Book Review. The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O Wilson. 2014. Liveright Publishing, New York, 207pp. ISBN 978-0-87140-100-7.

I became acquainted with Edward O Wilson’s research back in the seventies, firstly as an undergraduate in Central Washington State College and then as a masters student at Oregon State University. Although Wilson is a zoologist and I was studying botany, his 1975 book Sociobiology made a big impression on me, as did his many research papers on the geographical distribution of insect species. Back in Brazil, Wilson’s Sociobiology stood out in my bookcase and it probably caught a few eyes, for I remember an instance when a zoologist from my institution asked me if I sided with Wilson or Gould (Steven Jay) in the ongoing polemic on how natural selection worked. After moving to England in 1995 I found myself with time to read and I was able to catch-up with the polemic and developments including Wilson’s other books likeOn Human Nature (1978) and Consilience (1998).

Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is a concise text that claims to have the answer to the biggest question humanity has ever asked. It consists of fifteen short essays grouped into five chapters that do not seamlessly flow from one to another but require the reader to fill in the dots. I recognised several topics of the book that had already appeared elsewhere as acknowledged by Wilson himself, especially his own theory of multilevel selection that resulted from his observations of ants and other social animals. This book is a sweeping account with the obvious agenda of nature conservation. It is indeed astonishing that with so few words Wilson has managed to scan such a vast territory covering the origin of life on earth, the development of man and society, the Enlightenment, the twentieth century specializations, the two cultures, biodiversity, social animals and his own theory of multilevel selection.

In the first essay Wilson explores the connotation of the word ‘meaning’ used in the title. Although in its ordinary usage the word ‘meaning’ implies intention, which implies design and a designer, he used the word ‘meaning’ in the sense of the organic evolution of the adaptations that characterize man. He explains that random events led to such adaptations and that each event alters the probability of later ones. He also explains that meaning can be conscious or unconscious and that the representations that the human brain constructs are examples of conscious ‘meaning’. As an example of unconscious ‘meaning’ Wilson cites the meaning ‘to catch a fly’ of a spider’s web: the spider may not be conscious of this ‘meaning’ but it is still a valid one. He continues to explain that the evolution of the human brain followed the same regimen as the spider’s web, but once evolved, it created consciousness which gave an intentional sense to meaning. Finally, Wilson underlines what this book is about; that the meaning of human existence involves knowing how and why intentional sense came to exist, how it made us the way we are, and how it can help us to save the environment around us so that we can continue to exist.

In the second essay (a modification of a piece that appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, February 2013), Wilson argues about the best perspectives to solve ‘the riddle of man’. Evolution and our inner conflict is the title of the third essay, a snapshot of man showing the good and the bad. Wilson then goes on to explain that social evolution, including the evolution of high levels of cooperation, happened in many species of animals and not just in man. He also explains that natural selection works through pressure and that human beings are constantly under the pressure of conflict. He cites as an example the different measures individuals use to evaluate themselves and others. Wilson provides a personal example in the two ways he perceived the value of the Pulitzer prize: as a minor achievement when his colleague Carl Sagan won it for non-fiction in 1978, but as a huge accolade when he himself received the award the following year.

Wilson goes on to say that neurobiologists have connected human traits such as devotion to music to the release of dopamine within the brain’s striatum and that from this it can be inferred that devotion to music was been hardwired in the human brain through evolution. Having established the existence of a genetic connection to man’s devotion to music, neurobiologists asked if the same connection couldn’t also explain other human traits such as tribalism, devotion to religion and the yearning for spirituality. These are interlinked and ‘the instinctual force of tribalism in the genes of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality’. This plus the realization that the great religions have caused constant and unnecessary suffering to mankind makes the study of religion a priority in neuroscience research. That would include the readiness to accept dogmas, myths and absurdities, and the unreadiness to accept that some problems can never be solved. Mapping the human brain is a task that Darwin considered impossible but which is now becoming a reality. Gradually, other natural phenomena in man are being uncovered, causing various supernatural explanations of cause and effect to recede.

Wilson explains that philosophy related disciplines traditionally attempted to study human condition in order to answer the question of where we come from. However, the latter have only been able to answer ‘what’ type questions for in order to find answers to ‘why’ type questions we need science. In other words, only science has the key to explain why we possess our special nature – listing the five scientific disciplines that hold the answer: evolutionary biology, palaeontology-archaeology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics.

In the fourth essay entitled The New Enlightenment, Wilson states that we should embrace the Enlightenment’s idea of the cosmos as a space-time continuum that ranges from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Carrying on with his narrative Wilson explains that in order to attain the measure of the dimensions of the real cosmos we must explore a multitude of continua. Wilson also defends liberal education, although he prescribes that it must have the relation between science and the humanities at its core. He also suggests that liberal education and creative thought are connected: ‘the early stages of creative thought do not arise from jigsaw puzzles’ specialization’ and that ‘the most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper’. Another main subject of this essay is biodiversity. Given that thousands of new species are discovered every year, the total number of species on earth is likely to be much larger than the two million known species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes. In the fifth essay Wilson underlines two special roles for the humanities: providing a view of cultural evolution ‘from the outside looking in’ and as critics of the growing number of social dilemma.

