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.

‘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

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.

Leaf Litter: An occasional nature note

While reading The Practice of the Wild, a book of essays by Gary Snyder, I came across his ode to leaf litter:

Living activity goes right down to and under the ‘ground’ – the litter, the duff. There are termites, larvae, millipedes, mites, earthworms, springtails, pillbugs, and the fine threads of fungus woven through. ‘There are as many as 5,500 individuals (not counting the earthworms and nematodes) per square foot of soil to a depth of 13 inches. As many as 70 different species have been collected from less than a square foot of rich forest soil. The total animal population of the soil and litter together probably approaches 10,000 animals per square foot’ (Robinson, 1988, 87).

As I’ve been trying to learn more about the natural world, I’m often left feeling overwhelmed at the magnitude of the task. The leaf litter alone is writhing with more things than I can pin a name to. How can I ever tell one fungi from another?

To that end, I’m going to start a new category here called, appropriately enough, Leaf Litter. This is where I’m going to dump all the stuff I’m trying to figure out. I’m doing this for my own purposes to help me keep track of what I’m learning and to refer back to it when I’ve promptly forgotten the name of the mushroom I found while hiking recently.

Consider this the first installment, though this blog has been prejudiced in this direction for a long time. This is something of a catch-all post, collecting things I’ve been seeing for the past few weeks, pretty much since Christmas.

Enough words for now. Let’s close with more Gary Snyder:

Life in the wild is not just eating berries in the sunlight. I like to imagine a ‘depth ecology’ that would go to the dark side of nature — the ball of crunched bones in a scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable appetite. Wild systems are in one elevated sense above criticism, but they can also be seen as irrational, moldy, cruel, parasitic. Jim Dodge told me how he had watched — with fascinated horror — Orcas methodically batter a Gray Whale to death in the Chukchi Sea. Life is not just a diurnal property of large interesting vertebrates; it is also nocturnal, anaerobic, cannibalistic, microscopic, digestive, fermentative: cooking away in the warm dark.

Jane Swisshelm was a total badass

Jane Grey Swisshelm

I’ve been tinkering again with The Book, and one of the rabbit holes that research dropped me into prompted the discovery that Swissvale (where I attended high school) and nearby Swisshelm Park were named after Jane Swisshelm, journalist, abolitionist, and all-around bad-ass.

The Wikipedia entry on her notes she wrote an autobiography called “Half a Century.” I downloaded it free from Project Gutenberg (it’s in the public domain) just to see if it was worth checking out.

Damn. What an incredible read.

I was hooked almost immediately. In a bit of foreshadowing, Swisshelm describes meeting Lafayette on the streets of Pittsburgh in the 1820s when she was a child:

When he came to where I stood, he stepped aside, laid his hand on my head, turned up my face and spoke to me. I was too happy to know what he said, and in all the years since that day, that hand has lain on my brow as a consecration.

This genuflection at the book’s start provides a link between America’s origin story — Lafayette’s invaluable assistance during the American Revolution — and the abolition movement that Swisshelm spends a considerable portion of her book describing.

Her marriage could have been written by Charlotte Brontë . During a carriage ride from Jane’s home in Wilkinsburg to the Edgeworth boarding school for girls, which was “at Braddock’s field,” the carriage driver gets lost and ends up in a creek. Their rescuer turns out to be the man who one day would become Jane’s husband — James Swisshelm. (Not certain, but I think this incident happened in or around 9 Mile Run.)

The Wallace Mansion, which served as the Edgeworth Ladies Seminary at Braddock’s Field. This screen grab is from the North Braddock municipal page.

A smart, strong-willed woman like Jane Swisshelm struggles under the yoke of marriage in 19th Century America. She portrays James as something of a bumbling dolt who stumbles from one questionable business venture to the next. To make it even more fun, his mother exerts a heavy hand over Jane’s household. Their religious differences — Jane is a devout Covenanter; her mother in-law a Methodist — prove insurmountable.

Divorce seems inevitable, and after 20 years, she abandons James, prompting him to file for divorce. She stresses that he wasn’t abusive. She was “bringing no charge against him who was my husband, save that he was not much better than the average man.” (She was expert at throwing shade …)

In my twenty years of married life, my conflicts were all spiritual; that there never was a time when my husband’s strong right arm would not be tempered to infantile gentleness to tend me in illness, or when he hesitated to throw himself between me and danger. Over streams and other places impassible to me, he carried me, but could not understand how so frail a thing could be so obstinate.

