Response to review of The Meme Machine

Selection Pressures are Mounting, A Review by R.L.Campbell, Metascience, 9, 254-6, 2000

Author’s Response

Never before have I read a book review that so completely misunderstands and misrepresents what I was trying to say.

Campbell starts by defining memes as packets of knowledge built up out of atomic units and encoding something. They are not – and he has managed three mistakes already. Memes are information copied from person to person by imitation. There is no necessary connection to knowledge here. For example, the habit of facial piercing is currently a successful meme in Britain. All over the city I see people with rings in their noses, and studs in their eyebrows and lips. In what sense do these people know something that they did not know before they joined the fashion? Trying to define memes as packets of knowledge just misses the point. They are behaviours that either spread or fail to spread.

Memes are not really units or packets either. Although it is convenient to talk about them as units (and in fact almost impossible not to) they do not come neatly divided into chunks, any more than genes do – a point I discuss at length in The Meme Machine. Finally I never said that memes “encode something” and would not wish to.

This idea about encoding is all Campbell’s own, but he even attributes to me “a view of knowledge as encoding and language as encoding-transmission”. I hardly know what to make of this suggestion since I did not once use the word ‘encode’ with respect to memes and I do not hold a strong view on the nature of knowledge. He says “Blackmore casually assumes that internal representation is just like external representation” but I do not. Fortunately memetics does not depend upon the slippery notions of symbolic reference or representation. Instead we can build new theories about human nature by asking which memes are copied, which are not, and why.

With respect to language, I suggested that human brains acquired their language ability by the co-evolution of memes with the machinery that copies them. As soon as our ancestors began imitating sounds, some sounds were copied more than others. These successful memes then changed the environment of selection for the genes, forcing them to create brains capable of copying the successful memes. This theory of memetic driving may be wrong, but it depends on a straightforward mechanism derived from the principles of natural selection; it is testable, and it does not depend on any notions of encoding, symbolism or internal representations.

Since Campbell’s review is based on his false definition of memes it is difficult to know how to respond to many of his arguments. So I will just confine myself to countering two more of the views he falsely attributes to me.

First he claims that “According to Blackmore” human beings are “purely imitative rather than innovative”. I fear he may have missed the whole point of the creative power of evolution. Darwin’s great insight was to see that if you have creatures that vary, and then selection (i.e. most of them die), and finally heredity (the survivors pass on whatever helped them survive), then you must get the evolution of new creatures. This is innovation par excellence. It is how you and I and all other creatures on this planet were designed. The whole point of memetics is to apply this same insight to memes rather than genes, and so to understand how human culture and creativity come about. We humans copy masses of memes, and mix them up in our clever brains to produce new combinations. Yes, the whole process is based on copying information by imitation, but it is inherently a creative and innovative process – arguably the only creative process there is.

Second there is my “denial of self”. Here Campbell’s mistake is easier to understand and I have probably been guilty of being confusing. So let me try to be clear now. I do not say there is no self – only that the self is not what we commonly think it is. The self is not a persisting entity with free will and consciousness that lives inside “my” body, perceiving the world and making the decisions. Rather it is a memeplex, or collection of memes that have come together for mutual protection and support. It is a kind of story about a self that does not really exist. And its function is not to serve us, nor our genes, but our memes.

This memeplex can get so entrenched that it colours our entire lives with false dualities, and causes all the suffering of self-conscious embarrassment, disappointment, and fear of failure. I suggested that it is possible to drop this false self.

Campbell clearly disagrees but his arguments include quoting “a clinical psychologist” who commented (as though it were an obvious fact) that as long as there is awareness there is self. This may be a common view but is not one that stands much scrutiny. There are two ways to tackle it – both equally valid in my view. One is to use intellectual arguments like Dennett’s (1991) demolition of the Cartesian Theatre, to show that the notion of a separate self perceiving the contents of awareness must be false. The other is simply to look into one’s own experience. Many people, whether spontaneously or through long training in meditation, have arrived at experience with no perceiving self, no inner agent, no separation of self from other. Their insight is not easily obtained but is reliably described (e.g. Pickering 1997, Varela & Shear 1999). To those who wish to deny even the possibility of such experience, I can only say – try it.

Memetics may not be a useful new science, and some of my theories about the memetic origins of the big brain, language, human altruism or the self may be false, but if so it will not be for the reasons Campbell gives, for the memetics he describes does not exist.


Dennett,D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston, Little, Brown

Pickering,J.(Ed) (1997) The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and Psychology, London, Curzon Press.

Varela,F. and Shear,J. (1999) The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, Thorverton, Imprint Academic