On the Origin of Tepees


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“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”

“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

“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-a-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”

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Jonnie Hughes
© 2011

Additional information

Weight 0.3101 kg
Dimensions 14.3 × 2.0 × 22.0 cm


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