Customer Reviews: The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think
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VINE VOICEon July 4, 2002
"Memes," the suggestion that ideas and other bits of culture can act like parasites by spreading from mind to mind without regard to the invaded host is a particularly compelling idea. It has caught on with a lot of people outside of biological science, but biologists have been generally skeptical of it. The problem has been that theories of memes did not take the characteristics of the host into consideration, and we have a strong sense from biological data that the host of transmitted information probably has to have some control over the processing of the information that they receive and transmit. The notion that our obvious strong propensity for social imitation also allows memes to enter us almost without resistance, then control us to force us to spread them seems a bit much.
Aunger has formulated the meme theory in a way that resolves these problems. He is very careful in his reasoning compared to other popular books on memes and cultural transmission. He shows why cultural transmission is important, pulling from some of the same fascinating data as cultural selectionism researchers such as Boyd and Richerson. Cultural transmission matters because culture doesn't track with environmental, ecological, or genetic patterns. He then makes the crucial distinction for a true meme theory. He distinguishes the idea of a replicator and a duplication mechanism, and builds a model of memes specifically as replicators.
Cultural selection theory holds that culture plays a role in biological evolution, but doesn't neccessarily consider bits of culture tobe composed of self-copying replicators. The reason the distinction is important, Aunger makes clear, is that if they truly can be seen in that way, then they add an additional causal force for culture to take on a life of its own to transmit itself through us. This is the causal force that other meme authors have taken for granted, and Aunger makes it explicit and potentially testable.
In building his model of memes, Aunger finds that the definition can and should be made more specific, as a kind of complex residing in the brain rather than an arbitrary collection of artifacts, behaviors, and ideas. This model of memes gets around the problem of beliefs not being truly arbitrary by making it at least possible to connect the acceptance of memes back to our evolved computational engines as described by evolutionary psychologists.
This is a very rigorous and well-considered argument that finally takes real anthropological and biological data into consideration rather than simply making vague analogies of culture patterns to infection patterns of microbes, or providing a too-facile explanation for things we don't agree with (those guys were just infected by "religion memes," but we're immunized from that.")
I think this book is a landmark in the literature of modelling the transmission of human culture, and if the empirical testing it suggests bears fruit, it may well change the way we view human belief in general and have significant implications to epistemology.
On the downside, while this book is non-technical, it is academic in tone and is unlikely to have the same popular appeal as Brodie's dramatic "Virus of the Mind" or Susan Blackmore's very provocative "Meme Machine." On the other hand, it heralds a potential start for a real science of memetics, addressing the truly important questions (such as "do we have memes or do they have us ?") which those others books attempted to answer but assumed the answer from the start rather than framing the question in empirically testable terms and a more specific definition of a meme, potentially telling us how well memes act act as true replicators.
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on July 19, 2002
This is a great book and models something totally different from what I conceived of as a meme. In fact, it redefines memes to something potentially relevant but even more inaccessible before. It's notion of what a "meme" is winds up being a tiny little fragment of a thought, so that something like a word or a idea or a sensation wouldn't actually be a meme, but a collection of them.
My big gripe (but it isn't that big) is that when the author seeks to avoid the problems with how memes transfer between brains, he winds up saying that they don't - they merely create conditions suitable for the recreation of the meme in the other brain. From my point of view, this is double-speak - to paraphrase the book, it says something like "they're not being transferred, because there are problems with memes being transferred, but they are being transferred, but we're not calling it that". This would basically mean that memes don't really get transferred, and that there's a definite possibility of those conditions not leading to recreation of the meme in the other brain. I guess that's what happens when people "misunderstand" each other.
I applaud him for realizing the value of context in understanding what a meme is - not just spatial and cognitive context, but also temporal context - but the "instigator" double-speak is enough to prevent me from calling this a five star.
What I think he means is that memes can only be understood in their context and that meme transfer involves and requires significant amounts of common context in order to be successful. I wish he just said that instead of the rambling on-and-on about "instigators".
This is definitely a book worth looking at. I wouldn't recommend reading the whole thing if you've read any other books on memes or memetics - just use the introduction and table of contents to determine the relevant chapters for you. The only people who should read the whole thing are patient people who haven't heard much about memetics or who don't mind re-reading much similar material.
