Plenty of profile but a dearth of results

May 18, 2001

Andrew Whiten casts a sceptical eye over the popular field of memetics.

The idea of "memes" was born in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and so is already a quarter-century old. Dawkins spent most of his book arguing that crucial insights into the nature of biological evolution are gained by recognising the rare ability of genes to achieve potential immortality through replication, in the process shaping more ephemeral phenomena such as both the altruism and selfishness seen in animal behaviour. When he got to human behaviour, however, Dawkins noted that a galaxy of new replicators have arisen in the shape of cultural phenomena that have themselves "evolved". The new replicator needed a name and, seeing it as a "unit of imitation", Dawkins coined the term meme, giving as examples "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases and fashions".

The idea of the meme is thus itself a meme, and like any replicator a crucial measure of its worth lies in its reproductive success. For many years it appears to have bred relatively quietly among networks of devotees, particularly on the internet. Then, in 1999, stimulated by Daniel Dennett's enthusiastic writings on the subject, Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine became the first of several book-length treatments to attract wide public attention to the idea, arguing that in memetics we have more than an intriguing analogue of genetic evolution. Writing a foreword to this, Dawkins himself appeared almost startled that if Blackmore's elaboration of memetics was correct, "imitation could become the basis of a major theory of the evolution of the human mind and the explosive inflation of the human brain, even of what it means to be a conscious self". He went on to note the population explosion of the meme idea indicated by finding more than 5,000 mentions of "memetic" on the internet (ten times the number for academic terms such as "poststructural", for example). There is an electronic journal, the Journal of Memetics , and meme is now even in the Oxford English Dictionary ("meme: an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation"). The meme meme looks set to continue to replicate quite happily.

However, the meme meme is a very curious entity. In the popular scientific press and internet it has proliferated copiously, and its appeal perhaps suggests it is picking out something real and significant. But it has yet to achieve more than a toehold on scientific applicability. This is a book to be read by anybody with a serious interest in the future of the subject, although I will conclude this review by suggesting that the fate of the meme meme will necessarily be contingent on other potential developments.

Is memetics taking us anywhere interesting at the level of serious research, scientific or otherwise? It has to be said that most of the electronic and other memetic literature is either abstract, theoretical or highly speculative. Will this ever spawn a significant body of empirical findings? Darwinizing Culture is to my knowledge the first book to attempt a thorough critical appraisal of the subject. It is essential reading for anyone contemplating a first exploration of the area, and I hope will be taken to heart by all those enthusiasts who gaily promulgate the internet discussions. 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.

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.

Chapters by Dan Sperber and Maurice Bloch interleave penetrating criticism with some encouraging signposts for the future. It is particularly refreshing to see an anthropologist as distinguished as Bloch arguing that the best writings in memetics have led to a proper realisation "that biologists and social scientists are specialists dealing with different parts of what is ultimately a unitary phenomenon". His criticisms are presented in the spirit of "clearing the decks for the very enterprise which Dawkins and Dennett propose". Nevertheless, Bloch's critique is quite devastating, particularly where it concerns the identification of the cultural "units" whereby memes are supposed to stand as counterparts to genes. Taking the example of a farmer's knowledge about the weather, he argues that any attempt to specify how many discrete cultural "bits" it contains can only ever be arbitrary. This is an oft-voiced concern about the gene-meme analogy, but Bloch delivers it with unusual effectiveness and care. His care contrasts nicely with the caricaturing and sneering of the other anthropological chapter in the book, whose main contribution is perhaps to portray the prejudiced hostility that meme-talk has tended to engender in that discipline. Read Bloch's final paragraph before that one.

Sperber takes issue with a related aspect of the claim that culture can be analysed into the transmission of cultural "particles". He argues that most cultural items are not replicated in the sense of being copied from one another, not even in the sense of being straightforwardly imitated, and so are not memes. Instead, each generation makes acquisitions from the last by a complex process of reconstruction in which the consequences of observation are intertwined with and interpreted in relation to existing knowledge, including inferences about the intentions and meanings enveloping the observed acts. In explaining his concerns, Sperber takes seriously a thought experiment on this issue put forward earlier by Dawkins and suggests interesting counter-experiments.

Reading this, I felt a momentary expectation that the thought experiment would give way to a real one. But - not yet. I am led to conclude on a rather obvious point: that the promise of memetics will only be cashed in when some substantial empirical results are generated within its framework. The high profile the topic has now attained, coupled with the fact that imitation, social learning and culture have become hot topics, means that memetics probably has five to ten years to bear real scientific fruit. If not, it will surely be in danger of losing the attention it has enjoyed so much in recent times.

Andrew Whiten is professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology, University of St Andrews.

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