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The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
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The Meme Machine (1999)

by Susan Blackmore

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I have to admit that when I first started reading this book I was taken aback, but I stuck with it and am ultimately impressed with the case that Blackmore painstakingly makes. I would highly recommend this book, especially if you have an enduring interest in human culture and religion. Even if you don't agree with her conclusions, I think her arguments are worth considering. ( )
  gmmoney | Sep 8, 2010 |
This book was worth the read. While in many ways it struggled with the burden of proof and lack of research into the field of memes, and as a result came across as a pseudo-scientific approach at debunking all sorts of current thinking, it is put together well and really walks the reader to the rather shocking conclusion. ( )
  librarythingaliba | Apr 21, 2010 |
Bloom's convictions about the importance of memes has pushed this book higher up on the reading list.
  millsge | Nov 26, 2009 |
(posted on my blog: http://davenichols.net/meme-machine)

Dr. Susan Blackmore was well known for her study of paranormal psychology long before she took her place in the theory of memetics. Briefly, she takes up the idea as presented in The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) and builds upon the work of others, such as Richard Brodie and Daniel Dennett who have sought to define memes and their effects on humanity. Blackmore takes all of this a step further and proposes that memes are not just ideas that pass from brain to brain, but are a true second replicator capable as originally proposed by Dawkins. Her theory puts forth the idea that memes have coevolved with genes in the human species and now are the dominant replicator on the planet.

Early on in this book, I felt the effort was a bit hollow. Most of the first several dozen pages reads more like a topical survey of existing work on the subject and a sort of dry recitation of where thing stand. Certainly, this is normal for any popular science book, but the treatment here was a bit lacking for my taste.

However, once Blackmore is free from her history lesson, she launches into a challenging assertion of how memes became established as replicators, and the even more controversial theory that memes have driven genes to develop physical brains capable of spreading memes.

Dr. Blackmore offers that memes first came about from early humans imitating other humans for advantages (such as better tool use or optimal berry color determination). Once this began, the next step involved memetic selection favoring those who imitated the most successful imitators (since they would be the most likely candidates to have the ability to propagate memes). Next, natural memetic selection favored those who chose to mate with other imitators (meaning that genes favoring the ability to pass on memes were more successful at propagation). Finally, sexual selection for imitations would lead to the arms race Blackmore asserts drove brain size to enormous (and otherwise unnatural) proportions (her analogy is the costly and over-the-top display of male peacock feathers).

Language is presented not simply as an efficiency for communication and coordination but as a means by which memes themselves increase their fecundity (ability to reproduce or be reproduced). Since memes were best able to reproduce through imitation, language spread quickly since it so easily allowed memes to move from brain to brain. Writing, and later inventions such as the printing press, telephone, and internet offered even better efficiencies for meme replication.

Blackmore also offers strong discussion of the power of memes to drive behavior in the modern world despite the best interests of the genes in bodies. She gives a treatment on sex (birth control, smaller family sizes, porn, etc...) and religion (priests and nuns who concentrate on spreading religious memes rather than genes) as proof that such powerful ability makes memetic replication the driving force in our cultural (and therefore genetic) evolution.

Specifically, she proposes that memes are the driver of the contentious altruism phenomenon. Since we have an early desire to imitate successful imitators, and kin selection likely leads toward locally-based altruism, memes which encourage further altruism spread quickly. Blackmore suggests that nice, popular, and successful people 1) are more likely to come into contact with more people than are mean, unpopular, or unsuccessful people, and 2) are more likely to be imitated as a result (the nice guy who throws big parties and gives gifts will most likely have more imitators than those who scowl and remain isolated). Because of this, altruism spreads like a virus (as do all memes), and since altruism encourages more contact and better social behavior, the effect quickly spreads throughout most of the population. Morals and kindness likely find their roots in this process of imitation and memetic natural selection.

Getting deeper into this process, Dr. Blackmore offers her theory that the idea of 'self' and 'I' are the ultimate memeplex (groups of memes which work together in much the same way that chromosomes and genomes do). She asserts that the illusion of self is only in existence due to memetic natural selection and not some inherent and tangible part of humanity (such as a soul).

