THE ELECTRIC MEME by Robert Aunger


A New Theory of How We Think and Communicate
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Cultural evolutionist Aunger stalks the wild meme in this abstruse treatise.

Zoologist Richard Dawkins originally coined the word “meme” as the cultural analogue of a gene: an idea, artifact, or piece of behavior that can be transmitted from person to person, survive competition, and be shared by a group in the course of cultural evolution. Memeticist Susan Blackmore chose imitation and social learning as the sine qua non of memes. Daniel Dennett raised the question of who benefits, putting memes in contention with genes to win a race involving cultural traits. Their ideas (as well as those of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists) are flawed—too simplistic, too reductionist, or too conflating of genes and memes, according to Aunger, who wants to establish a physical realty for the concept. Memes must first and foremost be replicators, he states, faithfully producing duplicates of themselves according to strict rules. He elaborates on this notion by detouring into two other forms of non-genetic replication: computer viruses and prions, which are malformed proteins in the brain. Memes, too, are in the brain: the electric meme exists at a “node”—a neuron in a particular state or a set of interconnected neurons—and is able to induce the same configuration at another node (allowing for modification so as to evolve) in a matter of milliseconds and in a manner akin to short-term memory. Indeed, he asserts, neuromemes are memories. Memes can’t move from brain to brain, however; they use “instigator signals” for transmission. Signals also can emanate from artifacts such as wagons, books, or computers; they are the means by which complexity is built into cultural evolution. In the end, Aunger offers a theory of co-evolution of memes and technology. By this time, skeptical readers, while marveling at the colossus he has constructed to account for culture (with a few deus ex machina elements thrown), will probably remain unconvinced.

No more successful than the hunting of the snark.

Pub Date: July 11th, 2002
ISBN: 0-7432-0150-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2002