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Dawinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science

Howard E. Aldrich reviews (January 21, 2002) for etss.net a new book about the meme concept edited by Robert Aunger. Aunger brought together both supporters and opponents of meme theory (Susan Blackmore, Maurice Bloch, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L Hull, Adam Kuper, Kevin Leland, John Odling-Smee, Henry Plotkin, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber) to debate the validity of a concept regarded by many as scientifically suspect. Click here for a table of contents. Share your thoughts on the book or the review by posting a message at the end of the reviews.

Review by Aldrich

Reviewed by Howard E. Aldrich (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) Howard E. Aldrich

Unlike most edited volumes based on conferences, which typically read like random collections of papers unified only because they are glued between the same two book covers, Aunger’s edited volume displays a remarkable coherence.  Against all odds, he enticed a highly diverse group of academics to Cambridge to constructively debate the status of memetics as a science.  Committed advocates of memetics were pitted against some of its staunchest critics.  The result is a highly readable and entertaining look at the controversy over the current value and future direction of memetics.

Susan Blackmore, after Richard Dawkins probably the most well–known proponent of memetics, and David Hull, a sympathetic critic, open the book with strong arguments for taking memetics seriously.  Blackmore sticks by her definition of memes, developed in The Meme Machine, which is that they are fundamental units of culture, passed on by imitation.  For her, the issue is no longer, “do memes exist?” but rather whether taking a meme’s eye view of cultural evolution leads to any useful scientific work.  Most of the contributors to this volume, however, do not share her belief that the “existence issue” is closed.  Hull argues that memeticists are in the early stages of their research program and need to generate some general beliefs about conceptual change and then try to test them.  His advice amounts to: “just get on with it.”

Henry Plotkin and Rosaria Conte then offer critiques of what they perceive as the somewhat faulty psychological assumptions underlying the meme concept.  Plotkin argues against making “imitation” the centerpiece of mimetic mechanisms, and proposes a distinction between surface–level memes and deep–level memes.  He asserts that deep–level memes are not acquired by imitation but rather by a complex process of construction and integration.  Conte argues for a much more sophisticated and complex social cognitive perspective on memetics.  She presents a complex model of humans as limited autonomous agents, focusing on their active role in the perpetuation of cultural knowledge.

Kevin Laland and John Odling–Smee are sympathetic to the general notion of memes, but ask for more consideration of the multiple processes involved in evolution.  Their own contribution is the concept of “niche construction,” based on the idea that species have effects on their environments that subsequently constrain future generations.  Reprising ideas from their 1985 book, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Boyd and Richerson argue for population level thinking in evolutionary models of cultural change.  I should note that the renewed interest in evolutionary thinking stirred up by Blackmore and others has resulted in the University of Chicago Press’s re–issuing their book!

The last three chapters of the book are much more negative toward the whole enterprise.  Dan Sperber uses creative examples and logical proofs to conclude that Dawkin’s conception of memes is misguided.  He argues that recent thinking in memetics goes against recent work in developmental and evolutionary psychology.  Adam Kuper notes that there already are well–established techniques for the study of cultural diffusion, especially in anthropology.  He concludes that the “memetics industry” has yet to deliver on its claims.  Finally, another anthropologist, Maurice Bloch, argues that memeticists have merely rediscovered what anthropology has known for decades, and in fact, is making all the same mistakes.  He has harsh words for scientists who jump into an area without paying more attention to what has already been done by others working in that area.

Aunger provides excellent introductory and concluding chapters, which constitute valuable contributions in themselves.  Chapter 1 beautifully lays out the issues and provides a constructive guide to the issues over which the contributors struggled.  Chapter 11 concludes the book with an assessment of the contributors’ arguments and a frank admission of his own skepticism. The only obvious omission from the book is a contribution by institutional sociologists, who have worked on a project quite similar to the concept of memes for the past 25 years or so.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the concept of memes, cultural and social evolution, and the cultural divide between the natural and the social sciences. You will not only learn something about memes, but you will also see how serious academic debate can be pulled off in a civilized and constructive manner.

References:

Blackmore, Susan. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyd, Robert and Peter Richerson. (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Response to Reviewers’ Comments by Robert Aunger

Robert Aunger's ( .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) response:

Howard Aldrich admirably highlights what I think are the central points of the debate about memes resulting from advocates and critics being brought together at Cambridge a couple of years ago. No one’s mind was changed on the occasion, I believe, but hopefully the more general public debate on memes will be more informed as a result of that encounter. I can only agree wholeheartedly with Aldrich’s one critical point, that I should have included an evolutionary economist or institutional sociologist among the contributors to the volume. Not having kept up with developments in this area since the classic work of Nelson and Winter, I assumed that institutionalists were still run aground by their insistence on looking at only one level of analysis, firms. But I gather things have moved along since then (as in work by Geoff Hodgson, Jack Vromen and others).  Nevertheless, a rapproachment between the memetics literature and that on “habits,” “traditions” and “routines” from the institutional side still remains to be accomplished. For those interested in the topic from the memetic side, my own “memes” will be available in a book to be published in June from The Free Press entitled The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think and Communicate.

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