Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

In Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr , Nancy Isenberg, Professor of History at Louisiana State University, contends that she is the first historian to write a biography of America’s third vice president. She takes to task previous biographers as well as writers of fiction, who she argues, have distorted and maligned Burr’s character. Isenberg sets out to rehabilitate Burr’s reputation here. This is a well-written and thoroughly researched and engaging biography and should be of great interest to anyone interested in Revolutionary and post Revolutionary America or the history of government in general. It has much to commend it.

Burr was born in 1756 in New Jersey to a semi-prosperous family but was orphaned at a young age. He was educated at College of New Jersey in Princeton. He later became a military hero in the American War for Independence. After his service in the Continental Army, Burr became a successful attorney as well as a leading figure in New York State, and eventually national politics. Though some pushed him to be president, he emerged from the presidential election of 1800 as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President. Amazingly, while serving in this position, he fought the famous duel that ended in the death of Alexander Hamilton. After being pushed out of office prior to the second Jefferson Administration, Burr spent several years endeavoring to establish conditions and an organization conducive for a private force to attack and conquer the Spanish Territories of Florida and Mexico, with an eye toward enlarging the young United States. As a result of these machinations, Burr was brought up on, what Isenberg argues, were trumped up charges for treason against the United States. Eventually Burr was acquitted of all crimes. Though politically ruined and hounded by creditors and political enemies for most of the remainder of his life, Burr was not personally broken, and he eventually settled down and continued to practice law and be socially accepted in New York State.  He died in 1836. For two hundred years biographers and others have vilified Bur as an immoral schemer, traitor and sexual deviant.

Isenberg makes a strong case that unsubstantiated character assassination not only destroyed Burr’s political career, but led to his demonization for two hundred years. As the practice of attacking leaders and other public figures, sometimes based upon inaccurate facts and false conspiracy theories, is ripe in the world today, I believe that we can learn important lessons from Burr’s story and from Isenberg’s chain of reasoning.

Isenberg defends Burr in several ways. First she readily acknowledges Burr’s imperfections but argues that few historical figures can be described as pure heroes or villains. She very perceptively writes that “History is not a bedtime story” and goes on to state that Burr was “no better and no worse” than the other founders of America. For example, Burr’s detractors often harp upon the fact that Burr was in debt and had a multitude of unpaid creditors. These debts were the result of poor speculative decisions. However, this tendency to accrue huge and difficult to pay liabilities was symptomatic of many of Burr’s generation, including such esteemed personages as Alexander Hamilton. Any student of Thomas Jefferson’s knows that he piled up more and more debt throughout life, in his case the result of lavish uncontrolled spending.

Another line of attack against Burr was that he was wildly and recklessly promiscuous. While he did have multiple affairs with women after the death of his wife, this pattern of behavior also was very common among Burr’s peers, including Hamilton, Jefferson as well as Benjamin Franklin.

For me, the most problematical event in Burr’s life was the killing of Alexander Hamilton in the famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. While difficult to fully justify Burr’s actions, there were strong extenuating circumstances involved. As Isenberg points out, and I believe to be true from other sources, Hamilton could be a verbally vicious man who slandered and attacked his political enemies both in writing and through gossip. After years of nasty personnel baiting, Burr had had enough and resorted to challenging Hamilton to combat. While extremely dangerous, dueling rarely resulted in the death of the participants. Though the author points out the are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened at Weehawken, she presents a strong argument that Hamilton’s death was more of a matter of chance rather then of malice.

I would surmise that the death of Hamilton would likely fall under our present day definition of manslaughter. While this incident certainly must be included in any summation of Burr’s life, I would further extrapolate Isenberg’s point that we need to make a fair comparison between Burr and his peers, by considering ugly incidents and character traits exhibited by the other men of the founding generation. For instance, Washington ordered multiple executions of both his own men as well as for loyalist and British adversaries, for minor offenses during the Revolutionary War. Washington, Jefferson and many other powerful men held large numbers of slaves during the same period. There are many other examples of founders behaving immorally. These flaws in others, in no way justify Burr’s actions. However if we do condemns Burr for Hamilton’s death, I think that such condemnation needs to be leveled for other, perhaps more severe offenses, committed by many cherished American icons at the time.

