The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, 1999

meme machineTo summarize – once imitation has evolved, a second replicator comes into being which spreads much faster than the first.  Because the skills that are initially copies are biologically useful, it pays individuals both to copy and to mate with the best imitators.  This conjunction means that successful memes begin to dictate which genes are most successful: the genes responsible for improving the spread of those memes.  The genes could not have predicted the effect of creating a second replicator and cannot, as it were, take it back. 99, 100

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Blackmore argues that memes – units of information that can be imitated – are a replicator that evolve, just as genes are a replicator that evolve.  Furthermore, she argues that these memes are not subservient to genetic interests, and can (and have) shaped genetic evolution by creating large brains and language, which wouldn’t have evolved in the absence of memetic selection.

The book is interesting, and at times convincing.  However, due to the complexity of memes (how are they defined, where are they stored, what is the DNA of a meme) I’m not sure that it can become a hard science in the way that genetics has.

Memes seem to pay a role in the unfolding of the universe (physics, to chemistry, to biology, to memes, to technology, etc) but it’s still hard for me to grasp what memes are, how they are transmitted, and exactly how they can be said to now exist independent of genes.  Biological inheritance is a different layer than chemistry, but it’s still on chemistry’s ‘leash’.  Likewise, it seems that memes may have a long leash and may drive some genetic selection, but off the leash seems wrong, or imprecisely put.  Perhaps technology will advance to the point that it builds itself, and then the leash is cut.

It seems that memetics is just a special case of determinism, or a particular layer or of determinism; genes build things without consciousness, so do economies, and so do memes.

Ideas per Page:1 6/10 (medium)

Related Books: Inside Jokes by Hurley et al; How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Recommend to Others: Not widely, only if you are interested in cognition and evolution

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:   “Darwin’s argument requires three main features: variation, selection, and retention (or heredity).” 10

“…the meme pool – fills up with the kinds of thought that people tend to think about.  We all come across them and so we all think an awful lot.  The reason ‘I” cannot compel myself to stop thinking is that millions of memes are competing for the space in ‘my’ brain.”  41

“The point is that once memes have appeared the pressure to keep thinking all the time is inevitable.  With all this competition going on the main casualty is a peaceful mind.” 42

“As long as that information can be copied by a process we may broadly call ‘imitation’, then it counts as a meme.”  66

“Many babies and mothers die because the skull is simply too big for an easy birth.  All these facts suggest that a powerful and consistent selection pressure for larger brains was at work, but we do not know what it was.”  71 [i.e., memes were driving these costly brains]

“The turning point in our evolutionary history was when we began to imitate each other.  From this point on a second replicator, the meme, came into play.  Memes changed the environment in which genes were selected, and the direction of change was determined by the outcome of memetic selection.  So the selection pressures which produced the massive increase in brain size were initiated and driven by memes.”  74, 75

“Genes for being a good imitator will begin to spread in the gene pool.  Now the environment in which the genes are selected begins to change.” 77

“Genes for imitating the best imitator will increase in the gene pool.” 78

79 paraphrase: sexual selection for being a good imitator

“First, since talking is an efficient way of propagating memes, memes that can get themselves spoken will (in general) be copied more often than those that cannot.  So these kinds of memes will spread in the meme pool and we will all end up talking a lot.”  84

“The chatty person will, by definition, talk more and so give her memes more chances of spreading.  When another chatty person hears these ideas she will easily pick them up and pass the on again.  The silent person will not talk much and so all the memes compatible with being a quiet type will have fewer chances to spread.”  86

“This talking is not for our benefit or to make us happy – though sometimes it may do that – nor is it for the benefit of our genes.  It is just an inevitable consequence of having a brain that is capable of imitating speech.”  86

“The way we experience the world is not ‘the way it really is’ but the way that has proved useful to natural selection for us to perceive it.” 112

“From this perspective, the couple’s thoughts, emotions, desire for success, and willingness to work hard, are all aspects of the replicating machinery that is, or is not, devoted to spreading the memes – as are the printing presses that reproduce the magazines and the factories that build the computers.”  142

“I suggest that memetic selection created them.  As soon as memes appeared they started evolving towards greater fidelity, fecundity, and longevity; in the process, they brought about the design of better and better meme-copying machinery.  So the books, telephones, and fax machines were created by the memes for their own replication.

That may sound odd when we know that memes are just information being copied from one person to another.  How can bits of information create radios and computers?  But the same question could be asked of genes – how can bits of information stored in DNA create gnats and elephants?  The answer is the same in both cases – because the information is a replicator that undergoes selection.  This means the evolutionary algorithm runs, and the evolutionary algorithm produces designs.”  204

“When city-dwellers go to the country they meet few rural dwellers because they are widely spread out, and pick up few rural memes because few exist; but when country folk go to the city they meet lots and lots of city people and lots of new ideas.  The consequence is memetic pressure for city-dwelling.”  211

“If all else fails – and this is a truly audacious sleight of hand – we can reinterpret our failure of control as an actual success!  ‘I changed my mind,’ we say.” Guy Claxton, 1986, Beyond Therapy, 59

“The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are the products of genetic evolution.  Replicator power is the only design process we know of that can do the job, and it does it.  We do not need conscious human selves messing about in there as well.”  240

“If we take memetics seriously there is no room for anyone or anything to jump into the evolutionary process and stop it, direct it, or do anything to it.  There is just the evolutionary process of genes and memes playing itself endlessly out – and no one watching.”  242

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


3 thoughts on “The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, 1999

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