The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore, is a book that deals with the theory of memes. Essentially, memes are the result of mixing Darwin's theory of natural selection with social aspects of human interaction.

Since the book was not written by a biologist, but instead an anthropologist, there are occasional misconceptions and irregularities within the book. The largest among these is the author's difficulty admitting that humans are essentially the same as all other living creatures. On the rare occasions when this admission is made, Blackmore immediately emphasizes just how advanced beyond everything else humans are, to the point where meme theory couldn't possibly apply to any other organism. Needless to say, this puerile attitude notably detracts from the quality of the book given the frequent digressions it necessitates.

Blackmore's definition of a meme differs somewhat from most contemporaries. To her, a meme is any knowledge/action/ability that is transmitted by imitation. She uses this definition because humans are unusually adept at imitation, so this is one of the primary traits that separates us from "the animals". This has some very awkward connotations, such as: if I were to figure out some action independently of being shown, then it's not a meme, unless I show someone else, in which case it becomes a meme for the person to whom I pass it on (kind of). This definition seems very convoluted, but will occasionally lead to potentially valid discoveries.

For example, Blackmore provides a reasonable and plausible explanation for why the human brain is as large: When the ancestors of humans first developed this ability to imitate, probably shortly after Australopithecus afarensis, this talent was naturally selected as a survival mechanism. The offspring of those who could imitate the best had the greatest opportunity for survival since their parents could imitate the most useful survival skills. This led to a cycle of everyone imitating the best imitators and trying to mate with those who had the greatest imitative ability. Not only would this self-feeding phenomenon explain the size of the human brain, it also explains the depth, complexity, and pervasiveness of "culture" in our species.

Unfortunately, this proposed mechanism of brain evolution is one of very few worthwhile contributions made in the book. The majority of the book is filled with the fluff and pontification of an anthropologist who seems uncomfortable with the implications of evolution as it applies to humanity. The theory of memetics is very viable in my mind, but this book does little to elucidate the topic.

Let me try to give Susan Blackmore another hearing. I believe she deserves it.

The Meme Machine is a book written by Susan Blackmore in an attempt to provide a sound theoretical basis for the study of memetics. Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, endorses this text with a foreword, so it is natural to expect that Blackmore will follow Dawkins' ideas to some extent. For both Dawkins and Blackmore, it all begins with replicators, pieces of information that manage to get themselves copied from host to host. For Blackmore, specifically, the focus is on memes.

The Setup

Blackmore first lays down some foundational notions of memetics. She then applies them to diverse phenomena and examines the implications. Her argument rests on three pillars:

1) Imitation is what distinguishes humans from other animals.

"The thesis of this book is that what makes us different is our ability to imitate" (p. 8). People are different from dolphins, ants, and chimpanzees because people can imitate better than dolphins, ants, or chimpanzees. All other qualities, our complex social rituals for instance, are derivatives of our ability to imitate. A meme is the information passed on by imitation. Unlike other interpretations, Blackmore considers any piece of information that can be passed by imitation to be a meme. This includes behaviours, moral values, political attitudes, stories, narratives, theories, language, procedures, recipes, music, mathematics, philosophy, science, painting, society, sculpture, literature, rumours, jokes; anything that a host can imitate from another is a meme, and this is all. Nothing else is a meme, not if it cannot be imitated. Blackmore warns us not take the definition too far: "Once you grasp the basic idea of memes, it is all too easy to get carried away by enthusiasm and to think of everything as a meme."(p. 42) Perceptual experiences, for one, are a promiment example of thoughts that are not memes, much to the frustration of anyone who seeks a cure from solipsism.

2) Adopt the meme's eye-view.

In order to proceed with the discussion, we must accept this postulate: view the memes as ends in themselves, and not merely as means. To put it another way, memes "want" to reproduce, a "good" meme is one that can successfully spread and "infect" as many hosts as possible and outlive other memes, and memes do so not necessarily because they are beneficial or harmful to the host (although this is certainly an important factor), but because replication is what memes do and how they survive. A chicken is an egg's way of making another egg. The analogous notion for genes is a central theme evident in the title of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene

3) Apply Universal Darwinism to memes.

