Short works

Books : reviews

Susan Blackmore.
The Meme Machine.
OUP. 1999

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 27 July 2003

Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of memes -- idea replicators analogous to genes. Blackmore takes that idea very seriously, and explores the consequences of living with a "second replicator". Her conclusions are quite startling, and deeply fascinating. Taking this idea of meme as replicator, Blackmore gives meme-based evolutionary arguments for the origins of language and culture (increasing the fidelity, fecundity and longevity of memes). This is followed up by the profound changes caused by the (relatively) recent breaking of the evolutionary link between memes and genes, due to technology allowing much more widespread horizontal meme transition, independent of the genetic line. [Technology allows memes to be copied much more easily, and potentially without ever passing through a brain. Do memes need to be "expressed" in a brain to exist? Or could different kinds of selection pressures arise?]

This is a very powerful theory. One might wonder if it is simply one of those wooly NewAge "theories" that hijack and distort genuine scientific concepts to "explain" anything and everything -- and hence ultimately nothing. Not so. Blackmore is careful to point out the similarities and difference with genetics: memetics is an evolutionary theory, with variation, selection and reproduction, but it does not rely on a genetic mechanism. Many of the arguments against memetics are exposed as confusing pure evolutionary and specifically genetic processes. And, like any good scientist, she shows that her theory is falsifiable, by suggesting several experiments and predictions that can help be used to decide if her conception of memetics fits reality or not.

[I wonder: if the job of memes is to get reproduced, why are teachers today held in relatively low regard? Why haven't the "academic memes" hijacked "high status" memes to promote their reproduction? Are they simply insufficiently powerful memes when pitted against the pop culture ones? Maybe they are insufficiently powerful because they are that much harder to learn, harder to reproduce?]

She ends up with discussion of "memeplexes" -- conglomerations of memes that evolve together. One such is the "selfplex", a memeplex that fosters the illusion that we have a "self", an "I" who is in conscious charge -- simply because such an idea makes us more likely to fight to preserve the associated memes. The final chapter is a dismissal of the notion of consciousness and free will, but with an attempted hopeful spin. And her final sentence is a wonderful mirror, and contradiction, of Dawkins' final sentence in The Selfish Gene. I'm not sure I buy into this conclusion (but then my selfplex wouldn't, would it?) If there truly is no free will, how can we make the choices Blackmore suggests towards the end? And are those the suggestions of someone who has already bought into the Zen memeplex to some degree? And if enough of us did make those choices, would we be open to exploitation by people who kept more "selfish memes"?

Despite my (or my selfplex's) reservations, the overall message is fascinating, and deserves to be taken very seriously. If even only partly true, it has substantial consequences for the entire field of artificial intelligence, and for our own intellectual development as a species.

Susan Blackmore.
Zen and the Art of Consciousness (== Ten Zen Questions) .
Oneworld. 2009