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The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think
     

The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think

by Robert Aunger
 

See All Formats & Editions

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

Overview

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 Meme will change the way each of us thinks about our minds, our cultures, and our daily choices.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com
According to Cambridge University scholar Robert Aunger, memes are "thought genes" that build our brains and our culture. They replicate with the aid of electrons, gathering power as they grow, and human society is based on the copying of bits of ideas that proliferate and adapt like viruses. This new theory, both original and comprehensible, could be the Next Big Idea.
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. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
Daniel Dennett
"With this book, Robert Aunger puts memetics decisively on the intellectual map. The Electric Meme will eclipse the field as the inaugural book of a whole new school of social science and cultural history."
Richard Dawkins
"What more, one might ask, needed to be said about memes? The answer turns out to be plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently and entertainingly."
Terrence W. Deacon

"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."
David L. Hull
"The Electric Meme is not only a critical, detailed and coherent development of the meme idea, it also improves our understanding of genes, prions, computer viruses, information theory and neurophysiology as well. Aunger even asks the most fundamental question of all — do we have memes or do our memes have us?"
Marc D. Hauser
"What makes The Electric Meme a welcome addition is that Aunger takes a serious crack at turning memetics into a more rigorous science, one that can uncover, like a microbiologist looking at a virus, both the structure and transmission of memes. Be warned, however: your memes may never be the same again."
Kevin Padian
"With good examples and lively prose, Aunger explores the question: just how tangible are the units of cultural replication that we call memes? His far-reaching answers will surprise and stimulate readers."
Dan Sperber
"Unlike others who write about cultural evolution, Robert Aunger has actually studied it in the field as a practicing anthropologist. He is also an accomplished evolutionary theorist. This makes him uniquely qualified to write about memes. In this clear, well-written, and challenging book, he addresses the important and difficult issues of memetics with ease, and puts forward novel ideas that are sure to stir great interest and also controversy."
From the Publisher
"With this book, Robert Aunger puts memetics decisively on the intellectual map. The Electric Meme will eclipse the field as the inaugural book of a whole new school of social science and cultural history."

"What more, one might ask, needed to be said about memes? The answer turns out to be plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently and entertainingly."

"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."

"The Electric Meme is not only a critical, detailed and coherent development of the meme idea, it also improves our understanding of genes, prions, computer viruses, information theory and neurophysiology as well. Aunger even asks the most fundamental question of all — do we have memes or do our memes have us?"

"What makes The Electric Meme a welcome addition is that Aunger takes a serious crack at turning memetics into a more rigorous science, one that can uncover, like a microbiologist looking at a virus, both the structure and transmission of memes. Be warned, however: your memes may never be the same again."

"With good examples and lively prose, Aunger explores the question: just how tangible are the units of cultural replication that we call memes? His far-reaching answers will surprise and stimulate readers."

"Unlike others who write about cultural evolution, Robert Aunger has actually studied it in the field as a practicing anthropologist. He is also an accomplished evolutionary theorist. This makes him uniquely qualified to write about memes. In this clear, well-written, and challenging book, he addresses the important and difficult issues of memetics with ease, and puts forward novel ideas that are sure to stir great interest and also controversy."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781476740560
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
07/30/2013
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
1,040,634
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Electric Meme

A New Theory of How We Think
By Robert Aunger

Free Press

Copyright © 2002 Robert Aunger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743201507

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? Betweenthe 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

Continues...


Excerpted from The Electric Meme by Robert Aunger Copyright © 2002 by Robert Aunger. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Richard Dawkins
"What more, one might ask, needed to be said about memes? The answer turns out to be plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently and entertainingly.
Kevin Padian
"With good examples and lively prose, Aunger explores the question: just how tangible are the units of cultural replication that we call memes? His far-reaching answers will surprise and stimulate readers.
Marc D. Hauser
"What makes The Electric Meme a welcome addition is that Aunger takes a serious crack at turning memetics into a more rigorous science, one that can uncover, like a microbiologist looking at a virus, both the structure and transmission of memes. Be warned, however: your memes may never be the same again.
David L. Hull
"The Electric Meme is not only a critical, detailed and coherent development of the meme idea, it also improves our understanding of genes, prions, computer viruses, information theory and neurophysiology as well. Aunger even asks the most fundamental question of all — do we have memes or do our memes have us?
Dan Sperber
"Unlike others who write about cultural evolution, Robert Aunger has actually studied it in the field as a practicing anthropologist. He is also an accomplished evolutionary theorist. This makes him uniquely qualified to write about memes. In this clear, well-written, and challenging book, he addresses the important and difficult issues of memetics with ease, and puts forward novel ideas that are sure to stir great interest and also controversy.
Terrence W. Deacon
"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.
Daniel Dennett
"With this book, Robert Aunger puts memetics decisively on the intellectual map. The Electric Meme will eclipse the field as the inaugural book of a whole new school of social science and cultural history.

Meet the Author

Robert Aunger received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Cambridge. He was until recently a Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and is currently affiliated with the Department of Biological Anthropology at the same university. He organized the first academic conference dedicated to memes, which resulted in his book Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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