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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

On the Road to a Unified Science of Culture: Beware potholes.

Su-Lyn Poon

      Culture has developed far beyond the requirements for survival, such that our forays into art, music and pure mathematics are 'useless' from the biological point of view. In "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins (1987)5 introduced the concept of the meme, analogous to but separate from the gene, to explain this puzzling phenomenon. The resultant field, memetics, has been a recent battleground between various disciplines. While a natural science approach to culture remains the stage for the debut of a much hoped-for unified science, interdisciplinary work has yet to transcend traditional academic lines. Ignorance, prejudice and territoriality pose serious hurdles to the synthesis of science, which must, very simply, begin with the scientist.

      Memes are units of cultural transmission propagated by imitation and may include ideas such as natural selection and fairy tales, behaviors such as shaking hands and sitting upright, and styles such as baggy pants and slang. Like genetic evolution, memetic evolution fits the classic 'survival of the fittest' scenario: the process of replication produces variation that is acted upon by selection. However, memes exist for their own sake, not for the sake of man or the sake of genes. In this sense, they are 'selfish', and the separation means that human culture can no longer be explained in terms of biological advantage (Dawkins 1987)5.

      Memetics sprang from Dawkins' meme concept as a natural science approach to culture, and many grand visions have been penned for this, the final frontier of the unified science. Wilson exhorts the synthetic scientific method, which he terms consilience. He imagines connecting causal explanations across all levels of organization and between all branches of learning as the "Ariadne's thread" that is needed to traverse "the labyrinth of empirical knowledge" (Wilson 1998: 73)10 . Similarly, Plotkin (2002)9 thinks of complete intertheoretic reduction as the unattainable ideal, but believes that the possibility of some reduction by explanatory causal mechanisms extending across some levels is sufficient. He emphasizes that unified science requires all science to be done, and so does not sideline the work of social scientists. More importantly, both scientists believe a unified science of culture is possible because humans are products of nature and natural processes.

      Although a relatively new field, thus far held at bay by conceptual disagreements, the ranks from which the meme debate pulls its opponents is admirably wide. Cultural evolutionists Boyd and Richerson (2000a)2 propose the study of cultural change as a population process, as most cultural information is transmitted not through genes but teaching and imitation, which also affect which memes are acquired. Conte (2000)4 , a psychologist, points to social cognitive processes as both means of acquisition and source of selection, in which the autonomous memetic agent is liable to social influence but decides, based on internal criteria and motives, whether to accept or reject it. Evolutionary biologists Laland and Brown (2002)8 suggest applying tests of genetic evolution, such as searching for character displacement, convergence and shifts towards new equilibriums after sudden disturbances, to determine where memetic evolution occurs.

      The criticisms of memetics similarly represent the lenses of different fields. Plotkin, an evolutionary psychologist, objects to imitation as the only mechanism of transmission, given that much of culture revolves around shared understandings, values and beliefs, which can only be acquired through memory and abstraction (2000)9 . It has also been argued that natural selection acting on random variation is not the only process shaping human culture. Memes are often transformed during transmission as a result of purposeful human decision-making (Dennett 1995)6, improvement and synthesis (Boyd & Richerson 2000b)3.

      Though these suggestions hail from different disciplines, they stand individually rooted rather than bridging separate fields. It is because of this lack of collaboration that memetics has managed to limp along while the group of social scientists traditionally charged with the study of culture remains absent from the table. Bloch, a social anthropologist "well-disposed" towards memetics (Bloch 2000)1, tactfully points out that anthropologists have known since Tylor and Boas in the late nineteenth century, that information can now replicate, persist and transform by non-genetic means. Sadly, memeticists have proven themselves quite ignorant of the existing literature expanding on the points they are now only proposing.

      Anthropologists also express important objections to the meme. The transmission of culture by imitation runs against the understanding that culture is actively made and remade during communication, but more fundamentally, anthropologists take exception to the idea that culture is made of distinguishable 'bits' that replicate independently (Bloch 2000)1. That pushes the gene analogy too far. The crucial question that anthropologists raise, then, is whether memes even exist in the first place.

