The Meme Machineby Susan Blackmore
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Humans are extraordinary creatures, with the unique ability among animals to imitate and so copy from one another ideas, habits, skills, behaviours, inventions, songs, and stories. These are all memes, a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. Memes, like genes, are replicators, and this enthralling book is an investigation of whether this link between genes and memes can lead to important discoveries about the nature of the inner self. Confronting the deepest questions about our inner selves, with all our emotions, memories, beliefs, and decisions, Susan Blackmore makes a compelling case for the theory that the inner self is merely an illusion created by the memes for the sake of replication.
- OUP Oxford
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Meet the Author
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.
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Sociobiology was the first attempt to explain human behavior in terms of evolution. It produced some fascinating ideas and positive research but its findings were fairly basic and left big gaps when it came to cultural differences. What about teenagers that strap homemade bombs around themselves and blast themselves and others to oblivion? What about monks and priests that forgo family for spiritual retreat? It is a stretch to fit such behavior into the genetic advantage. Indeed it seems as though they were infected by something that was working against their own genetic self-interest. If humans are good at anything it is producing and replicating information. Can this information have a life of its own and infect us, like some virus? This whole idea ¿ the evolution of information through humans without genetic code, is what memetics is all about. The field is very new and Susan Blackmore does an excellent job of introducing us to the idea in a readable and accessible way, formulating a theory of memetics at the same time. This formulation is a first shot and by no means the last word - but that is what science is all about.
If our ideas, particularly the imitated ones are nothing more than memes, which are controlling and guiding our minds, then this books itself is a meme. That being said, according to her own argumentation there is little consequence whether I agree with her or not. In so arguing, she destroys her own thesis. It is a good book, if you want to hear how reasonable something is, without being provided a valid argument as to why it is reasonable. Throughout the book she assumes that her thesis is true, but takes no time to provide empirical evidence for her claim. Certainly, her ideas are feasible in some imaginary world, however so is Dawkin's spaghetti monster. Be careful of reading this type of book with a wide open mind. You will either be tricked into believing someone's fantasies, or your brain will fall out. Neither of which is too awfully helpful. In the end her evidence for memes rests in the chapter on the meme's eye view. She believes there are memes because she cannot control her thoughts. However, it appears that she could control them enough to write her book. I would be afraid of anyone who argues for something because she can't control her thoughts, and desires not to be held responsible for her actions. Read carefully.
While this book does have a fair share of weaknesses in its arguments, one can't expect an errorproof writing when it is about a subject still considered controversial. I think Blackmore does a great job with what is known on the subject and anyone interested in evolutionary biology/ psychology should read this book.
Some of the things I liked about this book: 1. existing ideas are thoroughly discussed before novel ideas are introduced 2. the importance of imitation in meme transmission is emphasized 3. the discussion of the selfplex (meme complex associated with `self¿) is well done Some of the things I disliked about this book: 1. I could not follow the arguments regarding the memetic role in the development of large brains, the development of language, etc. A major problem is the author¿s unfortunate tendency to anthropomorphize memes. The following is typical: ¿The selfplex is not there to make your life easier; it is there for the propagation of the memes that make it up.¿ (p.245) This is wrong. The selfplex exists because it has sucessfully competed against all other memes competing for the same role within the mind. The selfplex is not ¿for¿ anything. Interestingly, on at least two occaisons, the author admits that she is being inaccurate when anthropomorphizing memes: ¿Note that I said that `the memes are busy devising¿. This translates into the more accurate statement that memes for DNA testing, sequencing the human genome, and genetic engineering are successfully replicating in today¿s world.¿ (p.146) and ¿...we can expect memes to have devised strategies for getting into altruistic people without actually being altruism memes themselves (or more accurately - memes that happened to have such strategies should have survived better that those without...)¿ (p.168). I may have better understood the author¿s arguments if they had been couched entirely within the language of Universal Darwinism: heredity, selection, and variation. I hope that the author someday reworks her arguments accordingly. 2. One of the author¿s key arguments is that the memetic `dog¿ can go off of the genetic `leash¿ and become a `driving force¿ in its own right. I disagree. Firstly, as mentioned above, neither genes nor memes can ever be considered `driving forces.¿ The genetic and memetic ¿environments¿ are the real driving forces that determine which genes and memes replicate successfully. Secondly, the environment in which memes compete is greatly influenced by genes. The nature of a human host¿s emotional response to a meme is a product of knowledge encoded in its genes. This emotional response greatly influences whether a particular meme will successfully infect the host. It is true that a renegade meme that is unfavorable to the propagation of the genes can infect a host (e.g. the contraception and adoption memes). However, the genes still play a substantial role in creating the mental environment in which a renegade meme flourishes. I don¿t see how we can ever divorce memes from genes without unrealistically idealizing the human mental environment. I do agree with the author that memes can substantially change the environment in which genes compete. Therefore, it seems to me that the co-evolutionary gene/meme model is the ONLY model that completely describes gene/meme dynamics. Despite the above reservations, I recommend this book to all individuals interested in memetics.