Discovering how instinctive social behaviour evolved is treated in the sixth essay. In it, Wilson explains his own theory and that of his opponents. He explain that his theory of social organization stems from the theory of population genetics developed in the 1920s and the synthesis of evolutionary theory developed in the 1930s. It is based on these three principles: (i) that the gene is the unit of heredity, (ii) the gene normally acts as part of a network, and (iii) the trait prescribed by the gene is the target of natural selection. At the heart of the contention in Wilson’s theory is the so-called ‘group selection’. To quote:

‘A gene for a trait that affects a group member’s longevity and reproduction relative to other members in the same group is said to be subject to individual-level natural selection. A gene for a trait entailing cooperation and other forces of interaction with fellow group members may or may not be subject to individual-level selection.’ … ‘Because groups compete with other groups, in both conflict and their relative efficiency in resource extraction, their differing traits are subject to natural selection. In particular, the genes prescribing interactive (hence social) traits are subject to group-level selection’.

Wilson also describes the competing theory which is named ‘inclusive fitness’:

‘The theory of inclusive fitness’ … ‘treats the individual group member, not its individual genes, as the unit of selection. Social evolution arises from the sum of all the interactions of the individual with each of the other group members in turn, multiplied by the degree of hereditary kingship between each pair. All the effects of this multiplicity of interactions on the individual, both positive and negative, make up its inclusive fitness’.

Recapping, Wilson’s ‘multilevel selection’ theory operates both at the individual level and at group level, while the opposing ‘inclusive fitness’ theory considers the individual rather than the gene as the unit of selection and rejects group selection altogether. In 2010 Wilson and two mathematical modellers published a report in Nature stating that the inclusive fitness theory was unsound. Wilson discloses in this book that some 137 biologists signed a protest in Nature against his report and restates his case countercharging that no one has refuted the mathematical analysis in it. The report in question marked the start of the animosity between Wilson and Richard Dawkins, which I find to be counter productive as well as distasteful for two eminent scientists. After all, mathematical models are simply representations of reality which may not be proved or refuted. Wilson uses the Appendix to continue to argue against the ‘inclusive fitness’ theory of the late Steven Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and Richard Dawkins.

Wilson is a scientist and a polymath with an exceptional capacity to cross effortlessly into the arts & humanities. When he published Sociobiology and On Human Nature he was heavily criticised by social scientists for trespassing into their territory. However, with The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson went much further, taking on philosophy together with the entire realm of science and the arts and humanities. He claims to have done it in the belief that solving our existential problem will set us free to focus on the future. Even when done by a world-renowned scientist a claim of this magnitude should sound alarm bells. I have no problem with this book’s agenda to save the planet as we are all responsible to preserve our planet and its biodiversity. The agenda I am worried about is the one that is not explicit, regarding ‘how the planet should be saved’. Is Wilson making the case for a religion of environmentalism, a scientist king, or perhaps both?

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a translator and editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Portuguese and Spanish speakers. She is a former botanist and an environmental consultant (

Independent Transcreators: A Worthy Alternative for Advertising Agencies

Translation in the area of marketing and advertising is different from ordinary translation because it may involve changing both the words and the implicit meanings of the original copy, whilst maintaining the attitude and desired persuasive effect. This is why the translation of copywriting into another language is known as transcreation. A good transcreator must have the capacity to understand a brand and a brand’s voice, and to communicate the message through a subtle use of cultural metaphors. In other words, a good transcreator must be a reader, a thinker and a writer.
When a translation agency contact me about my availability to carry out a translation in marketing or advertising, I try to ascertain whether there is any remuneration for this type of translation. If the answer is no and the job’s word count is small, I normally turn it down, for I know how time consuming a short text in marketing and advertising can be. I bet that most experienced translators do the same.
It is part of a company’s strategy to keep their costs down but it is a dangerous strategy to save money at the expense of quality. A translation agency that fails to differentiate between ordinary translation and transcreation is compromising on quality. If by chance such a translation agency manages to recruit a good translator who is willing to receive ordinary remuneration to do transcreation, chances are that the translator will eventually feel resentment and quit the project. A business to business deal between an advertising company and an uncompromising translation agency is doomed to fail.
The advertising agencies who need to have their copywriting translated from English into another language should hire freelance translators directly. Those that are UK-based can find a list of translators in the websites of the two main professional translators’ organizations: the Chartered Institute of Linguistics ( and the Institute of Translators and Interpreters ( These sites are only a starting point. There are plenty of good translators available, including some with the right competence to appreciate the apparent simplicity and the subtlety of copywriting. The direct sourcing of translations with the translators themselves could prove cheaper to the advertising agencies in the long term even if they pay a premium for the higher level of difficulty that the translation of copywriting entails. I am sure that the translators contracted would be happy to receive a fair remuneration for their special job, and this would be an incentive for them to give their best every time in order to secure future business. A partnership between an Advertising Company and a Language Service Provider has all it takes to be a win-win situation.

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian-born Portuguese translator based in the UK. She is also the editor of PortVitoria, a trilingual biannual magazine aimed at speakers of Portuguese and Spanish worldwide:

Liberal Education and the Uncertainties of Culture. PortVitoria, 8, Jan – Jun 2014

The following is the Editorial of the new issue of PortVitoria, the place for the Spanish and Portuguese speakers around the world

