am 1. August 2000
Susan Blackmore's bold and fascinating book "The Meme Machine" pushes the new theory of memetics farther than anyone else has, including its originator Richard Dawkins. The reader should already be well-acquainted with the concepts of memes and Universal Darwinism before tackling this book. Those who are not would do well to first read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (and even better to also read Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea).
Dawkins himself wrote the Foreword to this book, giving it his enthusiastic endorsement, and providing some enlightening remarks about the origin of the meme concept. He concedes however, that his original intentions were quite a bit more modest, and that Blackmore has carried the concept further than he had envisioned.
The central thesis of this book is that imitation is what makes humans truly different from other animals, and what drives almost all aspects of human culture. A meme then, is a unit of imitation. Anything that can be passed from one person to another through imitation -- such as a song, a poem, a cookie recipe, fashion, the idea of building a bridge or making pottery -- is an example of a meme. From the meme's point of view, Blackmore claims, we humans are simply "meme machines", copying memes from one brain to another.
This book is highly speculative. That doesn't mean it's wrong. It just means the claims have not been proven scientifically. To Blackmore's credit she does clearly highlight the areas of speculation. She also points out the testable predictions made by her theory, and describes possible experiments that could be performed to validate or falsify them.
One such prediction is that specific neural mechanisms would be found in the brain that support imitation -- the key requirement for replication of memes. The recent discovery of mirror neurons seems to satisfy this prediction and provide a powerful validation of the theory.
This book is ambitious. It purports to be nothing less than a comprehensive scientific theory which answers such major scientific questions as the "big brain" problem, and the evolutionary origins of language, altruism, and religion -- all currently unresolved problems. Blackmore's presentation of these issues to be persuasive and insightful, though in some instances she has overstated her case. For example, while memes may have been a significant causal factor in the origin of language, it is not necessary to adopt a purely non-functional explanation for language.
The most controversial part of the book is likely to the last two chapters, where Blackmore discusses the concept of the "self", the real you which holds beliefs, desires, and intentions. Like Dennett, Blackmore believes the idea of a "self" is an illusion but unlike Dennett she does not see it as benign and a practical necessity. In her view, the illusion of the self (what she calls the "ultimate memeplex") obscures and distorts consciousness, and advocates adopting a Zen-like view to actively repel the self illusion.
After having read the book you may feel, that Blackmore has gone too far; that she has pulled some sleight-of-hand and come up with an outlandish conclusion. However, upon further reflection, the thoughtful reader will be forced to admit that Blackmore has made a forceful case and told at least a plausible, if not utterly convincing story.<P....
am 11. Juni 1999
The idea of memes is not new, but The Meme Machine gives a fresh and readable perspective to the concept, and certainly adds many new ideas. It gets really interesting from chapter 7 onwards, but do not skip the early chapters. The book will give you a fresh perspective on the world you live in.
Understanding is easier if you choose the right view point. It is no more true to say that the Earth goes round the sun as visa-versa, but if you insist on putting the Earth at the centre then it is very difficult to understand and have a mental model of the solar system or indeed the rest of the universe. The theory of memes as self replicating ideas in the substrate of human minds and co-existing with self replicating genes in the substrate of human bodies makes it easier to understand many baffling phenomena of life, from seemingly irrational religious beliefs through why people are altruistic and to which pop tunes, films, and toys sales at Christmas are the most successful.
Dr Blackmore goes on to say that physical objects (eg computers) can be considered as physical objects which self replicate by using human labour motivated by memes. She fails to make the connection between this and the peculiar behaviour of shares on the stock market in companies like Intel and Microsoft. But these sorts of links will fill the minds of readers of her book who have expertise in other areas. (No financial professional predicted the long term rise and rise of these shares - most booms end in bust. Once you understand how memes affect physical objects, and couple this with an understanding of how computers design newer and bigger computers and you can see why these stocks really are different from food retailers, hospitality stocks and even car and white goods manufacturers, taking the point of view of a long term investment strategy.)
Dr Blackmore introduced a plausible theory of altruism which seemed very logical to me, but disappointing no doubt to the "sack cloth and ashes" brigade motivated by The Parable of the Widows Mite. Incidentally she did have things to say about the motivation of people like Bob "give till it hurts" Geldorff,. Mother Teresa, and Diana, Princess of Wales, that may offend some. However any sensible person will see the comments not as personal criticism or insults, but an honest attempt to explain the phenomena of certain world figures in a scientific manner.
