Saturday, 12 July 2014

Were memes a slap in the face to anthropologists?

Gene Anderson came out with a funny comment about memes recently:

PLEASE PLEASE avoid “memes.” The meme is not only unscientific, but anti-scientific–Dawkins’ slap in the face to the thousands of anthropologists, linguists and psychologists who have worked on these issues for 200 years and come up with very good understandings of how culture is transmitted. Memes not only do not exist, nothing like them exists, and the word is really seriously distracting attention from the actual data and theory on this.

Were memes really a "slap in the face" to anthropologists? I think one has to agree that they were. Let me explain:

In 1976, anthropology had resisted Darwinism successfully for over 100 years. Cultural anthropology had transformed itself from a science into one of the "humanities". Theories were seen as playing the role of: preconceived notions that might bias your perceptions and distort your observations of other cultures. The focus was on recording the data, without preconceptions. Where had this data-driven approach got them? Anthropologists had simply not "come up with very good understandings of how culture is transmitted". They had persistently failed to grasp one of the key organizing principles of their own discipline: namely Darwinian evolution. Basically their theoretical enterprise had failed to find this important organizing principle. At that stage, a slap in the face from a scientist was entirely appropriate medicine. WAKE UP! SMELL THE DARWINISM!

Some might point to Donald Campbell as an anthropologist who understood Darwinism before 1976. That's fair enough - but Campbell was one person, who came along late in the day, and helped started the process of cleaning up the mess left by all the other anthropologists. In no way was he representative of anthropology, or cultural anthropology in that era.

Indeed, to a large extent, this situation persists to this day. Understanding of evolutionary theory among anthropologists - and among social scientists in general - it still awful. Never mind that it's an important part of the theoretical foundation of these topics. These days a few of these folk are busy educating themselves about the topic. However, for goodness sake, don't try to defend the multiple generations of anthropologists who kept their subject mired in pre-Darwinian darkness for so long. Those folk didn't know the extent of their own ignorance - or the damage they were causing.

Yes, Dawkins gave a "slap in the face" to anthropologists. What else are you supposed to do with a bunch of scientists that persistently refuse to understand the basics of Darwinism? Also: the slap wasn't enough of a wake-up call. Most anthropologists persisted in their pre-Darwinian dream for multiple more decades. For example, look at the contributions of anthropologists to Darwinizing Culture. They are simply embarrassing. The pre-Darwinian era in anthropology should be a source of embarrassment and shame to all those involved. Those were stupid, poorly-educated humans. Now we know better. Or at least, we should do.

Update 2014-07-13:

See also this comment from Gene:

Memes and culture traits: There is an absolutely enormous amount of work on this. Nothing remotely like a “meme” exists. Cultural knowledge is not packaged in neat little clumps, does not spread like genes or bugs or viruses from person to person, and does not have a life or identity of its own.

Gene is obviously totally confused about memes. However, I've dutifully added a link to his comment on my meme-denialism page.

1 comment:

  1. Nah... Most anthropologists are not concerned with explaining cultural transmission. They'd rather interpret and translate exogenous cultural "meanings"... Dawkins (or Darwinian approaches in general) haven't had any impact on the field since causal explanation is not really a concern there. You should know this as I assume you're acquainted with Dan Sperber's work.