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Memetics: Memes and the Science of Cultural Evolution Paperback – August 19, 2011
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First of all: Memeticists just kept theorizing, squabbling on and on, they never could agree on the most basic paradigms, i.e. what a MEME really is: Is it the idea inside the brain, or are memes all those artefacts created by humans: words, melodies, rituals, clothes, pottery... (or is it both?)
Since all the fruitless discussions never came to a conclusion, would-be memeticists never could take the next step to do some scientific research (one of the reasons why the Journal of Memetics died in 2005 : no results to be published!)
Therefore, one after the other, all the leading "memeticists" jumped off the bandwagon to look elsewhere for intellectual adventure: Kate Distin, maybe the most serious theoretician of memetics, thinks it is no longer "socially acceptable"; the man who started it all in 1976, Richard Dawkins, refuses to use the m-word any more (Tim Tylor calls him a "reluctant apostle", an expression that indicates that memetics is after all a kind of sect)
Today "memetics" is left to the mavericks, the geeks and nerds, people whose natural habitat is the internet, where they upload funny videos or images hoping they would go viral, or counting retweets as their variety of scientific research". Therefore, if you read a recently published book about memes, don't expect any scientific rigor.
Tim Tylor's book is a case in point.
This book is sloppy in every respect. First: sloppy writing. There are hundreds of spelling mistakes (the well-known philosopher of biology Kim Sterelny is morphed into Serenely. LOL !) There are ungrammatical sentences that don't make sense.
Next: sloppy citations. Mister Tyler simple does not bother to give the page when he cites another author (sometimes he does, mostly not). The "bibliography" is useless, a complete mess! One example : Aunger, Robert (2005a): "What's the matter with memes". - That's all. I happen to know this text, so I know it's an essay in the anthology "Richard Dawkins. How a scientist changed the way we think". (2006). But other readers simply have no possibility to check the reference. There are hundreds of cases like this. It's annoying because the author shows complete disrespect for his readers by publishing a book that obviously has not been proofread.
Next: The book has no structure. It is a jumble of unconnected ideas, without any thread of arguments. The sequence of the 30 chapters is random: One has to wait till page 93 to get a definition of "meme"; the "History of cultural evolution" is not at the beginning, but at the end, between "Memetic algorithms" and "Generalised Darwinism".
Next: The text is extremely redundant: Tyler keeps repeating the same ideas, often using the same words. And all this in a book that promises to introduce us to the "Science of Cultural Evolution". Did he say "Science"? This sloppy text would not be accepted as a term paper in "XYZ" 101.
But this is only the formal aspect. The worst is the sloppy thinking.
It's not as if the meme concept itself was nonsense. Read Kate Distin's "The Selfish Meme" to get an idea of how this concept could be useful - if it's treated in a precise and rational way. Instead Mister Tyler just offers a hodgepodge of ideas that simply don't add up to anything like a consistent theory. His concepts are ambiguous. Example: On page 128 we read "...minds are the temporary nests of self-replicating ideas - which are using them to propagate themselves..." It should be clear: Those ideas (= memes) are the agents; they pull the strings. But on page 105 we read "memes don't m a k e copies, they are things which are copied". Now, are memes after all passive? Is the brain the puppet master? On page 159 the author calls the whole question about self-replication "too mundane and trivial to bother having much of an argument about". No Sir: this question is essential. It is one of the central tenets of "memetics" that ideas are the agents, Dennett even called them "body-snatchers". So it should be clear who does the copying, who is the agent and who is on the receiving end. Or has any virologist ever claimed that the question how viruses get copied is trivial or mundane ?
The greatest theoretical weakness - apart from its conceptual fuzzyness - is the idea to treat memes as "living creatures", as agents. I have never found a memeticist who was able to explain to me how, say, a special knot (or the idea of this knot), or the word "cat" is a living thing that actively infests my brain. The whole talk about memes as "living things" is misguided, unscientitic, basically a kind of magic thinking. A virus has the bio-chemical surface structure to get into a cell, and it has the DNA or RNA sequence to take over the replication machinery of this cell in order to make more viruses. All this can be described in every detail by virologists. No memeticist has ever given a comparable description of the "infection" of a brain by an artifact like a knot or a word. As long as they can't do this, I don't feel obliged to take them seriously.