A succinct review of liberal education by Leo Straus (1899-1973) forms the topic of our main article in this latest edition of PortVitoria. Strauss was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States, where he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His article, reprinted here in Portuguese, is a speech that he delivered in 1959 during the tenth graduation ceremony of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. In it, Strauss discusses the most important things associated with liberal education – culture, democracy and ‘the facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation’; together with our incompetence and the uprising of relative culture.
Our second article, by the Portuguese writer João Carlos Espada, is a biography of Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009), a German-born British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician who exerted a great influence on the many Brazilian and Portuguese postgraduates who studied at the London School of Economics and at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford.
The third article by the Brazilian thinker and poet Fernando da Mota Lima, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Pernambuco, discusses the `narrow life` (vida mesquinha). It is a reflexion of the importance of thought and common sense for the good life, cogitating a possible correlation between the culture of binge drinking and other excesses and the rarity of epiphanies.
Our Book Review section includes two books – La civilización del espetáculo (2012) by the Peruvian-born Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa and O Mistério Inglês e a Corrente de Ouro (2010) – by the above-mentioned João Carlos Espada. Both books are compilations of essays, most of which were published as articles in daily newspapers in Spain and Portugal. Vargas Llosa`s book is a criticism of the new global ethos of constantly seeking entertainment and the causes and consequences of this behaviour. Espada’s book is a brave attempt to explain to the public a number of themes of political philosophy and to show how liberal education can help people to manage the constant social tension of modern living.
Regular readers of PortVitoria will notice that the articles and reviews in this edition are interwoven and we hope that you like this style.
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien – January 2014

Why the Apotheosis of Empathy Subtracts Responsibility – An Interview with Fernando Rodrígues Genovés

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien, editor of the internet magazine PortVitoria, interviews the Spanish philosopher Fernando Genovés about his latest book La ilusión de la empatía. Ponerse en el lugar del otro y demás imposturas morales (Provisional English title: The Illusion of Empathy. To put oneself in the place of another and other moral impostures).

Dr. Fernando Rodríguez Genovés is professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia currently on sabbatical. He is a literary and film critic, author of many essays and published books, a blogger and one of the founders of the monthly electronic magazine El Catoblepas, published since 2002, to which he is a frequent contributor.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien (JPO): Why do you state in your book that the popular notion of ´to put oneself in the place of another’ is a moral imposture?

Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (FRG): I chose the term ‘imposture’ in order to air some issues that I detect in the phenomenon of empathy, more specifically, in the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’, since it describes precisely a topic that deals not only with moral attitudes but also with places and theorizations. I won’t deny that such terminological choice also invites to an intellectual complicity with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s famous book Intellectual Impostures (UK edition, published in the USA as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science).Empathy represents, in effect, an intellectual imposture, for in addition to be an idea that is scientifically absurd and theoretically unfeasible, it constitutes, first and foremost, a huge artifice, not far from pretence, and as stated in the very title of the essay, it is also not free from illusion. There are optical illusions but there are also illusory beliefs. Empathy is one of them.

JPO: What does moral philosophy says regarding compassion and the need to understand our fellow citizens?

FRG: There is not a single agreed moral philosophy about this, but several diverse ones. Those that are directly linked to our theme lean primarily towards amour-propre, self-care and self-respect, starting from the ones we could call ‘altruists’, that is, those which place the other ahead —or above— the personal I. Compassion is a human instinct, just like aggression and sexuality. Therefore, it is not a moral value in itself, only a natural propensity that people have, which, as such, must be governed and contained by reason. What happens is that, suddenly, some concepts acquire a theoretical and/or ideological veneer that literally changes their meaning, prompting an opportune criticism. This happened with the notion of ‘compassion’, as well as with the meaning of ‘understanding’, for ‘understanding the other’ should not necessarily lead to agree with everything someone says, nor having to patronize, to adopt or ‘to put in someone’s place ’, but only, in the first instance, to understand the reasons by which someone acts.

JPO: Could you give an example of why individual responsibility and self-respect are hardly compatibles with the proposition ´to put oneself in the place of another’?

FRG: Moral responsibility means the ability to take charge of one’s life and to account for one’s actions. Due to its personal nature, responsibility (like identity) is not transferable. Thus, ‘to account for the other’ as a norm is tantamount to interfere with people’s autonomy, to take away their voice, wanting to constrain them intellectually and morally as under-age. Understanding the others means to take them seriously and to respect them, that is, to do nothing that could prevent them from freely exercising their own will. This is the best way to build a society of free and responsible individuals, neither by bringing interventionism and protectionism to the sphere of emotions, nor or to an area as specific as ethics.

JPO: Are psychologists wrong in overvaluing the role of the individuals’ social relations?

FRG: This is another case where it is not prudent to generalize. Not all psychologists hold the same viewpoint on the subject of empathy. We noticed in this professional group the same thing that occurs in many others: they are severely conditioned by fads. In the area of psychology, Gestalt and psychoanalysis ruled yesterday; today, it is ruled by currents inspired by emotional intelligence and empathy. At the same time, one needs to take into account that at the fringe of the therapeutic practices of psychologists, there is a wide spectrum of new professions and new trends — such as those linked to coaching, self-help, communication techniques, and so on — which function by the use of clichés and very elementary practical models, seeking first and foremost to attract public sympathy. Moreover, nothing is more captivating than empathy. Whoever works in a field that involves controlling behaviour, hardly remains immune to the dominant currents; and let us not forget that contemporary Western societies, which are self-designated ‘welfare societies’, are marked by extremely community-orientated values — security and overprotection, solidarity and philanthropy and the proliferation of rights — whilst they are less inclined to risk, to entrepreneurship, to free competition, and to extend liberty to a greater number of human activities.

JPO: In his book The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to hyperdemocracy as a disease of democracy. Do you see any similarity between hyperdemocracy and the apotheosis of empathy?

FRG: The analysis carried out by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, not only remains valid but has also been corroborated further by the expansion of the meaning of the word ‘mass’. The inertia of the mass tends to transform society in a totum revolutum, an amorphous conglomeration where individualities and particularities are firstly blurred and then wiped out. A ‘hyperdemocracy’ is the best-suited place to celebrate the apotheosis of empathy. It has no hierarchies, categories or meritocracy; according to it, the simplest comparisons are hateful. Anyone can take any place, not by merit or hard work, but by one’s own right. Status and places are inevitably interchangeable: lessons are given by the students, rather than by the teachers; the division of power, the main condition of the liberal society, has been reduced to a relic of the old political system; in the realm of the family, parents are dominated by the whims of their children; existing social networks allow unbound identities: today you can be someone and tomorrow someone else; and so on. If the illusion of empathy could become a reality, we would witness the apotheosis of moral egalitarianism.

JPO: What are the dangers of tolerance and acceptance without limits in the family?

FRG: In Western societies, a large section of the present generation of parents suffer from a noticeable guilt complex and a responsibility deficit, which prompt them to overprotect their children (and all of this, open brackets, when the couples decide to make descendants, for the drop in the birth rate in Europe has become a worrisome demographic problem which could become disastrous both socially and culturally). On the one hand, parents have renounced the traditional mission of educating children, transferring this task to the school. On the other hand, they permit and tolerate everything, for they are afraid of ‘traumatizing them’ with the smallest rules of behaviour. The following can be noted in the above mentioned situations: in the first case, we have teachers that put themselves in the place of parents; and in the second case we have parents who fail to guide their children — they neither tell them off nor do they punish the faults they commit — for in their angst to understand them, they put themselves in their place.

JPO: You cited the philosopher Bernard Williams who pointed out the ‘heresy of the anthropologists’ in relation to the theoretical proposition that moral judgements have no universal value, and therefore it would be inadequate for one society to condemn or to criticise the values of another. What kind of problem does this type of cultural relativism represents to the understanding and discernment of things?

FRG: Mainly one: relativism makes it impossible to understand things. In fact, it does not even aspire to such an objective. By its own nature, the process of understanding demands distancing from the reality one seeks to understand. This is particularly so in the sphere of practical knowledge such as ethics, psychology, law, and so on. I am going to give you an example: a judge cannot pass a sentence in a murder case by putting himself in the place of the murderer. In the case of cultural anthropology, to which Williams referred, there is no such thing as superior or inferior cultures, civilization or barbarism. According to that assertion, all cultures are equally ‘respectable’, what changes the strict meaning of the term ‘respect’. From such a perspective, it is only possible to know the societies from inside, and never from the outside. And this is an absurdity, for if things were analysed in this fashion, the historical and sociological investigation would become impossible: for no one can be everywhere at the same time. The political and ideological correspondence of this is no less sinister. Relativism only stirs feelings without leading to any understanding; it does not propose comprehension but only acceptance. It is worth reminding that empathy is also a manifestation of relativism. To put it in economic terms, empathy aspires to change the present monetary system back to a barter system.

JPO: You also cited the philosopher Elias Canetti (1905-1994) in whose book Crowds and Power (1960) he talks about the anxiety and the pain resulting from an incomplete and frustrated experience and how the weight of individuality becomes too much to bear, driving the individual to seek relief by integrating in the group. Do you think that Canetti’s explanation, which was inspired in the masses of the ‘20s and ‘30s in Germany and Austria, is true for the masses of today?

FRG: Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a product of its time, but due to its condition of an outstanding analysis, it has a universal and everlasting dimension, where the particular coexists with the generality of the topic under scrutiny. The same thing can be said of Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Both works have helped us to understand that the power of the masses increases proportionally with the eclipse of individualities, the suppression of distances and the extension of levelling in a given society. In this sense, Canetti’s Crowds and Power provides an enlightened description of the relentless ambition of the masses for levelling through a process of absorption of people that end up nullifying them as autonomous beings. Summarizing, the advance of the masses leads to the integration to the whole, at the cost of the integrity of each individual. The proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ owes a lot to the ‘levelling with the other’ that Canetti identified.

JPO: Does an individual lose his identity as a physical person when he joins the mass?

FRG:From the very moment that an individual is ‘swallowed’ by the masses, he loses his own identity as a physical person and as a moral person. Physically, the individual is no longer a complete and autonomous being but only a part of a whole, an additional piece in a set, a mere strand of ‘the social fabric’. And note this: within the group, or inside the mass, the individual doesn’t act, he simply let himself to be carried away, he drifts in the current; he does not decide, he obeys ; he does not speak, he shouts. To illustrate the group’s homogeneity, whenever the group wishes to manifest itself, they usually speak ‘with one voice’. Here is the collectivist ideal. Finally, let us remember that Octavio Paz used to refer to the State as ‘El ogro (monster) filantrópico’. They are many, the voices that put the notions of ‘philanthropy’ and ‘empathy’ on the same plane.

JPO: At the end of your book you show funny situations in relation to ´put oneself in the place of another’ in television comedies and in Hollywood movies, whose characters are always persons we would consider reasonable and intelligent. What is the purpose of this Appendix in your essay?

FRG: The essay has a final Appendix, which I entitled ‘Empathy Taken as a Joke’. Its purpose is to show how the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ ended up as a common place —a ‘joker’! — that keeps reappearing not only in certain professional and academic spheres but also in the media and in everyday talk. Cinema and television (including comedies and animated cartoons) did not stay at the margin of such influence, for they often reveal it bot explicitly and implicitly. Comedy, in particular, is the perfect genre to take everyday situations to their limit, as well as to their absurdity. Perhaps some readers will find such Appendix more clarifying than the preceding analytical chapters, to understand the great folly that empathy signifies. Satire and irony, for their habitualness, can be more persuasive and efficient than bold discourses and rigorous explanations.

JPO: How can people’s understanding be improved by the use of reason?

FRG: In relationships, and in the understanding of other people, sentiment is not only necessary but also indispensable. We are not machines, but rational beings who have a heart. However, the path to understanding is not sentiment, but reason. We love, appreciate or hate others not because of any rational reflexion, but because of emotional experiences, which condense as either affection or disaffection. Thus, everything has its place and everyone has their space. I distrust theories prone to intellectual mixtures and practical cocktails; in other words, anyone who puts the concepts of reason and sentiment at the same level, to the point of equalizing them, exchanging one notion for another as it suits their interest.

JPO: I would like to thank you for giving this interview to PortVitoria. Thank you and good luck with your new book!

FRG: Thank you very much for your kindness.

Fernando Genovés new book La ilusión de la empatía is available from Amazon, via the following links:

Acknowledgement: Carl O’Brien, reviser

This interview is a reprinted from the internet magazine PortVitoria, dedicted to the Hispano-Lusophone communities around the world. You can download this interview in Spanish and Portuguese by going to:

The Threats and Opportunities of the Cyberspace

Review of the book The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. 2013. John Murray. London315pp. £25. ISBN 978-I-84854-620-2

To provide a balanced outlook about the threats and opportunities of the telecommunications sector including how it is likely to develop and affect our lives is the objective of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of Google and Cohen is the Director of Google Ideas. Autumn 2009, in Baghdad, was when this book was conceived. Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, had gone there to discuss with the Iraqis how technology could be used to help in their country’s reconstruction, and Cohen, then an officer at US State Department was assigned to accompany him.

It is a good thing that Schmidt and Cohen carried out their project to completion for The New Digital Age is a useful compendium of developments in communications’ technology, explained through and their applications in society. The list of the themes is extensive: biometric information, cloud computing, cyber-attacks, cyber-capacity, 3-D printing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), drones, free-information activism, haptic technology, holographic images, interactive voice response, robots such as the iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, intelligent pills, internet, Khan Academy, mobile phones, online identity, online presence, social networking, Skype, supply-chain data, voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP),wikis, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, etc. In describing the uses of technology both by the good and the bad guys, the authors are usually optimist. One of the points they make is that globalization will not be just of products but of ideas, ‘for the best ideas and solutions will have a chance to rise to the top and be seen, considered, explored, funded, adopted and celebrated.’

In May 2013, just as The New Digital Age reached the UK bookstores, Google was receiving some bad press in the UK for its aggressive tax avoidance, and in June Google, along with other major IT players, was accused of collaborating with the electronic monitoring system carried out by the National Security Agency of the United States. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the timing of Schmidt and Cohen’s book (conceived in 2009) and Google’s stretch of bad press are merely coincidental. The launch of the book, involving the customary schedule of television, radio, conference and press interviews, undoubtedly afforded Schmidt the opportunity to address some of the bad publicity directed at Google but it is not the focus of the book itself.

The influence of Google in this book is most likely to be in the choice of the topics left out, notably pornography. As for the topics covered, the authors did a great job of presenting them in the context of how technology affects every aspect of people’s life as well as society itself. The main idea of The New Digital Age is that the dangers of the future are proportional to the information exchange possibilities of new technologies, and they will affect people, business, organizations and the state itself. From this idea comes another one which is the need for people and organizations to remain alert to eventual attacks to identities and information.

The first chapter deals with the future of individuals and their identities wherever they are in our planet, while the second chapter deals with the future of identity, citizenship and reporting. An interesting snip of terminology is the word ‘wikis’, meaning ‘real time collective editing’. So we learn that there are different types of wikis: about people’s consumption habits, about what peoples do, and so on. From wikis Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced information platform that provides a space for collective wisdom (covered in chapter 6), and Wikileaks, an activist organization that promotes free-information, which takes up several pages of chapter 2 and other chapters. Schmidt and Cohen try to provide a balanced appreciation of Wikileaks by stating its good intentions as well as potential pitfalls.

Schmidt and Cohen are generally optimistic with regards to the potential of communications technology. They start by summarizing the positive things that have come from the telecommunication sector such as improving people’s health, education, business and the quality of life in general. They point out how new integrated systems will make things more effective both at work and in our personal lives, freeing our time for other things. How voice recognition will soon allow the instant transcriptions of emails, notes, speeches and school papers, and how gesture recognition is about to move from the gaming sector to more functional areas. Perhaps one of the best prospects of the digital society is its potential to equalize the distribution of opportunities not just to the most competent persons but also to the best ideas. But connectivity also has a negative side. The misuse of the growing database about the habits of individuals is a threat to people’s identity and reputation. Data can be abused to facilitate repression on the part of governments as well as to promote social unrest on the part of power-seeking warlords. Even the big organizations that store data are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. And technology itself is at the core of the strategies to protect the data and to pursue intruders.

