by Robert Aunger (editor)
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D. on Oct 28th 2001
Do you know why we don't have a Nobel Prize in mathematics? It
so happens that Nobel's wife left him for a mathematician, and
this is his sweet revenge. This is an example of a story which
has managed to spread all over the world, and all over the academic
world, despite its being a complete fantasy (Nobel died a bachelor,
etc.). I first heard it from an eminent professor in graduate
school, and I still hear it from world-class mathematicians and
physicists. Check the Internet and you'll see it in trivia quizzes.
So how does this story survive?
Students of culture in all disciplines have been intrigued by
the appearance of memetics, because we all struggle with the question
of why certain beliefs and certain fantasies not only survive,
but spread and even become dominant quite fast within a certain
culture. We are especially intrigued by "the quasi-genetic
inheritance of language, and of religious and cultural traditional
customs (Dawkins, quoted by Sperber, p. 167 in this book), and
even more puzzled when the phenomenon is not just cultural continuity,
but sudden and sweeping cultural change.
If the definition of the meme is "an element of culture that
may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation"
(Oxford English Dictionary as quoted by Blackmore on p. 25 of
this book) or "the least unit of sociocultural information
relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable
selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change"
(quoted by Hall, p. 48), or as "a symbolic representation
of any state of affairs" (Plotkin, p. 113), and if memetics
is the application of the evolutionary paradigm of heredity, variation,
and selection to memes, then what this book seeks to establish
is whether this new theoretical framework adds much, or anything,
to our research armamentarium as we approach the phenomena of
Contributors to this book are divided into proponents and critics
of memetics. In addition to a Foreword by Daniel Dennett, and
an Introduction and Conclusion by Robert Auger, the book's editor,
who seems like a cautious proponent, we have here nine well-written
Susan Blackmore, an enthusiastic proponent, even suggests that
imitation itself has survival value, and that "Memes compete
with each other to be copied and the winners change the environments
in which genes are selected. In this way, memes force genes to
create a brain that is capable of selecting from the currently
successful memes" (p. 32). But then she also claims that
the idea (and the practice) of rain-dances survives and is copied
because rain dances happen, by chance, to coincide with rain.
This kind of learning may take place, of course, but it is extremely
rare. Assuming that individuals adopt ideas or rituals because
of chance reinforcements ignores how social learning operates,
i.e. through learning from parents, peers and authorities in general.
Many millions of individuals do believe that the number 13 is
unlucky, and that without ever having observed that number coincide
with anything particularly bad. Millions see horoscopes in the
media and on the Internet and take them seriously because they
come from authorities, not because anything in them coincides
with empirical observations.
The question of content and substance seems to be studiously avoided
by some proponents of memetics. Blackmore mentions "bizarre
ideas like four-foot high aliens who come and abduct people from
their beds at night can usefully be seen as memes that succeed
despite being false" (p. 41). But the question is exactly
why and how such ideas, more bizarre or less bizarre survive and
succeed. One step towards answering this question is to examine
who actually is more likely to embrace such beliefs, which are
not randomly distributed in the population.
And more often than not, what is copied in social learning is
what Blackmore calls a "vast memecomplex like Roman Catholicism"
(p. 36). It is exactly those memecomplxes of identity and beliefs
which Blackmore does not wish to discuss, which survive and create
the substance of human cultures.
Aunger in his Conclusion admits that empirical tests are "daunting",
and we realize that as we read on. Are all memes like chain letters,
coming with built-in survival mechanisms in the form of explicit
warnings to human agents? Religious doctrines, as Sperber mentions,
are comparable to chain-letters, but this is not true of most
other ideas. The chapter by Plotkin pushes us towards social reality,
and then, in the most illuminating contribution, Conte presents
a detailed social-psychological framework which involves active
agents and their decisions. Thus we find that agents are more
important than memes, and that social psychology is sufficient
to explain major aspects of cultural transmission.. Adam Kuper
and Maurice Bloch, two anthropologists who have contributed chapters
to the book, suggest rather convincingly that ideas cannot be
treated in isolation, and that they always appear and operate
in complexes. Breaking down these complexes into bits of assumed
equal valence just doesn't make sense. Not all ideas are created
equal, and many cannot survive on their own.
The Nobel legend can serve as a good example of a meme,
according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition quoted above,
existing independently and surviving well. But its replicator
mechanisms can be explained without memetics. It is the factors
of source and content which determine its survival. Individuals
adopt and spread urban legends because they come from trusted
sources (friends and media) and because they "make sense".
Their content satisfies some basic needs for transmitter and receiver
alike. Urban legends, like jokes, can survive on their own, but
most other ideas are part of a memecomplex. E=mc2 will
never survive without its surrounding complex of ideas.
All the contributors to the book are creative, lucid thinkers,
and able writers. It's a pleasure to observe first-rate minds
at work, and we have to conclude that memetics is a provocative
idea but I am not sure we need it to explain why the Nobel story
will live forever.
© 2001 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi teaches
psychology at the University of Haifa. He is the author (with
Michael Argyle) of The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief
and Experience (1997) and of Psychoanalytic Studies of