Evolution 2.0

Part of the series The Frontiers Collection pp 65-82


The Problem of ‘Darwinizing’ Culture (or Memes as the New Phlogiston)

  • Timothy TaylorAffiliated withDepartment of Archaeology, University of Bradford Email author 

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The neologism ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins as a cultural counterpart to the gene. While the meme has not been widely adopted in the social sciences, neither has it gone away, having survived (‘memically’ its supporters might say) despite significant philosophical and anthropological objections. This may be because the concept seems to promise to ‘Darwinize’ culture, providing an understanding of human life in reductivist terms, that is, terms consonant with neodarwinian selection and inheritance theory. It is suggested here that culture, far from being understandable memically, can be uncontroversially understood as one of those factors extending beyond natural selection that Darwin himself believed also operated. Here, various meme concepts are outlined along with objections to them. An alternative view is proposed that focuses on material technology, which, it is argued, although it has a biological dependency in historic and prehistoric perspective, is irreducible to biology and capable of subverting its logic. Implications for the orthodox views of human evolution are signalled. (The title of this article references Robert Aunger’s balanced edited work Darwinizing Culture: the Status of Memetics as a Science (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000). The subtitle is also slightly second-hand (although unwittingly so when I presented the paper): Alister McGrath, in Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, calls memes ‘the new ether’(Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, p. 133), having made the comparison to other fictional concepts including ‘calorific’ and ‘phlogiston’ a couple of pages earlier.)