Darwinizing Culture

The State of Memetics as a Science by Robert Aunger (editor)

by Matthew Wolf-Meyer


For those unfamiliar with “memes,” they are, quite simply, the theoretical smallest cultural commodity—an idea—that replicates itself through its symbiotic relationship with its human host. The theory is either entirely absurd or the solution to the mystery of culture that has been the province of anthropologists for the past century and a half. The concept was birthed by a scientist (Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene [1977]), and this alone is enough to distance some potentially interested parties in the humanities and social sciences.

Darwinizing Culture is at once the reiteration and clarification of memetic theory, as well as a series of arguments against the theory as it stands and those theorists who so often find the concept attractive, but who are isolated in the sciences and distanced from previous theories of culture and cultural development.

cover art

Darwinizing Culture

Robert Aunger

The State of Memetics as a Science

(Oxford University Press)

The collection brings together pieces from Susan Blackmore (author of The Meme Machine [Oxford, 1999]), Henry Plotkin, David Hull, and Dan Sperber, as well as many other younger theorists, following a rather terse foreword by Daniel Dennet—one of memetic theory’s greatest proponents. Aunger’s introduction and conclusion to the collection are wonderful contributions and help to establish the debate, both contemporaneously and historically, for memes enthusiasts and those new to the field as well.

Blackmore’s piece is a follow-up to an earlier study of hers, in part working to refute critics who found fault with her prior book-length examination. As such, while helping to provide continuity for the debate, it sets the tone for the collection, which is one of distress. The collection effectively critiques itself by including both sides of the debate, which is admirable. Rather than clearing the slate, though, as Aunger hopes the collection will, it asks the reader to choose a side, and these ideologies are clearly demarcated by academic alignments.

However, this is not to say that the collection fails to be useful—in fact, quite the contrary. A number of the essays (and I’m inclined to include them all in this) facilitate the conceptual understanding of the field on one level or another, but as they are in constant dialogue with one another, this objective is constantly compromised

As in every anthology, there is a single essay that stands out from the rest for its sheer insight and applicability. In this case it is Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee’s innocuously titled “The Evolution of the Meme.” Laland and Odling-Smee expand on Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “extended phenotype” (from The Extended Phenotype [1982]), positing that the cultural artifacts created by civilization influence (and possibly cause) both cultural and biological evolution. It sounds deceptively simple, but the premise is that by creating artifacts that alter the environment simply by their sheer presence, the evolution of that culture is irreparably altered by always needing to incorporate the presence and utility of that artifact. With the explosion of artifacts endemic to consumer capitalism, our cultural evolution has been dramatically influenced, and Laland and Odling-Smee provide an interesting hypothesis to explain this sort of transformation in culture (and consciousness -– surely Marshall McLuhan would agree with their suppositions).

If there is a fault with the collection, it is simply that the debate over memetics is a rather closed sphere—the majority of the essays cite the author’s previous contribution to the field, or one or another of the other included authors. If nothing else, the contributions by Sperber and Adam Kuper should counterbalance this, and hopefully encourage the steady incorporation of more anthropologically minded sources.

While the collection is at times rather tiresome for a meme enthusiast (and additionally so for students of culture, who must read through various reiterations of basic anthropological tenets), it would seem to provide a comprehensive introduction to both the idea and the debates surrounding the idea for those new to the field. And for the meme enthusiast, especially those schooled in the sciences, the arguments of Sperber and Kuper are particularly important, bringing in a greater anthropological basis for our understanding of memetic theory.

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