Review of Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”

Review of Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”

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Review of
Blackmore, Susan. The meme machine. Oxford, 1999. 264 p bibl index ISBN 0-19-850365-2 $25.00

Ever since theologians conceived of God as the ultimate cause of everything, formulating perhaps the first TOE (Theory of Everything), the reductionist urge has continued to tempt the human mind to explain the staggering complexity we see around, not just in the physical world, but in the biological and the human worlds as well, in terms of a single simple principle:. So it is that over the centuries there have been many attempts to account for the origin and development of cultures. Thinkers have tried to explain history as resulting from greed, power, sex, and even from the obsession to persecute. Those theories still persist, for Marx and Freud are not all dead and gone, and Rene Girard is still very much in the air. And then there are other theorists of culture who have taken inspiration from the Darwinian insight of biological evolution to account for the emergence and diversification of culture. Now we have yet another cogently formulated hypothesis which has perhaps been articulated previously, though unsystematically and even crudely by some other thinkers in the past; but which, in more recent times, has found scientific expression via the term “meme.”

The concept of the meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book, The Selfish Gene, as a sort of non-material gene which keeps cultures and civilizations going and growing. It is an extension of the Darwinian notion of evolution: from purely biological entities to anything at all “that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive.” In other words, a meme is something that replicates itself, but not always quite precisely. Moreover, the replication occurs just for the heck of it and for continued survival, as also without any hope or intention of accomplishing anything for a greater good. If and when such a replicator arises, then there is bound to be evolution. In other words, Darwinian biological evolution is only a particular case of what imperfect replicators do. When we apply this paradigm to other situations, like language, religion, technological inventions, scientific theories, etc., we can get a deeper insight and understanding.

Like all potentially powerful ideas, the meme-concept has been attacked, criticized, even ridiculed, and it has also been embraced and expanded by fellow experts. The idea has generated yet another scholarship-industry at the hands of biologists and commentators who write and lecture, organize symposia and post internet notes. Susan Blackmores book systematically introduces and explains the study of memes as a new scientific field, and adds considerably to the framework. It is likely to serve as a major catalyst for the propagation and exploration of memeology, or memetics as it has come to be called.

Blackmore succinctly states the thesis of her book: “What makes us different is our ability to imitate (p. 3).” In other words, we have not only descended from apes, but it is aping that makes us unique. She adds that “other animals do not take naturally to it (imitating),” but one wonders how apes would feel about the statement. In any event, unlike the Darwinian thesis, this one is more in consonance with a Biblical injunction [Luke 10.37]: “Go and do likewise.”

Memes are insubstantial entities which pervade our human world, harboring and thriving in our brains and books. Like viruses, they go from center to center, replicating themselves. Most of the times, the replication is rough rather than exact. But every thought and idea that props up in your brain (mind) may not be a meme, though a good many of them are, as are also conventions, traditions, rules, crafts, and the like. Moreover, explains Blackmore, since there are millions of memes floating around to find a place, no human brain is, indeed can never be, without any thought (p. 41). To empty the mind of all thoughts would be like ridding the home of all dust particles: just not possible. Memetic crowding is a better imagery than simply saying that thoughts are concomitant with blood streams in the brain.

 From the proposition that memes fill brains to the brim, Blackmore draws an interesting corollary: Do we really need large-sized brains simply for biological survival? Of course not. However, to house all the memes that keep replicating and growing in variety and numbers, it would help to have brains of significant dimensions. This, because, “the main tasks of our larger brain are first, the general ability to imitate, and second, the particular ability to imitate the kinds of memes that have proliferated in our species past (p.80).” This explanation implies that insubstantial memes need space (volume) for their presence, which is somewhat like claiming that one needs a longer line to accommodate more points in it (which would shock a mathematician). This makes the meme a kind of res extensa, which of course it is not. Nevertheless, Blackmore makes an interesting prediction from her hypothesis: “Within any related group of species…. imitation ability will correlate positively with brain size. That is, the best imitators will have the largest brain size,” (p. 80.) though this may not be quite the reason why a xerox machine is larger than a scribes hand.

We are also told that not just thinking, but also talking, at least too much talking, is provoked by memes (p. 86). Those memes have to get out and infect other brains so that they can propagate themselves for their selfish reasons. That is what prompts us to engage in conversations, spread rumors, transmit news, or just be a blabber-mouth. Whether you an evangelist or a news-caster or the town gossip, all the credit goes to memes. And you cant help it, really. The plethora of memes in you are just too eager to get out of you and infect other brains.

This leads to yet another fundamental idea: that memes are at the root of language-emergence. As Blackmore argues, “human language capacity has been meme-driven, and the function of language is to spread memes. (p. 93).” Indeed, when memes arose, they affected the environment for genes-selection, directing the genes to come up with a more effective “meme-spreading apparatus,” which is what a language is. This is a technical-sounding way of saying that ideas are best communicated through languages.

