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The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think Hardcover – July 2, 2002
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
In his defining book, The Selfish Gene, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins sought to describe cultural evolution in biological terms with the newly coined term "meme," a metaphorical information particle that replicates itself as people exchange information, as the cultural equivalent of the gene, the replicating agent of biological evolution. Here, Cambridge anthropologist Aunger (Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science) theorizes on the nature of this so-called "thought gene." In doing so, Aunger coins a term of his own, "neuromemetics," proposing that memes are in fact self-replicating electrical charges in the nodes of our brains. The author explains that the shift in perspective from Dawkins's purely social memetics to a memetics working at the intercellular level is akin to sociobiology's view of social behavior as a genetic trait subject to evolution. This is an ambitious book on a par with Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine. Unlike the handful of pop-culture treatments out there, Aunger steers clear of the popular image of the meme as a VD-like brain parasite passed by word of mouth. That said, this book is that rare hybrid of crossover science writing that carries enough intellectual punch to warrant thoughtful peer review, and yet should appeal to those ambitious general readers who are in the market for a megadose of mind candy.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
"...The most erudite and penetrating book yet written on memes. Potentially, it heralds the beginning of a new science." -- Terrence W. Deacon, Boston University, author of THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES
"Be warned...: your memes may never be the same again." -- Marc D. Hauser, Harvard University, author of WILD MINDS
"THE ELECTRIC MEME will eclipse as the inaugural book of a whole new school of social science and cultural history." -- Daniel Dennett, Tufts University, author of CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED and DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA
"What more...needed to be said about memes? ...Plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently and entertainingly." -- Richard Dawkins, Oxford University, author of THE SELFISH GENE
Terrence W. Deacon Boston University, author of The Symbolic Species Sometimes it can take a generation for a simple concept to be clearly articulated...This is without question the most erudite and penetrating book yet written on memes. Potentially, it heralds the beginning of a new science. -- Review
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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
Aunger got as far as discussing neurotransmitters and nitrous oxide ions that produce neuron firing. But he has limits to how fast and how tiny he wants to go. He stopped short of including the internal quantum measurement required by cells to replicate (as articulated by McFadden in QUANTUM EVOLUTION). Although he finishes by saying he'll accept either finding of whether memes exist or not, he first leads one through 300 repetitive pages of caring a lot. He tries to piggyback his idea of the electric meme on prion and computer virus replicators. Strange that with all he had to say of comp-virus he never once used the common term cellular automata. If you can plow through this book your IQ will increase by 1%.
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.