Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics As a Science by Robert Aunger (Oxford) From the book cover: "In the past couple of years, there has been an explosion of interest in 'memes'. However, the one thing noticeably missing has been any kind of proper debate over the validity of a concept many regard as scientifically suspect. Darwinizing Culture pits leading intellectuals (both supporters and opponents of meme theory) against each other to battle it out, and state their case. With a Foreword by Daniel Dennett, and contributions from Dan Sperber, David Hull, Robert Boyd, Susan Blackmore, Henry Plotkin, and others, the result is a thrilling and challenging debate that will perhaps mark a turning point for the field."
From the reviews: "Darwinizing Culture is a book to be read by anybody with a serious interest in the future of the subject . . . Darwinizing Culture is to my knowledge the first book to attempt a thorough critical appraisal of the potential of the subject. It is essential reading for anyone contemplating a first exploration of the area, and I hope it will be read and taken to heart by all those enthusiasts who gaily promulgate the internet discussions [of memes]. Nine content chapters by an eminent team of contributors are sandwiched between very able introductory and concluding editorial chapters, and although they run the full range from enthusiasm to condemnation, they give memetics a pretty rough ride overall. Indeed, it is a tribute to Robert Aunger that, for an editor who must have some leanings towards the charms of memetics, a selection of contributors has been chosen in such a way as to provide a rich, interdisciplinary set of critical analyses that pull no punches. Whatever headway memetics makes in future, it will not be for want of having both its strengths and weaknesses rigorously exposed and weighed at this juncture." -- Andrew Whiten, Times Higher Education Supplement for May 18, 2001
"It is hard to criticize a book that criticizes itself so fully; indeed, despite my disagreements with individual authors, Aunger's strength is to bring together a diversity of views so that most points are fully addressed . . .[The book ] is to be applauded for the refreshing, conservative approach to a field that lends itself to speculation and exaggeration." -- Simon Reader, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5:8:365-366
The publication in 1998 of Susan Blackmore's bestselling The meme machine re-awakened the debate over the highly controversial field of memetics and, in the past couple of years there has been an explosion of interest in 'memes'. However, the one thing noticeably missing has been any kind of proper debate over the validity of a concept regarded by many as scientifically suspect.
Darwinizing Culture as a science pits leading intellectuals (both supporters and opponents of meme theory) against each other to battle it out, and state their case. With a Foreword by Daniel Dennett, and contributions from Dan Sperber, David Hull, Robert Boyd, Susan Blackmore, Henry Plotkin, and others, the result is a thrilling and challenging debate that will perhaps mark a turning point for the field, and for future research.
Superbly edited by Robert Aunger, Darwinizing culture is a thought-provoking book that will fascinate, stimulate (and occasionally perhaps infuriate) a broad range of readers including psychologists, biologists, philosophers, linguists, and anthropologists.
In the general struggle to understand culture, there is a clear trend for increasing divergence between groups, with decreasing mutual intelligibility. One line is becoming centered around cultural studies, while the other seeks refuge in science. Memes are perhaps more and more likely to be the rallying cry for Darwinists of all stripes when discussing culture, while simultaneously being an object of derision among those inspired by the humanities. Memetics may thus play its small part in the increasing division among researchers. Perhaps the debate is not really about memes at all, but rather more a matter of temperament than anything else. At bottom, whether you `like' memes may be simply due to whether you are a `splitter' or a `lumper', a believer in analysis or interpretation.
Although it is obvious that despite the shared belief among those collected here that some kind of evolutionary approach to culture is necessary, significant barriers to communication remain between those from different disciplines. This perhaps derives from the varying histories these disciplines have had with evolutionary approaches. Biologists are predisposed to look at issues of transmission because inheritance is central to their subject, while those trained in the social sciences have been more interested in structure and function-which have traditionally been answered without attention to dynamics, much less the more specific question of transmission. Nevertheless, social anthropology has a long history of evolutionary thought, broadly speaking, which has generally not proven successful. Indeed, a common refrain among social anthropologists seems to be `been there, done that.' It will be difficult for believers in memes to convince these historically mindful and hence reticent social scientists that this time around things might be different. Similarly, it has proven difficult for the anthropologists to explain exactly what went wrong with previous incarnations of cultural evolutionism, or specifically how the memetic perspective is likely to go wrong itself, even if given a clear run at explaining culture.
But other factors besides academic background also seem to dictate use of the word `meme' in scientific circles. For example, the teams of Boyd-Richerson and Laland-Odling-Smee both use the same formalism for investigating cultural evolution. But one team rejects while the other accepts the idea of particulate, transmissable units of information as necessary components of the explanation of culture. While Boyd and Richerson may be more enamored of the theoretical possibility of nonparticulate inheritance, Laland and Odling-Smee appear to be more impressed by the need for replication to effect transmission. Other rejections of memes are probably idiosyncratic or, perhaps, reflect the continuing confusion surrounding the word `meme'. Given this multilayered resistence to memetics, it may be wiser to follow the progress of evolutionary cultural studies more generally, rather than the meme idea per se, for a true indication of who is winning the battle to explain culture. Applying memetics
The question of whether memetics has an empirical future remains open. Among partisans and detractors alike, a major disappointment with the current status of the field is the lack of studies in what might be called `applied memetics'. Hull (this volume) argues that we should all just go out and `do it'. However, it is not clear that such an approach will be successful if I am correct about the need to identify the responsible mechanisms underlying cultural inheritance. Instead, I would suggest memetics must first establish how cultural traits maintain themselves in similar forms through generations. Perhaps many mechanisms will be involved, as it is possible there will be as many mechanisms as there are media for social learning.
So we need to develop specific methodologies for conducting memetic studies. There should also be more discussion of existing empirical studies that were not undertaken under the banner of memetics but which could be interpreted as falling within the general purview of this incipient discipline.
It may be that it will not be possible to conduct empirical research in this area for the simple reason that the process being investigated is too complex. From my own experience (Aunger 2000), I would suggest that the prospects for fruitful empirical studies in memetics are daunting. Despite dogged concentration on a highly restricted question (transmission of a limited set of beliefs in a `simple' oral society), and the application of various multivariate statistical techniques, I have been unable to provide a quantitative estimate of the relative strengths of intra- and intergenerational transmission. On the other hand, a rather more limited transmission science may be possible-and valuable. For example, the exact magnitude of selection coefficients are often unknown in biological studies, but also without much interest. What we really want to know is whether selection is directional rather than neutral, and to identify the selecting agent. The answers to these kinds of questions can get us a long way toward an understanding of the evolution of the system under study and may be possible for a future memetics.
At any rate, as even David Hull (this volume) acknowledges, given the extensive theoretical work already accomplished and the high level of current interest in the subject, something substantial can rightfully be expected of memetics in the relatively near term-either by way of correct, novel predictions derived from the meme hypothesis, or proof that cultural entities with the characteristics of replicators exist. This is because the ultimate test-which would pre-empt theoretical objections-is whether memetics can produce novel empirical work or insightful interpretations of previous results. It has not yet done so, but must do so in the near future. Otherwise, it is likely that memetics will be perceived to be a misguided enterprise. The clock is ticking.
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