Her discussion of the subject of scientific and artistic creativity and the cult of the inventor agrees with what I and some inventors already know about the process of invention. [AH Reeves, the inventor of PCM, said something similar a public lecture in 1962 about the equilibrium process (a sort of one dimensional neural network). Invention is like seeing paintings in a gallery - you may tell your friends that you have seen a nice painting, but you don't pat yourself on the back for painting it. I think what he meant is that the ideas that make up an invention exist outside individuals, the individual credited with "making an invention" just points them out to the rest of humanity.] But there is a world of difference between a gut reaction and a carefully worded argument with references. Dr Blackmore gives us this argument. Intellectual property rights enthusiasts and patent and copyright lawyers will have cause for thought at the ideas in this book. If shares could be bought in legal institutions, I would not regard these areas of law as one for long term investment if Dr Blackmore's work gets incorporated into the way our modern civilisation functions. Linux is a very relevant phenomenum.
However in the face of these superlatives, I did feel let down by the final two chapters when she went on to discuss the nature of self and the nature of consciousness. She tried to cram too much into a short section - these need further thought and work and certainly one or more whole books. She produced a theory of self, expressed in terms of "memeplexes", and then went on to discuss how to thwart the self and switch it off, which I must say I found a non-sequitur. (Or maybe I totally misunderstood what she is getting at.) You don't after all, discover a useful mechanism to describe the behaviour of something and then immediately try to exterminate it.
Memetics is undoubtedly a useful too to understand humanity, but just because we understand ourselves better is no sensible reason to deny ourselves existence. It should be a tool to enable people to lead more fulfilling lives and live in better harmony. The fact that it is yet another scientific finding that denies the existence of a personal god is not a reason to deny the self, by whatever means the concept of self actually works.
But these final moans aside, I would say that if you read one science fact book this year, chose this one - you will never see yourself or anyone else in quite the same way again, and if you read it late at night be prepared for some strange dreams.
am 25. Juli 2000
To me, this book filled in a gap in my understanding of humans. If you already subscribe to genetic evolution and to sociobiology, you may think meme theory is unnecessary. Many readers will no doubt tend to view Blackmore's thesis as an impressive theory that fits well with the natural world, but that meme's "aren't really what drives us." That genetic evolution, because of its unquestionble sucess (ok, not Kansas) in explaining our biological existence, is also, ultimately, responsible for our culture. What makes this theory so powerful for me is that it claims that humans truely are "different" from other biological organisms. We're not simply different by degree from other animals, we are different in kind. We aren't just smart primates, we are a different kind of primate. This is the most important implication of the theory.
It is not disputed that genes are 'replicators' that make copies of themselves and compete with eachother for a continued existence. What makes this book shocking is its claim that there is a second replicator that dominates our existence (indeed, is partly responsible for it). Ideas spread themselves, and compete for a piece of the limited thought-space in our brains.
Is this just a clever way of explaining humankind's complex behavior, or is it something real?
A friend of mine argued that Meme's couldn't be "real" because they were just the manifestation of our physiology. To this I counter, does this mean that a sound wave is not "real", after all, it's just relative motion of a bunch of air molecules (or what ever medium the wave travels in). I don't want to get into philosophy, because I never see an end to these kinds of debates. But if Meme's aren't real, then I would suggest that gene's aren't real either because they are "just" a bunch of organic molecules (which are just comprised of atoms, which don't really exist, because they are just the manifested behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which themselves are nothing more than...) which happen to get together in a stable form and cause other organic molecules to arrange themselves in the same fashion.... So, if you read the book, you'll see that this human's mind has been colonized by the Meme meme. Happy reading.
am 6. März 1999
In the most exciting memetics book to come out in years, Susan Blackmore extends the memetics model back into its murky origins and out into an uncertain future. If there were just one really pithy idea in here to make me think about whole new applications of memetics, I'd tell you to buy this book. If it was just a fleshed-out summary of the best ideas in memetics, including Dennett's, Dawkins's, and my own, I'd tell you to buy this book. If it simply related the academic origins of cultural evolution to modern memetic theory, I'd tell you to buy this book. But Blackmore does all this and more. The Meme Machine is a must-read for anyone serious about memetics.
