Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tim Tyler: Hughes, On the Origin of Tepees (review)


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

On the Origin of Tepees - by Jonnie Hughes
This book has a title which is obviously based on Charles Darwin's 1859 book. It's about the author's discovery of cultural evolution and memetics. The author imitates Darwin's trip to the Galapagos by seeking out cultural islands within the American mainland - mainly looking at artefacts - hats, barns and tepees. It is an unusual mixture of popular science and road trip.

The author uses the metaphor of view-point-altering googgles to help describe his journey. When he puts the goggles on he looks at things through the eyes of a cultural evolutionist - and the world looks pretty different and unusual to him.

The memetics in this book is good. Jonnie Hughes has a pretty good understanding of the topic, in my opinion.

The author spends most of the book on cultural evolution, and then describes how the "gene" revolution - which transformed evolutionary biology in the 1950s and 1960s - has a direct parallel in cultural evolution - which has its own little bits of inherited cultural information: memes. This insight has led to the "meme's eye view" - and other important developments.

If I made scientific criticisms, I would first point to the author's endorsement of internalism, which I find to be an unhelpful perspective. The other thing that I thought was wrong was his explanation for why memes have not made much progress in academia. He says it is the difficulty in actually identifying them in the brain. That isn't really the right answer. Plenty of other things that can't be directly observed don't face the same problem. There are several other reasons why academia has had trouble digesting memetics.

Much of the serious science in the book is confined to a bibliography at the end. It is four pages long. I would have preferred the whole book to have been like that. Memetics needs the attention of scientists more than it needs conversion stories by science writers.

Lastly I'll tell you about my favourite bit of the book. It's a bit near the end - where the author likens pioneer species colonising a new environment to memes colonising an infant's mind. Hughes explains in some detail how the early species in an environment create the ecosystem for those that follow them - in the same way that early memes create a mental environment for the more complex ones that follow them. This is a beautiful analogy, and in the hands of an eloquent science writer like Hughes, it is a joy to read.

Let's hope Jonnie keeps those memes coming in the future.


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