Conspiracy theories play an important part in past and present attacks upon Burr. After his tenure as vice president, Burr was involved in organizing and planning a “Filibuster”, or civilian invasion and conquest of what were then Spanish territories, presumably in conjunction with an American war against Spain. Isenberg’s book argues that Burr’s plans against Spain were twisted and distorted by hysterical enemies into a non- existent plot to formant succession of the western United States, as well as the overthrow of the Jefferson Administration by force. Supporting the contention that there was no truth to the accusation of treason, is the fact that although Burr was subjected to several trials arising out of these charges, he was eventually acquitted of all involvement with any crimes.

The claims revolving around Burr’s supposed seductive power and escapades also remind me of similar attacks leveled upon modern politicians and even American Presidents. Burr was and is often portrayed as a rakish womanizer. Isenberg argues that the fraction of stories that are accurate, in no way set Burr apart from many of his historically esteemed peers such as Hamilton and Jefferson. There was however another dimension to these attacks and insinuations. Both as a political leader and organizer, as well as a planner of a potential Filibuster, Burr seemed to attract many young men as dedicated followers. Isenberg speculates that Burr’s appeal may have been attributed to a strong and compelling personality, and surmises that he may have exuded a charisma not unlike Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood. Burr’s enemies characterized this tendency to attract such followers in a sinister light, as some kind of homosexual erotic seduction.

Burr’s adversaries often portrayed Burr as having no real ideals, of taking whatever position benefited him at the time. Isenberg points out that the opposite was true. Politically, while a moderate, he was steadfast to his beliefs and loyal to his friends. Contrary to false allegations, several episodes, including the contentious Presidential election of 1800, found Burr acting both ethically and fairly.

 Furthermore, Isenberg presents Burr as an enlightened and progressive thinker. He was an advocate of the political philosophy of Utilitarianism. He championed and advanced the right of the public to directly elect representatives. He held and exorcised, what for the time, were radical feminist ideals, strongly advocating education for women as well as women’s rights in all areas. He educated his daughter beyond the level of most upper class men of the time. This was unprecedented for late eighteenth century America.

Isenberg makes a strong case that Burr has been terribly maligned in his time and throughout American history. I do tend to distrust the general consensus historically or contemporarily, when a person is either exalted or vilified.  I am leaning towards the opinion that Isenberg ‘s interpretation is fair and relatively accurate. As my knowledge of Burr’s life was sketchy before reading the book, however, I need to be exposed to contrary sources before being really certain. Isenberg points out that Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton presents a much more negative take on Burr. That book is sitting on my shelf and I need to read it in order to really be more confident that I comprehend the issues.
I must conclude that Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr  lays out a case study as to how a prominent figure’s enemies can create a web of slander and inaccurate impressions aimed at damaging and ruining the victim. In our age where media outlets, as well as communication networks, such as cable television stations, newspapers, partisan websites, etc. very effectively pursue nearly identical tactics, this history book should be read as a cautionary tale.

My commentary comparing Nancy Isenberg’s “Fallen Founder” and Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” can be found here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra contains one of the most compelling character studies in all of literature. Amazingly, this can be said of several of the Bard’s plays. What sets Antony and Cleopatra apart is that this work contains not one, but two of these fantastically crafted personas, Antony and Cleopatra.

 A little clarification to start; my commentary here is restricted to Shakespeare’s play. Strangely, some sources seem to blur this fictional work with the real people and historical events that the play is based upon. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, may not be coincidental, but are essentially inaccurate! Some commentators seem also to confuse Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with other very different versions of the pair that have been portrayed in movies and television programs that have been produced in the past hundred years or so. This version is a fiction, and it is Shakespeare’s fiction.

The story is relatively simple. Antony, one of Rome’s rulers, and Cleopatra the monarch of Egypt are lovers. They ultimately lead the losing side of a Roman Civil War. After several battles and personal tribulations, the armies of Octavius Caesar defeat their forces. In the end, both commit very nobly portrayed suicides.

Both Antony and Cleopatra are represented as multi-faceted, complex people. Shakespeare had a knack, when he concentrated on a character, of seeming to create real people. He also endows these creations with plentiful doses of enigma and ambiguity. That is why these are so many alternate interpretations of his works.

Since volumes can be written about this play and its protagonists, I will confine most of my musings here to Shakespeare’s sublime portrayal of Cleopatra, who to me, is just a little bit more interesting then Antony.

An initial reading of Antony and Cleopatra reveals some obvious points about the Queen of Egypt. She is promiscuous, manipulative, self centered, hysterical, theatrical and dishonest. These are all accurate descriptors of her personality. When it comes to Shakespeare however, things are rarely simple. These personality flaws only tell part of the story.

