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On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) Hardcover – August 9, 2011
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"Ambitious and original. Unlike the vast majority of recent writings about memes, this is a serious book that does "add to the theory". It belongs on the reading list of anybody who hopes to use Richard Dawkins's insight into memes, offering a serious scientific account of cultural change and innovation. That it is entertaining is a bonus, not a substitute for substance.” --Daniel Dennett, New Scientist, Letters
“This book is a delight. Not only has Hughes described the world with meme’s eye vision but he has woven the insights of this view into a funny and endearing travel tale. Anyone interested in memes and the evolution of culture is bound to enjoy it. At last! At last not only has someone seriously adopted a meme’s-eye view of the world but has described the world seen through its lenses with humour, intelligence and real insight. Hughes’ hilarious travels through the American west do for culture what Darwin did for biology. I will buy a copy for both my meme-loving and my meme-hating friends.”—Professor Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine
"Hughes, an award-winning science writer and documentary maker, explores how big ideas begin, evolve, and converge--and whether culture, like biology, follows any Darwinian dictates of natural selection--in this detective story–cum–road trip memoir. Hughes and his brother, Adam, trek across America in their Chrysler in order to trace the evolution of tepees used by the Plains Indians--that "marvel of human ingenuity... the difference between life and death." Along the way, Hughes maps out the genealogies of other cultural artifacts of Americana--the gambrel-roof barn, bourbon whiskey, regional pronunciations and jokes, why Scandinavian immigrants took to the American Midwest, and the invention of the cowboy hat. Taking his cue from Darwin, Hughes intersperses his technical discussions of genetics and biology with sketches--of tepees and such oddities of the animal kingdom as naked mole rats, hammerhead fruit bats, oarfish--and snapshots from the road that keep the reading brisk, personal, and pleasurable. This ambitious book braids together studies in biology, psychology, history, linguistics, geology, and philosophy into an impressively succinct and readable taxonomy of human culture." --Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
"On the Origin of Tepees is not your usual sort of book. Jonnie Hughes, a British TV and radio science guy, is like a carnival barker on serious weed. He is like Carl Sagan without segues, Jacques Cousteau without the hat, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom without the kingdom … Wait, wait, I’ve got it: On the Origin of Tepees reminds me of a mind-blowing book I was given in first grade. It was called Animals Do the Strangest Things, and it called into question pretty much everything I’d been told so far (at 6) vis-À-vis evolution; namely that people were in charge of animals, people were smarter than animals, people were more inventive than animals and, of course, people were funnier and nicer than animals (none of which turned out to be true). Hughes wants us to understand the world differently; to understand the evolution of ideas and how those ideas shape the choices we make (individually and as a species) and our cultural evolution. He has chosen to do this in what he considers a surreal landscape — America. Now don’t get huffy: This is not Baudrillard exclaiming over the American materialist wasteland, or even de Tocqueville marveling in his paternal way over our fabulous optimism; this guy is totally comfortable (maybe too comfortable) with the idea that, grand theories aside, we are not in control of our evolution, any more than the hammerheaded fruit bat, the oarfish, or the naked mole rat. We need new goggles with which to see ourselves and through which to fully appreciate Darwin’s work. Hughes has got some."--Los Angeles Review of Books --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Jonnie Hughes is a science writer and filmmaker with over twelve years experience in communicating science to a broader public on radio, television, in print, and face-to-face. He is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker and regular contributor to Geographical Magazine, BBC Wildlife Magazine, The Guardian, and The Times. His films have aired on National Geographic, Discovery, BBC One and Two, and Channel 5. He has won the Association of British Science Writers and the Wellcome Trust Awards for science writing and a BBC Radio One Award for factual radio and the American Genesis Award for Best Popular Television Documentary. He lives in London, England.
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Based on my several years of research into macrohistory, I only found one or two minor points to quibble with; for instance, in discussing the spread of Old World humans to the New World, the author repeated the "inland valley route" theory without mentioning a competing theory of coastal migration. But this is trivial compared to the real accomplishment of presenting a readable, thorough theory to explain the uniqueness of human accomplishments, relative to other creatures on Earth.
What I really liked was the author's fearlessness in exploring how ideas evolve. He comes to the conclusion that we might not be as much in the driver's seat as we like to think. This is a fascinating hypothesis and one I found convincing. It has a Copernican feel to it, moving humankind away from the center of the cultural universe. Of course, it's more complicated than that but that is gist of his argument.
You will see in other reviews that the notion of memes is "discredited" or "a canard". This is simply not true. It is true, however, that memes remain a controversial topic and many cultural evolutionist have backed away from the idea, at least temporarily. Culture is very complex and it will take time for scientists to work out the best genotype vs phenotype model for it. For now scientists have chosen to focus on the phenotype, i.e. the stetson hat itself, rather than whatever genotype underlies it (meme or otherwise).
It also seems from some of the reviews that the entire notion of cultural evolution makes some people uncomfortable. You can tell when this is happening because they will use words like "determinism" or "reductionism". Sadly, science isn't there to make us feel comfortable or to confirm our political and emotional biases. It's goal is to accurately describe how the world is, not how we wish it were. If culture does evolve in a darwinian way, and if the empirical evidence supports it, then we must be brave enough to accept it.
