The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
eclectic and stimulating analysis
was captivated when, years ago, I read Richard Dawkins's incantation of the
concept of a meme. In his seminal book, The Selfish Gene, he introduced the
concept of a meme late in the piece to offer a distinction between the human
option to propagate one's genes, albeit only as the vessel of these genes
propelled by the blind hand of natural selection, by murder, plunder, rapine and
theft, and the option to propagate one's ideas across the generations,
ostensibly a stronger personification of the individual that a strand of
digitally coded DNA. I remember Isaac Newton's genes, now considerably diluted
(two to the power of however many generations), and the success of his theories,
offered as an example.
Blackmore uses the definition that a meme is a
unit of imitation, a replicator. Her book is a surprisingly warm, given the
abstract nature of the topic, and eclectic survey of the literature to toss
around many views and arguments, with ambitious and cogent conclusions offered.
While this is the review in a nutshell, I think it embodies a sufficiently
important theory that I have included a closer account for any who are
The chapter on universal Darwinism strengthens the
definition by examining how memes and genes evolve, making the case for a theory
of memetics. Blackwell then reviews the evolution of culture. In considering
human behaviour, she teases apart genetic and memetic selection and commences
the main thesis of the book to show that both replicators are needed to explain
the evolution of culture. There has been excellent work around this work before
and since, notably by EO Wilson, but Blackwell's arguments are incisive.
"Taking a meme's eye view" takes the fuzziness out of our perception of a meme.
It explains classical and operant learning and shows how these are not memetic.
It shows that imitation is in fact "rare and special", driving home the point
that a meme or any evolutionary process is subject to three conditions:
heredity, variation and selection.
Blackmore's discussion inevitably
leads to fundamental challenges to the meme concept. In "Three problems with
memes", she first addresses the fundamental unit of a meme. Her analogies such
as the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the whole symphony,
and the codon and the gene complex in genetic coding, quickly negate this as a
problem. Identification of the mechanism for copying and storing memes is
relegated to being less a problem to being less a problem for which a solution
may be better refined with study. The charge that memetic evolution is
'Lamarkian' is dealt with by challenging too close an analogy between memes and
genes, and suggesting that the distinction between 'copying the instructions'
and 'copying the product' is helpful basis to identifying memes. This rebuttal
by Blackmore prompts a discussion of terminology and a presentation of the
confusing views by experts on issues such as genotype and phenotype, vehicles
and memeplexes. This is an example of the strength of Blackmore's analysis. Her
extensive reading and deliberation prepares her to make summary judgements in
these matters, in this case arguing for simplicity. Her plea that this will
provide a basis for study and useful work in an emerging science is consistent
with her acknowledgement that refinements and definitions may follow this
advantages of imitation are framed as a selective driver for "The big brain",
offering a memetic evolutionary model that remains in step with more recent
thinking, as do Blackmore's arguments for imitation driving language. She
considers many perspectives - some oddly subjective, such as the putative
benefits to society of gossip - to argue that human language is meme-driven, and
language in turn spreads memes. There is a sound purpose in making this
assertion because we can then use memetic models with their fidelity, fecundity
and longevity to analyse the merits of languages.
measures up "The limits of sociobiology" and meme theory. Her arguments are
boosted by the elegance of Dennett's Tower and show the strong selective powers
of imitation. "An orgasm saved my life" drives home many of the points and I am
keen to find a review, even a rebuttal, of her points by, for example, E O
Wilson. There is no doubt that Blackmore's easy style may encourage credulity.
Her arguments for the divergence of sexual lifestyles beyond those favoured by
the selfish gene ring true.
"The memetic theory of altruism" puts the
pieces of the argument together well. The tit-for-tat strategy is convincing,
although I feel that Blackmore could have moved beyond genetic and memetic
drivers to also consider the basic philanthropic logic of charitable acts that
motivates many practitioners. Nevertheless, the use of memetics to explain and,
as a science, predict behaviour is convincing, none less that in considering
"Memes of the new age" where Blackmore touches on areas in which she is expert
such as the psychology of alien abduction, near-death experiences and fortune
telling. A lot of thinking on "Religion as memeplexes" has occurred since this
publication, most of it in step with Blackmore's. Similarly, the role of
communication in meme replication has been justified as the internet has rolled
out and become all but omnipotent in our lives.
In the final two
chapters, "The ultimate memeplex" and "Out of the Meme race", Blackmore rambles
around a few ambitious arguments, debating Dennett and searching for greater
meaning. Whether thanks to her arguments or just the ideas she brought to the
table, it is intriguing and feels right to consider the self and consciousness
as evolving memeplexes.