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
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.