Cleopatra is an expert seducer and manipulator of powerful men. To some extent she has wrapped Julius Cesar, Pompey and finally, Mark Antony around her finger. At one point she brags about her capture of Antony. In several other sequences she plays emotional games with him. Cleopatra ‘s conquests are not innocent and love smitten school - boys, instead they are the most powerful, experienced and confident men in the world. When her side is totally defeated by Octavius, she even manages to enthrall one of Octavius’s lieutenants into aiding her! The impression is that this woman exudes an unmatched erotic and sensual influence over men. She is the epitome of erogenous power. Many of the males soldiers and politicians on the outside of her affections looking in, describe her, using words such as “strumpet” and “whore.”

Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of another angle however. Many scenes involving Cleopatra’s intrigues are interposed with other scenes exemplifying the actions of the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Roman leadership consisting of Octavius, Mark Antony and other general/politicians are constantly using their expertise and skill in making political mischief and war. These conflicts are fueled by an insatiable petty lust for power. At one point Shakespeare seems to compare the Roman leaders to pirates. These men exert enormous and malevolent power.

With this contrast, Shakespeare seems to be putting Cleopatra's seductions and machinations in a little different light. While in no way a virtuous person, Cleopatra is using her erotic influences, in competition with men who wield vast military and political power. The Roman leadership and military’s way is to kill, rob and enslaving people over vast segments of the world. This is a world of not just hardball maneuvers; it is a world of blood –sport. The Queen of Egypt is using her talents to cope and compete, in a less brutal way as compared to the Roman powers, in a very tough and nasty world. She is startlingly effective in doing so.

The question that inevitably arises is, does Cleopatra love Antony? This is difficult to say since every word uttered by the queen is of questionable verity. She certainly does not experience a love of the healthy and balanced type. At one point she even seems to take several steps in the direction of betraying Antony to Octavius. Of course this is after Antony has taken more then a few steps toward betraying Cleopatra, by marrying and settling down of with Octavia, who is Octavius’s sister, for political reasons. I do surmise however, that Cleopatra’s consistent protestations of love and adoration for Antony, even at the moment of her own death, do point to a dysfunctional, unstable, and odd kind of love. In Cleopatra’s world, love, even if in some ways genuine, is close enough to being a tool, that it does not completely preclude the possibility of betrayal.

Finally, Cleopatra’s death is grand and dignified. Prior to her suicide, after Antony’s death, she seems certainly willing to continue to “play the game” to her advantage. When it becomes clear that Octavius will not succumb to her charms, and that enormous degradation lies ahead for her, killing oneself, is the clearly only alternative for a person such as she is. Throughout the play, her lines are a wonder to read, as they express the full range of her often theatrically expressed emotions. The language spoken by her at the end is some of the most eloquent and moving in all of Shakespeare’s works. It illustrates her majesty as well as her ultimate spiritual connection with Antony.

Does all this mean that Shakespeare was a Feminist? The portrayal of a woman who uses seduction to advance in the world, is in some ways the antitheses of Feminine ideology. In addition the concept of Feminism did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. However, at the very least, in my opinion, there is sympathy expressed here for the position and predicaments that women have found themselves in throughout history. I would describe these ideas as being “proto –feminist”.

The somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Cleopatra aside, the template of the emotionally manipulative and erotically irresistible woman, shaped in this play, has influenced writers down through the centuries. Many have imitated, but have never matched this magnificent portrayal of such a person.  William Shakespeare, created in Cleopatra is an enormous persona of unmatched gravitas and complexity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar

This is a book that exudes controversy! In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar, who is a professor of philosophy at University of Cape Town, argues that it is morally wrong to have children, and that the best outcome for the human race is extinction sooner, rather then later.

Though an Antinatalist, Benatar is a neither misanthrope nor a hater of people. His goals actually seem altruistic, as he ultimately wants to reduce human suffering. His argument is laid out logically and systematically. The author argues that an un–conceived, potential human, if conceived, will undoubtedly experience a life that contains suffering. While the new person is also likely to experience pleasure and joy, potential parents have no obligation to create a person. Nor are they morally obligated to generate happiness for someone that does not yet exist. People do have an obligation not to create suffering. When conceiving a child, parents condemn their offspring to a lifetime of pain. All the contentment in the world, which the parents have no obligation to create, cannot compensate for the fact that the parents produced a sentient creature that will now experience suffering. In a nutshell, one has no ethical duty to create people, even if they will sometimes be happy. There does exist an ethical obligation not to bring a person into the world that will experience pain. Even if a one were assured that their offspring was to have the best possible life, the offspring would experience some suffering, which is amoral to create. Furthermore the only proper course for the human race to pursue, is to allow itself to become extinct in lieu of generating more suffering beings.