      Hull, however, is not impressed by the paralyzing debates over conceptual issues. He argues that critics of memetics have assumed too high standards for scientific knowledge, that they do not realize that terms do not start out clear and uncomplicated (2000)7. Simplified models and crude methods can be very useful in refining theory and experiments (Hull 2000; Laland & Brown 2002)7;8, though this is an approach that social scientists remain hostile towards. Laland and Brown (2002)8 address the issue that memes have ill-defined boundaries by pointing out that genes and species do too, yet this has not prevented very interesting and very important research from being conducted. Furthermore, the operational criteria for applying concepts will emerge only from doing memetics (Hull 2000)7.

      Bloch thus points out that the difficulty in achieving a unified science of culture arises, essentially, from putting specialists in different aspects of a unitary phenomenon in the same room. Apart from separate styles and traditions, cooperation fails as a result of "the crudest misunderstandings of either the nature of the social and the cultural by the natural scientists or of the biological and psychological by social scientists" (Bloch 2000: 190)1. Prejudice, suspicion and territoriality remain as barriers to true interdisciplinary work.

      The problem with unified science lies not in any internal logic. The idea itself is sound and deserves serious consideration. However, its proponents are prone to hold the rest of the academic world in limbo. While the natural sciences have indeed gained many concrete footholds, the social sciences have not been stagnant - debates rage on about methodology and conceptual frameworks. The natural sciences are now in a position to contribute foundational knowledge to the cause, but they must do so with an awareness of the rich dynamics that have shaped the social sciences and the issues they tackle. Unified science does not mean exporting scientific methodology wholesale. It requires that both the natural and social sciences compromise, surrendering previously held conceptions of each other and some of their own methodological autonomy. New methods will arise through collaboration.

      Similarly, anthropologists must not be blindly prejudiced against science as a result of the time when they were once strange bedfellows in the form of social Darwinism and eugenics. That enterprise was based on seriously flawed scientific understanding and while science today is far from perfect, it is poor judgment to hold on to demons in the past. The ignorance of memeticists towards anthropology is all the more reason to jump in, not to return the favor. Only from the inside can anthropologists understand what memeticists are trying to achieve and the means to do so, and only from the inside can they deliver anthropological theory accordingly and exert some influence over the way in which the field will develop. The scientific approach to culture will not just go away if ignored. More importantly, by withholding any contribution to an interdisciplinary study of culture in a deluded attempt to control the territory, anthropologists are essentially excluding themselves from what will inevitably be a very productive pursuit.

      The science belongs to no-one; every voice is an input. Traditional claims of academic territories no longer hold as new methodologies become available and boundaries shift. The way is paved for a unified science that embraces perhaps the most complex question of our existence. While many recognize the value of and need for such interdisciplinary research, few appear to realize that it is not enough for teams to be assembled like mosaics from the ranks of biologists, psychologists, anthropologists and so on. Instead, the new challenge is for these individuals to themselves espouse the unified science. Ignorance can no longer be excused by specialism, nor prejudice by unfamiliarity. These are no longer the criteria by which scholars will be created and research dictated. Science at the edge pushes for synthesis to be achieved even before data collection has begun.


1) Bloch, M. 2000. A well-disposed social anthropologist's problems with memes. In R. Aunger (Ed.), Darwinizing Culture: the status of memetics as a science. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

2) Boyd, R. and P. J. Richerson. 2000a. Memes: Universal acid or a better mousetrap? In R. Aunger (Ed.), Darwinizing Culture: the status of memetics as a science. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

3) Boyd, R. and P. J. Richerson. 2000b. Meme theory oversimplifies how culture changes. Scientific American, 283(4): 64-72.

4) Conte, R. 2000. Memes through (social) minds. In R. Aunger (Ed.), Darwinizing Culture: the status of memetics as a science. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

5) Dawkins, R. 1989. The selfish gene. (2nd ed.) Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

6) Dennett, D. 1995. Darwin's dangerous idea. London: Penguin.

7) Hull, D. 2000. Taking memetics seriously: memetics will be what we make it. In R. Aunger (Ed.), Darwinizing Culture: the status of memetics as a science. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

8) Laland, K. and G. Brown. 2002. The golden meme: memes offer a way to analyse human culture with scientific rigour. Why are social scientists so averse to the idea. New Scientist 175(2354): 40-43.

9) Plotkin, H. 2002. The imagined world made real: towards a natural science of culture. London; New York: Allen Lane.

10) Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience: the unity of knowledge. New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House.

Suggested Web Resources

"What is a meme?"
Several scientists answer the question.

Memes: the new replicators.
The final chapter from Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" (1976, 1st ed.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Memetics publications on the web
A good list for further readings available online.

Memetics user group and forum on Google.

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