Was the evolution of altruism, one of the most hotly debated topics in evolutionary biology, actually driven by meme evolution? Blackmore makes a case that it might have been. How about our big brains? More than just a survival aid, Blackmore shows how brain size selection might have been driven by -- you guessed it -- memes!
This book is such a work of thought and love that I can even forgive Dr. Blackmore for dismissing my entire philosophy of life in two words (p. 241). As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Blackmore's background in the study of parapsychology gives her a good step or two outside the ivory tower, which seems valuable to gain a healthy perspective on memetics. And she ends her book as I did mine, with an unavoidable inquiry into the meaning of life. If self is an illusion -- if ego is merely an artifact of evolution -- what is to be done? While she doesn't purport to come up with the answer, she, like me, suggests that we all ask ourselves the question.
--Richard Brodie, author, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
am 23. Dezember 1999
We are not alone. At least not according to Susan Blackmore, author of "The Meme Machine". As we merrily go about our lives, eating, sleeping, and above all reproducing, other agents are simultaneously populating our planet, spreading throughout cities, countries, and continents. But these are not some sort of alien invader that she is talking about (though she does dedicate a chapter to alien abductions), nor are they any kind of dangerous biological agent escaped from a government research lab. They are simply ideas, or to use the term coined by biologist Richard Dawkins, 'memes'.
The term meme has been defined in as many different ways as writers who have used it. The one thing that all have in common is that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution. Examples can include things as diverse as behaviours, catchy tunes, ideas, and fashions. For Blackmore, the defining feature is that a meme is a unit of imitation. Cultural traits pass from person to person via imitation, and this 'thing' which is passed on is what she defines as a meme.
The early parts of the book are dedicated to espousing Blackmore's view of the role that memes play in the evolution of culture. They are, according to the author, replicators, in much the same way as genes. Like genes, they possess all the basic characteristics needed for evolutionary behaviour, that is they vary, they are selected according to this variance, and when copied they retain at least some of the content of the original. And like genes, memes will spread according to their success at reproducing in the environment in which they find themselves - translated in this case as the rate at which they can get themselves imitated. This precept is then later used as the basis for explaining everything from why we find it so difficult to empty our minds of thoughts, to why so many people believe in life after death, to why theories of alien abductions and conspiracies have become so prevalent in recent years.
These early chapters are amongst the most flawed in the book. The few problems she raises with memes are largely skirted around and avoided, rather than being properly addressed. Much more importantly, she completely fails to mention some of the most significant attacks that can be raised against a theory of memetics. For example, cultural evolution clearly does not seem to evolve in the same blind manner as biological evolution. We seldom imitate others' ideas in any sort of a strict rote manner. Rather we first create or censor, merge ideas, or individuate concepts of interest to us. In short, it seems intuitively obvious that ideas do not replicate themselves, we replicate them, and this we do according to our own personal agendas, not suffering under the dictates of the ideas themselves. Surely this is the sort of issue that Blackmore should address if she plans on establishing a convincing basis for a scientific framework for memetics?
The following chapters proceed to outline some of the implications that Blackmore sees as following from her theory of memes, as well as giving memetic explanations for several problems in sociobiology. The ideas are interesting, if highly speculative, and are illustrated with numerous colourful anecdotes and debunks of popular myths (did you know, for example, that Eskimos do not in fact have fifty different words for snow?). Beginning with a memetic explanation of why we have big brains, she proceeds through understanding the origins of language, the coevolution of memes and genes, sexual behaviour, altruism, religion, and more. In each case, memes are argued to be the driving force, shaping both our culture and to a lesser extent our genetic structure itself. Why did language originate? Because memes for language use are able to replicate with a higher degree of fidelity than is otherwise possible. Why are humans ever altruistic? Because nice people are more likely to be imitated than nasty people, so the altruism meme has more opportunities for replication. But time and again, Blackmore fails to give any empirical backing for her ideas. She can neither give us any good reasons for rejecting a more conventional, sociobiological explanation of the situations she describes, nor can she provide us with evidence in support of her own claims. Many ideas for future experiments are given, but until such research is conducted her own ideas must remain firmly in the realm of imaginative speculation.