Benatar adds supplementary arguments to round out his worldview. He contends that most human lives are very bad. Even the lucky few have it worse then most would admit. Furthermore, when parents conceive a child, Benatar points out that they are at best playing a kind of Russian- Roulette. There is a distinct possibility that the child, for a million possible reasons, may have a horrendously bad life. It cannot be the right thing to do, to bring a person onto person into the world, and take this horrible chance without the consent of that person.

Benatar goes out of his way to point out that the above is not necessarily true for people that already exist. Once a person has a stake in this world, their interests and potentialities often make their lives worth continuing. Though he argues that societies are too loath to accept suicide for those who are condemned to a life of misery, he does not advocate the elimination of those who already exist. In other words, once one is actually in the game, it is usually best to play it out.

This is indeed a radical belief system! I do not generally agree with Benatar’s ultimate conclusions. I will not bother to elucidate my arguments as I suspect that most people will easily raise multiple objections on their own. A Google search yields a variety of critiques of Benatar’s philosophies, many reasoned and thoughtful, others just angry rants against the author. I ask myself, is the anger and condemnation that Benatar elicits justified?

My objections to Benatar’s hypotheses got me to thinking. If I study a philosophical work and I disagree with its conclusions, does that mean that I have wasted my time? Does this mean that the opinions have no value to me? Of course not!

When I think of some of the philosophies and viewpoints that I have explored in the past, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, to name just a few, I disagree with both the ultimate conclusions as well as many of the lesser arguments that most of these thinkers present. My disagreement in no way diminishes the fact that these philosophers present a worldview that is creative, brilliant, thought provoking and culturally significant.  Often, along the way to their ultimate points, these writers expound multiple arguments, some of which either I do agree with, or at least help me glimpse an alternate view of the world. This indeed, is part of what serious reading and thinking is about. Of course there is plenty of rubbish with no value out there, but such drivel is relatively easy to identify .

While I am not comparing Benatar to the great philosophical minds in human history, his cogitations are creative, reasoned, and occasionally brilliant. He takes the reader into much uncharted territory with some very audacious arguments. He raises all sorts of valid ethical questions. He tries, at times with success, to get at the often - paradoxical questions revolving around the existence of sentient beings. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is brimming with such ruminations. My summery above, barely scratches the surface.

In additional, though I suspect the Benatar would disagree, like many works of philosophy that I have encountered, various points expounded in this book fall more into the category of “this is an interesting alternate way of looking at the world”, as opposed to “this is incorrect”. For example, Benatar’s assertion that there is more “bad” then “good” in even the best human life. This is not the way that I usually look at human existence, but this conclusion is really just an expression of a different perspective, not an empirical assertion of fact. Sometimes it is intellectually healthy and stimulating to be presented with such alternate viewpoints.

Benatar certainly does not deserve the scorn that some have heaped upon him. He is not hateful as some reviews suggest, unless one considers that he genuinely seems to hate suffering. I have read and heard that as of late, his ideas seem to getting quite a bit of attention. He has strong supporters (many have expressed themselves in Amazon Reviews pages). For the adventurous and open- minded reader, who likes to think and reflect about issues involving existence and humanity, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is well worth a try.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My List

I like to make and to keep lists. For instance, as a food and beverage lover, I keep lists and notes on every artisanal cheese and craft beer that I sample. Similarly with books that I read, I maintain a list. I do this in order to keep track of the important works that I have explored.

There are rules for what is included on my list. Some of these guidelines were set years ago that I subsequently regret, but I feel that it is too late to alter the rules.