Jane, to put it mildly, is outspoken, often dogmatic. She finds an outlet for this by writing for newspapers, including the Spirit of Liberty, an anti-slavery weekly in Pittsburgh. It’s the start of her career as a writer, editor, and publisher.

Early in their marriage, the couple moves to Louisville, Kentucky, where they get a horrifying look at institutional slavery.

“For months I saw every day a boy who could not have been more than ten years old, but who seemed to be eight, and who wore an iron collar with four projections, and a hoop or bail up over his head. This had been put on him for the crime of running away; and was kept on to prevent a repetition of that crime. The master, who thus secured his property, was an Elder in the Second Presbyterian church, and led the choir.”

Jane isn’t shy about calling out “christians” who advocate slavery. She isn’t shy about calling out anyone. When it lands her crosswise with powerful men, she refuses to blink or back down.

It isn’t long before the abolitionists were debating the role of women in their movement.

“Abolitionists were men of sharp angles,” she writes. “Organizing them was like binding crooked sticks in a bundle, and one of the questions which divided them was the right of women to take any prominent part in public affairs.”

Abolishing slavery is her sole focus and mission. Half a Century spends considerable time arguing for women’s rights. But in the end, she obtains her view of women’s role from the Bible, which she feels compelled to explain to the readers of the Visiter, a St. Cloud, Minnesota, paper she edits and ultimately owns:

The policy of the Visiter in regard to Woman’s Rights, was to “go easy,” except in the case of those slave-women, who had no rights. For others, gain an advance when you could. Educate girls with boys, develop their brains, and take away legal disabilities little by little, as experience should show was wise; but never dream of their doing the world’s hard work, either mental or physical; and Heaven defend them from going into all the trades.

In a way, this is one of my favorite things about her. A liberal or conservative — by today’s bizarre, black-and-white definitions of those terms — would have a hard time fully embracing Swisshelm, even though she advocated for topics dear to each camp.

Jane’s fearlessness is demonstrated during her time in St. Cloud. She draws the wrath of Gen. Sam Lowrie, a Southern slaver who had set up camp in Minnesota and quickly amassed power as a Buchanan Democrat.

Jane starts writing for The Visiter, a 19th century content marketing campaign that was parading as a newspaper. It’s ultimate goal was to attract immigrants to the area. She sends letters to each of the three main stakeholders in town — including Lowrie — asking them to support the paper. He is the only one who fails to respond.

After she’s released her first three issues, she receives a letter from Lowrie stating that he’d support the Visiter “second to that of no paper in the territory if it will support Buchanan’s administration.”

I had not finished reading, when the thought came: “Now I have you.” Yet still I knew it looked like, ah, very like a man catching a whale with a fish hook secured to his own person, when there were a hundred chances to one that the whale had caught him. I replied that the St. Cloud Visiter would support Mr. Buchanan’s administration, since it could not live without Gen. Lowrie’s assistance, and such was his ultimatum.

She accepts his support and agrees to back Buchanan, who coddled pro-slavery interests at every turn. Rumors run rampant through St. Paul. Swisshelm has sold out.

Then she drops the hammer in the form of an editorial.

“It stated that the Visiter would, in the future, support Buchanan’s administration, and went on to state the objects of that administration as being the entire subversion of Freedom and the planting of Slavery in every State and Territory … Southern laborers were blessed with kind masters, and Mr. Buchanan and the St. Cloud Visiter were most anxious that Northern laborers should be equally well provided for.”

After the newspaper was published there “was a laugh, then a dead stillness of dread, and men looked at me as one doomed.”

Lowrie and his buddies don’t take kindly to opposition. Her press is vandalized. She’s chased and besieged by mobs. A nuisance $10,000 libel suit is filed in an attempt to silence her by crushing the owner of the paper. But she’s cunning. Repeatedly, she accepts terms of surrender and turns them into a victory dance.

The book is long, and it delves into specific local politics that I just skimmed. Despite having picked it up because of the Swissvale/Swisshelm/Wilkinsburg tie, I found the Minnesota narrative even more fascinating. The frothing, arrogant vehemence of the pro-slavery forces just feels so familiar, so contemporary.

Why are we surprised by the scurrilous, mob-like activity on the Internet these days? It’s in our blood. This is what we are. We’re not the civilized, unified people we claimed to be in the post-World War II world. We’re a roiling, bickering, dysfunctional wreck of a democracy. Trump chides security guards for not being more aggressive in removing dissenters from his rallies. But is this a strange upgrade, a ritualized substitution for past mob violence. Or is it just leading to an inevitable, violent conclusion?

