Cover image for The electric meme : a new theory of how we think
The electric meme : a new theory of how we think
Aunger, Robert.
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2002]

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392 pages ; 25 cm
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HM1041 .A96 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From biology to culture to the new new economy, the buzzword on everyone's lips is "meme." How do animals learn things? How does human culture evolve? How does viral marketing work? The answer to these disparate questions and even to what is the nature of thought itself is, simply, the meme. For decades researchers have been convinced that memes were The Next Big Thing for the understanding of society and ourselves. But no one has so far been able to define what they are. Until now.Here, for the first time, Robert Aunger outlines what a meme physically is, how memes originated, how they developed, and how they have made our brains into their survival systems. They are thoughts. They are parasites. They are in control. A meme is a distinct pattern of electrical charges in a node in our brains that reproduces a thousand times faster than a bacterium. Memes have found ways to leap from one brain to another. A number of them are being replicated in your brain as you read this paragraph.In 1976 the biologist Richard Dawkins suggested that all animals -- including humans -- are puppets and that genes hold the strings. That is, we are robots serving as life support for the genes that control us. And all they want to do is replicate themselves. But then, we do lots of things that don't seem to help genes replicate. We decide not to have children, we waste our time doing dangerous things like mountain climbing, or boring things like reading, or stupid things like smoking that don't seem to help genes get copied into the next generation. We do all sorts of cultural things for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with genes. Fashions in sports, books, clothes, ideas, politics, lifestyles come and go and give our lives meaning, so how can we be gene robots?Dawkins recognized that something else was going on. We communicate with one another and we get ideas, and these ideas seem to have a life of their own. Maybe there was something called memes that were like thought genes. Maybe our bodies were gene robots and our minds were meme robots. That would mean that what we think is not the result of our own creativity, but rather the result of the evolutionary flow of memes as they wash through us.What is the biological reality of an idea with a life of its own? What is a thought gene? It's a meme. And no one before Robert Aunger has established what it physically must be. This elegant, paradigm-shifting analysis identifies how memes replicate in our brains, how they evolved, and how they use artifacts like books and photographs and advertisements to get from one brain to another. Destined to inflame arguments about free will, open doors to new ways of sharing our thoughts, and provide a revolutionary explanation of consciousness,The Electric Memewill change the way each of us thinks about our minds, our cultures, and our daily choices.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Introduction When I was doing anthropological fieldwork in central Africa, I encountered people who believe that witches can attack you in your sleep and eat your brain, turning you into a witch like them, with upside-down ideas like walking abroad at night, living homeless in the forest, and having sex with animals. In many cultures around the globe, similar stories are told: People can be haunted by supernatural agents that do them damage or make them into something new and strange. I hasten to add that these people are not "weird" in any other way; the individuals I knew were smart, caring, thoughtful. I grew very fond of them. And certainly they knew how to survive in their environment much better than I could. When they intended to kill an animal on the hunt, they understood the rules of physics well enough to fire arrows so that the animals died and they got to eat. And we were able to converse about many everyday things, despite my lack of belief in witchcraft, suggesting that many of our thoughts traveled common pathways. We shared the bond of being definitely and resonantly human. Do these central African people feel any kind of cognitive dissonance between their metaphysical and physical worlds? Between the cultural beliefs they learn from others and what they experience through their own contact and experience with the world? Maybe these "crazy" witchcraft beliefs are some kind of parasite on their minds, able to perpetuate themselves somehow, serving their own needs. They certainly don't seem to make the life of anyone who holds such beliefs any better, since belief in witchcraft can make social relationships, even with your closest kith and kin, rather tense. You're always wondering whether some cross word or unintended slight will make someone angry enough to visit you in the night as an impossible animal that sinks its teeth into your skull. Of course, you don't have to believe in witchcraft to get a vague sense that competing streams of thought are simultaneously burrowing their way through your head. Perhaps this