Synopses & Reviews
“Ambitious and original. It belongs on the reading list of anybody who hopes to use Richard Dawkins’s insight into memes. That it is entertaining is a bonus” (Daniel Dennett, New Scientist, Letters)—now in paperback.
Why do some ideas spread, while others die off? Does human culture have its very own “survival of the fittest”? And if so, does that explain why our species is so different from the rest of life on Earth? Now in paperback, an intriguing “chicken or egg” look at cultural evolution, in which science writer and documentarian Jonnie Hughes adopts the role of a cultural Darwin, investigating the natural history of ideas—the laws of variation, inheritance, and selection operating within the cultural landscape. The choice of sandwiches in a mall, the shape of cowboy hats, the evolution of barn roofs, the wording of jokes, and, of course, the differences among the tepees of different tribes, all provide insights into the ways ideas seem to have a life of their own. Do we have ideas, or do ideas have us?
With a knack for finding the humor in the quirks of the American landscape, Hughes takes us on a Bill Bryson-like tour of the American West—from the Mall of America in Minneapolis to what he calls the M.A.U.L of America, Custer’s last stand, stopping at roadsides, discoursing on the evolution of myriad beloved cultural institutions. He’s a wonderfully funny stranger in a strange land, but he always uses his observations to explain this grand idea—that we may not be as in charge of our cultural evolution as we think.
"Ambitious and original. Unlike the vast majority of recent writings about memes, this is a serious book that does "add to the theory". It belongs on the reading list of anybody who hopes to use Richard Dawkins's insight into memes, offering a serious scientific account of cultural change and innovation. That it is entertaining is a bonus, not a substitute for substance.” --Daniel Dennett, New Scientist, Letters
“This book is a delight. Not only has Hughes described the world with meme’s eye vision but he has woven the insights of this view into a funny and endearing travel tale. Anyone interested in memes and the evolution of culture is bound to enjoy it. At last! At last not only has someone seriously adopted a meme’s-eye view of the world but has described the world seen through its lenses with humour, intelligence and real insight. Hughes’ hilarious travels through the American west do for culture what Darwin did for biology. I will buy a copy for both my meme-loving and my meme-hating friends.”—Professor Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine
"Hughes, an award-winning science writer and documentary maker, explores how big ideas begin, evolve, and converge--and whether culture, like biology, follows any Darwinian dictates of natural selection--in this detective story-cum-road trip memoir. Hughes and his brother, Adam, trek across America in their Chrysler in order to trace the evolution of tepees used by the Plains Indians--that "marvel of human ingenuity... the difference between life and death." Along the way, Hughes maps out the genealogies of other cultural artifacts of Americana--the gambrel-roof barn, bourbon whiskey, regional pronunciations and jokes, why Scandinavian immigrants took to the American Midwest, and the invention of the cowboy hat. Taking his cue from Darwin, Hughes intersperses his technical discussions of genetics and biology with sketches--of tepees and such oddities of the animal kingdom as naked mole rats, hammerhead fruit bats, oarfish--and snapshots from the road that keep the reading brisk, personal, and pleasurable. This ambitious book braids together studies in biology, psychology, history, linguistics, geology, and philosophy into an impressively succinct and readable taxonomy of human culture." --Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
"On the Origin of Tepees is not your usual sort of book. Jonnie Hughes, a British TV and radio science guy, is like a carnival barker on serious weed. He is like Carl Sagan without segues, Jacques Cousteau without the hat, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom without the kingdom … Wait, wait, I’ve got it: On the Origin of Tepees reminds me of a mind-blowing book I was given in first grade. It was called Animals Do the Strangest Things, and it called into question pretty much everything I’d been told so far (at 6) vis-à-vis evolution; namely that people were in charge of animals, people were smarter than animals, people were more inventive than animals and, of course, people were funnier and nicer than animals (none of which turned out to be true). Hughes wants us to understand the world differently; to understand the evolution of ideas and how those ideas shape the choices we make (individually and as a species) and our cultural evolution. He has chosen to do this in what he considers a surreal landscape — America. Now don’t get huffy: This is not Baudrillard exclaiming over the American materialist wasteland, or even de Tocqueville marveling in his paternal way over our fabulous optimism; this guy is totally comfortable (maybe too comfortable) with the idea that, grand theories aside, we are not in control of our evolution, any more than the hammerheaded fruit bat, the oarfish, or the naked mole rat. We need new goggles with which to see ourselves and through which to fully appreciate Darwin’s work. Hughes has got some."--Los Angeles Review of Books
Throughout history, we humans have prided ourselves on our capacity to have ideas, but perhaps this pride is misplaced. Perhaps ideas have us. In this book, science writer and documentary filmmaker Jonnie Hughes investigates the evolution of ideas, taking a look at how they seem to have lives of their own. Adopting the role of a cultural Charles Darwin, Hughes travels across the Midwest with his brother to observe firsthand the natural history of ideasand#8212;the patterns of their variation, inheritance, and selection in the cultural landscape. In place of Darwinand#8217;s oceanic islands, Hughes visits the and#8220;mind islandsand#8221; of Native American tribes. Instead of finches, Hughes searches for signs of natural selection among the tepees. andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;With a knack for finding the humor in the quirks of the American cultural landscape, Hughes takes us on a tour from the Mall of America in Minneapolis to what he calls the and#8220;mauland#8221; of Americaand#8212;Custerand#8217;s last standand#8212;stopping at roadsides and discoursing on sandwiches, the shape of cowboy hats, the evolution of barn roofs, and more. Original, witty, and engaging, andlt;Iandgt;On the Origin of Tepees andlt;/Iandgt;offers a fresh way of understanding both our ideas and ourselves.
About the Author
andlt;Bandgt;Jonnie Hughesandlt;/Bandgt; is a science writer and filmmaker with over twelve years experience in communicating science to a broader public on radio, television, in print, and face-to-face. He is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker and regular contributor to andlt;iandgt;Geographical Magazine, BBC Wildlife Magazine, The Guardian, andlt;/iandgt;and andlt;iandgt;The Times. andlt;/iandgt;His films have aired on National Geographic, Discovery, BBC One and Two, and Channel 5. He has won the Association of British Science Writers and the Wellcome Trust Awards for science writing and a BBC Radio One Award for factual radio and the American Genesis Award for Best Popular Television Documentary. He lives in London, England.