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on July 12, 2002
In this excellent volume Aunger presents a clear and convincing argument. The meme is placed squarely in the brain, safely recreating itself, allowing all that goes on outside of the brain to be viewed in a fresh perspective. Aunger's clear explanations of concepts like signal correction, signal redundancy, and artifacts as repositories of memes should prove invaluable to those involved with the design of communication.
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on June 28, 2002
The Electric Meme is a superb book. It is fresh, original, deep and entertaining. Memeticists should be truly grateful to Aunger (Richard Dawkins first in line) for giving memes the only reality they can possibly have. I am not (yet) a meme-believer myself, but I totally share Aunger's statement that "establishing whether memes exist is a scientific project of primary importance"(p.333). And I admire Aunger for saying "I will accept the conclusion of this project either way: memes or no memes". That's beautiful. From now on, if you want to talk about memes, pro or contra, you simply have to know what this book is saying. All that has been written so far is already pre-history.
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on July 7, 2002
This is certainly the most carefully thought out, best researched, most subtle and nuanced book ever written about memes. Of particular importance is Aunger's stress that cultural particulars (like ideas, beliefs, knowledge etc.) are brain states. At last we find the brain taken seriously. It is to be hoped that the standard of meme literature will continue to increase in sophistication as it has markedly done in Aunger's book.
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on December 17, 2002
No doubt about it--humans just plain have more culture (in a quantitative sense), than all Earth's other critters. How does this happen? How do ideas evolve? Is it something in our genes that makes us so, uh, special? Recognizing that there may be a non-genetic mechanism at work, Richard Dawkins conceived the "meme" (a word of his own coinage; it sounds like "gene") to account for this putative higher level of "replication". His concept, that things like ideas are literally part of evolutionary processes separate from those of genes, was first expounded in The Selfish Gene (1976), and more fully developed in The Extended Phenotype (1982). Now, as memetics is on the verge of coalescing into a full-blown, and possibly legitimate scientific discipline, one of its chief theoreticians, anthropologist Robert Aunger, has written The Electric Meme to bring us up to date, and, naturally, to promote his own suggestions for research directions.
Here's my review, short form: The Electric Meme is an important and borderline superb work. This assessment demands an elaboration, of course, so, with a little preamble, I'll get right to the quibbles.
On the assumption that it isn't sufficient to disseminate their ideas--their memes--merely to their professional colleagues (and, of course, fully aware of the commercial disadvantages of writing for a small, inbred market), many legitimate scientists often indulge in non-"journalese" writing styles, more or less intelligible to the "masses" of scientifically literate amateurs. Many of these writers--by way of famous example, the impassioned astronomer Carl Sagan; the aforementioned zoologist Richard Dawkins, he of the brilliant metaphor; and Dawkins' intellectual sparring partner, the prolific Paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould--have become wildly successful, their memes very high "fitness" indeed.
The Electric Meme, though advertised as such, is not exactly a work of popular science. The target audience, as indicated both through content and style, is evidently more those academicians already familiar with the scholarly history of mimetics and the arcane elements of paradigm wars in the associated disciplines (particularly anthropology and psychology)--neither of which is especially compelling to non-combatant aficionados. And style! A dust jacket blurb alludes to "lively prose". Oh, lively, maybe, in an ivory tower sense. But for the rest of us, the reading us a bit of a slog: When will he get to the point?
Okay, academese is a pet peeve of mine, and has been, well, since graduate school. But there is a deeper issue in this. A rigorous formalism is a desirable and necessary ingredient of meaningful scientific exegesis. However, it can be (and often is) used to separate the priestly caste from the popular "rabble". However, when one considers two apparent aspects of memes (neither of which Auger much considers), their recombinant manner of reproduction and their seeming r-strategist tendencies (i.e., in a literary culture, they disseminate profligately), such class differentiation can be a bad thing. Wide propagation of ideas is, of course, the rationale of popular science writing. Thus, to the extent that Aunger is a populist (a description I believe he would approve of), he is here less successful than many writers.
To be fair, one does get the feeling that Aunger yearns to break out and say something important past those tempests in academic teapots. And, finally, a mere 50 pages from the end, he does just that: Human culture works because it is emergent (a trendy term that Aunger, to his credit, uses in appropriate moderation). Its artifacts and ideas are cumulative and interact in complex evolutionary ways with their mimetic "progenitors", so that the aggregate is vastly more that the sum of the parts. Aunger is not the first person to notice this (Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, in Figments of Reality, coin the fine, if somewhat corny term, "extelligence", to describe this phenomenon). But those readers who have stayed with the program are rewarded, and can now see the value of the preparatory work. In fact Aunger has "played" evolution theory with all the polyphonic intellectual virtuosity of a J.S. Bach four-part organ fugue. Though the development is a tad dry, the end result is masterful.