The future of the states, in the sense of how they will behave in relation to the continuation of the free internet is the topic of the third chapter, while the fourth chapter provides a vision of the future of political revolutions. The expression balkanization of the internet, a reference to the fragmentation of the old Yugoslavia, which extended itself through the entire Balkan Mountains peninsula of Southeast Europe, is used to designate its possible fragmentation into national internets. In spite of the current support of the continuation of the free internet, the world is divided on the matter and several countries already filter the internet to adjust it to their laws. Another topic raised in this chapter is virtual multilateralism, where future political alliances will be independent of geography, and the multilateral alliances will be formed by countries and corporations. This type of multilateralism will control all foreign aid and all support development. The greater connectivity we have already facilitates the launching of political revolutions and will carry on doing this. However, finishing off the revolution and rebuilding the country is another matter. The classical example mentioned is the Arab Spring, where technology aggregated masses and launched revolutions in various countries but did not lead to any solutions. For that, the authors pointed, actions in the real world are necessary.

The topic of the fifth chapter is terrorism, counter-terrorism and the technology race between them. Although technology has levered terrorism in both the real and the virtual worlds, technology has also helped to fight terrorism in those two fronts, as it is already done through the blocking of specific cell phones in order to stop them from become DEI (improvised explosive devices) detonators. Another example of the use of technology in the virtual world is the use of metadata to track terrorists, cyber-terrorists and criminals. Marketing is at the core of the technological race between the good and the bad guys. Terrorist organizations have learned to use marketing techniques to cultivate a good image to recruit new members. This is exactly what was done by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born extremist cleric affiliated to the Yemen Al Qaeda, whose videos on UTube served as an inspiration to a future generation of terrorists. But al-Awlaki was ultimately defeated by technology: he was killed by a drone attack in 2011.

In the last two chapters that deal with the future of world conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction the authors show that marketing wars are already a recurring phenomenon. They indicate the upcoming of conflicts, such as the attack on the BP compound in Tunisia by Islamic fundamentalists, reacting against the video Innocence of Muslims disseminated in 2012. The suggested solution to avoid marketing wars and the conflicts that result from them is to create a system of data verification capable of separating what is fact and what is marketing. Finally, the seventh chapter shows how telecommunication technology can help in the work of reconstruction of the countries destroyed by conflicts or by nature disasters.

To whom lies the responsibility for the virtual world is not something explicit in this book. However, by showing that technology serves indiscriminately the forces of good and evil, although leaving out pornography and the associated contentious topics that seem to worry people in general, the authors leave an implicit message that the responsibility over the virtual world lies with all of us as individuals. This book’s greatest strength is its cover of terrorism, cyber-terrorism and their threat to societies and business. But societies and organizations are not the only ones who need a defence strategy against the direct and indirect cyber-space threats. As individuals, we all need to defend what we have or what we aspire to. Schmidt and Cohen’s The New Digital Age offers a comprehensible appraisal of the many technologies that operate in the cyber-space as well as a balanced view of its many actors, and for those reasons is a useful book for anyone who values their freedom and their reputation and wishes to safeguard them.
Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian botanist, translator, and writer living in the UK. In 2010 she created the internet magazine PortVitoria: aimed at the Hispano-Lusophone communities worldwide.

Acknowledgement: Helen Kirby, reviser

Speaking of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) remains one of the most talked-about philosophers of the 19th century, and continues to divide opinion. The Nazis claimed him to lend respectability to their political agenda; Christian thinkers have denounced him as a nihilist; but he has also been adopted by the left-inclined postmodernists. Such conflicting views of a philosopher who is acknowledged as one of the greatest of modern times ring alarm bells. Anyone who heeds such alarm bells discovers that there are many misunderstandings surrounding Nietzsche’s life and work. This essay attempts to explain some of the most important of them. I start by reviewing how he is perceived by other philosophers.

Three Peers’ Assessments
Will Durant (1885-1981) analysed the influence on Nietzsche of Charles Darwin. Nietzsche regarded the biological process of natural selection as biased against the exceptional individual: Nature protected the mediocre and eradicated the exceptional. Nietzsche supported the ideas of eugenics and of ennobling education. It is unclear whether Nietzsche was being racist or simply bemoaning the precariousness of the position of any superior individual who lived amid mass mediocrity. Nietzsche contradicts himself when, after arguing in favour of developing finer and stronger individuals, he suggests that it is futile to try to improve mankind, as mankind is only an abstract concept. To Durant, there was much of Plato in Nietzsche, such as in his defence of the superior individual and the aristocracy of the mind, as in his ‘superman’, an embodiment of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’. To Durant, Nietzsche had great style but his philosophy required caution: ‘Nietzsche does not prove, he announces and reveals; he wins us with his imagination rather than with his logic’. Madness was the price that Nietzsche paid for his genius: ‘These dogmatic assertions, these unmodified generalizations, these prophetic repetitions, these contradictions – of others not more than himself – reveal a mind that has lost its balance, and hovers on the edge of madness.’

Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, points out that Nietzsche has demolished the shell that had sheltered faith from the searchlight of reason, a shell maintained for the sake of the illusory comfort that religious faith provided. Nietzsche declared that reality was pointless; that the world had no meaning and made no distinction between good and evil; but even so, this was the only world. Madness was the result of Nietzsche’s consequent despair.

Roger Scruton (1944-) remarks that Nietzsche’s forthrightness has made him a favourite of the postmodernists. The postmodernists marginalise both truth and refutation, and seize on Nietzsche’s paradoxical statement ‘There is no truth, only interpretation’: ‘Either what Nietzsche said is true – in which case it is not true, since there are no truths – or it is false.’ Scruton’s view is that because of Nietzsche’s insanity it is unwise to adopt his philosophy as a source of edifying inspiration.

