Friday, 21 October 2011

Another new book on memes - and tepees

This one is: On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes. The title is a play on Darwin's title. It was published 10 days before my own book.

Curiously, it seems to be a travel tale - with memes mixed in. The blurb reads:

Why do some ideas spread, while others die off? Does human culture have its very own “survival of the fittest”? And if so, does that explain why our species is so different from the rest of life on Earth?

Throughout history, we humans have prided ourselves on our capacity to have ideas, but perhaps this pride is misplaced. Perhaps ideas have us. After all, ideas do appear to have a life of their own. And it is they, not us, that benefit most when they are spread. Many biologists have already come to the opinion that our genes are selfish entities, tricking us into helping them to reproduce. Is it the same with our ideas?

Jonnie Hughes, a science writer and documentary filmmaker, investigates the evolution of ideas in order to find out. Adopting the role of a cultural Charles Darwin, Hughes heads off, with his brother in tow, across the Midwest to observe firsthand the natural history of ideas—the patterns of their variation, inheritance, and selection in the cultural landscape. In place of Darwin’s oceanic islands, Hughes visits the “mind islands” of Native American tribes. Instead of finches, Hughes searches for signs of natural selection among the tepees.


Amazon link. Google Books. Facebook page. Author's blog. New Scientist review. Author podcast.

Meme commentary

The author has said this about memes:

The "meme" is a confused and confusing term, routinely raised as an analogue of the gene without due care. I've spent the last few years stripping it back to establish whether it has any use in better understanding cultural evolution. I have to conclude that it does, but only when you correctly apply the analogy, differentiating the "genes of culture" from the "organisms of culture", the "populations of culture" and even the "species of culture". Only with this full-hearted approach can you visualise the memetic view of cultural evolution, and only then upon admiting the vaguaries of the definition of "a gene" in the first place.



I now have the book. Some criticisms:

The memes are rather light, not starting until page 214. The book ends on page 274.

The author embraces internalism. I find that rather disappointing.

The author asks:

Why aren't all biologists talking about memes? (page 239).
He then claims that the answer is that people can't easily find memes in brains, but that this is gradually changing - with mirror neuron discoveries. IMO, that's a crock of nonsense - that isn't the reason why.

Richerson, Boyd, Feldman, Cavalli-Sforza, Lumsden, Wilson, Laland, Mesoudi and Whiten get about half a page in the bibliography. The excuse?

I have made a conscious effort to avoid naming scientists and philosophers throught the text unless it is really important to do so. My justification is that it formalises and slows down the story. (p.279)
So: this isn't really much of a science book at all.

The summary of the efforts of these first six scientists reads:

In the 1980s a series of researchers tried to get the same smug explanatory power by lashing our cultural evolution ever so tightly to our biological evolution in complex "coevolutionary" models.
I confess that, while wincing a little, I chuckled at this characterisation. That's a pretty neat summary of what those researchers did that was wrong.

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