Finally, she contends that memes (backed up by some psychological research) provide no means of free will (Blackmore explicitely defines memetic replication as the source of human decisions), and that free will itself is simply a false meme that has spread thanks to other memes and memeplexes (such as religion, humanism, etc). Because we have no free will, the author argues that 'self' is not functionally useful in our lives and that we should instead focus on the 'now', letting our sense of individual identity and decision making fall aside as we cast off our illusions and attempt to enjoy what she considers a different type of conciousness.

Having just finished Daniel Dennett's excellent and powerful thoughts on consciousness (Consciousness Explained), I was prepared pretty well for what Blackmore offered. She cites Dennett (and Dawkins) frequently, although she does offer alternative theories on some points.

While I do believe (I can hear Blackmore trying to argue with 'I do believe' as I type it) she has put forth an excellent theory on memetics that goes a long way toward explaining broad areas left unexplainable by current neo-Darwinian evolution, most especially altruism, she admits throughout the book that she is only offering theories based on very early and sparse evidence. She offers testable scenarios and experiments all through the book which she believes might empirically confirm (or deny) her theory's assertions.

Her final chapter decends into a sort of conscious nihilism whereby she suggests the psychological version of Tim Leary's 'Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out'. Most of this chapter's assertions appear to be a much more personal solution, and I can't say that I agree that we should simply 'get out of the way of the memes'. While I think she may have the process down correctly (namely that memes are replicators in power in the modern world, largely responsible for physically large brains and consciousness, and that free will is largely an illusion), this solution of abandoning any pretense of personal intent feels like a cop-out. Blackmore tells us early on that ignorance of the underlying structure of genetics (DNA/RNA) did not prevent enormous progress on theories and practice of natural selection. I feel she gives her own theory different treatment under similar circumstances. We don't yet know exactly what, if anything, would be the underlying structure of memetics, but that shouldn't push us to 'get out of the way' at all. I see two options: the one she proposes (accepting that we have no power to control memes or any free will or personal intent) and letting go of the struggle over memes (anxiety, worry, doubt, etc), or an alternative view which is willing to accept many of the same proposals without disengaging. We never thought we would have the power to manipulate natural selection through genetics, and yet now we do. Memetics might offer a similar opportunity, and I feel ignoring this possibility feels a bit cheap, especially from someone who has been used so successfully by some outstanding and insightful memeplexes just to publish this book and work on this theory.

I would recommend that anyone wishing to read this book should first read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (and probably Extended Phenotype). Dan Dennett's Consciousness Explained is frequently cited in Meme Machine and reading it will help greatly in processing the theory Blackmore presents (though note that it is a deep philosophical book). Four stars and highly recommended to those whose have some ground knowledge of genes and memes going in. ( )
1 vote IslandDave | May 9, 2009 |
I may not believe in memes as defined by Blackmore, but this book is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of... thought provocation. ( )
  WylieMaercklein | Feb 6, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 019286212X, Paperback)

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of the meme as a unit of culture, spread by imitation. Now Dawkins himself says of Susan Blackmore:

Showing greater courage and intellectual chutzpah than I have ever aspired to, she deploys her memetic forces in a brave--do not think foolhardy until you have read it--assault on the deepest questions of all: What is a self? What am I? Where am I? ... Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme.

Blackmore is a parapsychologist who rejects the paranormal, a skeptical investigator of near-death experiences, and a practitioner of Zen. Her explanation of the science of the meme (memetics) is rigorously Darwinian. Because she is a careful thinker (though by no means dull or conventional), the reader ends up with a good idea of what memetics explains well and what it doesn't, and with many ideas about how it can be tested--the very hallmark of an excellent science book. Blackmore's discussion of the "memeplexes" of religion and of the self are sure to be controversial, but she is (as Dawkins says) enormously honest and brave to make a connection between scientific ideas and how one should live one's life. --Mary Ellen Curtin

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:36 -0400)

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