Nietzsche and Nihilism
Nietzsche has been incorrectly called a Nihilist. Nihilism, which maintains that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated, as nothing really exists, was the first blot inflicted on Nietzsche’s reputation, caused by taking some of his writings at face value.

In his notebooks, assembled posthumously by his sister under the title: ‘The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values’, Nietzsche many times repeated ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’. All of Nietzsche’s isolated sentences associated with nihilism need to be understood in the context of his entire work. In many instances when he appears to be defending nihilism he is in fact bemoaning the nihilism that surrounded him. An example is the following quotation from his book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:
‘The eagerness and subtlety, I should even say craftiness, with which the problem of ‘the real and the apparent world’ is dealt with at present throughout Europe, furnishes food for thought and attention; and he who hears only ‘Will to Truth’ in the background, and nothing else, cannot certainly boast of the sharpest ears. In rare and isolated cases, it may really have happened that such a Will to Truth – a certain extravagant and adventurous pluck, a metaphysician’s ambition of the forlorn hope – has participated therein: that which in the end always prefers a handful of ‘certainty’ to a whole cartload of beautiful possibilities; there may be even puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something. But that is Nihilism, and the sign of a despairing, mortally wearied soul, not withstanding the courageous bearing such a virtue may display’.

A biography of Nietzsche by Georg Brandes refers to several instances where Nietzsche’s apparent negativity and contempt are due to his acerbic style rather than to nihilism. Brandes also points out some of the positive things that accompanied Nietzsche’s negativity. In his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Nietzsche wrote about the role of art in counteracting decadence and nihilism in scientism, historicism, and Christianity. Nietzsche attacked literature, not because he did not believe in it, but because he thought that literature was not fulfilling its role of promoting liberty and the progress of humanity.

Nietzsche and Nazism
Although Nietzsche’s time was characterized by the ideology of Teutonic supremacy and a wave of anti-Semitism, both of which the Nazis adopted, the philosopher’s association with Nazism1 was contrived by juxtaposing his writings, published and unpublished, in such a way that they would appear to justify aggression and domination for the sake of nationalistic and racial self-glorification. Sadly, one of the persons responsible for that was Nietzsche’s own sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who took charge of assembling the philosopher’s archive after his death in 1900. Elisabeth was the wife of Bernhard Förster, whom she accompanied to Paraguay in the 1880s to help him establish an Aryan colony named Nueva Germania, near a place called San Bernadino3.

The Nazis had already adopted Bernhard Förster as a figurehead, second only to the composer Richard Wagner, who, in addition to composing music designed to arouse nationalist sentiments, had been the originator of Nueva Germania. By pointing out Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner and other things such as his idea of the superman, Förster-Nietzsche ingratiated her brother with the Nazis. But Nietzsche had many Jewish friends and was no anti-Semite. He repudiated Wagner when he realised how anti-Semitic he was. Further evidence that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic is a Christmas letter that he wrote in 1887 to his sister, in which he set out his objections to her marriage to the anti-Semite Bernhard Förster.

Nietzsche’s idea of the superman was introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1883, his most important work, a satire of both the religious gullibility of society and the nationalist-tinted glasses of many philologists. The character Zarathustra is the prophet Zoroaster, who was born on Lake Urmi and at age 30 went to the province of Arya, where he wrote the Zend-Avesta. Zarathustra serves as Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, through whom the philosopher affirms his atheism and presents his ideas of the superman (Übermensch), the strong man who lives by his own morality and vanquishes all opposition. Nietzsche bemoans how the conditions of the world are unfavourable to the superman, for natural selection (Nietzsche believes, though such a belief is contrary to the principle of Darwin’s theory) is guided by a ‘law of average’ which eliminates the superior specimens and favours the mediocre ones. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks for him: ‘You [mankind] have made your way from worm to human, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now the human being is still more of an ape than any ape is.’ However, there is little doubt that Nietzsche’s superman came from Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, a character taken from Norse and Germanic mythology, who, according to Wagner, represents the ideal vision of the Aryan race, the man of the future, who must create himself by destroying mankind (or our notion of mankind), and displace Christianity. This appealed to Nietzsche because of his grievances with Christianity, which he defined as poor people’s Platonism.

Nietzsche and Postmodernism
Two French philosophers, Foucault and Derrida, began to associate Nietzsche with postmodernism, a chameleon ideology that has a number of mantles including the relativist idea that the universal realities of the world are social constructs based on language and communication. Ideologically, postmodernism favours the destruction of the present Western civilization so that it can be replaced by another that is post-industrial and post-capitalist. It maintains that the literary canon of the West has been constructed to preserve Western hegemony, and that scientific truth is no better than other types of truth.

One of the reasons why Nietzsche has been chosen as the face of postmodernism is his dualist understanding of the world based on an objective external representation as well as a subjective, inner, perception of ‘the will’, showing how mindless and aimless ‘the will’ can be. It can be argued that Nietzsche’s dictum ‘There are no truths but only interpretations’ suggests that the world is a ‘construct’ and thus fits well the post-modern ideology. However, the post-moderns ignored many things that Nietzsche wrote that do not conform to postmodernism. To give 2 examples: 1. Nietzsche praised science for having defied the lies of religion; 2. He criticised the false claims of truth based on the misuse of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms.

