysmal poverty of their society; or who do difficult work in unsafe and toxic conditions to support their families. There are millions of these kids in Bangladesh.

Many Bangladeshi kids work in primitive workshops with zero health and safety codes, procedures and equipment, for example to produce pans and bowls by hands pressing sheet metal against spinning mandrels, again with no protective shields from whirling machinery gears and belts right at hand; nor any proper ventilation and filtration to protect them from toxic metal dust, or fumes in workshops using solvents and chemicals.

The story of such child laborers in the poorest societies on Earth is being documented as part of a UNICEF program to bring world (rich world) attention to the problem of child labor, and to generate financial resources to then provide safe and sanitary spaces for such children to be able to get food, education, rest, shelter for the night off the streets, and the joyful companionship of other children. But, since the money these children gain from their difficult and hazardous work is always the lifeline for the support of their families, often of single mothers, such a labor force is considered “normal” in their societies, and lamentably economically essential for these individuals.

The ultimate “solution” for eliminating this heartbreaking situation would be a worldwide awakening to an actual commitment to species-wide human solidarity. That that idea becomes self-evident through the medium of photography testifies to its power as an art-form.

2, PARADISE IN PERIL: This story, by Shawn Heinrichs, is of the conservation of the ocean biodiversity and habitat of the Raja Ampat Islands. Here, the art of photography is being used to present the story of the value of an amazing tropical coral reef and mangrove forest environment in New Guinea (Indonesia).

That story is told in two directions, first “upscale” to the societies of the wealthy industrialized and developed economies, to generate financial resources needed to establish locally manned, maintained, patrolled, owned — and in selected zones sustainably fished — marine reserves, and to ensure their continued operation and ongoing scientific study.

That story is also told “downscale,” in video presentations in their own language to the actual people living in the environments that are being protected, so that new generations of conservationists grow out of the youth of that indigenous population, now fired up with a greater understanding of the positive impact their healthy local environment has on their own lives as well as on the global environment.

The emotional impetus to these conservation efforts, both locally and remotely, is sparked by the visual impact of the photos and videos of the stunning and vibrant beauty of life moving in that magical submerged translucent habitat. The Raja Ampat Islands is one of the few places on Earth where all measures of biodiversity and ecological health are improving right now, even despite advancing global climate change; and this is entirely because of cooperative human intentionality.

3, PRESERVING INDIGENOUS CULTURE: This story by Dylan River, an Australian filmmaker with an Aboriginal grandmother, is of the recording for posterity of Aboriginal ways and languages slowly being lost with the passing away of elders, of the stories behind some of their ancient rock art, of ways of living off the land and sea while being intimately connected to the natural environment, and of community as the essence of being.

On a visit to Arnhem Land, Dylan is immersed into a welcoming ritual by the Yoingu people, whose spokesman at the event states that though Dylan is from far away he is “part of the family” as is everybody in spirit. The entirety of this brief and simple greeting conveys a fundamental truth that is more clearly and wisely stated, and lived by the Yoingu, than with any of the fatuous self-satisfied pronouncements by our many supposedly powerful and always hypocritical political leaders, who collectively oversee and exacerbate the poisonous fractiousness and sociological cannibalism of our national and world societies.

The basic truth here is that every human being “is something Nature is doing” — as Alan Watts put it — and that Nature is integral, it is a harmoniously self-entangling network of life. And that is what healthy human community should be.

I recommend this series to you because of its many simultaneous dimensions of beauty.

To my mind, the financial investments made by the executives of Canon Incorporated, National Geographic (a subscription television network in Australia and New Zealand that features documentaries, and is owned by The Walt Disney Company), and Netflix, to produce and broadcast this series were very worthy, even as I know there would necessarily also have been a component of profit motive in those investment decisions.

What is needed in our world is ever the same: more human solidarity and nature conservation. The wider broadcast of these three stories from the series Tales By Light could help awaken more people to that realization, or at a minimum give some comfort to those who already know.

Acknowledgment: Gretchen Hennig perceptively brought Tales by Light to my attention.

Here is a musical ornamentation to all the above; about a child, really any child: “Chihiro.”


[1] “Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daemonization of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from the fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of the super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen a victim to unconsciousness. But man’s task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious.”

C. G. Jung (1875-1961), from the closing chapter of his autobiography “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” entitled “Life and Death,” written between 1957 and 1961. This excerpt is highlighted and discussed at

[2] Tales by Light (on Netflix)

Tales by Light (official website)

Tales by Light (series described)

Manuel Garcia, Jr. is a retired physicist who blogs at on “energy, nature, society,” like on global warming; plus idiosyncratic poetry. During his working career he designed many experiments in high power, high energy and explosive energy physics. His orientation is rationalist, leftist, Zen and humanist.

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2021 World Happiness Report

The following content is drawn directly from the WHR website. makes no claim to copyright, authorship or accuracy of the mater. We recommend that you visit WHR to review and consider the World Happiness Report’s full 212-pages of observations and analysis.

