Friday, November 19, 2010

Alan Turing: Gay Man who Saved the World yet Died in Disgrace

What do you do to a homosexual mathematician whose code-breaking genius saved the world during World War II? Not figuratively, but actually saved the world from Nazi domination? You put him on trial, of course! You convict him of gross indecency. You force him to choose prison or chemical castration. You strip him of all dignity and hound him until in shame and despair he swallows a cyanide pill and dies.

The story of Alan Turing is one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern civilization. A man who should have been a hero of the free world and idolized next to Einstein and Newton in the history books was instead hounded to death because of religion-inspired homophobia.

In World War II, Alan Turing's genius at breaking Nazi secret codes was so successful that the Allies could have sunk almost every single U-boat and convoy that left Germany. Turing's work was so good it was like cheating at cards: if you win every hand, the other players will quickly figure out that the game is rigged. The Allies had to employ all sorts of tricks to hide their success; if you want a fascinating account, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson's semi-fictional Cryptonomicon, the story of the rise of modern cryptography.

Alan Turing literally saved the world from Nazi domination. Without his work, WWII would have ended very differently. The Nazi regime might have remained undefeated, still in control of Northern Europe and western Asia. The Japanese might have retained control of East Asia. Our world maps would look vastly different today. And even if we'd won the war, without Turing's work it's likely that millions more soldiers and civilians would have died in the fight.

And Turing's work didn't end with cryptography. Today he's best known as the inventor of the modern digital computer, the one who laid down the mathematical foundation for all computer science. His name is even enshrined in two of the most important computer-science concepts, the Turing machine and the Turing test.

If Alan Turing hadn't been homosexual, his name might be a household word like Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What home doesn't have a computer? If you count the laptops, cell phones, digital TVs, iPods, digital cameras and microwave ovens in your home, I'll bet you own more than a dozen computing devices. Every one of them works on the principles laid down by Alan Turing during WWII when he was trying to develop a computing machine to break the enemy's codes even faster.

Turing's fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America's McCarthyism. In 1952 a gay lover helped an accomplice rob Turing's house. During the police investigation, it came out that Turing was a homosexual. He was arrested and convicted of gross indecency, and given a choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing choose castration.

On June 7, 1954, at just forty two years of age, Alan Mathison Turing killed himself by swallowing cyanide. One of the greatest minds in the history of humankind was lost forever, and one of the greatest heroes of World War II died in shame and disgrace.

But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing. In spite of his sexual orientation and consequent hardships he must have experienced, he remained a true patriot and mathematician. He put his mind to work to save the very society that persecuted him. It is possible that he changed history and saved more lives than any other single person in the twentieth century.

On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology to Turing's memory:
"Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him ... So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.
It is stories like Turing's that keep me writing. It's easy to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the immoral "morality" of the Bible. It sounds nice to advocate tolerance and respect. But Alan Turing is dead, and the Bible is where it all started.


  1. I think the basic presupposition behind this post, that the "Bible is where it all started" is a fairly questionable assumption. What's the evidence that homophobia really stems from the Bible? My own view is that the Bible is appealed to as a post hoc rationalization for pre-existing hatred and fear of gay people. John Boswell wrote the classic work in queer studies on the history of tolerance towards gays in the West, and he found that just as there was an anti-sexual, ascetic pagan tradition (sometimes homophobic), there was also Christian tradition in the Middle Ages of tolerance and pro-gay or tolerant attitudes. (I wrote a review of the book here.) After all, why should we take the rationalizations of hatred at face value, as representing the real motivation behind that hate?

    So, it's disgraceful that Alan Turing was subjected to such ignoble conditions. But, it's glib and historically incautious to say "religion" or "the Bible" is the cause.

  2. Timmo - You raise an excellent point: to what extent is the Bible the source of various social norms as opposed to merely an embodiment of instincts and natural inclinations? I've written about this in some detail. For example, this blog of mine essentially makes the very same point that you raise: Atheism IS Where Morality Originates. So your criticism is well placed.

    However, I'll stick to my original thesis but with a different justification. One of my main criticisms of religion is that it "freezes" morality (not to mention science). Christians, Jews and Muslims claim that their holy scriptures are God's inerrant words, which leaves no room for society to mature and improve. We're stuck with the morals laid down twenty centuries ago. We do have unpleasant and/or undesirable instincts, such as xenophobia, aversion to disease, fear of birth defects, homophobia and a tendency to polygamy/infidelity. These instincts were embodied as memes in our linguistic culture (because memes that match human instincts thrive).

    When the Jews broke new ground by creating a written religion, they "froze" these memes in place. Later when these text were declared to be God's own words (The Inerrancy Meme), they became a permanent part of our culture.

    So you are absolutely right that "the Bible is where it all started" is not correct. It started with the very nature of human sexuality which created the memetic ecosphere in which these memes thrived. But I still assert that the persecution of Alan Turing can be laid at the feet of religion. Without the the Inerrancy Meme (which I give a fair amount of print to in The Religion Virus), we might be able to eradicate these ancient and cruel memes and evolve to a higher moral state.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Craig. I don't think we need to invoke the pseudo-scientific apparatus of memes. It's just armchair speculation to guess that culture can be divided into discrete units that propagate according to some selection pressures and so on without doing real empirical work (which is never done). The fact of the matter is that it is not known what, if anything, causes things like sexual taboos to be ubiquitous in human cultures.

