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