Tim Tyler likes to wallow in analogies: He describes parasitism, mutualism, infection, immunisation etc.. in the organic area and then jumps into human culture insinuating that the same mechanisms are at work too. He confesses that memeticists are currently unable to describe the cultural mechanisms in detail because the brain is still a Black Box. Again, the author is wrong. We know a lot about how ideas are formed, retained, how they interact etc... Cognitive Psychology is not in its infancy, like biology in 1859. Talking about the brain as a Black Box is just an excuse for not being able to do some real memetic research.
The author claims that there is actually a lot of memetic research going on. He calls it "population memetics" (an analogy to population genetics). I read chapter after chapter hoping that - finally! - Mister Tyler would present some results of this research. In vain. Zero results. Population genetists, just to remind you, are those scientists who have been able to map the different migrations of Homo sapiens out of Africa, seventy thousand years ago, by tracking haplotype frequencies. Is there anything comparable memeticists can present to the curious public? No. Nothing.
Of course, in a book like this there is a lot of nonsense. Some Examples:
On page 177 we read that "memes are often mobile independently of humans, they can die largely independently of their human hosts and they engage in sexual recombination largely independently of humans." Eh? Memes independent of humans? Sexual recombination ?? I didn't even know that tunes, knives, books, ties or knots are sexual entities. If Mister Tyler was correct, humans could be wiped off the earth and culture would just go on... - avoiding inbreeding while having sex, of course.
Tim Tyler likens memes to symbiotic gut bacteria or domesticated animals. This comparison doesn't hold water. Humans didn't invent bacteria and animals, they have taken existing animals and have changed them to suit their (human) needs. And some bacteria, which had been existing millions of years before hominids appeared, just migrated into the human gut. But memes had had no life before humans showed up. Memes, without a single exception, were invented by human brains at some time, and should homo sapiens some day will go extinct, that will be the last day for the memes too (whereas horses or cats or bacteria just go on living).
One of the pet theories of Tim Tyler (adopted from Susan Blackmore) is that the size of the human brain increased because all those memes had to find room in it. Susan and Tim should have checked the facts: The human brain became bigger and bigger in a period of time when the archaeological record is rather boring (more or less the same Acheulean stone tools for about 1 million years!) The brain reached its modern size around 100,000 years ago. But the cultural "Great Leap Forward" took place 40,000 years ago. So there is a striking mismatch between the period of cerebral growth and the cultural explosion much later. Besides: the brain of Homo neanderthalensis was even bigger than H.sapiens's, but our extinct cousin is not famous for a rich cultural life...
Another pet theory of Mister Tyler (repeated three or four times in the book): Memes are responsible for human ultrasociality. This is just another Just-so story. There could be a correlation, but is there any evidence that there is a causation too? The author does not give any. Humans have always been a highly social species because they depend very much on each other: for safety, to gain resources, to raise their offspring (see "alloparenting"!) etc. These are basic needs and they are responsible for our social instincts and emotions. No need for memes to account for the facts.
The deep irony of a memetic book like this is: It mimics rational discourse, but avoids concepts like "reason" or "rational". But without the application of rational methods, there is no way to tell science from mumbo-jumbo. But a scientific method is not just another meme: it's the Operating System behind the ideas. But in memetics, there simply is no OS. If Tim Tyler was right, this book would be nothing but a cultural sneeze, spreading the "meme" meme. People like me who happen to have gained immunity, just don't catch this virus, and that's it.
Conclusion: This book is not to be taken seriously. Being sloppy in every respect, it even does a great disservice to the meme concept, which, when applied in a nuanced way, is even quite helpful to model some (not all!) cultural phenomena. But memetics à la Tim Tyler is a fuzzy idea running wild. Memetics as a scientific project is dead and this book is the best proof of its demise.
It is indeed a pleasure to see it treated with respect.
Anyone who has heard Tim speak (on you tube) will find the style of writing fits the voice. The book is delivered in an unpretentious and informative style but avoids patronising.
For me there were many aha! Moments
I was particularly impressed by the debate and discussion style.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn and understand the subject or who may wish to explain or defend it (memetics)
His discussions from the book on YouTube are also extremely interesting.
This book is a refreshing and ingenious enhancement to the subject of "evolution of mind". Revolutionary thinking, so one must be very open-minded, though.
It probably wasn't intended, but the sloppy style, the lack of argumentation and all these mistakes make it seem like a popular science approach on memetics. Did this book ever see an editorial office?
I'm glad the upcoming generation, that grew up with the internet, is throwing the gene-meme-analogy over board. This book is already outdated.