On the Road to a Unified Science of Culture

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

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.

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