My catalogue only includes fiction and anything that can be loosely defined as philosophy. In retrospect, I wish that I had included history, science and other non-fiction efforts. However, it is unlikely that I would remember everything if I attempted to go back and fill in the blanks.  It also only includes works that I attempted to read deeply. I need to have endeavored to learn something from the author, as well as tried to connect the ideas presented to the world at large. If, for instance, I rushed through a book in collage just to get a paper written, and I have not read it since, it is not included in my catalogue. This means that the list is mostly confined to writings that I have attempted to conquer from around my mid twenties on. As I am forty-four years old, it represents a little less then twenty years of reading. There are some worthy authors that I read when I was young and somewhat unaware, that I just did not “get” at the time. These are not included. I would like to reread these books soon and thus add them to the list. 

Also, in order to be included, the book, essay or story must have had at least a little artistic or intellectual merit or importance, at least in my eyes. Therefore, there are a small handful of works that I have read, that I have found to be lacking in any value or meaning that are not included. This is not to say that I have liked everything listed here, only that it has some value in my opinion.

What follows is my list.

Aeschylus – All known Plays
Alighieri, Dante - The Divine Comedy
Anonymous - Beowulf
Anonymous - Dhammapada (Abridged)
Anonymous – Gilgamesh
Anonymous - Rig Veda (Abridged)
Anonymous and Various -The Bible (King James Version)
Aristophanes - All known Plays
Aristotle - Ethics, Politics
Attwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale, Surfacing
Bedier, J.C. -Tristan and Iseult
Benatar, David  - Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence
Bradbury, Ray - Fahrenheit 451
Burgess, Anthony - A Clockwork Orange
Camus - The Stranger, The Plague
Chalmers, David - The Conscious Mind
Chaucer, Gregory - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton  - Plays
Dawkins, Richard - The God Delusion
Dennett, Daniel C.  - Consciousness Explained
Dick, Philip K - Man in The High Castle, Ubik
Dickens, Charles - Great Expectations, Hard Times
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - The Devils
Dresser, Theodore - An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Eco, Umberto  -Foucault's Pendulum, The Name of the  Rose
Edgar Allan Poe- Most Stories and Poems
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Fitzgerald, F. Scott-The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night
Foster, E.M. - Howard's End
Frost, Robert - Most of the Important Poems
Hawthorne, Nathaniel-The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemmingway, Ernest-For Whom the Bell Tolls, Most Short Stories
Herbert, Frank - Dune Books
Hess, Hermann – Siddhartha, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, Glass Bead Game, Narcissus and Goldmund
Homer - Odyssey, Iliad
Hugo, Victor- Les Misérables
Hurston, Zora Neale-Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Irving, Washington-The Sketch Book
Joyce, James - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Lawrence, D.H. -Sons and Lovers
Le Guin, Ursula - The Left Hand of Darkness
Lem, Stanislaw-Solaris
Locke, John - 2nd Treatise on Government
Lovecraft, H.P. - Many Short Stories
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia -Love in the Crime of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Machiavelli, Niccolò - The Prince
McCarthy, Cormac -Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
Melville, Herman-Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur-The Crucible
Miller, Henry-Tropic of Cancer
Milton, John - Paradise Lost, Paradise Found
Muhammad-The Koran - Dr. Muhsin Khan and Dr. Muhammad Al-Hilali Translation and the N.J. Dawood Translation
Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
Nietzsche, Friedrich -Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil
Orwell, George – Nineteen Eighty Four, Animal Farm
Ovid - Metamorphoses
Plato- Most of the Important Dialogs, Republic
Pynchon, Thomas - Gravity's Rainbow
Roth, Phillip- All of the Zuckerman books through I Married a Communist
Rushdie, Salman - Midnight's Children, Satanic Verses
Rand, Ayn- The Fountainhead, Anthem
Sagan, Carl - The Demon Haunted World
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Almost everything
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Sinclair, Upton-The Jungle
Sophocles – All known Plays
St. Augustine - Confessions
Steinbeck, John - East of Eden
Stoker, Bram - Dracula
Tolkien, J.R.R. -The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings
Trumbo, Dalton - Johnny Got His Gun
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Updike, John - The Witches of Eastwick
Valmiki - Ramayana (Abridged), Mahabharata (Abridged)
Virgil-The Aeneid
Vonnegut, Kurt -Slaughterhouse Five, Cats Cradle, Breakfast of Champions
Wells, H.G. -The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor
Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the
Worlds, The First Men in the Moon,
The Food of the Gods and How It
Came to Earth, In the Days of the Comet
Wharton, Edith - House of Mirth

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is a landmark in popular science writing. Since this is a science work, I would consider it “older”, as having originally been published in 1976. Thus, I strongly recommend reading the up the 30th anniversary edition, or any editions that will be subsequently published. The 30th anniversary edition includes updated notes and additional material, written by Dawkins that help to bring this work up to date. Consequently, one should read all the endnotes; these are informative, interesting and sometimes funny. The notes serve as an extension and update to the text. If one does this, Dawkins’s work seems surprisingly fresh.

