The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think

By Robert Aunger.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. 392 pp. ISBN 0743201507.

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, evolution theorist Richard Dawkins put forward the concept of replicators, entities responsible for evolution that are defined by function rather than form. From this concept of replicators came the subsequent concept of the meme, a novel replicator responsible for cultural evolution. Dawkins' concept of a meme was rather broad, including things that communicate culture, from slogans on T-shirts to popular songs. Since that time, however, there has been a lot of discussion about memes and the possibility that they represent more than a plausible theory for communication and cultural evolution. They might actually be physical entities similar to genes. The Electric Meme, by Cambridge anthropologist Robert Aunger, represents one of the more recent entries into that discussion.

Aunger observes that the idea of memes has generated much more popular discussion than it has serious academic inquiry. This is evidenced by several Web sites dedicated to the extreme concept of memes as parasites that infect human brains and thus control all human behaviour for their own ends ( as an example). If this line of thinking were to be pursued by academics, the study of memes would resemble epidemiology. The other extreme side of the discussion is to accept the concept of memes as a useful metaphor but nothing more, not something worthy of inquiry in its own right.

In the middle of the debate some serious academic inquiry has taken place, as evidenced by the Journal of Memetics (, an online journal that has published articles by academics from a variety of disciplines from economics to music. Susan Blackmore, a psychologist who wrote The Meme Machine in 1999, and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea in 1995, are probably the academics investing the most energy into memetics. Aunger cites these scholars frequently and although he respects their work, he finds it lacking on several points and thus decides to enter the conversation.

The reason Aunger enters the fray is because, as he points out, in the midst of all the discussion about memes, no one has set about to determine if they actually might exist and, if so, in what form and how they might operate. Aunger starts from "ground zero" and sets out to explore the reasons why a theory of memes is necessary, and what memes might be and how they might work. He believes that memes may prove to be the best theory of cultural evolution if they lead to novel predictions, account for a wider variety of phenomenon than other theories, and if cultural entities that have the characteristics of replicators could be shown to exist. Aunger admits that he cannot prove his claims, but he can at this point show that "memes can be rescued from the Airy-Fairy-Land in which they now exist" (p. 64).

Aunger sets about on this quest in a thorough and systematic way. He makes few assumptions and, in spite of the adaptation of the theory of evolution to many disciplines, starts by showing that Darwin's theory of evolution can be generalized to explain cultural evolution. This point won, Aunger looks at two other types of novel replicators, that is, replicators that are not genes and do not replicate with DNA. These are proteins called prions that are thought to be the cause of brain diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and computer viruses. These replicators offer some clues to the nature of memes because they expand our thinking of replicators beyond genetics and yet still obey the rules of replication. One of the key rules important to memetics is that replicators cannot exist on more than one substrate, the material platform on which they are dependent.

The last point is important because previous writers, like Blackmore, see memes residing in behaviour, artifacts, and ideas. Aunger argues that memes can only exist as ideas, not behaviour or artifacts. He proceeds to examine information and concludes that information is a physical entity that cannot exist independently from the material in which it is made manifest. If memes, like information, must have a physical entity, and cannot occupy more than one substrate, memes must reside in the brain. Memes are neurological activity-electrochemical states. In a lengthy discussion about neurology, Aunger argues for a concept he calls neuronmemes, coming to the conclusion that memes are a specific class of memory that can replicate itself.

Aunger's arguments come apart a bit on this crucial point. If memes are a specific type of brain activity and a class of memories, they are very similar to the concept of the engram, the elusive piece of the brain or brain function in which memory resides. The search for engrams has occupied psychologists and neurologists for more than 50 years. Yet Aunger dismisses this whole line of inquiry, referring only to the work of neurologists Lashley and Penfield, who failed in the quest for the engram, according to Aunger, because they concerned themselves only with brain tissue. Aunger implies that the search should have included the electrochemical functions of the brain, which is where he surmises the equally elusive meme might reside.

Yet had Aunger explored the search for engrams beyond the work of Lashley and Penfield, he would have discovered that electrochemical functions of the brain have indeed been studied as a possible source for memory. A quick perusal of an introductory psychology text shows that many avenues have been pursued in the search for engrams, starting with electrical currents of the brain, functioning of synapses, effects of RNA, and electrochemical functions (McConnell, 1989). By ignoring these lines of inquiry, Aunger may be avoiding previous studies that may cast doubt on his theory of neuronmemes. The history of the quest for the elusive engram might also point to the equal elusiveness of memes.

The idea that memes reside in the brain, and cannot, as in broader interpretations, reside in signals or artifacts, creates the problem of figuring out how memes are communicated. Aunger makes the case that if memes can occupy only one substrate, they cannot be copied by signals. Signals and artifacts are what he calls instigators. Signals and artifacts initiate the formation of memes in the brains of the receivers. The difference may at first seem semantic, but this concept creates a new theory of communication that Aunger calls co-evolutionary. Aunger believes his theory deals with issues not addressed by mechanical or inferential theories of communication. For instance, it explains why communication occurs, sheds light on message content, and reveals computational mechanisms. He also sees his theory as an explanation for Comsky's "poverty of the stimulus" dictum, which holds that the signal is insufficient in content to account for the impact it has on people.

Aunger expands his idea of co-evolutionary theory to include a theory of cultural evolution that depends on the continual interplay between the evolution of artifacts and the evolution of memes. To a certain extent, what ground Aunger lost in his discussion of neurological functions is regained, somewhat, in his discussion of co-evolution of artifacts and memes. This may be in part because he returns to more familiar ground for an anthropologist. He points out that the study of cultural evolution tends to focus on interpersonal communication with artifacts relegated to a secondary status. By putting the evolution of artifacts and memes on equal ground, with cultural evolution occurring as the interplay between the two, Aunger expands the concept of cultural evolution beyond more traditional concepts such as social learning.

Overall, Aunger is very thorough and convincing as he wades through these dense topics with careful logic and a respect for other theories along the way. Indeed, he cites Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, as saying that amateurs latch on to single theories while professionals may deal with hundreds of theories in the course of their investigations. Or as in the case of Darwin, one theory may inspire hundreds of more theories. Aunger succeeds in that he adds another application of Darwin's original ideas, while remaining true to evolutionary principles. It remains to be seen where this line of inquiry ultimately leads. Aunger reminds us that the existence of genes was being debated as recently as 60 years ago. When summarizing whether or not the study of memes is worthwhile, Aunger reminds the reader that the last person to discover a novel replicator, Dr. Stanley Prusiner, who put forward the idea of prions in 1997, won the Nobel Prize. By hanging out this not so subtle carrot, Aunger is likely to succeed in keeping the meme cart on the road for a while yet.


Blackmore, Susan. (1999). The meme machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. (1989). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1976)

Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. URL:

McConnell, James. (1989). Understanding human behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Meme Central-Memes, Mimetics, and Mind Virus Resource. URL:

Reviewed by Ron Strand, University of Calgary

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