    The desire of inerrancy and absolute certainty certainly impedes moral and scientific progress. But, that doesn't have anything specific to do with religion. One can consistently be a Christian without asserting that the Bible is the infallible "Word of God." And the belief in absolute certainty has been part of science. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that his law of gravitation or geometrical optics were directly deduced from experimental facts, and were therefore as certain as the facts are. That view was very widely shared during the Scientific Revolution through the 19th century. Newton's understanding of optics and gravitation had to be revised in radical ways, and the relationship between theory and data in science isn't really what Newton supposed.

    If it is inerrancy that's your target, you should directly attack that. It's not a necessary part of religion, and it has been a part of science.

    Also, I might add that Hindu and Buddhist scriptures are older than any in the Talmud, and are sometimes taken to be infallible. Also, you say "ancient and cruel" as though they go together, when "modern and cruel" is just as real, and possibly even uglier.

  4. Timmo - I can't let your comment go by in which you dismiss memes as "pseudo science." As one who wrote an entire book using memes as a way of modeling culture and society, I find it surprising that they aren't a more widely used tool.

    Calling memes "pseudo science" is like calling calulus "pseudo science." Calculus isn't science at all. It is a way of modeling physical reality. We have discovered that there are certain symbolic manipulations that we can conduct which happen to map on to physical events in useful ways. But it's not that the universe follows the laws of calculus, but rather the other way around. Calculus was created in such a way that it is useful in modeling certain aspects of physics.

    Darwin's "theory of evolution" is the same thing. He created a vocabulary and observed "rules" that nature happens to follow. It's not that Darwin's theory dictates how life changes, but rather that Darwin created rules that happens to accurately predict how life will change over time.

    Just so, memes are nothing more than a useful way to describe certain phenomena that we find in culture. They give us a vocabulary that allows us to speak more concisely and to predict how certain cultural phenomena will unfold. Whether we call information that is passed linguistically a "meme" or not, it will still be passed. But by naming it, and by observing that information that passes across a culture an down through history can be modeled with fair accuracy with some rules that look a lot like Darwinistic principles, we gain more insight into our own culture.

    Is the Bohr model of the atom correct? No, but it's useful. Is the valence model of chemistry correct? No, but it's a a more accurate way to describe how atoms interact with one another in close proximity than the Bohr model. Is the quantum mechanical model of chemistry correct? No, it's just another even more accurate model of reality. The only thing that's "correct" is the existence of atoms.

    "There are atoms and space. Everything else is opinion." – Democritus.

    Memetics is not pseudo science at all. It's just a useful tool that gives certain insights into culture and human history.

  5. Going into the background of memetics would take us rather far afield, but I feel that in fairness I should defend the "dismissal." Asserting that memetics is a way of modeling what happens in human culture and history doesn't assuage the concern that the way this is carried out is pseudo-scientific. The thrust of my objection is that models have to be subjected to rigorous empirical testing under controlled, repeatable, and known conditions. This is what is done in the natural sciences. If physicists stopped performing experiments and only invented models, then physics would become a pseudo-science. Authentic science is testable in a way that memetics hasn't been shown to be. (Much of what goes on in sociology or economics shares this problem.) Do you think that memetics can really make such a strong claim?

  6. The blog writes: "Turing's fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America's McCarthyism. In 1952 . . . "
    This omits two local considerations:
    1. "Security" viz. revelations 1949-52 that Communist agents successfully infiltrated the US atomic bomb project in wartime (cf. Klaus Fuchs' guilty plea 1950) and might have penetrated postwar diplomatic and intelligence communities (Burgess and Maclean 1951.) These occurred after the Berlin Blockade and during the Korean War i.e. when Soviet Russia appeared more aggressive than ever before.
    2. General British government policy re: homosexuality, specifically as conducive to blackmail of gays in "security sensitive" jobs cf. (a) Guy Burgess, (b) the frequency of homosexual play at British "public" schools. The next Attorney-General (Reginald Manningham-Buller) ordered in 1954 a special campaign to detect and prosecute homosexuals (cf. Lord Beaulieu). Turing's experience in 1954 demonstrates (a) readiness of the police to prosecute, (b) relative leniency of judges (within the statutory law of the period.)
    Considerations of religion may be part of the British general environment in 1952 but did not help or hinder Turing or the other persons named here.

  7. DPhil – while I appreciate the historical details that you've provided (it was a very interesting episode in world history), I disagree with your conclusion. The rabid homophobia that fueled Turing's persecution originated with religion. Homosexuals wouldn't have been susceptible to blackmail in the first place if not for religion's influence.

  8. Thanks for a passionate article.
    While I agree that the Turing's case was outrageous, I'd like to point out that calling him a man who "saved the world from Nazi domination" is not even an exaggeration - it's simply absurd.
    There were Polish mathematicians, there were British sailors and pilots, most importantly, there were 11 million Soviet soldiers whose ultimate sacrifice of life destroyed the Nazi military and state machine - and saved the world. Let's be reasonable.

    1. Indeed. There were millions of heroes during WWII, and without the courage of any number of them, the tide might have turned in favor of the Nazi and Japanese regimes. But it's not an exaggeration, and definitely not absurd, to say that Alan Turing's work was pivotal. Many incredibly smart mathematicians worked at Bletchley Park and contributed to the code-breaking effort. But without Alan Turning's work, there is little doubt that the war would have gone very differently indeed. There was no other mathematician like him, and his work was key in turning the war around. Whether you agree or not that he "saved the world" from a terrible fate, I'm sure we can all agree he was one of the intellectual giants of modern times. Turing deserves a place in history alongside Newton, Galileo and Einstein.


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