Now comes a recurrent question that will prompt Blackmore's discussion throughout much of what remains:

Imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Now ask, which memes are more likely to find a home and get passed on again? (p. 37)

To answer this question, Blackmore proposes we follow the doctrine known as Universal Darwinism. The idea is that evolution must take place whenever three ingredients are simultaneously present in creatures: variation, selection, and retention. To elaborate, first there must be differences so that not all creatures are identical. Next, we need a mechanism by which some of these differences promote the survival of the creature and others its demise. Lastly, the creature must be able to pass on these differences to its offspring. Supposing the availability of a medium for such ingredients, namely a large collection of replicators and their respective hosts, evolution is inevitable. We call any system that allows for variation, selection, and retention a Darwin machine. The prime example of a Darwin machine is all the living organisms on this planet, together with their genetic material. For us, memes and brains constitute the Darwin machine of interest.

The interesting question now is which memes will survive. Universal Darwinism offers an answer that Dawkins summed up in three words: fecundity, fidelity, and longevity. In order for any replicator to be a successful one, it has to be copied often, copied accurately, and the copies must survive long enough to reproduce of their own accord. Fecundity increases by gossipping and interactions between humans, fidelity by encoding the memes in ways that are easier to remember or record, such as the trouvador that sets music to a story or the modern digitalisation of information. Longevity makes advances when better means for meme storage arise, beginning with the invention of writing and propagating today into digital storage media. Memes can exhibit one, two, or all of these characteristics. The extent to which they do so determines their success.

This is the basic shape of the argument. Now we should question how effective it is as a scientific theory. Blackmore's defense follows the most commonly accepted critera for judging any scientific theory: "First, a theory must be able to explain things better than its rival theories; more economically or more comprehensively. And second, it must lead to testable predictions that turn out to be correct." (p. 9) Does memetics, as presented by Blackmore, accomplish these goals? The time has come to turn to some consequences of the theory.

Big Brains, Language, and Memes

From a strictly genetic point of view, big brains and language, those two prized human features responsible for setting us apart from the rest of nature, are problematical. They seem to be more trouble than they are worth. Big brains enlarge our skulls making the birthing process difficult and potentially lethal for mother and baby. Our brains consume 20% of our energy at rest, but account only for 2% of our body mass, and they are expensive to build in terms of materials required -- this may have lead to an increase in meat consumption. "Evolution does not waste energy for no reason," states Blackmore (p. 70). Other animals have been evolving quite well without such disproportionately large brains. Why would the genes prefer big brains?

Language presents similar difficulties. How did it originate? And what is its purpose? The first question is as old as language itself, and is such an overasked question that in 1866 the French Society of Linguistics softlocked any further discussion about it. It could probably be answered if we found a satisfactory explanation for the use of language. This is not clear either. Why do we talk so much, and of such trifle matters? Why invest all that time and energy gossipping about who is dating whom or expressing our opinions about what our political leaders should be doing? Indeed, why do we keep on noding, if there are more profitable things to do in the world?

The questions don't stop there. Besides dilemmas of origin and purpose, spoken language also requires physical (genetic) changes in our bodies. The diaphragm needs to allow us careful control of our breathing. The ability to override our natural breathing rythm is essential for forming our utterances. As compared to our other primates, our larynx is found considerably lower, and this is where our voice lies. In order to facilitate the production of phonemes, the shape of our skull also needs to be different from other primates. Why did evolution bother with all this?

The solution Blackmore proposes is that the turning point in our evolution was when we developed an ability to imitate. The moment a small aleatory variation allowed imitation, a second replicator came into play, namely, our friend the meme. Our evolution was then driven by a meme-gene coevolution. The memes affected the natural selection process in favour of their replication, a possibility because memes can alter behaviour, reproductive behaviour especially. "Mate with the best imitator! The one who can make the best fires, the one who can replicate ceremonial dances better! All the cool kids are doing it!" Such is the memes' command. It is a handy coincidence that the best imitator also has a slightly larger brain. The roles have reversed; the memes now drive the genes.