At this point, let us note that both genes and memes are replicators which do everything they can to propagate and proliferate. However, the former are fundamental to all life forms, whereas the latter arise only in complex brains. They are also different in other ways. Genes dont need memes, but there can be no memes without genes. Genes have a molecular biological basis, and depend heavily on chemistry. Memes are ethereal and insubstantial, prolific and persisting, instrumentally undetectable, but enormously potent in the (human) cultural context. Memes and genes interact, says Blackmore, through processes which she has dubbed “meme-gene coevolution” and “memetic driving.” Sometimes they are friendly and cooperating, sometimes confrontational and controlling. If genes result in the emergence of memes, memes can also force “genes to build even better and better meme-spreading devices (p. 119).”

In a seductively entitled chapter “An orgasm saved my life,” Blackmore explores the role of memes in the choice of mates for reproduction. She goes on to explain the recorded successes of many not very attractive, but artistically or intellectually gifted womanizers on the basis of her meme-theory: “… women would, other things being equal, prefer a good meme-spreader to just a rich man (131).”

The chapter which follows discusses the idea that memes have taken over the role of sexual instigation. It is not as Schopenhauer had suspected: that the sexual urge was a trick played by Nature to keep the species going, i.e. for genetic survival. Rather, in our own times, it is related to the spreading of memes (p. 141). If genes encourage more births, memes discourage them. The notions of birth control, small families, sex just for pleasure, etc. are memes spreading like wild fire.

With all their selfish obsession to propagate, memes can also be pictured as being at the root of that commendable (though in some ways paradoxical) quality we call altruism. In her detailed discussion of this topic (Chapter 12) Blackmore goes on to show that her theory of memetics can explain this too. Simply put, the argument is this: The good guy has more friends than the bad guy whom everyone ignores. The caring and considerate person is therefore more likely to spread memes around than the misanthropic grouch. Hence memes encourage selfless behavior.

There are also groups of memes that cluster together, forming memeplexes. Thus, any belief-system, whether it be about UFOs or astrology, or a religion, is a memeplex. There are quite a few of them in our own times, and Balckmore discusses some of these (Chapter 14).

An entire chapter is devoted to “Religions as memeplexes (Ch. 15).” This is the only chapter where, in my view, Blackmore loses the clarity of thought and objectivity that she displays everywhere else in the book. While most of the discussions are presented with scientific dispassion, in this chapter, instead of putting forward a hypothesis, Blackmore reveals her own (and her gurus) dislike and disdain for religions. After listing some tenets and world views of Christianity, she goes on to say, “To anyone uninfected with any Christian memes these ideas must seem bizarre in the extreme (p.187).” This is not very accurate in that many religions have very similar doctrines: an omnipresent and omniscient God, miraculous births, efficacy of prayer, sacred texts, religious authorities, etc. After condescendingly conceding that “many believers are truly good people,” she quickly mentions the hypocrisy of the faithful and the greed of religious establishments (p. 189). She is convinced that Mother Teresas ultimate goal was to “effectively spread Catholic memes by using the altruism trick (p. 190).” Her only reference to the Koran is that it illustrates how “Even evil and cruelty can be redefined as good (p. 190).” She sums up how the Buddha attained enlightenment in one sentence: “… the Buddha sat under a tree, with a fervent desire to understand, until finally he became enlightened (p. 194).”

Her assessment of religion is this: “Religions teach that God wants you to spread his True understanding to all the world and it is therefore good to maim, rape, pillage, steal, and murder (p. 191-192).” This sounds more simplistic than sophisticated, more insidious than insightful, more rash than rational. It is not clear how seriously one should take her when she proclaims very generously soon thereafter: “I do not mean to imply, from all I have said, that there are no true ideas anywhere in any religion (194).” In a section on science and religion (p. 202), she declares, “that science is, in some sense, superior to religion,” and tries to “defend that view.” From her naive perspective of what constitutes religion, and due to what seems to be an utter incomprehension of what the two are meant to accomplish, she asserts, “I do defend the idea that science, at its best, is more truthful than religion.” This is like saying that macaroni is more nourishing than music.

The next chapter takes up the ancient questions as to what constitutes the self and consciousness. After a brief review of some of the current theories on the matter, Blackmore proposes her own idea: that consciousness or self is a memeplex: an agglomeration of countless memes which survive best as a group. If you call this a soul, you are being religious and that is bad. But call it selfplex, and you are talking science. The selfplex is formed by the coming together of so many memes which “form a self-organizing, self-protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not (p. 231).” We are not just a bunch of neurons, she reminds us, we are “a pack of memes too (p.235).”

When we recall Friedrich Schillers comment (18th century) that “Man is an imitative creature (der Mensch ist ein nachahmendes Geschoepf),” or G. K. Chestertons remark (19th century) that “We are, in truth, more than half what we are by imitation,” we may find this book to be no more than an elaboration of an old idea. In a sense it may also strike the reader as a re-casting of the old dichotomy of nature and nurture, tracing the first to genes and attributing the second to memes. It tells us, in effect, what many may have known in a different terminology: that though nature is the basis of our biological existence, it is nurture that creates culture, that even if you are genetically inclined to be naughty, good upbringing can turn you into a model human being, and vice versa.

Having said all this, I must add that aside from the obvious erudition and expertise of the author, the book is clearly the result of considerable informed reflection on the issues considered. And it is all stated with great clarity and conviction. Even in the backdrop of much that is not altogether new, the Susan Blackmore offers many insights that are worthy of our attention.

Varadaraja V. Raman
Rochester Institute of Technology
July 10, 1999