The final chapters of the book move towards the philosophical implications that Blackmore sees arising from the adoption of a theory of memetics. Are memes relevant to our concepts of personal identity, responsibility, and free will? It is at this point that the book degrades from being simply speculative, to nothing short of pseudo-scientific sermonising. By the final chapter, Blackmore has given up any pretense of science, and is intent instead on preaching the one true path to enlightenment. Only by truly understanding and adopting a memetic point of view, or so she tells us, can we hope to find peace and happiness. In my opinion, these final sections serve no purpose other than to undermine the credibility of the author.
Overall, a mostly interesting read for those curious about the evolution of culture - just don't expect to find too many new ideas worth taking seriously.
am 13. Juli 2000
This book would probably deserve more than 5 stars but unfortunately only for certain readers (including myself). I strongly recommend this book if you:
- believe in natural laws, such as gravity or evolution
- believe in genes and their influence on our brain functions
- if you do not seek for supernatural or unexplainable elements in our existence
Scientific readers who are also familiar and symphatetic with "Eastern" perspectives on existence will find the theory of memes especially appealing. Certain Eastern believes have no historic problem with a "self-lessÓ state of existence.
Readers who accept the claim that our brain is a neural computer and understand modern technologies will find memetics even intuitive.
However, I do not recommend Blackmore to readers who believe that there is more than the "feelingÓ of a real self. People who believe that the term soul or self is an absolute and should not be defined in a new way for a particular purpose would probably dislike this book.
I would also like to point out one fallacy that Susan Blackmore shares with many of her excellent fellow scientists (including Dawkins, Wilson, Dennett, Pinker, etc). DON'T ATTACK RELIGION. Please bear in mind that if a reader happens to read your book, she or he is most likely already "suffering" enough of a religion trauma - just like yourself. We all know that, independent of whether religion makes sense or not - there will always be a natural rate of supernatural intuition. Partly as a result of gene-determinism and partly due to memetic outcomes in game-theory and natural selection. Let's be rational and accept the "irrational" as vital engine for evolution that holds societies together. Either way - no scientist will ever have the power to convert religious believers into scientific atheists. Only businessmen could do that if it would profit them ($=meme).
am 9. Dezember 1999
This book is a little too ambitious. Although Blackmore does not succeed in making the case for a science of memetics, she does a fantastic job trying to. With things like "Campbell's rule" and copying of instructions vs. copying of the product, she makes some good conceptual headway. She provides some good behaviorist insight on true imitation as a potential basis for memetic theory. The speculative field of memetics has yet to pull all the threads together, though Blackmore does a very good job setting the stage. I think the field as a whole could use a lot more immersion in cognitive science beyond the interesting forays of Daniel Dennett("Darwin's Dangerous Idea" highly recommended). I think the cognitive roles of language while not overlooked, could use more attention. In this vein I recommend to those interested to read "Philosophy in the Flesh" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, after you finish "The Meme Machine."
The Meme Machine reads very well. It doesn't leave me seeing how memetics will get from here (speculative) to there (real science), but it leaves me thinking that there must be a way. Blackmore backs up her own ideas with some good scientific background, but doesn't lay any real empirical foundations for a science of memetics. I think until we have a better idea of the neurological organization underpinning our conceptual thinking that foundation will not appear. For some possible headway on that, again I suggest you read "Philosophy in the Flesh" after you read "The Meme Machine." I think perhaps both of these books may be converging on some similar problems from different perspectives.
I think Blackmore sets some goals that are entirely too ambitious, and fails to achieve them. Instead of laying a foundation, she merely piques our interest. Don't let that stop you from enjoying "The Meme Machine." It is very interesting. Read this book. You will be glad that you did.
am 1. April 2000
We can easily substitute the word "idea" for "meme" and this book would work just as well. Her combination of Buddhism with memetics was very creative, but I believe misguided. She says the Selfplex is a terrible lie, an illusion of personality and ego created by the memes for their own propagation. I think that idea is ridiculous. "I" am the center of gravity around which these memes orbit, and "I" choose which ideas to accept or reject. The memes do not make the man any more than the genes to. True, memes and genes may exert pressure, but certainly not enough pressure to squeeze the life out of the self. Not yet. A good whack on the head does a much better job on destroying the self! To say that ideas are what created the big brain, well that sounds like "vitalism" in disguise to me. She thinks she escapes vitalism by removing the self through a simple semantic trick. Here's a task to consider: explore Jungian archetypes and the motifs of mythology as memes. I wonder what we would come up with?
