Robert Aunger (
Tue, 2 Mar 1999 10:27:37 +0000

Message-Id: <l03130304b3016d30f3de@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
From: Robert Aunger <>
Date: Tue, 2 Mar 1999 10:27:37 +0000



A conference to debate the general utility of memetics will be held at
King's College, Cambridge on June 4-5,1999. A number of talks will be
given on June 4th (see schedule below). All of these talks are open to the
general public (although the College may yet decide to levy a small
admission charge). June 5th will be devoted to group discussion among those
specially invited. Anyone desiring further details should contact the
conference organizer directly (not this list):

Robert Aunger
Senior Research Fellow in Cognition and Evolution
King's College, Cambridge


INTRODUCTION: Robert Aunger (King's College, Cambridge)

Dan Sperber (CNRS, Paris)
Maurice Bloch (Social Anthropology, LSE)
Adam Kuper (Social Anthropology, Brunel University)

Robert Boyd (Anthropology, UCLA)
David Hull (Philosophy, Northwestern University)
Kevin Laland (Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge)
Susan Blackmore (Psychology, University of the West of England)

Daniel Dennett (Philosophy, Tufts University)
Henry Plotkin (Psychology, UCL)
John Maynard-Smith (Biology, Sussex)
Rosaria Conte (Italian National Research Council, Rome)


CONCLUSION: Robert Aunger (King's College, Cambridge)


During the course of human evolution, there has been a general increase in
both the complexity and diversity of cultural forms. While Homo erectus
produced only rather uniform-looking stone tools, today we have a
proliferation of music genres, seemingly infinite brands of toothpaste, and
the Internet. How can this process of diversification be explained?

Some kind of evolutionary process was responsible for this process.
However, it is often remarked that the study of cultural variation is
presently at the same state of development as the study of biological
variation was in Darwin's time: it seems reasonable to suppose that descent
with variation underlies cultural elaboration, but the mechanisms of
inheritance -- the cultural analogue of Mendelian rules -- remain unknown.
Nevertheless, the unit of culture, which presumably is subject to those
as-yet obscure laws, was defined over twenty years ago by the biologist
Richard Dawkins (1976) as a "meme." He described the meme as a cultural
replicator, or unit of information with the ability to reproduce itself
using resources from some material substrate. However, lack of a subsequent
development of the meme concept has been conspicuous. In particular, there
has been no extensive intellectual campaign to produce a general theory of
cultural replicators. Dawkins (1988) himself has suggested that the
meme:gene analogy "can be taken too far if we are not careful."

The objective of the seminar is therefore, first, to investigate the
ability of an evolutionary process based on a replicator to explain
cultural diversification and elaboration. Given the questionable outcome on
this front, a second goal of the seminar is to compare the memetic approach
with the virtues of alternative accounts of culture, particularly
"epidemiology of representations" theory (Sperber), and more traditional
social anthropological approaches (Bloch, Kuper). This will involve
bringing together a select group of researchers for two days of public
presentations and closed discussions on these topics, under the aegis of
the Human Diversity Project currently running in the King's College
Research Centre (Robert Foley, Director).

The primary question to be addressed is whether a memetic approach can be
found which might provide the foundation for a progressive line of research
on cultural evolution and diversification. Several aspects of the standard
memetic view may be criticised. First, memes-as-replicators may not
discriminate the most important features of cultural traits. Culture may
not be composed only of socially transmitted units of information. In fact,
there may be no identifiable or measurable unit of culture. Rather, culture
might be considered -- or at least felt to be -- a large, interconnected
body of implicit knowledge which only has meaning as a whole.

Second, cultural phenomena may be changed by forces other than interactions
among a set of mental replicators. This could be because important
components of culture are not in people's heads. While the idea that
culture is somehow cognitive is now generally accepted, it is not
universal. Others argue that at least some cultural phenomena are
environmental (e.g., artifactual) or emergent (i.e., a quality of human
groups which is constrained, but not strictly determined by, variation in
beliefs and values among individuals).

The seminar will thus consist of a number of position statements vis =E0 vis
the (potential) utility of memetics, and will finish with a number of
discussions by prominent figures. A second day will consist of closed
discussions. The goal is to establish areas of common ground, highlight the
points of remaining contention, and thus set the terms for future debates
on evolutionary explanations of cultural diversification. The papers
resulting from the seminar will be published in book form.

Best wishes,


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)