Reading Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”

18Mar18

A book review.

Memes form the cornerstone of what you might call a cultural evolution theory. Richard Dawkins proposed the idea in the 1970 in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Although Dawkins’ introduction to the idea was merely a chapter long and felt as an afterthought to his main thesis of genetics, the idea of memes soon gained traction on its own. Nevertheless it took some 30 years before Susan Blackmore wrote a ‘proper’ introduction to memetics, by then still a nascent field of study. Although the word meme has found its way into our language, the theory of memes is still less known, which was reason for me to pick up the book and find out about the theory’s reach and potential.

What are memes? Memes are to culture what genes are to biology. When idea’s or behavior spread from person to person, there is some underlying thing called a meme which is copied from one brain to the other. Memes are subject to cultural selection. Depending on the existing culture some spread easily- while others don’t. According to meme theoreticians, cultures evolve  through meme copying and selection.

It is within this framework that Blackmore tries to advance our understanding of memes. Before examining her contributions in more detail it may be good to take stock of Dawkins notion of Dawkins notion of the “Selfish Gene”, as it is important to Blackmore’s thinking about memes.

Dawkins central argument is that it makes sense to look at the gene as the main actor of evolution rather than the species – as Darwin originally portrayed it. In Dawkins’ view genes are replicators, who have sophisticated schemes to reproduce themselves. This includes building organisms that help them to live longer and gives them a better chance to reproduce. Species are the result of genes competing for better replication opportunities rather than the other way around.

Note that Dawkins does not think of genes as ‘selfish’ in the sense that they have a ‘will’ to copy and multiply. In a world where things can replicate and they compete with other things that can also replicate the replicator which is most successful in sustaining itself and replicating will persist while others disappear.  The disadvantage of Dawkins’ explanation that it is teleological: he acts as if genes have a will. You shouldn’t read too much into that, but of course Dawkins’ audiences did. Once genes have a will, you start to act as if they have power, success and a plan for the word. This is stretching the argument – and Dawkins proposed nothing like this, but it is collateral damage of teleological arguments,  that seems to have infected Blackmore as well.

What are memes? To understand memes we need to understand human imitation. Learning through imitation is fairly unique to humans – at least we are the only ones who are really good at it. According to Blackmore when we mimic others, something underlying is copied from one human brain to the next, this is the meme. So when humans learned to imitate one and another memes got copied and selected, starting off cultural evolution. Humans quickly learned to use tools and make cave drawings. They started to use language and make music, and, after a while, drew up the universal declaration of human rights and traveled to the moon – and animals who do not imitate do nothing of such sort.

Many people think cultural evolution effectively stopped biological evolution, but Blackmore thinks it was the other way around. In her view cultural evolution was  a primary driver for the biological evolution of many of the traits that we now see as uniquely human. Once humankind started to imitate, useful inventions such as tools and practices could spread much faster than biological evolution allowed. This advantage ensured biological evolution started to select on ability to imitate.

At first this may only have been through natural selection, but soon sexual selection may have played a role as well. If good imitators have better chances of surviving offspring, traits that have no use in itself, but are clear signs of imitation ability will become attractive. This sexual selection may have been the driver for, for example our musical abilities. Seen in this light, our imitation ability may have been the driver of biological changes such as our big brains and our quite sophisticated language abilities.

Memes, according to Blackmore do not only drive our biological evolution, but also our technological evolution. If we would look at cultural evolution in another way we might explain the invention and spreading of all kinds of tools, from the practical advantage they offer humans. But meme theory puts special attention to technologies that help us communicate, such as the alphabet, printing press, radio, television and the Internet. These are especially useful to the memes as they help them spread faster.

Communication technologies alter the way memes spread and they increase the memes reach. Before the communication revolution, memes spread mainly from parents to children. A ‘vertical’  transmission of idea’s, closely aligned with biological evolution. This is why the great religions encourage reproduction, as this is a way to spread the religion memes. But because of the communication revolutions ‘horizontal’ peer-to-peer meme spreading has become much more common. This is why communication media can be so disruptive: they can lead to instabilities in our believe systems. Blackmore’s writings predate the filter bubble, otherwise she would probably assert that social media lead to a fragmentation of human beliefs.

An important idea that runs through the book is that meme spreading is not linked in any way to their truth value or source. It is not the case scientific memes spread in a better way than complete gossip. Memes are selfish, like genes, in the sense that any tactic for spreading will do as long as it outperforms others. Selection of memes does take place against the backdrop of other memes already in our head, so education can make us more sensitive so some memes than others. But at least our current education does not prevent us from believing in irrational ideas. Blackmores own work with people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens is a vivid example of this.

Another, related, theme in the book is how, once released, memes took over. They took over our biological evolution just to make sure they could be copied in a better way. They took over our technological evolution for the same reasons. Following Blackmore’s argument it is the memes, not humans, who invented the printing press. Once robots will be able to carry on the memes, assuming they are better meme machines, robots will take over the world – for the memes sake.

So, how should we evaluate this meme theory? To be honest, I found the book rather unconvincing. To Blackmore’s memes are the answer to many big questions in science. Most often, when one simple idea explains nearly everything it too good to be true. Blackmore clearly stretches the idea of the selfish meme too far, when she suggests it is the memes who invented communication technology for their benefit. If surviving memes are the result of a blind selection process, they do not steer cultural evolution in a particular direction. Although Blackmore is a scientist, her account of meme theory is that of a believer. It is speculative and testable theories are hard to find in the book.

And many essential questions remain unanswered. Is imitation really so unique to humans? What about birds?  Do memes exist? Nobody can find or even define them. Are memes really necessary or useful to explain cultural evolution? Other cultural evolution theories remain undiscussed in the book. Rather than reducing cultural evolution to a single underlying idea, shouldn’t it be seen as an interplay of, for example the interplay of the evolution of art, technology and ideology – all with their own mechanisms and speeds?  What do we really gain by this cold picture of a world-wide meme contest taking over humans and technology?

One could say that asking for answers to those questions, is like asking Darwin at birth his theory of evolution through natural selection how this inheritance he proposed worked – exactly. Meme theory has, in the words of Dawkins and Blackmore, not found their Watson and Crick yet. This is a fair counterargument but it leaves meme theory in the same state as Darwin’s theory just after he published the origin of species: an interesting and tantalizing hypothesis, not an established theory. Besides, meme theory now exists for 50 years. One would expect the evidence for it to be mounting up right now,  and, unfortunately, Blackmore isn’t in a position to present such a pile of evidence.

Reading more?

Blackmores idea’s resonate somehow with Thomas de Zengotita’s ideas on the role of media in society: in particular the importance of imitation for culture. I wrote about the history of communication technology in my reviews of James Gleick’s “The information” and in Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”

Earlier book reviews include Kim Zetter’s “Countdown to Zero Day”, Donna Harraway’s “Simians, Cyborgs and Women” and Martin Hand’s “Ubiqiutious Photography”

 

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