About a year ago, I read Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine and wrote about the experience. I was fascinated by this attempt by natural scientists to explain cultural change, but had some major reservations as well. Today I read parts of another book on memetics: Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by Robert Aunger, with a foreword by Daniel Dennett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).This interlibrary loan book had been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, so I decided that it was going to be Easter reading. The interesting thing about this volume is that it not only includes contributions by proponents of memetics, such as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett, but also contains critical chapters. Robert Aunger writes in his introduction that the aim of the book is “to see where a reasonable consensus might fall on this spectrum of opinion regarding the utility of the meme concept.” (5)
In his foreword, Daniel Dennett is quite stern about my sort of people – cultural historians who reserve criticism:
It is obvious that there are patterns of cultural change – evolution in a neutral sense – and any theory of cultural change worth more than a moment’s consideration will have to be Darwinian in the minimal sense of being consistent with the theory of evolution by natural selection of Homo sapiens. […] [T]he ferocity with which Darwinian accounts of the evolution of language and sociality are attacked by some critics from the humanities and social sciences show that in some influential quarters, mere consistency with evolutionary theory is not yet the accepted constraint it ought to be. (ix)
The editor, Robert Aunger, in his introduction is much more open to criticism from the humanities. He offers his volume as a collection of opinions, and leaves it up to the reader to decide (although his rhetoric subtly hints at his own position):
From whence does this disgruntlement spring? From intrinsic defects in the notion […], in incidental features of its present manifestation, or from intellectual agendas having little to do with memetics itself? The reader must judge.
Biased reader as I am, I was especially fascinated by the contribution of Maurice Bloch, a British anthropologist. His answer to Aunger’s question would be that the disgruntlement is not simply due to intellectual agendas or different traditions, but to the fundamental features of the different parts of a single totality that natural and social scientists study. Bloch is not opposed to the idea of memes and encourages cooperation between the two kinds of science — in fact, he chides anthropologists for their disinterest in memetics. In his contribution to the volume, he seeks to pinpoint some of the failures of meme theory as it stands, so that it might in future be more successful.
His first point is that the general claims made by Dawkins and Dennet resemble the ideas of anthropologists working as early as the late nineteenth century. Proponents of the meme theory seem not to have taken any notice of insights developed in anthropology. It is of course hard to keep abreast of literature in other disciplines, Bloch comments, but “memeticists have freely chosen to explore exactly what anthropologists have been studying for more than a century.”
His second objection is to the similarity that memetics suggests between memes and genes – the idea that human culture consists of discrete bits. If memetics is to work, then “memes have to be something with a defined existence in the world” they cannot be a unit of analysis or a metaphor — like genes, they have to be an ontological fact. But how do you divide phenomena like catchy, tunes or folk tales up into memes? In reality, he argues, culture does not allow itself to be cut up into such neat units. (Bloch does not mention Vladimir Propp, the structuralist who analysed Russian folk tales to identify their smallest narrative elements, but I think that Propp took into account the cultural specificity of the tales he studied. He did not assume that these elements would be found in Chinese folk tales as well — correct me if I’m wrong.)
Bloch turns to the historical case of the diffusionists to illustrate his point. Diffusionists were anthropologists who in the early twentieth century argued that human culture cannot be understood as governed by an evolutionary process, because humans share information with each other. The critiques that American and British anthropologists formulated on diffusionism could be useful in a consideration of memetics as well.
An important objection of American anthropologists that also applies to memes, is that information or culture does not spread like a virus, but is constantly unmade and remade as it is absorbed into new cultural environments. A meme does not lead an independent life of its own, but exists in these processes of reshaping. “What noodles mean to Italians is therefore quite different from what it means for the Chinese” (198). British anthropologists, on the other hand, would argue that knowledge is too complex to locate it as a single type: it is integrated in single minds at different levels of consciousness, but also inseparable from action.
Although Maurice Bloch seeks to bring anthropologists and biologists together, the critique he formulates seems to me quite fundamental. If memes are not like genes, do not exist independently but are shaped either by society or individual psychology, then what is the advantage of the theory over existing ideas in the cultural sciences?
For a complete table of contents of Darwinizing Culture, see Robert Aunger’s website.
Other recent natural science perspectives on literature: