The Meme Machine

Selected extracts from some of the reviews

For many more see and

Amazon Review by Simon Ings 2006

Habits, skills, songs, stories, ideas: humans are marvellously equipped to keep themselves and each other ceaselessly busy and it’s as well, for no matter how hard we try, we humans just can’t stop thinking. So, says Susan Blackmore, what if consciousness is not some esoteric genetic freebie but is itself the product of an altogether different evolutionary process?

Once humans learned to imitate each other–that is, receive, copy and retransmit “memes”–the rest, Blackmore argues, is a foregone and somewhat chilling conclusion: we are the product of our memes just as we are the products of our genes, the trouble being that memes, like genes, care only for their own propagation. The ability to imitate each other laid us open to ideas good and bad in equal measure. These proliferated in such numbers that individuals, competing to imitate the best imitators, needed bigger and bigger brains to contain the flood. Now our heads are so big, they are barely birthable.

Blackmore’s brilliantly argued version of how humans became conscious–not to say downright troubled–demolishes some of the most intractable problems of human evolution and social biology, with flair. Hers is a book full of careful arguments and thrilling conjectures: riddled, in other words, with promising memes. —Simon Ings

Should Blackmore’s theory turn out to be true, there’s little doubt she will be remembered as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Yet a nagging question will forever loom, and it is one that Blackmore would no doubt appreciate for its irony: can she lay claim to a new and revolutionary theory that, by the implication of its definition, cannot be hers at all ?

Barry Lyons, Prometheus

The central theme, that we are all meme machines which evolved as propagators for ideas, is wonderfully controversial. Humans have no intrinsic value, she implies – we are only as good as the ideas we spread. We were invented to help ideas travel, just like fax machines and books and the Internet. We are human telephones, born to breed thoughts.
If Dr Blackmore is simply a machine, I have to concede that she is firing on all eight cylinders.

 Uri Geller, Jerusalem Post

This book, like most on memes, is a metaphorical nightmare.

Bob Eaglestone, Textual Practice

… I used to regard the meme as a fun idea – helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection – but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. … Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.

Her book is certainly a good read, and it takes on big problems: human altruism; sexual behaviour; the origin of language; religion; new age cults from UFOs to aroma therapy; the internet; human individuality and freedom. She has also thought hard about these problems. Some people will find some of her conclusions uncomfortable, but they will not find it easy to wriggle off the hook. …

John Maynard Smith, Prospect

 … Dawkins … buried a small time bomb in The Selfish Gene, in the form of an idea that was even more corrosive to old certainties – including the certainty of the selfish gene itself. Susan Blackmore has exploded it. …

The meme called “meme” … has slowly replicated in various brains ever since and Blackmore has been one of its principal victims. In her remarkable book, The Meme Machine, she takes Dawkins’s throwaway idea, and imaginatively explores it to the full. … Once you understand it, you get fresh insights into everything.

… Is the meme a successful meme? I used to think not, but Susan Blackmore has persuaded me otherwise. It brings a sort of rigour to thinking about cultural change that has hitherto been lacking. …

… Just as it was most refreshing to see the biological world from the gene’s point of view, so it is refreshing to see the psychological world from the thought’s point of view.

Matt Ridley, Times Literary Supplement

… The “meme” meme has manipulated lots of brains since Dawkins unleashed it. Several meme books have appeared in recent years, and the legion of memeticists seems to be growing. But few if any thinkers have championed the cause as wholeheartedly as the psychologist Susan Blackmore does in her earnest and engaging, if not wholly persuasive, book “The Meme Machine.” …

 … In short, memetics is not nonsense. But that doesn’t mean it deserves a fancy name like “memetics.” Are memeticists saying new and fruitful things, or just old things in a new way? Among the virtues of “The Meme Machine” is that Blackmore recognizes this challenge and takes it up. (Or the challenge takes her up. Or whatever.) …

Robert Wright, New York Times Book Review

… Unfortunately, Blackmore’s book, aimed at both general readers and academics, proves to be a work not of science, but of extreme advocacy. Teeming with untestable speculations, indifferent to alternative theories and almost too grandiose to be taken seriously, The Meme Machine offers a convoluted – and wholly unsatisfying – explanation of cultural and biological evolution. …

Jerry Coyne, Nature

If what the Meme Machine says is true, then there is no reason to believe it. For what it says is that things are believed only because they succeed in installing themselves in our brains through various tricks in order to get themselves reproduced. …

 … We are, in Blackmore’s phrase, “infected” with memes. What we like to think of as our minds and selves are just shifting collections of memes. This entirely begs the question of just who or what it is which perceives the memes and thinks about them. Blackmore hand-waves in the direction of Buddhist spirituality at this point, but that simply avoids the problem. …

 … As The Meme Machine is not well written, with any luck this particular meme will find few imitators and quickly become an evolutionary dead end.

Anthony O’Hear, London Evening Standard

… How does mind inhabit brain and how did both come about? Blackmore sketches a tale of co-evolution between memes and genes. … Though she writes fluently, picking apart this particular argument invokes the “nailing jelly to the wall” meme in my mind. …

 … It is difficult to predict how important this book will be. One thing is certain: the memeplex that it encodes will have offspring, probably many. Some of these may be solid contributions to a rigorous understanding of mind, or of the “mind” meme. …

 … Other offspring will – despite Blackmore’s best efforts – be flaky. That’s how evolution, genetic and memetic, goes.

Mike Holderness, New Scientist

… Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine … which goes so far as to suggest that we are our memes, is sure to escalate the war of words that periodically rages on the pages of the New York Review of Books and the Boston Review.

 Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who has long battled what he calls “Darwinian fundamentalism,” dismisses the meme as a “meaningless metaphor.” H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester, isn’t much nicer. “I think memetics is an utterly silly idea,” he complains. “It’s just cocktail-party science.” …

Unmesh Kher, Time

… I suspect that it is a Buddhist rather than a scientific project. Sue Blackmore believes sincerely that her self is an illusion yet she has one of the most vivid personalities of anyone I know. The same could be said, parenthetically, of the Dalai Lama. Whatever Buddhists mean by the self being an illusion they seem to have egos and personalities just like everyone else. They even have noticeable selves, in the sense that a great deal of what people mean by ‘self’ is what is missing in demented or even hopelessly stoned people. The fact that it is a construct doesn’t make it an illusion …

 … it is such an exact replication of the original Dawkinsian prejudices and style that one is tempted for a moment to believe that the Selfish Gene is stuffed full of evil memes that remove the victim’s power of critical thought – except, of course that we know the Selfish Gene isn’t that book: the bible is. It says so in the Selfish Gene. …

 … It would, though, be a very odd reader who found Blackmore’s book vapid. It’s written with great force and vigour, for the intelligent general reader, who will find himself thinking as a result and may well enjoy the process. I found myself mostly gripped by overmastering irritation, but maybe that’s because her memes were getting under my skin.

Andrew Brown, Journal of Consciousness Studies

… How successful, then, is The Meme Machine likely to be as, under Blackmore’s definition, a meme designed to further the replication and diffusion of the ‘meme’ meme? The answer, I suspect, is that it is unlikely to do for public understanding of the meme-centred approach to cultural selection what Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene has done for the public understanding of the gene-centred approach to natural selection. This isn’t just because Blackmore doesn’t have Dawkins’s altogether exceptional gift for accurate synthesis and lucid exposition. It is because she attempts too much too soon. … Only detailed and wide-ranging re-examination of the relevant ethnographic, historical and archaeological evidence for the heritable variation and competitive selection of clearly identifiable ‘memes’ whose spread can accurately be traced and functions convincingly specified will turn ‘memetics’ from a project into a science.

W. G. Runciman, London Review of Books

… It would be understandable if a reader got no further than page 4 of the book, where the premise is announced that “imitation is what makes us special”. … a wider conclusion is that if the book is correct, then we have no reason to believe it. Infection by memes from this book gives no guarantee of its truth, only that the memes are good infective agents, or that the reader is in a particularly weak state.

 The reader could nevertheless lose something by not giving the book another thought. One could ask how this century has ended with the stark, flawed thesis presented here, … Those engaged in psychical research could do without being swept along by the shallow stream of memetics and the style of thinking behind it.

John Poynton, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research

 … Susan Blackmore takes Richard Dawkins’s popular idea of memes and expands it into very nearly a theory of everything. …

 … The Meme Machine skates perilously close to being the sort of thing sceptics like to debunk. What saves it is Blackmore’s honesty as a scientist. She does make sweeping claims for her theory, but in every case she also makes logical predictions (whose accuracy could provide confirming evidence) and proposes hypotheses and methods for testing them. …

 … But the sceptic still wants to scream for Occam and his razor.

Wendy Grossman, The Telegraph

… Her book belongs to a genre that strives for both scientific importance and mass-audience appeal. … Ideally, it should be as revolutionary as Darwin’s Origin and so readable that you want to take it to the beach. … Unfortunately, there have been no recent breakthroughs in meme research, which places Blackmore in an impossible position. She must achieve the breakthrough herself and describe it for nonspecialists — all in one book. Not surprisingly, she fails.

David Sloan Wilson, Science

… a very literate style, with examples and anecdotes that are vivid, informative, and sometimes downright charming. This is one of the rare popular science books that presents a new theory in lay terms while also postulating original ideas worthy of scholarly debate. Its publication is a sure sign that the science of memetics has come of age.

Library Journal

… the only book-length treatment of memetics that truly reads like science … a treasure-trove of research ideas.

Mary Ellen Curtin, Amazon. com

Now a project considerably beyond Dawkins’s original ambitions has emerged in the recent book by Susan Blackmore … the best introduction to memetics yet published.

Robert Aunger, The Sciences

“… her extended riff on Dawkins’s notion of the “meme””

Boyd Tonkin,The Independent

“… a meme is so broadly defined by its proponents as to be a useless concept, creating more confusion than light, and I predict that the concept will soon be forgotten as a curious linguistic quirk of little value.

To critics, who at the moment far outnumber true believers, memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer.

Will memetics turn out to be a new science or a harmless humbug destined to evaporate like Kurt Lewin’s topological psychology, which befuddled Gestalt psychologists in the 1930s, or catastrophe theory, which two decades ago agitated a small group of overzealous mathematicians? Is memetics a misguided attempt on the part of behavioral scientists to imitate genetics with its gene units and physics with its elementary particles? In a few years we may know.

Martin Gardner, LA Times

“Susan Blackmore is something of an enigma …”    Steve George’s Weblog  March 2007

 “The Meme Machine” is a wonderful book as it makes you look at the world in radically different ways. Elfstone’s blog, April 2007

See also my response to a Review of The Meme Machine by R.L.Campbell, Metascience, 9, 254-6, 2000