Instead of circling and seething outside some woman’s house in the middle of the night because she dared speak her mind in broad daylight, we torch her on Twitter and unleash armies of trolls as single-minded and mindless as the angry torch-bearing cowards who tried to beat their way into the home where a group of abolitionists had retreated. It’s an important reminder that folks of this ilk will stop at nothing to get their way. From destroying a printing press in Minnesota to concentration camps in Europe.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine what else Swisshelm could cram into her first half century. But wait. There’s more.

She goes to Washington, D.C., initially for journalistic endeavors, but as the Civil War rages, she finds herself drawn to the hospitals, much as Walt Whitman was, though unlike Whitman, she quickly takes charge and imposes order on the chaos and neglect she found there.

She had a low opinion of President Lincoln, who had “proved an obstructionist instead of an abolitionist, and I felt no respect for him; while his wife was everywhere spoken of as a Southern woman with Southern sympathies — a conspirator against the Union.”

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln

Despite this, she is coaxed into attending a presidential reception at the White House:

I watched the President and Mrs. Lincoln receive. His sad, earnest, honest face was irresistible in its plea for confidence, and Mrs. Lincoln’s manner was so simple and motherly, so unlike that of all Southern women I had seen, that I doubted the tales I had heard. Her head was not that of a conspirator. She would be incapable of a successful deceit, and whatever her purposes were, they must be known to all who knew her.

She vows not to join the reception line. “But I could not resist going to him with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand I said: “May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.” He laughed heartily, and the men around him, joined in his merriment.”

When I came to Mrs. Lincoln, she did not catch the name at first, and asked to hear it again, then repeated it, and a sudden glow of pleasure lit her face, as she held out her hand and said how very glad she was to see me. I objected to giving her my hand because my black glove would soil her white one; but she said: “Then I shall preserve the glove to remember a great pleasure, for I have long wished to see you.”

After the war years, Swisshelm remained in Washington briefly, starting her final newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but it wasn’t long before she turned her guns on President Andrew Jackson, whose return fire cost her the government job she held and her newspaper. She returned to Swissvale, where she died in 1884.

Historic marker in Swissvale at the approximate location of the house where Swisshelm died in 1884. (This is at South Braddock Avenue and Greendale Avenue.)

By the way, if you’re interested enough in Swisshelm to have gotten this far, check out this post by novelist Kathryn Bashaar. She’s apparently planning to write a novel about Swisshelm and the research she’s doing is fascinating.

A few photos from a fading 2019

Gorgeous sunset the night after solstice, raging at the base of the Alpha Oak. Still my favorite tree on the place.
Not far from Dove Cottage, shortly after daybreak.
Black Walnut on Peach Ridge Road.
I wish I could have photographed this in 360. I love the way the trunk of this Sycamore split in two parts that then curve together toward the sky. Taken at the Ridges during a walk with Sunny.
Sunshine ascends the driveway after her morning ramble.

Reverence for the forest cathedral

Stanley Wyatt illustration in “The Great American Forest”

I’ve been reading field guides from the 1960s, focusing on several that Annie Dillard references in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. After finishing The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, I moved on to “The Great American Forest” by Rutherford Platt.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading old field guides, he noted how steeped in geology they are. Indeed, Platt does an incredible job of describing how forests emerged and thrived in response to geologic shifts.

Here Platt describes Psilophytum, the naked tree, as it struggled to gain a root-hold on dry land hundreds of millions of years ago:

Contemplating the scene in our mind’s eye, the little tree looks lonely in a very empty world. It is a fair day; the sea is calm and blue. The land is low, rolling rock, with no shadows when the sun is high. Land and sea are the same emptiness, blended together in a bluish mist and sultry silence. No gulls squawk. No terns wheel. No sandpipers run back and forth with the sliding waves. Nothing blows in the wind. The only motion is the heaving of sea waves, their breaking and their spreading on the sand, and the doomlike creeping of the tides. Although it is a tree’s nature never to grow alone (trees have an inevitable tendency to form forest), for naked tree there would be neither forest shadows nor forest soil. We can visualize naked trees scattered widely and thrusting upward from black clumps of wrack that frame the broad bay. Their little green sticks might also be seen in a little farther inland in shallow gullies. Their jaunty silhouettes poke up from clumps of ferns and moss where rain water has puddled in depressions of the rock. The stark geometry of naked tree’s world, the eerie stillness, where even the winds, with nothing to whistle through, were silent, the lonely, abruptly vertical, little trees like exclamation points in jejune surroundings, suggest a contemporary abstract painting.