feeling arises because some of our thoughts really are "alien" to us. Maybe what psychologists blandly call "cognitive dissonance" derives from the fact that at least some of our thoughts have their source outside us and come together somewhat unhappily inside our heads. Psychotic delusions -- in which a person consciously hears unfamiliar voices echoing through his mind -- might then begin when these alien thoughts become too numerous and too rancorous. It's not a wholly new idea; recall that stock cartoon image of an angel whispering, "Don't do it!" into some character's ear while a devil is shouting, "Aw, go ahead!" into the other. So perhaps we are literally possessed by thoughts imported from those around us. To use a more medical analogy, maybe ideas are acquired as a kind of mental "infection" through social contact. We know that we can acquire terrible diseases in this way, from germs sneezed at us by someone else. What if we need to fear that something caught culturally from our compatriots can be dangerously infectious as well? We might become contaminated with treacherous brain pathogens just by talking with one another! In effect, through conversation, ideas might be able to move from brain to brain, replicating themselves inside our heads. Why do we think the things we think? Do we have thoughts, or do they have us? This startling idea -- that thoughts can think themselves -- is the brainstorm behind a new theory called memetics. This theory is based on an important insight relevant to social species like humans. It begins by recognizing that many of our thoughts are not generated from within our own brains but are acquired as ideas from others. What memetics argues is that, once inside us, these thoughts then go to work for themselves, pursuing goals that may be in conflict with our best interests. These ideas have their own interests by virtue of having qualities that make them like biological viruses. Social scientists have long remarked that the pool of beliefs and values held in common by the members of social groups -- their culture, in short -- appears to evolve over time. New varieties of belief -- mutants -- pop up with fair regularity and then are selected by individuals based on a wide range of criteria, such as their psychological appeal. This resemblance between cultural and biological processes led the eminent zoologist Richard Dawkins (now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University) to suggest that cultural evolution might be described using the same principles as biological evolution. More particularly, he identified a unit of information that plays a role analogous to that of genes, the biological replicator. He coined the term "meme" as the name for these cultural particles, which he presumed could replicate themselves as people exchanged information. The upshot of this view is that memes are ideas that collect people like trophies, infecting their brains as "mind viruses." Maybe what we think hasn't so much to do with our own free will as with the ongoing activity of something like "thought genes" operating inside our heads. Many have found the idea of memes attractively logical and have run with it. However, much of this speculation has been irresponsible, since the existence of memes remains to be established. Nevertheless if it could be shown that social intercourse regularly involves the replication of information, such a discovery would have important implications for the nature of human psychology and society. A concerted attempt to sort out what memes must be like is therefore warranted. In this book, I take seriously the notion that such cultural replicators exist. By identifying what memes must be like and where they can be found, I hope to hasten an end to the continuing rounds of conjecture about memes. If the possibility of memes is confirmed, an era of "hard" findings in the new science of memetics could then be initiated. To help attain this goal, The Electric Meme begins with a chapter clarifying the core idea of memetics: that memes are replicators. Any evolutionary process, including the cultural kind, needs only to exhibit features that correlate from one generation to the next. This quality is what biologists call heredity. Replication is a more precise claim about how evolution works -- it suggests that a special kind of agent causes the recurrence of cultural features: a replicator. Some evolutionary approaches -- competitors to memetics, such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology -- invoke only genetic heredity in their explanation of culture. I disagree. Socially transmitted information is central to the nature of culture. But when it is transmitted, is it replicated? That's the crucial question. To answer it, we have to find some new sources of information that anchor our thoughts and keep our speculations from flying away with us. What might be the proper grounds for a science of memes? How can we, in fact, determine whether replication occurs when we inherit cultural traits? First of all, we require a clear idea of how we can generalize Darwinian theory to cover the case of cultural evolution. In particular, we need a better idea of what we mean by replication in the first place. In this book, my first job is to firm up just what we mean by cultural evolution and to determine how it