Saturday, June 30, 2007

Killing with kindness, musing on memes

I almost skipped it.

I was skimming the Books Update email from the NYT Sunday Book Review when I noticed a review of The Edge of Evolution by Michael J. Behe. His name sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it.

The promo blurb said, "In his second book, Michael Behe turns to genetics to poke holes in Darwin’s theory." That's when I noticed the reviewer: evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Oh my, I thought, this is gonna be good.

It was. It's one of the kindest but most totally decimating reviews I've ever read. You can read it here.


One thing I hadn't realized is that Dawkins is the guy who coined the term "meme" to describe (as noted in his Wikipedia entry) "how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena."

One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read is Thought Contagion, a book about memes and the transmission of ideas by Aaron Lynch. I read it at about the same time I read another influential book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

Both Lynch and Gladwell consider how ideas, beliefs and even new products or fads are spread through society. That is, they try to explain why some ideas, beliefs or products catch on and become popular, while others -- that seem equally viable -- simply don't.

In Thought Contagion, Lynch identifies several "propagation advantages," which is how he describes the characteristics that tend to encourage people to pass on or "propagate" a specific idea or belief. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell looks at the factors that make ideas or products "sticky" and more likely to catch on with the public.

Both of these books could be helpful to folks in the advertising, marketing and P.R. professions -- to anyone who's in the business of persuading others, for that matter -- as well as to journalists and others who need to better understand the factors that shape society and debates on public issues.


Anonymous said...

Did Dawkins read the book before reading it?
Would he be willing to debate Behe?

camccune said...

I don't know...maybe you should ask him.