Meme Machineby Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins
Pub. Date: 05/16/2000
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
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 importantand
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 importantand controversialconcepts 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 and behaviors that proved most adaptivemaking tools, for example, or using languagesurvived 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.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Richard Dawkins
The evolution of culture
Taking the meme's eye view
Three problems with memes
The big brain
The origins of language
The limits of sociobiology
An orgasm saved my life
Sex in the modern world
A memetic theory of altruism
The altruism trick
Memes of the New Age
Religions as memeplexes
Into the Internet
The ultimate memeplex
Out of the meme race
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.