happens. For assistance in this task, it is reasonable to look to the other replicators we know something about -- prions and computer viruses -- for insight into how a cultural replicator might work. It turns out they work quite differently from genes, which considerably expands the possibilities for memes. Replicators transmit information. But information has often been seen as a magical, protean kind of thing, capable of taking on any form a meme requires -- in effect, enabling memes to flit through your mind and out into the world, and then to live long-term in books or monumental architecture, before zooming back into your brain. I suggest this jet-setting lifestyle is not one any form of information can sustain. We must stalk the wild meme and determine in exactly what kind of place it might be found. After considering alternative proposals, I conclude memes will be found only in the brain. With such investigations completed, we move forward to a triumvirate of chapters at the heart of this book. These chapters tell a story that follows the evolution of memes since their beginning, possibly some hundreds of millions of years ago. Memes must have "started small," beginning their careers by replicating exclusively within individual brains. Following those early days, memes learned a trick that enabled them to move from one organism to another. Somewhat controversially, I argue they didn't do this by themselves hopping between brains. Instead they used signals like spoken phrases as agents to help them spread. These signals, once they penetrated the new host brain, initiated the reconstruction of the relevant meme from materials located there. Through this indirect process, memes effectively hurdled the gap of space between brains. More recently, memes learned to use artifacts such as books, CDs, billboards, and T-shirts as storehouses for their messages. This provided them with advantages in terms of longevity and the fidelity with which they could be transmitted as they journeyed from brain to brain. This is a book that sets out a new way of thinking about how we think and communicate. Obviously, if we are zombies controlled by memes rather than free agents capable of independent thought, this fact has considerable bearing on our conception of ourselves, on what we say and do, and on the nature of the societies we construct. We need to find out about memes to answer these fundamental questions. Although it is unlikely to be the final word on the subject, this book aims to bring us a few steps closer to determining whether mind viruses are secretly and silently replicating inside our heads at this very minute, unknown to us -- at least until now. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Aunger Excerpted from The Electric Meme by Robert Aunger All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 In the Middle of a Muddlep. 7
Genes and Germsp. 13
Memes in the Muddlep. 22
Chapter 2 A Special Kind of Inheritancep. 24
What Is Culture?p. 28
Sociobiologyp. 31
Evolutionary Psychologyp. 35
Punching the Buttons on the Jukebox of Lifep. 41
Transmission Happensp. 46
Cultural Selectionismp. 48
Who's in Charge?p. 58
Rescuing Memesp. 63
Chapter 3 Adding Rooms to Darwin's Housep. 65
Expanding the Living Roomp. 66
A Darwinian Universe?p. 70
Replicators, Interactors, and Lineagesp. 72
The Replication Reactionp. 83
Chapter 4 The Replicator Zoop. 93
Spongy Gray Matterp. 94
Survival of the Prionsp. 99
Attack of the Binariesp. 102
A Day in the Life of a Comp-Virusp. 104
Classifying Virusesp. 108
Evolution Inside a Computerp. 113
From Floppy to Hardp. 120
Learning to Networkp. 123
Accounting for Historyp. 125
Survival of the Comp-Virusesp. 128
Convert Thy Neighborp. 133
Chapter 5 The Data on Informationp. 136
Information Is Physicalp. 137
The Nature of Biological Informationp. 145
The Sticky Replicator Principlep. 151
The Same Influence Rulep. 152
At Detour's Endp. 155
Chapter 6 Stalking the Wild Memep. 159
The Quest Beginsp. 163
Einstein's Tea Partyp. 167
A Home for Memes?p. 176
Chapter 7 Memes as a State of Mindp. 178
Getting More Nervous with Timep. 178
The Plastic Brainp. 182
The Millisecond Memep. 189
The Neuromeme Definedp. 193
La Meme Chosep. 200
Stationary Memesp. 202
Memes in Motionp. 205
Thinking in "Meme-Time"p. 209
Reasons for Replicatingp. 211
How Memes Qualify as Replicatorsp. 213
Selection on Signals for Memesp. 217
The Meaning of Memesp. 221
The First and Last Memep. 225
Nice Parasitesp. 228
Why Do We Have Big Brains Anyway?p. 230
Chapter 8 Escape from Planet Brainp. 232
Mind the Gapp. 233
Signals as Interactorsp. 234
Signals as Phenotypesp. 238
Signals as "Instigators"p. 240
Ecological Selection on Signalsp. 244
The Richness of the Responsep. 246
Never Mind the Gapp. 251
Rethinking Communicationp. 255
Imitation, Schmimitationp. 268
Chapter 9 The Techno-Tangop. 276
Artifacts as Phenotypesp. 278
Artifacts as Interactorsp. 281
Artifacts as Signal Templatesp. 285
Communicative Artifactsp. 289
Artifacts as Replicatorsp. 294
The Machining of Culturep. 296
A Darwinian Duetp. 297
Who's in Control Now?p. 300
Rethinking Culturep. 302
Chapter 10 Rethinking Replicationp. 311
Biology versus Culturep. 318
The Big Picturep. 320
Chapter 11 The Revolution of Memesp. 323
The Evolution of Memesp. 324
The Revelation of Memesp. 329
Notesp. 335
Bibliographyp. 357
Acknowledgmentsp. 373
Indexp. 375