March 26, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Richard Dawkins!

Today is the birthday of one of my heroes. I love authors who write about science in a clear, easy-to-understand way—authors who are excited about science—authors who are able to express that excitement is such a way that it's catchy!

Richard Dawkins does exactly these things!

Another of my heroes who transmitted scientific knowledge and excitement in equal measures is Carl Sagan. Sadly, Sagan died in 1996 at age 62. I loved reading his books and still sometimes reread them, but I was on the lookout for another author who could fill the popular-science niche. When I read Dawkins's book Unweaving the Rainbow, I realized that I had found a new hero. I also really like Dawkins's book for young people, The Magic of Reality.

But neither of those are the book that made Dawkins famous. His book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, became extremely popular and even revolutionary. It has sold over a million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages.

You might know that a gene is a unit of heredity, something that is passed down from parent to child. It is a section of DNA that determines (or helps determine) a particular trait such as eye color or the shape of a nose.

Richard Dawkins's book talks about evolution, not from the viewpoint of individual animals that struggle to live and reproduce, but from the viewpoint of genes. He is not talking about genes that make people or animals selfish—instead, his book explains why people and some animals are so amazingly UN-selfish. It really is an interesting and worthwhile read, although a fairly high-level one.

From Genes to Memes...

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins introduced the word meme to mean a unit of culture. What, you may ask, is a unit of culture? It is a song or ditty, a catchphrase or slang word, an idea or belief, a story or even a behavior that is passed from one person to another through retelling and imitation. Memes not only reproduce (spread through imitation), they change or evolve.

Dawkins coined the word meme long before the internet became the incredible “all-encompassing cultural juggernaut” that it is today, but we now use the word most often to mean something on the internet—usually an image or video, or a type of image or video—that spreads through "liking" and sharing. Images, websites, Facebook pages, and videos that spread far and wide in a short period of time are said to have gone viral. Here some teens discuss such internet memes (and not too kindly!).

By the way, there is an entire field of study now called memetics, the study of memes. More exactly, memetics is a theory of the spread of mental content based on the analogy of evolution. 

Also on this date:

Encyclopedist Conrad Gesner's birthday

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