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by Robert Aunger (editor)
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D. on Oct 28th 2001

Darwinizing CultureDo you know why we don't have a Nobel Prize in mathematics? It so happens that Nobel's wife left him for a mathematician, and this is his sweet revenge. This is an example of a story which has managed to spread all over the world, and all over the academic world, despite its being a complete fantasy (Nobel died a bachelor, etc.). I first heard it from an eminent professor in graduate school, and I still hear it from world-class mathematicians and physicists. Check the Internet and you'll see it in trivia quizzes. So how does this story survive?

Students of culture in all disciplines have been intrigued by the appearance of memetics, because we all struggle with the question of why certain beliefs and certain fantasies not only survive, but spread and even become dominant quite fast within a certain culture. We are especially intrigued by "the quasi-genetic inheritance of language, and of religious and cultural traditional customs (Dawkins, quoted by Sperber, p. 167 in this book), and even more puzzled when the phenomenon is not just cultural continuity, but sudden and sweeping cultural change.

If the definition of the meme is "an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation" (Oxford English Dictionary as quoted by Blackmore on p. 25 of this book) or "the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change" (quoted by Hall, p. 48), or as "a symbolic representation of any state of affairs" (Plotkin, p. 113), and if memetics is the application of the evolutionary paradigm of heredity, variation, and selection to memes, then what this book seeks to establish is whether this new theoretical framework adds much, or anything, to our research armamentarium as we approach the phenomena of culture.

Contributors to this book are divided into proponents and critics of memetics. In addition to a Foreword by Daniel Dennett, and an Introduction and Conclusion by Robert Auger, the book's editor, who seems like a cautious proponent, we have here nine well-written chapters.

Susan Blackmore, an enthusiastic proponent, even suggests that imitation itself has survival value, and that "Memes compete with each other to be copied and the winners change the environments in which genes are selected. In this way, memes force genes to create a brain that is capable of selecting from the currently successful memes" (p. 32). But then she also claims that the idea (and the practice) of rain-dances survives and is copied because rain dances happen, by chance, to coincide with rain. This kind of learning may take place, of course, but it is extremely rare. Assuming that individuals adopt ideas or rituals because of chance reinforcements ignores how social learning operates, i.e. through learning from parents, peers and authorities in general. Many millions of individuals do believe that the number 13 is unlucky, and that without ever having observed that number coincide with anything particularly bad. Millions see horoscopes in the media and on the Internet and take them seriously because they come from authorities, not because anything in them coincides with empirical observations.

The question of content and substance seems to be studiously avoided by some proponents of memetics. Blackmore mentions "bizarre ideas like four-foot high aliens who come and abduct people from their beds at night can usefully be seen as memes that succeed despite being false" (p. 41). But the question is exactly why and how such ideas, more bizarre or less bizarre survive and succeed. One step towards answering this question is to examine who actually is more likely to embrace such beliefs, which are not randomly distributed in the population.

And more often than not, what is copied in social learning is what Blackmore calls a "vast memecomplex like Roman Catholicism" (p. 36). It is exactly those memecomplxes of identity and beliefs which Blackmore does not wish to discuss, which survive and create the substance of human cultures.

Aunger in his Conclusion admits that empirical tests are "daunting", and we realize that as we read on. Are all memes like chain letters, coming with built-in survival mechanisms in the form of explicit warnings to human agents? Religious doctrines, as Sperber mentions, are comparable to chain-letters, but this is not true of most other ideas. The chapter by Plotkin pushes us towards social reality, and then, in the most illuminating contribution, Conte presents a detailed social-psychological framework which involves active agents and their decisions. Thus we find that agents are more important than memes, and that social psychology is sufficient to explain major aspects of cultural transmission.. Adam Kuper and Maurice Bloch, two anthropologists who have contributed chapters to the book, suggest rather convincingly that ideas cannot be treated in isolation, and that they always appear and operate in complexes. Breaking down these complexes into bits of assumed equal valence just doesn't make sense. Not all ideas are created equal, and many cannot survive on their own.

The Nobel legend can serve as a good example of a meme, according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition quoted above, existing independently and surviving well. But its replicator mechanisms can be explained without memetics. It is the factors of source and content which determine its survival. Individuals adopt and spread urban legends because they come from trusted sources (friends and media) and because they "make sense". Their content satisfies some basic needs for transmitter and receiver alike. Urban legends, like jokes, can survive on their own, but most other ideas are part of a memecomplex. E=mc2 will never survive without its surrounding complex of ideas.

All the contributors to the book are creative, lucid thinkers, and able writers. It's a pleasure to observe first-rate minds at work, and we have to conclude that memetics is a provocative idea but I am not sure we need it to explain why the Nobel story will live forever.

© 2001 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi teaches psychology at the University of Haifa. He is the author (with Michael Argyle) of The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience (1997) and of Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion (1996).