Nietzsche is perhaps the most talked-about modern philosopher among both scholars and the general public, although much of his notoriety has arisen from misunderstanding him. As I have tried to show in this essay, the association of Nietzsche with nihilism, nazism and postmodernism has resulted from unscrupulous and opportunist pursuit of agendas other than that of innocent enquiry. According to Nietzsche’s peers his philosophy is as complicated as his personality. It should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese speakers:


1. Nazism. The supremacist and anti-Semitic ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) created in 1920 from the German Workers Party (DAP). The Nazi ideology reached its maturity around 1862, coinciding with the year when Bismarck became the German Prime Minister.

2. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic* pre-Islamic religion of Ancient Persia founded by Zoroaster in the 6th century BC. It was introduced to India by the Zoroastrians of the west coast of India, who were also called Parsees or Parthians, which means Persian. The Zoroastrianism introduced in India had already incorporated some aspects of Hellenism, during the Greek rule of Persia, as well as some aspects of Christianity, stemming from their warfare with the Armenians. *According to the narrative, the monotheism of Zoroastrianism came about after Ormazd, the god of creation, light and goodness, defeated his brother Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness.

3. Nueva Germania, near the town of San Bernadino, in Paraguay, was a project of 5 German families. Förster committed suicide after the project failed and Elisabeth returned to Germany. San Bernadino became the destination of Joseph Mengele and other Nazis who had escaped from the allies’ justice after the end of World War II.

Literature Consulted
Babich, Babette (2000). “Future Philology! by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff – Translated by G. Postl, B. Babich, and H. Schmid”. Articles and Chapters in Academic Book Collections. Paper 3.
Durant, Will (1953). The Story of Philosophy. The lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers. Simon and Schuster, New York. 412 p.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1990). Modernity on Endless Trial. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1883) Thus Spake [sig.] Zarathustra. Translated by Thomas Common. With an Introduction by Mrs Forster-Nietzsche. Kindle edition. Project Guttenberg Europe.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2009) Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Thomas Common. . Project Guttenberg Europe.
Scruton, Roger (2004). Modern Philosophy. An Introduction and Survey. Pimlico, London. 611 p.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2011). Friedrich Nietzsche Source:

Acknowledgment: I am indebted to Guy Choat for revising and editing this manuscript.

Philology, Aryanism and Racism

The discipline of philology entered a new phase after Sir William Jones announced his discovery in 1786, of the ancient mother tongue that originated both the Indian and the European languages. This ancient mother tongue was later referred to as Proto-Indo-European. Jones’ discovery1 initiated the reevaluation of all languages, both living and dead, to reassert their historical and prehistorical connections. One line of study that aroused much interest among the philologists was the ancient language of Sanskrit, used in The Avestas, the holy books of the Zoroastrians later adopted by the Indus, especially the Rig Veda and the Avesta Vedic. The speakers of Sanskrit were the Indian Parsis (Persians), a Brahman religious elite who called themselves Aryans, a term derived from Arya, the name of the province where they lived.

Inscriptions of a Sanskrit-type language found in Germany were deemed to be the oldest in Europe and led many German philologists to conclude that Proto-Indo-European had entered Europe via the German plane, which in turn was used to create the theory that the Teutonic peoples were direct descendents of the Aryans, otherwise known as Aryanism. Aryanism can be considered a variant form of Teutonism, the ideology of the supremacy of the Teutonic or Germanic peoples over other ethnic groups. It gave another impulse to archaeological philologists who sought to demonstrate how cultures could be pinpointed to specific archaeological sites.

During the second decade of the 20th century, Gustav Kossina (1858-1931), a German archaeologist and ethno-historian attempted to link archaeological sites to peoples described in the ancient Greek mythology like the Pelasgi, the Illyrians and the Paeonians. The one-to-one relationship between modern and ancient ethnic groups, which Kossina believed, is not accepted by most modern archaeologists. What became known as ‘Nazi archaeology’ ended up as a propaganda tool aimed at inculcating nationalistic pride in the Germanic peoples.

The Jews, whose linguistic ancestry was thought to be unconnected with Proto-Indo-European, were made the scape goats for the two economic crisis that engulfed Germany firstly in 1918 and then again after the crash of the stock market in 1929. Anti-Semitism became the main common denominator which the German National Socialist Party (NSADP) used to unite the German population.

Teutonic supremacy is based on two mistaken beliefs. The first, that the Aryans who authored the the Rig Veda and the Avesta Vedic are only related to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. There are other branches in Iran and in the eastward region into Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that the Aryans were a race let, alone a pure race. The second mistaken belief has to do with the location of the European point of entry of Proto-Indo-European. Recent comparative linguistics of Indo-European languages have identified that the point of entry of Proto-Indo-European in Europe is not Germany but the steppe grasslands of Russia and Ukraine.

The spurious turn of philology started by the lack of objectivity of the ideas of the Romantic Movement, when Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) stated that language gave meaning to the world and was at the core of the authentic experience. This idea was disseminated by the professors of philology to their students (See my posting The Shakers of Teutonic Supremacy). Even after it was shown that it was impossible to circumscribe long dead languages to current political territories, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) insisted on the old Romantic notion of language and authenticity. He believed that Germany was the cultural heir of classical Greece and that the German language was more authentic than any other. Although Heidegger’s accolades forgave his association with the Nazis by showing that he was not anti-Semitic like the Nazis, he was, nonetheless, a racist, as he developed a xenophobia against Latin peoples.

Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to the Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities worldwide:

1. Apparently, Jones was not the first person who noticed the similarities between the European languages and the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Another Englishman,Thomas Stephens (c.1549–1619), made the same discovery which is mentioned in Richard Hakluyt’s book Principal Navigations, written in 1599.