Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Tim Tyler: Dugatkin, The Imitation Factor (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond The Gene by Lee Alan Dugatkin.

Dugatkin is a biologist and science writer. His specialist field seems to be the mating behaviour of guppies. Mating bahaviour is interesting from the perspective of cultural transmission - since chooseing a mate is a very important decision that it is difficult to get right - and many creatures may well use social cues to help them decide on the best mate.

In the book Dugatkin describes in considerable detail the evidence that shows that guppies do, in fact copy each other's mate choice. This involves experiments with mirrors, fake male guppies attached to sticks, and other paraphernalia.

The book is mainly concerned with the issues of animal culture and animal teaching. It came out in the year 2000 - and the subject has exploded since then, with many new publications. As fellow reviewer Herbert Gintis says, it is rather strange that Dugatkin makes no mention of: "The Evolution of Culture in Animals" by John Tyler Bonner from 1983 - which is an important previous landmark in this area.

There are some studies relating to human mate choice in the book as well, but that isn't the focus. The book is pretty well written and readable. However, the topic involves a lot of descriptions of scientific experiments - which is an intrinsically dry subject area for many. You have to be pretty interested in the topic to want to read the book. Fortunately the topic is a key issue in biology, so there will be some who are interested.

There's a chapter on defining culture - where Dugatkin endorses the definition of Boyd and Richerson from 1985 that confines culture to information transmitted by imitation and teaching - and excludes other forms of social learning. I don't really approve of defining culture that way - but defining culture remains a controversial issue.

The book has a whole chapter on memes, which serves to put the author's ideas in context. A few months before his book was published, Dugatkin published a "counterpoint" to Susan Blackmore's Scientific American article titled "The power of memes" which was called: "Animals Imitate, Too". One of the flaws of Susan's book was that it was very human-centric. It played down the abilities of animals to imitate - and positioned memes as the factor that had transformed beasts into men. Memes did do that - but it is important to note that animals have cultural transmission - and thus memes - too.

Here is what Dugatkin wrote in that response article:

In my work as a behavioral ecologist I have run across dozens of other examples of animal behavior that fit the definition of a meme, and I would not be surprised if the total number were quite large. Memes may be older and more fundamental to biological evolution than Blackmore or anyone else has argued to date. More specifically, the difference between animal and human memes may be quantitative rather than qualitative. Memeticists may well take hold of the idea that animal memes are real and use this to bolster the claim that memes truly are a universally important force in evolution. But if memes do not separate us from animals, as Blackmore suggests, then they alone cannot explain why human culture is uniquely advanced.

The chapter in the book on memes is pretty good. Dugatkin closes by quoting Richard Dawkins on the power of memes (the bit where Dawkins says that memes may leave genes panting behind) - and then he says:

Memes may have the power that this quotation implies, but even so, the more profound point is that they may be older and more fundamental than Dawkins, Blackmore or anyone else has tended to think.

That pretty neatly encaspulates the main theme of the book - that culture is an ancient and ubiquitous phenomenon in the animal kingdom. These days, there's even evidence for cultural transmission among small insects like ants and flies - which have pretty limited cognition.

I think it is fair to say that Dugatkin's ideas about memes have withstood the test of time. We can now see that memes are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, just as Dugatkin claimed that they were.


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