Susan Blackmore - The Meme Machine

When we look at religions from a meme's eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviours, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences. They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestability, threats, and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth and altruism tricks to help their spread. (page 192)
On a warm 4th of July evening, my family and I were driving back to California from Oregon. We hit the town Ashland just before sundown and decided to stop and see if we could find a fireworks show. The downtown area was loaded with people so we figured the show must be downtown. We looked long and hard for a parking place before counting ourselves lucky to have found one in such a crowded place. We asked someone where the fireworks were going to be shot from, but they didn't know. They pointed us in a general direction though. Since most of the people were heading that way, we did too. After about a mile of walking (no easy task with a tired one- and three-year old BTW) we asked again. This next person said they were going off at the college further down the street. I decided to go back and get the car so we wouldn't all have to walk the long distance back after the show. By the time I got back the kids were far too tired to walk any further so we plopped down on a nearby grassy embankment. We still didn't know if we were close enough to see the show, but we didn't really care too much at that point. A family in a similar predicament came by and asked where the fireworks were. We said we were out of towners and didn't know. They were tired (and not from Ashland) too and had three or four kids so they sat down next to us. Soon thereafter, numerous people sat down nearby to watch the fireworks they assumed we had front row seats for. Cars began to stop and park so they could watch from our vantage point too. When the festivities finally began less than an hour later, hundreds of people were seated around us. It turns out we were much too far away for a good view and a large tree obstructed the limited view we all had.

The above (completely true) story illustrates the effect of 'memes' in action. We've all been guilty of spreading and following various memes. In fact, we do so on a daily basis. Most of the time we fail to recognize the memetic behavior involved. It isn't until we realize the power of memes that we can begin to influence them instead of having them nearly completely control us. Or so previous theories of memetics had us believe...

Blackmore surprises the reader in the final couple of chapters. It turns out that she takes meme theory to the point were there never ends up being a 'me' or 'you' to control the memes. In other words, when we think we are finally taking control of the memes we are actually just being controlled by yet another set of memes. The key, therefore, is not to 'gain control' but to have as many memes as possible in your repertoire so 'truer' and/or more useful memes can be selected for.

But let's back up a bit. Blackmore begins by giving us a history of memetic theory--who coined the word, when the idea was created, what other similar theories existed before and after memes, and most of all, how her theory is a bit different (yet with many similarities) to all of the above. To her a meme is any skill, idea, habit, theory, story, etc. that is passed from one person to another (via any medium) by imitation or teaching. This includes just about everything that makes us who we are (mentally) with the exception of immediate experiences, perceptions, emotions, and feelings which she doesn't consider memes (although I suppose they can be influenced by previous memes).

The key to the theory of memes, and what separates it from the traditional theories of cultural evolution, is the advent of a second replicator. The first replicator is of course the genes. The second replicator is the meme and it exists not for culture or any other reason other than its own survival. It can work with or against the genes.

The speculations provided on the origins of human language, the altruism trick, and the size of the human brain are all interesting and thought provoking. However, the book is not without its faults. The general writing style is frequently less than elegant and the overall tone sounds a little too Steven Pinkerish. Blackmore is at her most believable and credible when she couches her conclusions and holds her speculations tentative. When she waxes dogmatic or forms firm-sounding conclusions based on a single reference or two (like Pinker) Blackmore becomes not only difficult to believe but also tiresome to read. She relies heavily on Pinker in places. Pinker's theory does nothing to help her build a case either. By relying on him on page 88, for instance, she does her theory a disservice. Those of us who have actually raised kids and witnessed their daily language improvement would probably suggest that memetics has more to do with language learning than the innate grammar and language Pinker believes humans are born with. I submit that children (or mine at least!) are born with a memetic or imitation instinct. My kids spend the better part of their days imitating each other and my wife and I. They are much better imitators than adults which would certainly bolster Blackmore's theory about how memetics has influenced genetic evolution. A chapter on children as the ultimate "meme machines" should have been added. A few days with my kids would have certainly altered the focus of this book. (See The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition for more on children as meme receptors.)

On a somewhat similar note, the author doesn't utilize William Calvin's theory like she could. She does reference his work, and while not dependent on the idea of memetics and vice versa, would seem to lend support to the theory. The physical competition in the mind that Calvin writes about appears very similar, to me, to the memetic competition that Blackmore envisions.

Blackmore takes (the now seemingly customary) shots at Margaret Mead (p. 114)--having apparently fallen head over heals for Derek Freeman's memes without bothering to get a full balance of memes on the subject.

Don't let these few critical comments keep you from reading the book. It is a good book, with great moments, on a very important and intriguing subject. Once the meme of the meme theory enters your head you'll never be able to look at life with your old eyes again.

"We're the disposable vehicles in which our memes are riding to immortality. These memes come to us from all the speakers who are vocal wherever we happen to grow up--parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, teachers, preachers, bosses, co-workers, and everyone involved in producing things like textbooks, novels, comic books, movies, television shows, newspapers, magazines, internet sites, and so on. All these people are constantly repeating to each other (and of course their children, their students, their employees, and so on) the memes they've received during their lifetime. All these voices taken together constitute the voice of Mother Culture." Daniel Quinn in Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure
From the publisher:
What is a meme? First coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, a meme is any idea, behavior, or skill that can be transferred from one person to another by imitation: stories, fashions, inventions, recipes, songs, ways of plowing a field or throwing a baseball or making a sculpture. The meme is also one of the most important--and controversial--concepts to emerge since The Origin of the Species appeared nearly 150 years ago.

In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore boldly asserts: "Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection." Indeed, Blackmore shows that once our distant ancestors acquired the crucial ability to imitate, a second kind of natural selection began, a survival of the fittest amongst competing ideas and behaviors. Ideas that proved most adaptive--making tools, for example, or using language--survived and flourished, replicating themselves in as many minds as possible. These memes then passed themselves on from generation to generation by helping to ensure that the genes of those who acquired them also survived and reproduced. Applying this theory to many aspects of human life, Blackmore offers brilliant explanations for why we live in cities, why we talk so much, why we can't stop thinking, why we behave altruistically, how we choose our mates, and much more.

With controversial implications for our religious beliefs, our free will, our very sense of "self," The Meme Machine offers a provocative theory everyone will soon be talking about.

Susan Blackmore is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology, University of the West of England. The author of Dying to Live: Science and the Near Death Experience, she resides in Bristol, UK.


"Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme. ...I am delighted to recommend her book." - Richard Dawkins

"Anyone who hopes -- or fears -- that memetics will become a science of culture will find this surefooted exploration of the prospects a major eye-opener." - Daniel C. Dennett