Once imitation started taking place, the memes needed to develop better methods for replication. "The function of language is to spread memes" (p. 99) Now it all becomes simpler. With imitatiom, the meme replicator enters the fray and memetic evolution transpires much more quickly than its genetic counterpart. Genes could not predict that they would allow the creation of memes, and now they are driven by memes. What happens next? We ask again the driving question Blackmore poses: Imagine a world full of brains and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a home and get passed on again? Celibacy isn't hereditary, and neither is the meme for holding your tongue. We therefore chatter incessantly more often than we hold vows of silence. Recall the three characteristics of a successful replicator: fecundity, fidelity, and longevity. The role of language thus becomes clear. To spread your memes around more quickly, you gossip promiscuously; to make sure that memes are more or less uniform, you give your language a systematic grammar, and to increase the lifespan of your memes, you may also start to record them on clay tablets with a stylus, in paintings in your cave walls, or on papyrus scrolls. Memes crafted language for their own selfish need of reproduction.

Sex and Memes

Yes, my esteemed noders, let us now talk about that very successful meme, sex! SEX! Just like momma used to make it. Sex, sex, sex, discuss it, FAQ it, do it, live it, lick it, node it, fantasise it, taste it, throw it in the catbox; everyone has an opinion about it and something to say. Let's sex!

And, oh my, Susan Blackmore has opinions about sex. Does she ever! Reading the book, it seems she has something to say every other sentence. Or perhaps it just seemed that way to my memetically afflicted mind.

What is there to say? Perhaps you think, as I did once, that on an evolutionary basis you already had a fairly good explanation for all sexual clichés. Boys like pretty girls because sperm is cheap, so boys can spread their genes indiscriminately and choose girls that look healthy, symmetrical, and fertile. Girls like boys in power because ova is expensive to produce and pregnancy is long and difficult, not to mention because they need someone to protect them while they rear the children. Or even better, girls mate with genetically attractive boys but find another stable, dependable boy that will help them raise the child (and spread their genes). These are the ways in which genes have found it successful to spread. Sex is one of our most primitive natural instincts, and this is what accounts for Cosmopolitan magazine and Dr. Ruth. It all seems so simple, and genetics seems to take care of all necessary explanations.

These caricatures of sexual behaviours are much too simplistic. Blackmore is not satisfied with genetic explanations. She prefers a theory that explains apparently nonadaptive practices like adoption, celibacy, and birth control, a theory such as memetics. She also predicts that there is a memetic component to female mate choice (males tend not to be so choosy, in her view), and suggests experiments to test this. These would involve somehow holding genetic factors constant and examine to what extent women would choose an ugly man who is a good imitator. The situation of homely but artistic men who manage to attract women is not unheard of.

As other instances of sexual memes of interest, consider the marriage meme, or memeplex in its institutionalised form ("meme complex", an aggregate of memes that band together for the mutual benefit of replication). This meme has propagated successfully because of biological advantage, because those who practise it secure their heritage through defloration ceremonies and vows of monogamy, fidelity, or virginity, and can then infect their offspring with these customs. Taboos against masturbation and homosexuality replicate successfully for similar reasons. Memes for the defense of homosexuality spread when the memes are transmitted more efficiently horizontally (between peers and friends) than vertically (from parent to child), or they may replicate better if they are coupled with memes in favour of homosexual adoption and other lesbian/gay rights, for example. Modern sexual practices, according to Blackmore's view, can readily be explained by an accelerated horizontal transmission of memes through modern mass media (magazines, television, motion pictures, internet) that has outpaced vertical transmission.

Other memes of interest

At this point, Blackmore takes the time to explore other prominent memes of our times. She finds that altruism cannot be adequately explained by purely genetic terms, that despite theories such as "the bee stings and dies because her genes will live on through all of her sisters", memetics has more explanatory power. Similartly to language, the purpose of altruism is to spread memes. The same three-pronged attack that we have been using throughout still works here: imitation, the meme's eye-view, and Universal Darwinism. Memes of the New Age, of the likes of auras, chakras, and aromatherapy, hold some interest for Blackmore. Thus she makes the effort to analyse their success, and cannot resist, as a scientist, to argue that more "scientific" memes are closer to the truth, better. Religion receives a similar treatment, although she inspects it more closely and considers its many effects and ramifications. She also devotes a chapter to that great meme superhighway that the internet has become, and makes many remarks and speculations as to its present and future state.