In observance of the U.N. International Day of Happiness on March 20, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University (CSD), and partners of the World Happiness Report (WHR) hosted a launch of the 2021 World Happiness Report. As we are living through an exceptional time dealing with the widespread effects of the pandemic, this year’s World Happiness Report discussed world happiness during COVID-19. This is the ninth report from WHR.

This year’s report focuses on the effects of COVID-19 on happiness and how countries have differed in their success in reducing the deaths and maintaining connected and healthy societies. The effects of the pandemic on happiness, mental health, social connections, and the workplace are covered in Chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 respectively. The choice of strategies for dealing with COVID-19 are covered in Chapters 2,3,4, and 8. The countries that performed best in minimising the direct death toll from COVID-19 were also able to do better on other fronts, including income, employment, and the mental and physical health of the rest of the population.

WHR Figure 2.1 Part 1

The rankings in Figure 2.1 of World Happiness Report 2021 use data that come from the Gallup World Poll surveys from 2018 to 2020. They are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the poll. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. The rankings are from nationally representative samples, for the years 2018-2020. They are based entirely on the survey scores, using the Gallup weights to make the estimates representative. The sub-bars in Figure 2.1 show the estimated extent to which each of six factors – levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption – are estimated to contribute to making life evaluations higher in each country than they are in Dystopia, a hypothetical country that has values equal to the world’s lowest national averages for each of the six factors (see FAQs: What is Dystopia?). The sub-bars have no impact on the total score reported for each country, but instead are just a way of explaining for each country the implications of the model estimated in Table 2.1. People often ask why some countries rank higher than others – the sub-bars (including the residuals, which show what is not explained) are an attempt to provide an answer to that question.

WHR Figure 2.1 Part 2

We use the most recent years in order to provide an up-to-date measure, and to measure changes over time. We combine data from the years 2018-2020 to make the sample size large enough to reduce the random sampling errors. (The horizontal lines at the right-hand end of each of the main bars show the 95% confidence interval for the estimate.) The typical annual sample for each country is 1,000 people. If a country had surveys in each year, then the sample size would be 3,000 people. However, there are many countries that have not had annual surveys, in which case the sample size is smaller than 3,000. Tables 1-3 of the online Statistical Appendix 1 show the sample size for each country in each year. Because of our interest in exploring how COVID-19 has influenced happiness for people in different countries and circumstances, we have done much of our analysis (as reported in Tables 2.2, 2.4, and 2.4).

WHR Figure 2.1 Part 3

At we can’t help but wish for a comparative analysis of the WHR’s findings and the establishment of secular conditions around the globe.

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Books: The Sirens of Mars – Searching For Life on Another World By Sarah Stewart Johnson

On February 18, 2021 NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars. Perseverance is the largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world. It travelled 472 million kilometers over 203 days and the intact landing was broadcast live via the internet for anyone with an internet connection to witness.

Humanity is deep into exploration of another planet. If that doesn’t whet your appetite to know more about the possibilities of planetary exploration and planetary biology – including all of the philosophical and metaphysical implications they bring…we’re not sure what will!

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World ...
Sarah Stewart Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars

In 2020, Sarah Steward Johnson‘s publishers released The Sirens of Mars – Search for Life on Another World. At a little-over 200 pages in hardcover, the publisher’s categorize the book as “biography and memoir” given the frequent inclusion of personal anecdotes and reflections of the author’s life and relationship to the subject.

Sarah Stewart Johnson is an assistant professor of planetary science at Georgetown University. A former Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow, she received her PhD from MIT and has worked on NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. She is also a visiting scientist with the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Countdown to Mars | Astrobiology

Stewart Johnson’s writing style is very approachable and relatable. It is a meaningful and worthwhile trend that scientists publish books which reflect their individual humanity as well as the humanistic principles that are deeply embedded in the work that they do.

The book includes a history of Mars exploration beginning with Plato,
Galileo and Isaac Newton through to both NASA’s and Russia’s programs as well as informative glimpses of the science behind one of humanity’s most astounding projects. The book is aimed at a broad and general audience but it isn’t a “picture book”, so if you’re looking to be inspired by photos of the red planet, the internet is a better source.

At the end of the book, Stewart Johnson writes, “In writing this book, I’ve come to understand better the meaning I find in searching for life. I’ve also come to appreciate all the people who came down this path before me and the astonishing lives they led, as well as the remarkable colleagues with whom I have the privilege of working today. In my final acknowledgements, I wish to extend my gratitude to all of those people, throughout the generations and across the disciplines, who have created and continue to deepen this field. If we find life on Mars, we will have done it together. In the meantime, we have this great human project, and we have one another.”

The book is worth the time and resources you may spend in its acquisition and study.

Side view of tilted rock layers on Mars

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.