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Robert Aunger's Darwinizing Culture: The State of Memetics as a Science

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Darwinizing Culture: The State of Memetics as a Science

Aunger, Robert, ed. Oxford: Oxford University, 2000. ISBN: 0192632442.

For those unfamiliar with the notion of "memes," they are, quite simply, the theoretical smallest cultural commodity -- an idea -- that replicates itself through its symbiotic relationship with its human host. The idea is either entirely absurd or the solution to the mystery of culture that has been the providence of anthropologists for the past century and a half. But, the notion was birth by a scientist (Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene [1977]), and this alone is enough to distance some potentially interested parties from the humanities and social sciences. Darwinizing Culture is at once the reiteration and clarification of the memetic theory (although most of the authors only work to obscure the idea in their work, pulling it in one direction or another -- for their very particular use) and a series of arguments against memetic theory as it stands, as well as an argument against those theorists, isolated in the sciences, who so often find the idea attractive, and distanced from previous theories of culture and cultural development.

The collection brings together pieces from Susan Blackmore (author of The Meme Machine [Oxford, 1999]), Henry Plotkin, David Hull, and Dan Sperber, as well as many other younger theorists, all succeeding a rather terse foreword by Daniel Dennet - one of memetic theories greatest proponents. Aunger's introduction and conclusion to the collection are both wonderful contributions, and help to establish the debate, both contemporaneously and historically, for both memes enthusiasts and those new to the field. Blackmore's piece is an afterword to her earlier study, in part working to refute critics who found fault with her prior book-length examination, and as such, while it helps to provide a continuity for the debate, sets the tone of the collection, and that is one of distress. The collection effectively critiques itself by including both sides of the debate, which is admirable, but rather than clearing the slate, as Aunger hopes the collection will, it surely asks the reader to choose a side, and those ideologies are clearly demarcated by academic alignments. But that is not to say that the collection fails to be useful -- in fact, quite the contrary: there are a number of essays (and I'm inclined to include them all in this), that help the conceptual understanding of the field on one level or another, but as they are in constant dialogue with one another, this utility is constantly compromised.

But, like every anthology, there is a single essay that stands out from the rest for its sheer insight and applicability, and in this case it is Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee's innocuously titled "The Evolution of the Meme." Laland and Odling-Smee expand on Richard Dawkins' notion of the "extended phenotype" (from The Extended Phenotype [1982]), positing that the cultural artifacts that are created by civilization influence (and possible cause) both cultural and biological evolution. It sounds deceptively simple, but the premise is that by creating artifacts that alter the environment, simply by their sheer presence, the evolution of that culture is irreparable altered, always needing to incorporate the presence and utility of that artifact. With the explosion of artifacts endemic of consumer capitalism, our cultural evolution has been dramatically influenced, and Laland and Odling-Smee provide an interesting hypothesis to explain this sort of transformation in culture (and consciousness -- surely Marshall McLuhan would agree with their suppositions).

If there is a fault with the collection, it is simply that the debate over memetics is a rather closed sphere -- the majority of the essays cite the author's previous contribution to the field, or one or another of the other included authors. If nothing else, the contributions by Sperber and Adam Kuper should influence this, and hopefully encourage the steady incorporation of more anthropologically minded sources.

While the collection is at times rather tiresome for a meme enthusiast, and especially so for students of culture, who must deal with various reiterations of basic tenants of anthropology, it would seem to provide a comprehensive introduction to both the idea and the debates surrounding the idea for those new to the field. And for the meme enthusiast, especially for those schooled in the sciences, the arguments of Sperber and Kuper are especially important, bringing in more anthropological basis for this understanding.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer