Book review: The Imitation Factor by Lee Alan Dugatkin

From: Ray Recchia (
Date: Sun Jun 03 2001 - 19:08:12 BST

  • Next message: Kenneth Van Oost: "Re: le corruption"

    Received: by id VAA06564 (8.6.9/5.3[ref] for from; Sun, 3 Jun 2001 21:25:16 +0100
    X-Mailer: Windows Eudora Light Version 1.5.2
    Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"
    From: Ray Recchia <>
    Subject: Book review:  The Imitation Factor by Lee Alan Dugatkin
    Date: Sun, 3 Jun 2001 14:08:12 -0400
    Message-ID: <>
    Precedence: bulk

    Lee Alan Dugatkin has spent the last ten years studying imitation in guppies
    and in "The Imitation Factor: Evolution beyond the Gene" Simon & Schuster
    (2000) he explains his research and summarizes numerous other examples of
    imitation found in nature. His conclusion: even low intelligence animals
    like guppies can engage in the non-genetic transmission of behavior through
    imitation, and that transmission can have an impact on genetic evolution.

    In carefully controlled experiments using guppies Dr. Dugatkin explores how
    the tendency to imitate other females in mate selection can override other
    mate selection preferences. Female guppies of a certain species prefer
    bright orange males over drab grey ones. Dugatkin places a female and a
    dull male in one corner of a tank and a bright male in the other and then
    allows a second female to observe the guppy groupings. Then the first
    female is removed and the observer female is allowed to choose which male
    to go to. The observer female shows a greater tendency to select the male
    she saw with the first female (Yes there is a control to make certain that
    the observer is not just going to the side of the tank where there were two
    guppies). Further, after repeated exposure to females associated with drab
    males, the observer female shows a preference for drab males in general.

    Other examples include some very carefully controlled experiments with
    pigeons poking open boxes to get food (expanding on the discussion in 'The
    Meme Machine") and blackbirds learning which animals are predators. He
    also has examples already discussed in this list like the rats who learn
    which foods are edible from their presence on other rat's whiskers, and the
    numerous chimp studies.

    Dugatkin is clearing attacking one of Susan Blackmore's central ideas in
    'The Meme Machine'. If behavioral imitation is as common place as
    Dugatkin's evidence shows, then arguments that humans are special because of
    imitation are certainly erroneous. With his numerous examples and
    carefully controlled experiments Dugatkin does a very credible job of
    proving his point. In addition to those examples he also discusses when
    imitation is likely to a useful survival strategy and points towards other
    authors who have developed mathematical models for when imitation is more
    likely to occur and what affect it will can have on the evolution of a species.

    I do have some problems with Dugatkin's book. His definition of culture is
    a bit too loose for my preference. I would only count the guppies as being
    cultural because they can develop a general preference for drab males that
    can be transmitted, whereas Dugatkin would consider it culture even if the
    preference only applies to one male at a time. I am not certain under his
    definition whether a distinction can be made for fleeting imitation examples
    like observer animals moving when they see another member of their species
    fleeing something the observer can not see. I would hesitate to call that
    culture because their is nothing to pass from generation to generation.
    Similarly, while a general preference for drab males learned by observing
    females mating is something that could pass along indefineatly, a specific
    preference for a single male can only be passed along until while the male
    still lives.

    In addition, although he does an excellent job with his own specialization
    he seems unwilling to fill the gap left if Blackmore's human as super
    imitator idea is incorrect. Early on in the book he suggests that there
    might be two types of cultural evolution, that which he describes for
    guppies and other animals and a sort of 'runaway' cultural evoltion which
    develops its own rules independent of genetic evolution. Nowhere in this
    book is that idea fleshed out at all though.

    Overall though this book should be valuable reading for anyone interested in
    memes. In my opinion the disciplined experimental approach adopted by Dr.
    Dugatkin will prove more valuable than any heated discussion on what the
    exact definition of a 'meme' or 'culture' should be.
    Raymond O. Recchia

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Jun 03 2001 - 21:33:02 BST