Books Uncategorized

Memes vs. genes

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

I’m disappointed it took me so long to stumble across this book. And that happened only because we ordered it for a friend who was visiting from Mexico City. She hoped to take it with her when she returned, but the book didn’t arrive until after she’d departed, so … I opened it, expecting to drown in a sea of hard science. But Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene so anyone can understand it, and he steers clear of the underlying mathematical equations used to support much of the theory in the book.

Dawkins explains how genes are the driver of life on earth. We humans — and all other containers for genetic matter — exist to ensure those genes continue forward into the future. These genes are selfish, coding our bodies to do whatever is necessary to ensure the gene’s survival. But it’s not that simple, and this isn’t a “survival of the fittest” argument.

I found it fascinating that this is where the word “meme” was coined:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Then he drops the bomb. Humans have spent millennia obsessing over lineage and inheritance, passing on our “genes” to future generations. But because of the way genes are transferred from generation to generation, there is a watering down process that essentially flushes most individual traces of us within a few generations. As Dawkins writes:

When we die there are two things we can leave behinds us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be gone in three generations. … But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.

Assorted Bob Books Uncategorized

‘But when war come, Hunkie good enough to fight’

Men and Steel, Mary Heaton Vorse, (1920).

This is a fascinating, in-the-trenches look at the 1919 national steel strike, with particular emphasis on Braddock and the pastor of the Slovak Catholic church there who stood by his congregation in the face of threats and intimidation from the steel bosses.

Mary Heaton Vorse is a wonderful writer, bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of steel towns in the early 20th century.

There is no spot in Braddock that is fair to see. It has neither park nor playground. It is a town of slack disorder and of scant self-respect. Those who have made money in Braddock mills live where they cannot see Braddock. The steel workers who can, escape up the hillsides. They go to North Braddock or to Wolf-town; but many and many of them live and die in the First Ward.

They live some in two-story brick houses, some in blackened frame dwellings. One set of houses faces the street, the other the court. The courts are bricked and littered with piles of cans, piles of rubbish, bins of garbage … The decencies of life ebb away as one nears the mills. I passed one day along an alley which fronted on an empty lot. Here the filth and refuse of years had been churned into viscous mud. A lean dog was digging. Pale children paddled in the squashy filth and made playthings of ancient rubbish. Beyond was the railroad tracks, beyond that the mills. Two-storied brick houses flanked the brick street. No green thing grew anywhere. But in the brick courtyard Croatian and Slovak women were weaving rugs. In their villages in Europe they had woven the clothes of their men. In Braddock’s squalid courtyards they weave bright colored rugs and sing as they weave.

Mary Heaton Vorse

She juxtaposes the exterior filth and grime with the inner world of these Slovak tenements, where residents control the only thing they can, creating interior spaces that are clean, colorful islands in a sea of soot.

The women in the steel towns fly a flag of defiance against the dirt. It is their white window curtains. You cannot go into any foul courtyard without finding white lace curtains stretched to dry on frames. Wherever you go, in Braddock or in Homestead or in filthy Rankin, you will find courageous women hopefully washing their white curtains. … I saw only one house where the curtains were filthy in the steel towns. It was a signal of defeat, a flag at half mast. It was in the house of a young woman whose oval face had a yellow pallor. She had a very young baby, and at its birth she had blood poisoning.

Two ideas I culled here that could apply to the Book:

  1. She describes in detail Father Adalbert Kazincy (she spells it Kacinski), the pastor of St. Michael’s Slovak church in Braddock. I started Googling around, trying to find more info on him. He’s fascinating and a possible novel in his own right. There already is a play about him called Father K.
  2. She describes a reverse migration trend after the 1919 strike is crushed, with many Slovaks and other immigrants returning to Europe after deciding they’d have enough of American Democracy. As Vorse writes, quoting a Slovak immigrant:

“When I come to this country first time I am going right off to be citizen, I think. Pretty soon this is my country, I think. Pretty soon I buy me house. You know what the first English I learn? ’Damn Hunkie — that’s what they call me. But when war come, Hunkie good enough to fight.

“You hear what feller say is difference between government in Austria and government here. He say, there Kaiser rule; here mill boss rule. That’s true. ‘Damn Hunkie’ that’s what I mill boss say. If we join union boss call us ‘damn Hunkie’ and kick us out. Is that free country? So now I go home to my country, Bohemia. My country more free country than this.”

“There are thousands of competent workmen in his state of mind,” Vorse writes. “They do not believe in American democracy. Why should they? They have never seen any in the steel towns.”

In all, I emerged from Vorse’s book with a much clearer picture of life in steel towns during the early 20th century. I also found a few possible subplots here that I’m interested in exploring …

This book is available free on

Books Media Bob Uncategorized

Why journalism matters …

Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly (1887)

Well, I don’t care about that. You are in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get anything. This is charity, and you should be thankful for what you get.

— Miss Grupe, one of several “Nurse Ratcheds” in “Ten Days in a Mad-House”

After Nellie Bly, “the New York World’s Girl Correspondent,” feigns insanity to get admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, she finds a horror show. Miss Grupe’s comment above is delivered after Bly is forced to bathe in icy water and sent off to bed soaking wet in a facility with no heat. She begs for a nightgown. But the poor don’t deserve such luxuries.

Nelly Bly

Bly’s reporting makes a difference. She spends 10 days in the asylum, which results in a series of newspaper articles and ultimately the book Ten Days in a Mad-House. (This book is available free thanks to Project Gutenberg, a powerful reminder that the Internet still is capable of using its powers for good.) After being plucked from the asylum, Bly testifies to a grand jury on the abuses, and ultimately an additional $1 million is budgeted for care of the mentally ill. That clearly doesn’t solve the problem. But I suspect it improved the lives of at least a few of these patients.

A few things I loved about this book:

  • Bly is a great writer and reporter. The story is riveting, and it’s a frightening reminder of how little power women had in society at the time. Several asylum inmates were women who were sent there by their husbands for refusing to “behave.”
  • There’s a Pittsburgh tie. Like Jane Swisshelm, another female journalist affecting change in her world, Bly grew up in the Pittsburgh area and spent time working at Pittsburgh newspapers, in her case the Dispatch.
  • The Gutenberg version retains the ads. So you, too, can discover the wonders of “Madame Mora’s Corsets” or the “handsome cake of scouring soap’’ called Sapolio. Or maybe you were looking for Gluten Suppositories to ease your constipation: “As Sancho Panza said of sleep, so say I of your Gluten Suppositories: ‘God Bless the man who invented them.’” — E.L. Ripley, Burlington, Vt.