In the first half of the book, Jon Hughes doesn't even use the m-word, Instead, he talks about "Ideas" (yes, with capital "I") and how they spread. How the forms of barns in the American West changed, how the modern cowboy hat (the "Stetson") evolved. As I said: It's a real pleasure to read these parts, and there is nothing to say against the notion that Ideas or artifacts evolve. Cultural evolution" is a fact, but this kind of evolution doesn't work the way "memeticists" think it should.
What's wrong with the meme-theory?
First of all, ideas and artifacts are no "replicators"; no replication takes place in cultural evolution. When an idea is learned, it is re-produced, re-constructed in the mind of the learner, more precisely: by the mind of the learner (which behaves not passively, but actively!). So when we want to understand the way a cultural lineage evolves, we have to take into account all the evolved preferences of the mind of all the individuals being part of the process. But memeticists know nothing about psychology, they simply disregard 50 years of psychological research (and they are proud of it!).
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Hughes introduces us to one of the central tenets of his theory. He describes how he and his brother observe a man in a shop for cowboy hats, how this man chooses a certain hat. Hughes asks: "Why did he select that hat?". He discusses some possibilities, only to arrive at the conclusion "The point is this: in the end, it doesn't matter". And then, to sum it up: "In the end it was the PATTERNS of their selections that guided the future evolution of the hat, not the REASONS for their selection." (p. 96).
I couldn't disagree more. Just lets replace, for the sake of argument, all those hat-selecting people by some random mecanism, like a roulette table, so that there is simply no REASON for selecting hat A over hat B, just pure chance: Cultural evolution would come to a standstill, because all those random movements would cancel out each other, it would be impossible for any lineage to appear, and without lineages, no evolution.
All those choices made by human minds matter a lot for cultural evolution, because those choises are the force behind selection. If we eliminate these choices, or declare them irrelevant, we won't get any patterns in the first place (are there any patterns in the results of roulette? No.)
Let's have a look at biological selection. Peter and Rosemary Grant investigated for decades the selection process going on among Darwin finches on the Galapagos islands. They found certain patterns, and they could explain the evolutionary reasons behind those pattern (Read the marvelous book "The beak of the finch" by Jonathan Weiner to find out the details). It's just intellectual laziness to claim, as Jonnie Hughes does, that the reasons behind selections in Cultural evolution don't matter, that it boils down to just recording the patterns without bothering about the WHY. Because it's the WHY that ultimately fuels and drives evolution.
There is another point where Hughes's conclusion verges on the absurd: "We have the impression that invention, intention and conscious decision making play a crucial part in crafting out humanity, but perhaps that just isn't so. Perhaps the evolution of the noosphere can only ever de described as mindless+" and further on: "our thoughts appear to enjoy a degree of independence from us. They seem to lead a life of their own."
I'd say: Here somebody gets carried away by his own enthousiasm. Nobody ever said that it's conscious (!) invention and intention that determines the way cultural lineages take. Of course most of our decisions have their roots in unconscions mental mechanisms, but that doesn't lead us to the conclusion that unconscious selections have no reasons or that reasons don't matter, or that the whole process is mindless! Au contraire: The whole realm of culture, the whole noosphere, is nothing but a by-product of the human mind. Take away the mind, and culture disappears. So all this talk about "mindless Ideas having a life of their own" is nonsense and betrays either total ignorance of the functioning of the human mind, or intellectual laziness to find out.
The most important difference between serious theoriticians of cultural evolution (see for instance Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Herb Gintis, Alex Mesoudi or Kevin Laland) and memeticists is: the latter are not content with claiming that cultural variants are forming lineages, that they are subjected to selective forces and so on..., no, they are overstating the case of memes, they rev up the theoretical engine and claim that "memes are in the driving seat", that they are the "true agents", that our minds are "hijacked" by memes ...
Jonnie Hughes gives the example of Reginald Laubin and his wife Gladys who dedicated their lives to exploring and documenting the culture of the American Plains Indians. Were the brains of the couple hijacked by Indian memes? Hughes clearly thinks so. I'd say that this is an extremly simplistic point of view. If memetics was a serious theory, somebody should be able to show how the "tepee-meme" entered the brain of Reginald Laubin, how it took control, changed the program (like a virus does with a cell) and turned poor Reginald into a puppet of its one (the meme's) reproduction.
Well, Reginald Laubin is dead. But what about the author? Did the "tepee-meme" hijack Jonnie Hughes's brain? I don't think so. In my account, it wasn't the meme that invaded Jonnie's brain, but Jonnie wanted (!) to write a book on cultural evolution, a book that somehow rhymed with Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", and it was pure coincidence that "species" rhymes (more or less) with "tepees". If "tepees" were some kind of pottery in sub-Saharan Africa, Jonnie and his brother Adam would have gone to Botswana or Sambia in order to study the evolution of African pottery. So it was Jonnie's brain/mind that chose the tepees, and not the other way round, as the meme theory would have it.
My advice: Read this book, because it is really interesting and informative, but read it critically. And if you're interested in Cultural evolution, read "Not by genes alone" by Boyd/Richerson or "Cultural evolution" by Alex Mesoudi.
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