This sounds almost like stage directions for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And it reflects Platt’s ability to bring the distant past brilliantly to life as he makes his case for why the American forest is an unrivaled gem of the natural world.

It’s hard not to nod in agreement during Platt’s paean to the great American forest:

The American hardwood forest of history — the domain of the woodland Indians, the forest which was so dangerous and unlivable in the eyes of the first English settlers and which we call primeval today — was in truth a luminous, youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the Ice Age. In the nobility and quality of its trees, in the number of species of trees, bushes, vines and flowers; in the purity of lakes and streams, in the abundance of color of its birds and fish and in the personalities of its animals, no other forest that ever grew on earth could be compared with it. Its vitality was revealed in the way it had created trees of various sizes: for stony places and rich bottom land, for shady ravines and sunny hilltops, for south-facing slopes and north facing slopes. And with the trees were created a host of bushes and herbs with which the forest colonized every niche and corner of its domain.

Witness the bald cypress, which has evolved to thrive in swampy areas where flooding can cause problems. “Bald cypress has the shape of a giant bottle with a long neck,” Platt writes. “This form tends to keep it in a vertical position, in the manner of a toy clown, weighted so that it cannot be tipped over.”

Or the sycamore, which betrays its ancient lineage with bark that it must burst through to grow and expand, similar to the way Dr. Banner shreds his clothes as he transforms into the Hulk.

“Look twice at an old sycamore and you will see how it bears the imprint of antiquity,” Platt says. “Its bark is smooth, but unlike the smooth bark of the more recent cherries and birches, it is inelastic. It rips off as the trunk expands, exposing whitish inner bark. All the trunk and the main limbs of the sycamore are heavy in proportion to the twigs — massive central axis with short slender branches. This is the style of very ancient trees.”

I did run into a few examples of how much botany has progressed in the 50+ years since Platt wrote his book. In a section on the forest floor, Platt gives short shrift to fungi’s role, noting it’s mostly “well stocked with game for the meat eaters — baby earthworms and slugs, and succulent larvae of moths, flies and beetles.” True. But as the movie Fantastic Fungi (which I recently saw at the Athena Cinema) points out, fungi serve as a sort of neural network in the forest. Trees use it to communicate with each other, and we’re only scratching the surface of how sophisticated fungi are.

The book teems with lyrical language and imagery. I also picked up a few new words and etymologies that I found fascinating.

  • Deciduous is from the Latin “to cut off” and reflects the fact that trees of this ilk shed their leaves each fall.
  • Pullulate — breed or spread so as to become extremely common: the pullulating family.
  • “Birches, flaunting white bark and shimmering leaves in the sunlight …”
  • “Gravity, not air-breathing, was the chief obstacle to colonizing land.” He goes on to show how wood and its complex structure made the world as we know it possible.
  • “At the base of some trunks, especially on rocky hill sides where the soil has been washed away from the crown of the roots, their contortions depict the Laocoön struggle of tree roots tackling the ground.” Damn. What an incredible image. Of course, I had to look up Laocoön to get the true impact of this adjective.

In researching this post, I found a great article on Platt in American Forests. Worth checking out if you are so inclined. (Interesting to discover he was from Columbus, Ohio, just up the road …)

Perhaps the best way to close is to turn the floor over to Platt:

“Who can say, “it is in the public interest” to let poison gases from exhausts fill the fragrant misty twilight under the redwood canopy and leave serene giants standing on the remains of their severed sacred ground, quivering in the uproar of tremendous trailer-trucks. If their cathedral had been wrought in stone by man instead of in living cells by sunlight … why doesn’t a redwood cathedral inspire equal reverence.”

Bobcat search yields everything but …

Hoping to get a photo of the bobcat Sunny and I saw a few weeks ago, I set up a game cam near Dove Cottage. No bobcats. But I did capture dozens of deer images (though no bucks), shots of Sunny lumbering past during her daily walks, and a quick glimpse of a fox that was slinking by one night just after midnight.

Trivia bonus points: I learned during an excellent production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros on Saturday that a group of bobcats is called a tantrum (from which Tantrum Theater takes its name.)