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Hardcover The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think Book

ISBN: 0743201507

ISBN13: 9780743201506

The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think

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Book 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...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

A species should not define a kingdom

In the Electric Meme Robert Aunger suggests that neurophysiologists should be able to find physical evidence that certain electrical patterns generated by neural nets in the human brain, are capable of replicating themselves, either at the same spot or, significantly, at some other similar spot in the same or another brain, and that it is the pattern itself that is a significant reason for its replication, as opposed to the fact that the pattern is the inevitable consequence of some important object or process out in the world being surveyed by sensory mechanisms. Additionally, the pattern is not perfectly replicated, giving rise to various versions of it in a competitive environment, which are then subject to natural selection. It is a brilliant idea (if not an obvious one, once it has been pointed out) that struck me as being true the moment Dawkins first released it into the meme pool in a more general form in the Selfish Gene, especially in the later versions of that book. Aunger's attempt to define the beast a little more precisely in order to assist in its experimental capture is a nice direction as long as nobody takes it too seriously. The existence of memes is one of the most delicious ideas floating around right now, and with the singular exception of Dawkins and his forgiveable insistence that it must rhyme with "creams," I'd be comfortable to see the notion be allowed to float around unhampered a bit longer. If a scientist of whatever stripe is fortunate enough to trap something specific, with a knowable, reproducible, structure, which looks like a meme, and walks like a meme, then I say call it a meme, but don't define the whole kingdom based on a single species. And by the way, Mr. Aunger, ribosomes do not replicate DNA, and nitric oxide is not the same thing as nitrous oxide, and a lot of specific facts in your book, could have been repaired with a little Googling prior to publication, but thank you for a fine book.


If Hamilton, Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore are the Lamarcks and Darwins of memetics - then Robert Aunger should be recognized as a new Mendel. The Electric Meme has for the first time established why we need a new form of "selfish" replicator to explain culture. In contrast to Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology and other scientific theories trying to explain how culture and eventually humans work - memetics, as outlined by R. Aunger, coresponds with facts and does not contradict itself.The book pinpoints for the first time where memes really are - namley only in brains - what they look like and how they replicate. But Aunger does more than this. By digging deep into how meme replication works - he uncovers new and facinating aspect of how replication works in general.

Takes the brain seriously

This is certainly the most carefully thought out, best researched, most subtle and nuanced book ever written about memes. Of particular importance is Aunger's stress that cultural particulars (like ideas, beliefs, knowledge etc.) are brain states. At last we find the brain taken seriously. It is to be hoped that the standard of meme literature will continue to increase in sophistication as it has markedly done in Aunger's book.

Genesis of a real science of culture transmission

"Memes," the suggestion that ideas and other bits of culture can act like parasites by spreading from mind to mind without regard to the invaded host is a particularly compelling idea. It has caught on with a lot of people outside of biological science, but biologists have been generally skeptical of it. The problem has been that theories of memes did not take the characteristics of the host into consideration, and we have a strong sense from biological data that the host of transmitted information probably has to have some control over the processing of the information that they receive and transmit. The notion that our obvious strong propensity for social imitation also allows memes to enter us almost without resistance, then control us to force us to spread them seems a bit much. Aunger has formulated the meme theory in a way that resolves these problems. He is very careful in his reasoning compared to other popular books on memes and cultural transmission. He shows why cultural transmission is important, pulling from some of the same fascinating data as cultural selectionism researchers such as Boyd and Richerson. Cultural transmission matters because culture doesn't track with environmental, ecological, or genetic patterns. He then makes the crucial distinction for a true meme theory. He distinguishes the idea of a replicator and a duplication mechanism, and builds a model of memes specifically as replicators. Cultural selection theory holds that culture plays a role in biological evolution, but doesn't neccessarily consider bits of culture tobe composed of self-copying replicators. The reason the distinction is important, Aunger makes clear, is that if they truly can be seen in that way, then they add an additional causal force for culture to take on a life of its own to transmit itself through us. This is the causal force that other meme authors have taken for granted, and Aunger makes it explicit and potentially testable. In building his model of memes, Aunger finds that the definition can and should be made more specific, as a kind of complex residing in the brain rather than an arbitrary collection of artifacts, behaviors, and ideas. This model of memes gets around the problem of beliefs not being truly arbitrary by making it at least possible to connect the acceptance of memes back to our evolved computational engines as described by evolutionary psychologists.This is a very rigorous and well-considered argument that finally takes real anthropological and biological data into consideration rather than simply making vague analogies of culture patterns to infection patterns of microbes, or providing a too-facile explanation for things we don't agree with (those guys were just infected by "religion memes," but we're immunized from that.") I think this book is a landmark in the literature of modelling the transmission of human culture, and if the empirical testing it suggests bears fruit, it may well change the way we view

Give Electric Memes a chance

The Electric Meme is a superb book. It is fresh, original, deep and entertaining. Memeticists should be truly grateful to Aunger (Richard Dawkins first in line) for giving memes the only reality they can possibly have. I am not (yet) a meme-believer myself, but I totally share Aunger's statement that "establishing whether memes exist is a scientific project of primary importance"(p.333). And I admire Aunger for saying "I will accept the conclusion of this project either way: memes or no memes". That's beautiful. From now on, if you want to talk about memes, pro or contra, you simply have to know what this book is saying. All that has been written so far is already pre-history.
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