I found that the internet chapter overstates the obvious, is somewhat naïve on the technical points and a tad innaccurate in its predictions, but I believe we should be indulgent with Blackmore on this point. She wrote it during 1998, and there have been many recent developments that would have been very difficult to predict , such as an unimaginable increase of availability and bandwidth of information in the industrialised countries, the advent of Google, the failure of the millenium bug, and the dot-com flop. Everything2 did not even exist back in 1998, and I think Blackmore would have a field day reshaping her ideas of internet memetics if she ever became a noder. She does, however, have some solid arguments that have become commonplace nowadays, like the touted superiority of digital storage and transmission of information over analogue methods (with a memetic slant, of course). Considerations of fecundity, fidelity, and longevity have some bearing on the growth of the internet, and she is sure to give them. Nevertheless, she also predicts that robots would soon become intelligent because we would endow them with a capacity to imitate, or that they would mutate into viruses and start copying malicious memes through cyberspace. Chatbots and spiderbots were the robots she had in mind when she wrote this, and none of these exhibit any of this sort of behaviour, and it seems unlikely they ever will. Even though the Google spiderbots accomplish marvellous tasks in archiving the Web, it is still a far cry from predictions of virulence and sentience.

Free Will, Consciousness, and Resisting the Memes

Here comes Blackmore's grand finale, the title of her book. I hope you have been enjoying the ride so far. Brace yourself; disquieting arguments are about to come.

The theory of memetics, as has been presented so far, makes people uncomfortable. It is this whole notion of the meme's eye-view that doesn't go down too well. If the memes want to replicate by themselves, and if so many of our ideas and behaviours can be considered as a meme, where is the "I"? Who is in charge? Why are our brains constantly active, never ceasing to think? For the memes, again? What about consciousness? If the memes have displaced us from centre stage, then where do we stand now?

It's all an illusion. The self. Free will. Consciousness. Just as cellular biology has been relegating the notion of "life force" into a pretty but unscientific metaphor, Blackmore hopes psychology will do the same with consciousness. The philosophers who argue for consciousness got it wrong. Consciousness is a mystery with no explanatory power that we should abandon. There is no I. To think is to spread and reinforce memes. The self is the ultimate memeplex, a selfplex, shall we say; the most cunning pack of ideas that memetic evolution could devise. If a host believes in some sort of personal uniqueness, believes in a special self who is conscious, then ey will start spreading memes for eir own perceived benefit. Nobody is in charge, instead something has taken over. There are no decisions to make. It is all happening of its own accord, every action being dictated by a selfish replicator, either genetic or memetic, because hosts can't be selfish themselves. "We are the temporary conglomeration of all these replicators and their products in a given environment. [...] Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge." (p. 236) After we explain basic biological functions, a person is a pack of neurons acting under the influence of the memes. A person is a meme machine.

These may all seem like startling claims, but they truly are the only direction Blackmore could have taken if she is committed to the arguments she has been pushing so far. This is the natural culmination of adopting the meme's eye-view in memetic evolution. We are in the power of the memes, and have been ever since we became different from the other creatures of this planet. Does this seem plausible? I think it makes a creepy kind of sense. I cannot immediately dismiss it as meaningless drivel, as I would love to do. Culture colours so many of the attitudes and opinions we hold so dear and unique, the ones we consider defining of ourselves. That's a memeplex. Our science and technology, mysticism, religions, poetry, music, love, and romance; memeplexes, all of them. They happened the way they did because chance mixed three ingredients: variation, selection, and retention. Evolution is simply too probable for it not to take place.

Blackmore makes some final remarks as to what to do if you accept her presentation of memetics. I suspect she was influenced by Zen Buddhism, because that's what it sounds like. The way we should act, she says, is "to concentrate on the present moment -- all the time -- letting go of any thoughts that come up." (p. 242) Meme-weeding, she calls it. She also suggests that we focus our attention equally upon everything around us. These practices will begin to wear away at the false idea of self. We will wake up from the meme dream. I will close with (ahem) a replicate of Blackmore's final thoughts.

Memetics thus brings us to a new vision of how we might live our lives. We can carry on our lives as most people do, under the illusion that there is a persistent conscious self insde who is in charge, who is responsible for my actions and who makes me me. Or we can live as human beings, body, brain, and memes, living out our lives as complex interplay of replicators and environment, in the knowledge that that is all there is. Then we are no longer victims of the selfish selfplex. In this sense we can truly be free -- not because we can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but because we know that there is no one to rebel.

Help me, fellow Everythingians. I have been infected with Blackmore's memes, and my selfplex is protesting.

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