Engaging & Dispatching Memetics

Engaging Anthropology
I am reading the book Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence by the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Quite enjoying it – definitely recommended.

I’ve just finished his section on Memetics and the Anthropologists. He systematically dismantles meme theory from an anthropological point of view, just like Greg did in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On. (Greg’s version is snarkier…) Eriksen also ties in the popular success of meme theory to a consideration of how anthropology can gain public relevance. This description resonates with much that we do here on this site.

Memetics may be beyond salvation as a theoretical project. However, it raises a few questions which are just right for anthropology seen as an endeavour of public relevance. It sees human culture as part of nature yet rejects the simplifications of human sociobiology, and it asks highly pertinent questions about cultural transmission, cultural diffusion and cultural change. The notion of contagion is useful and has not been properly explored in cultural studies, including anthropology.

But – I repeat- without an understanding of the human subject, no advance will be made, and of course, context is everything. Curiously, in attempts at applying memetics, the biology itself seems to suffer. In Ingold’s words, the genotype exists ‘in the mind of the biologist’ (Ingolg 2000: 382). The ambition of offering a simple and straightforward analytic account of the human mind has led to an untenable abstraction (62-63).

Eriksen pushes us to make generalizations and to take cross-cultural analysis seriously, to examine these big questions of cultural change and diffusion. But he ties that into a grounded understanding of the person, the human subject. Those subjects, or people, are always found in specific contexts, and these local environments help shape culture and subjectivity (beyond the generalizations of, say, contagion). Biology comes in as a crucial mediator here, from helping to understand the contours of cultural change to being a crucial player in the relations of subject and environment. At least that is how I read it. Memetics fails because it is not anthropological, neither grappling with the rich tradition of research on cultural change and meaning nor with the actual realities of people and their lives.

Eriksen then relates his analysis of memetics and anthropology to a larger public project.

The lesson from the experiment of memetics is that we have to do better: those of us who feel that memetics is insufficient have to come up with a better alternative than merely stating that things are more complicated than this. Saying ‘things are more complicated’ is like having endless meetings to avoid making a controversial decision.

The anthropologist’s account of human nature has to be holist – it must include the recipe, the ingredients, the oven and the cook – and it must supersede the conventional culture/nature divide. Looking in the direction of biology, it is likely to find more by way of inspiration in ecology than genetics. It must also take human experience seriously as an area of enquiry. These general delineations notwithstanding, several paths are possible and might shed light on the human condition. The field is open: with a handful of exceptions, there have been few attempts since the Second World War to develop a theory of human nature which draws on biological knowledge without succumbing to the temptations of easy fixes (63).”

Just to be clear, by recipe, ingredients, oven and cook, Eriksen means DNA, development, the environment, and subjectivity (or an actor). So I would certainly agree with a holistic approach that supersedes the conventional culture/nature divide. In biology, I actually hope that both ecology and genetics play a role. But I would point out that neuroscience is actually the closest to many of the areas that interest him as an anthropologist – experience and behavior, interactions with the environment, possible biological dynamics that help shape culture, and so forth. In other words, neuroanthropology.

To be honest, neuroanthropology probably has a branding problem, rather like cognition and culture. The term doesn’t shout out “public relevance.” But as a site to explore the proper combination of recipes, ingredients and cooks, and to gain an online presence, well, it’s a good start. Next stop, a theory of human nature. Right?

In any case, here’s the Google Book link to Engaging Anthropology. The “Memetics and the Anthropologists” section starts on page 57. Just do a search for memetics; it looks like you can read the entire section online to get Eriksen’s excellent analysis of the weaknesses of memetics.

And for more on Thomas Hylland Eriksen, he is a professor at the University of Oslo. He also runs a rich website called Engaging with the World, where you can see how he’s put his words into practice.

6 thoughts on “Engaging & Dispatching Memetics

  1. Great post, daniel. I think Eriksen is spot on when he says that “those of us [anthropologists] who feel that memetics is insufficient have to come up with a better alternative than merely stating that things are more complicated than this. Saying ‘things are more complicated’ is like having endless meetings to avoid making a controversial decision”.

    This reminds me that I owe neuroanthropology a reference (see Why We Hate Memes thread), namely a review I wrote some time ago of Robert Aunger’s book on memes. Here it is:


    I’ve got a book to finish (writing, not reading) by 28 Aug. Will post on memetics and its alternatives sometime in Sep!!

  2. As someone who comes from an ethnography and cultural studies background, I think the criticism that memes fail to draw on these traditions hits the mark. One could go one step further and speak of the manner in which memetics ignores all of the work that’s been done in semiotics broadly construed. Nonetheless, I think that the concept of memes hits on something important and often overlooked in emphasizing the notion of signs as replicators that are situated in time and space that get selected for. It seems to me that cultural theorists would be more effective not in rejecting this concept, but in complicating it nicely with their own tools and background.

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