Return to index of reviews

The Meme Machine

by Susan Blackmore

Foreword by Richard Dawkins

Oxford University Press, 1999

246 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

If you do not know about memes, this book presents a worthy introduction to the theory of memetics. So what describes a meme?

Humans have the ability to imitate and can copy ideas, habits, fads, languages, skills, etc. These all describes memes, a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. Similar to genes, memes describe replicators, competing to get into as many brains as possible, and this memetic competition has fashioned our minds and culture, just as natural selection has designed our bodies. The theory proposes that we exist as the product of genes and memes and we have become the machinery for their survival.

Susan Blackmore presents several interesting questions about how big brains, languages, altruistic behavior, and the idea of self came about, and bravely hypothesizes answers from a meme's point of view. This all makes a compelling case for the workings of human society and the machinery of future meme machines as they evolve from computers and the internet.

This book does contain many flaws in my opinion, but none that should prevent one from studying it.

For example, I hope her peers will forgive her provincial writing style, for her thesis bears important, indeed, provocative questions about the power of imitation, in spite of the grammar which seems more fit for Jr. High school level reading than for a scientific thesis.

I also have a semantic beef with the idea of genes and memes as replicators. The suffix "-or" by definition indicates a person or thing performing the action expressed. But single genes and memes do not replicate themselves; they describe the things that get replicated. Yet Blackmore admits that genes come as a result of "the exquisite cellular machinery for copying DNA" [p. 101], and "the replicator (the thing that gets copied)." [p.198], and "memes can operate only by using the brains created by genes."

Perhaps we should use a more precise term such as "replica" or "replicant" (to borrow a term from the movie "Blade Runner"). Not that the use of replicator distracts from the central idea, mind you, but if one aims toward a working theory of memes, we should use as precise a language as possible to avoid confusion. Nor does it mean that memes cannot become replicators, for perhaps a few exist already as memeplexes. Corporations, for example, copy other memes such as automobiles, clothes, books, etc. However, corporations do not copy themselves (although they can split into other corporations). If we ever create robots that can replicate themselves, then they would serve as true replicators, and only then should we refer to them as replicators. A self replicating robot might also divorce itself completely from DNA. I say this because memes and robots (built by humans) require DNA for their survival. If all DNA in the world died, the memes and robots would have no way spread themselves. In this sense, memes represent a phenotype of DNA. A self replicating robot, however, would serve as a new order of independent replicator.

I cringed about her idea that "the answer is to have faith in the memetic view. . ." This simply plays into the dangers of beliefs which she previously pointed out. Those who believe in Buddhism, no doubt, will find Blackmore's thesis revealing, while Christians will find themselves embarrassed (and rightfully so).

In spite of these flaws, the book presents valid questions and possible solutions. As a memeplex herself, Blackmore's theory of memetics explains many aspects of human nature better than any rival theory. In this, she has succeeded to present an interesting if not viable theory of memetics. Only future scientific testing will prove her right or wrong.

A few quotes from the book:

Imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?

Memetics provides a new approach to the evolution of language in which we apply Darwinian thinking to two replicators, not one. On this theory, memetic selection, as well as genetic selection, does the work of creating language.

Digital copying is far more accurate than analogue, and genes have certainly adopted the 'get digital' strategy. I suggest that language has done the same. By making discrete words instead of a continuum of sound, copying becomes more accurate.

We humans have more instincts than other species, not fewer.

A religion that promotes large families will, assuming vertical memetic transmission, produce more babies to grow up in that religion than one that promotes small families. Religious memes therefore become an important manipulator of genetic success. Catholicism's taboo against birth control has been extremely effective in filling the world with millions of Catholics who bring up their children to believe that condoms and the pill are evil, and that God wants them to have as many children as possible.

Education aside, this all leads to the paradoxical thought that the more sex magazines, e-mail sex sites, and sex shops are available, the lower birth rates are likely to be. The sale of sex in modern societies is not about spreading genes. Sex has been taken over by the memes.

Some [controlled experiments] have shown that people with the strongest religious faith were less likely to recover from acute illness.

Yet she [Mother Teresa] steadfastly maintained her Catholic opposition to the one thing that would have helped them most of all-- control over their own reproductive lives. Whatever we may think about how much she really helped the starving people of Calcutta there is no doubt that her behaviour effectively spread Catholic memes by using the altruism trick.

Not only is God invisible but he 'moves in mysterious ways'. The mystery is part of the whole package and to be admired in its own right. This untestability protects the memes from rejection.

Brain development is under genetic control and it is known that some brains are more prone to religious belief and experience than others. For example, people with unstable temporal lobes are more likely to report mystical, psychic and religious experiences, and to believe in supernatural powers, than those with stable temporal lobes.

Happiness has been found to depend more on having a life that matches your skills to what you are doing than to having a rich lifestyle.

The self is a great protector of memes, and the more complex the memetic society in which a person lives, the more memes there are fighting to get inside the protection of the self.

There is no doubt that having a clear sense of identity, a positive self-image and good self-esteem are associated with psychological health, but this is all about comparing a positive sense of self with a negative one. When we ask what good is done by having a sense of self at all, the answer is not obvious.

With constant memetic bombardment our lives and our selves become more and more stressful and complicated. . . The unhappiness, desperation, and psychological ill-health of many modern people may reveal just this.

Table of Contents
Foreword by Richard Dawkins
1. Strange creatures
2. Universal Darwinism
3. The evolution of culture
4. Taking the meme's eye view
5. Three problems with memes
6. The big brain
7. The origins of language
8. Meme-gene coevolution
9. The limits of sociobiology
10. 'An orgasm saved my life'
11. Sex in the modern world
12. A memetic theory of altruism
13. The altruism trick
14. Memes of the New Age
15. Religions as memeplexes
16. Into the Internet
17. The ultimate memeplex
18. Out of the meme race

To obtain this book, click below:

The Meme Machine

Other books by Susan Blackmore:

Test Your Psychic Powers, 1997 (paperback)

In Search of the Light : The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, 1996 (paperback)

Dying to Live : Near-Death Experiences, 1993 (hardcover)

Beyond the Body : An Investigation of Out-Of-The-Body Experiences, 1992 (paperback)

[Note, The titles of these books might lead one to think they are newage treatises on psychic powers, but they actually present a skeptical and scientific look at the claims of psychics. Ed]