The main idea here is Dawkins’s interpretation of the theory of natural selection. Dawkins postulates that natural selection is not actually something that occurs on the level of species or individuals, as we often think, but happens for individual genes, or replicators. The fact that it is the genes that are driving replication of themselves, has interesting implications. For instance, evolution is not always aimed toward the survival of the individual, group or species. A gene that is contained in me, might push me to sacrifice myself, if that sacrifice helps to perpetuate the same gene in other individuals.

All plants and animals are just vehicles for these replicators. These vehicles, that we call organisms, or more specifically, ants, oak trees, cats, lizards, whales, people, etc. are described by Dawkins as “lumbering robots” designed to facilitate the spread of genes. In the process of explaining all this, Dawkins provides a tour de force of evolution, and its mind-boggling and sometimes bizarre results.

This is a marvelous work for many reasons. For me, the most enlightening point of the book was, as Dawkins’s points out, originally not one of his primary themes, but a moderately important side note.  Dawkins’s text points to the fact that in humans something other then genetics is influencing us. Human culture and ideas have become a driving force in our world that is partially independent of the effects of genes.

Dawkins revolutionary idea is that human thought is evolving through the process of evolution and natural selection, but genes are not the mechanism of this evolution. The Selfish Gene first proposed the now somewhat popular concept of the Meme. A Meme is simply an idea that evolves based upon the laws of natural selection. Dawkins’s argues convincing that human ideas, like genes, are subject to replication, competition and the laws of natural selection Some ideas are better then others at reproducing themselves at the expense of other ideas. Ideas evolve over time. Some thrive, some become extinct. Some work together in families or associations. The laws of evolution apply to Memes just as they apply to genes.

For instance, the Meme that “God exists” and related ideas, have been extremely successful in perpetuating themselves. Holders of these Memes spread it to their children, family and friends. Related Memes lead believers to pressure non - believers to accept this set of Memes. Throughout history, this “family” of Memes included the Meme that it was acceptable to kill and torture persons who did share these beliefs, thus eliminating competing Memes such as “God does not exist.” We can extrapolate some of Dawkins ideas to think about how these Memes have evolved over time. First there was ”there are many Gods”. This evolved into into “there is one God” which later became “there are three Gods who are really one God”. Before we know it, there are thousands of competing ideas on the nature of God and religion.

Memes are often a positive force. For instance, Dawkins’s speculates that some aspects of human altruism, such as donating blood, may not be connected to gene based survival strategies and are therefore driven by Memes that encourage us to help others, even when there is no benefit to ourselves.

 Dawkins is very persuasive in arguing that in some ways, Memes are acting independently and are evolving apart from our genes. The “God exists” family of Memes may have no survival benefit. These thought-based replicators are taking human evolution to a new level and in some ways transcending our gene driven behavior.

 All this may seem obvious to many. Perhaps I may have fallen too much into the mindset of “everything that people do is ultimately traceable to some survival strategy developed in the course of evolution” (This thought is itself a Meme!). It could be that this belief is too extreme. After all, if Dawkins, one of the worlds premier authorities on genetics based upon natural selection, believes that something else is going on, it seems likely that something else is going on. Humans may be partially moving beyond chemical based evolution to an evolution of thought.
I am also beginning to ponder the possibility that, because of Memes, people are special among the organisms of the earth. This is a line of generally accepted reasoning that I have been skeptical about. My thinking on this matter has been partially influenced by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who argue against the idea of human “specialness” in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It does seem however that Memes are a characteristic that is unique to humans and that they are leading humans to behave in all sorts of unique ways.

We are still enormously influenced by our genes. Many aspects of our human behavior, good, bad and in between, can be closely or not so closely ascribed influence of these chemical replicators. Dawkins even points out that most instances of altruism are connected to animal and human survival strategies. Perhaps however, these newer replicators called Memes are taking us further.

Another worthy book, Daniel C. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained further develops the idea that Memes, in the form of human thought and culture have effectively created a new “software” that makes us who we are. This “software” of culture and learning is running on the hardware that is the human brain, which has been developed by millions of years of evolution.