Or maybe a new Bill Moyer's show, called "The Power of Memes". Or the Hero's Journey and the monomeme.
am 23. Juni 1999
Memetics is a good idea looking for real life research and practical applications that will free it from the realm of the philosopher kings. Susan Blackmore's book is another in a line of several that have tried to do so. While raising some interesting questions and making some interesting points, Meme Machines fails in this regard. Mostly it succeeds in rehashing the same controversies that plagued this subject, creating more unnecessary problems, and resolving none of them.
Despite the all-star cast of endorsements (Dennet and Dawkins) this book will mostly just succeed in making money for Blackmore, and perhaps spreading the idea of memes to new audiences that happen to think that Zen Buddhism is really groovey. In the mean time it may succeed in turning the idea of memes into the next new age fad - complete with prescriptions to free ourselves of the "tyranny" of the self - or as Blackmore the Zen guru might put it the "illusion of self".
The book gets off to a poor start by miscasting its basic philosophical questioning not in terms of memes, memetics, culture, or evolution, but by asking what is it that makes humans different from animals? Predictably asking poorly framed questions leads to conclusions that have even less to do with memes or memetics. Here I am referring to her incredible declarations which she makes central in the end of the book. We do not have selves, according to Blackmore. It's all a lie. Our memes have "tricked" us into thinking that we do - pesky li'l things. We should all become Zen Buddhists to save our non-selves from the memes!
I should hasten to add that along the way she makes many much less ridiculous and very good points. She provides some good behaviorist insight into true imitation, makes some interesting distinctions between that and social learning, and the roles that they play for memes. She provides some fertile ground for more applications of the genetic metaphor in her insightful distinctions between copying instructions vs. copying a product. She even makes some good cases for the role that such ideas like Platonic idealism play in memetic replication. All rich and worthwhile insights.
On the whole, I found her book to be very intelligent and entertaining, if deeply flawed in some fundamental respects. There were some useful insights definitely worth taking home, but there were other incredible flights of fantasy that I would have rather left behind. If you don't have your mind set on reading something in particular, this is an intriguingly good book - but it is far from being a seminal landmark in any scientific sense. If you are waiting for the book that will actually serve to make the case for the scientific legitimacy of memetics, save your money.
If you are interested in higher-quality peer-reviewed attempts at memetic theory without this irrelevant new-age fluff, I suggest you seek out a publication like the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transfer. There is better stuff out there even on the web other than the sources mentioned by Dawkins in his forward.
If you are interested in a good treatment of cultural evolution that does not deal in still- being-questioned words like "memes", and steers clear of new age fluff, I would recommend Gary Taylor's book "Cultural Selection" to balance Blackmore's more hype-ish approach.
am 2. Januar 2000
Philosophy should leave everything as it is -- Wittgenstein
Susan Blackwell's tour de force, 'Meme Machine', leaves everything as it is. There are no tricks of words, there's no technical jargon, everything's in plain ENglish. As it turns out, her account hangs together quite well.
For humans, besides DNA, there is a 2nd replicating entity, the meme. A meme is a communicable brain program or unit of human behavior and is, in fact, communicated (replicated) via the uniquely human faculty for imitation.
Selfish genes replicate in a chemical environment, selfish memes replicate in a neural environment (today's computer viruses replicate in electronic environments). When we consider evolution we're as justified in metaphorically ascribing intentions to memes as to genes*.
Leaving her progenitors, Dawkins and Dennett, in the dust, Blackwell argues that meme evolution and gene evolution interact and this is responsible for several Baldwin** effects, among which big brains, homosexualism, and the language instinct.
She makes the startling claim that true altruism is possible, that under the influence of memes people can behave selfsacrificially. Somewhat less controversially, she concludes that consciousness, freewill, god, etc are illusions that benefit the propagation of genes and memes.
She ends with some fashionable suggestions on how to make life bearable once the monstrous truth of her theory has sunk in: If you meditate and empty your mind you can come to live in peace with the idea that YOU dont exist, that youre only some genes and memes replicating.
Then there's the picture of Susan Blackmore on the back flap. Attractive, smart looking, 40ish punkette. Hair painted flaming red!
* There's nothing new in Blackmore's use of the intention metaphor in connection with genes and memes, everybody does it. Still, the metaphor may sometimes not apply and leave us to conclude what we shouldnt.
** The Baldwin effect is a way genetic evolution can be made to seem as if by Lamarckian forces, ie, inheritance of acquired characteristics.