In the end, we may not need memetics to account for culture, a possibility that Aunger is well aware of; perhaps another approach will be ultimately more useful. Still, the seeds of The Electric Meme, if sown on fertile soil, portend an extraordinary harvest. Of what fruit? We shall see.
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on August 25, 2005
In the Electric Meme Robert Aunger suggests that neurophysiologists should be able to find physical evidence that certain electrical patterns generated by neural nets in the human brain, are capable of replicating themselves, either at the same spot or, significantly, at some other similar spot in the same or another brain, and that it is the pattern itself that is a significant reason for its replication, as opposed to the fact that the pattern is the inevitable consequence of some important object or process out in the world being surveyed by sensory mechanisms. Additionally, the pattern is not perfectly replicated, giving rise to various versions of it in a competitive environment, which are then subject to natural selection. It is a brilliant idea (if not an obvious one, once it has been pointed out) that struck me as being true the moment Dawkins first released it into the meme pool in a more general form in the Selfish Gene, especially in the later versions of that book. Aunger's attempt to define the beast a little more precisely in order to assist in its experimental capture is a nice direction as long as nobody takes it too seriously. The existence of memes is one of the most delicious ideas floating around right now, and with the singular exception of Dawkins and his forgiveable insistence that it must rhyme with "creams," I'd be comfortable to see the notion be allowed to float around unhampered a bit longer. If a scientist of whatever stripe is fortunate enough to trap something specific, with a knowable, reproducible, structure, which looks like a meme, and walks like a meme, then I say call it a meme, but don't define the whole kingdom based on a single species.

And by the way, Mr. Aunger, ribosomes do not replicate DNA, and nitric oxide is not the same thing as nitrous oxide, and a lot of specific facts in your book, could have been repaired with a little Googling prior to publication, but thank you for a fine book.
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on September 3, 2002
If Hamilton, Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore are the Lamarcks and Darwins of memetics - then Robert Aunger should be recognized as a new Mendel. The Electric Meme has for the first time established why we need a new form of "selfish" replicator to explain culture.
In contrast to Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology and other scientific theories trying to explain how culture and eventually humans work - memetics, as outlined by R. Aunger, coresponds with facts and does not contradict itself.
The book pinpoints for the first time where memes really are - namley only in brains - what they look like and how they replicate. But Aunger does more than this. By digging deep into how meme replication works - he uncovers new and facinating aspect of how replication works in general.
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on July 16, 2003
This is rigorous and well researched, but it gets ahead of itself. To say that memes (or meme components) correspond to some sort of pattern in human brains is saying more than we know now about the correspondence between brain states and our thoughts and experiences. If we don't know this for one brain, then certainly we don't know how these analogous states can be replicated across brains. Ambitious work, but too soon.
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on October 27, 2008
I picked up this book in hardcopy soon after it was published. I believe I discovered it through an Amazon recommendation, since at the time I had been reading some of Richard Dawkins' works. Dawkins had proposed the idea of memes as a complimentary speculation to his own work in biology and evolution. However, despite Dawkins expertise in biology, I had never been very impressed by the concept of memes, which seemed rather fuzzy to me. Nonetheless, I did buy Robert Aunger's book, but then left it on a shelf until recently.
Now that I have read the book there are several things that I wish to praise. First of all, Aunger has taken the fuzzy concept of memes and crafted it into a rational, scientific endeavour. He has done so by painstakingly analyzing the idea against the background of a wealth of scientific data as well as the history of various schools of thought regarding mental processes. Secondly, he has based his analysis firmly within evolutionary theory thus avoiding the pitfalls of Platonic forms. Aunger comes down firmly within the material camp of philosophy and yet manages to refute behaviourism. He also provides interesting parallel discussion on the subjects of prions and computer viruses and applies these to the quest for memes.
The Electric Meme is indeed an impressive work of philosophy. However, the reader should be forewarned on two points. First of all the book is written in a very rigorous style; it is a consummate philosophical work and not casual reading for laymen. Secondly, despite the progress the author has provided toward a rational concept of memes, he has not solved the riddle. His achievement has been to sketch a clear and reasonable way forward.

David Hillstrom, author of The Bridge and The Story of Our People
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