Memelab was originally a group of memeticists based in Bristol who met together regularly to talk about memes, evolution, human nature, and other related topics. We usually met in Sue Blackmore’s garden, about once a month or so from early 1998. In the winter we squashed into the turret on top of the house. It stopped for a while in 2001/2002 and started again in 2006 with the addition of Alan Winfield and Owen Holland. Although we carried out only a few experiments as a group, the discussions we had contributed to many of our publications on memetics.
17-18 August 2019
Memelab is alive and thriving! Over twenty years ago I started up a very informal regular meeting in my house in Bristol – 3 or 4 of us, my PhD students and some occasional visitors, spending an evening crammed into our tiny turret, or out in the garden, discussing our mutual obsessions with memetics. Moving to Devon made this impossible, but we began occasional weekends instead. We had one last weekend, and a great success it was.
We had Richard Dawkins (creator of the term ‘meme’ of course), Alan Winfield robotics expert, and two specialists in cultural evolution theory, Alex Thornton and Alex Mesoudi, from Falmouth, plus my son and daughter-in-law, both biologists and creators of meals like this one.
The main question for me was this – Is memetics the same as conventional cultural evolution theory (which is now growing fast), or different? If they are the same, I might as well give up on memetics! And are there testable predictions that would discriminate between them?
We discussed imitation in other species, whether true imitation is needed for cumulative culture, the possible memetic origins of language, artificial culture in robots, racism and zenophobia, and the possibility of a third replicator, tremes. We shared so many ideas that I think everyone went away having learned a lot and I was greatly encouraged – though the answer to the big question remains elusive.
2016 was the 40th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’ famous book The Selfish Gene in which he not only explained evolution by natural selection in the most readable form possible but invented the idea of memes. Said to be the first ever blockbuster pop science book, it’s still being read today. When I mention it in my memes lectures I always look up its Bestsellers Rank on Amazon UK and find it still – four decades on – in the top few hundred out of tens of millions of books.The Selfish Gene inspired me back in 1976 as a PhD student. Yet I didn’t even notice the significance of the memes idea.
It was not until 1995, when I read Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that I got it. And that’s why I wrote The Meme Machine. I guess we three are still the major proponents of an idea that most scientists find silly, embarrassing or just plain wrong. We’ve been called the Three Memeteers, and here we are at one of my occasional ‘memelab’ meetings at home.
The first memelab at Sue and Adam’s house in Devon. As people live far away, memelabs have taken on a new life as whole weekend events with everyone staying the night. This year Sue Blackmore welcomed Richard Dawkins, Rachel Cohen, Jonnie Hughes, Daniel Riley, Alan Winfield, Steven Smith and Martin Farncombe.
Rachel explained her ‘Chinese Whispers’ drawing project and we all had a go at copying drawings. We discussed whether there can be any equivalent of a germ line for memetics and if so how experiments like this could be designed to test it. Richard suggested an operational test on the drawings would be to see if people could reproduce the actual sequence of copying.
Steve explained how the concept of ‘sustainable development’ has deteriorated. Can memetics help us find a way to get global agreement in time to avoid planetary disaster? Richard suggested the memetic idea of getting ‘sacrificing self for the future’ to go viral. Sue explained how her attempt to give up flying for ever came to a sad end after 5 years ‘I’m giving up on sacrifice’. Most agreed ‘We’re fucked’.
Richard pursued the separation between germ line and phenotype. Origami is a good example (as in the Foreword to Meme Machine. It is self-normalising – as are words of a known language. I would say it entails ‘copy-the instructions’ not ‘copy-the-product’. So we all learned how to make an origami junk. Martin and Daniel made mutants. I still have mine. With drinks in the evening we tried out Daniel’s Twister game, imitating his positions.
Sue Blackmore, Alan Winfield, Martin Farncombe, Daniel Riley and Jonnie Hughes.
Since Sue moved to Devon in 2008, memelabs had to change. In 2011 Alan Winfield invited us to his house where we were joined by Jonnie Hughes with his new book On The Origin of Tepees, and my student, Daniel whose project is correlating creativity with imitation ability – measuring that by getting people to copy positions on a twister mat.
We discussed the ever-present question of why there is still no science of memetics. We need to find a use for it!
Quote of the day (Jonnie) “We are at the Aristotle stage”.
Alan said back pain is memetically transmitted! Is this so?
Alan showed us the latest robot video and ‘memographs’ showing the evolution of simple ‘dances’ copied by one robot from another – very exciting! We discussed types of imitation, diversity and stability in the meme pool, and the potential effects of rewards for the robots. What would rewards be? Energy? Being imitated? What different would this make?
Joined by Andrew Atkinson, discussing religions as memeplexes, the God Delusion, whether Islam is falling apart as the Church of England seems to be, the environments in which religious memes thrive and whether the mems of tolerance provide a niche for intolerant religions.
We discussed plans for empirical research, especially our idea for the Beethoven Experiment.
We discussed Alan Winfield’s latest robots and the start of the Artificial Culture Project. These little robots are true teme machines because (a) they operate outside of human control and (b) they have all three – heredity, variation and selection.
John Wilkins visited from Australia to discuss speciation, natural selection and how well the meme-gene analogy can be made to work. We also had a fine barbecue.
Spiral Dynamics uses the term ‘meme’ but not in its original meaning – causing much confusion. In May 2006 Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic (right), who were teaching a course on Spiral Dynamics, came to visit and explore the differences.
Eric de Rochefort and Pascal Jouxtel (left), who attended the course, also visited memelab. Note the new animal !
We were joined by Pascal Jouxtel in Bristol.
Here he is making meme soup in Sue Blackmore’s kitchen. Is there a memotype/phenotype distinction here?
August 4-5th 2000
We were joined by a group from Cambridge who climbed trees and played table tennis as well as exchanging memes.
Dr Derek Gatherer – Then Lecturer in Molecular Genetics in the School of Biomolecular Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University.
Rob Clewley – then at Bristol University, now at Center for Biodynamics, Boston University,