The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore

Oxford University Press. Published March 1999
ISBN 019-850365-2


Foreword by Richard Dawkins


1. Strange creatures

What makes us different, this book argues, is our capacity to imitate. We humans can pass on ideas, stories, tunes, and theories from one person to another. All these are memes – and memes, like genes, are replicators that undergo evolution. A brief history of the meme is given, and a few implications sketched out.

2. Universal Darwinism

The evolutionary algorithm requires replication, heredity, and selection to run – and when it runs it produces design out of nowhere. If memes are replicators then the design of societies and minds is an evolutionary process. We must remember, though, that memes and genes are different in many ways. Their similarity is that both effectively say “Copy me!”. Examples of self-replicating “copy me” memes are provided from chain letters to political beliefs.

3. The evolution of culture

Inventions are memes, from the origins of farming, to engines, books and coca cola cans. But who benefits? We may think we do but according to memetic theory it is the memes themselves who are the beneficiaries, not the genes, and certainly not us – their creatures.

4. Taking the meme’s eye view

Why can’t we stop thinking ? The surprising answer from memetics is that it is because the memes force us to keep thinking – and talking – to spread more memes.
Some words of caution – Not everything is a meme, only those things that are passed on by imitation are memes. Distinctions between imitation, contagion, and social learning are made. A lot of what we experience through perception and learning has nothing to do with memes.

5. Three problems with memes

Three important problems are discussed. We cannot specify the unit of a meme, we do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes, and memetic evolution appears to be “Lamarckian”. This last has caused enormous controversy but rests upon a false comparison between genetic and memetic evolution.

6. The big brain

No one knows why the human brain is so relatively enormous. The origins of the human brain are discussed along with various theories of its origins. A new memetic theory is proposed – that memes designed the human brain for their own replication.

7. The origins of language

The evolution of language has been hotly debated for more than a century. The major theories and their strengths and weaknesses are reviewed.

8. Meme-gene coevolution

A new theory of meme-gene coevolution is proposed and applied to the origins of language. The theory suggests that language was created by the memes as a way of improving the replication of memes by increasing fidelity, fecundity and longevity. In other words, the purpose of language is to spread memes. Both our big brains and our language have been meme driven.

9. The limits of sociobiology

Sociobiology has made great progress, for example in overthrowing the Standard Social Science Model of human behaviour. However, sociobiologists believe that the genes hold culture on a “leash”. According to memetics this is wrong – the memes have leapt off the leash and are driving the genes. The concept of memetic drive takes us far beyond the interests of the genes.

10. An orgasm saved my life

Sex spreads memes. The sociobiology of sex is reviewed and the importance of love, beauty, and parental investment considered. Biological approaches can explain a lot about sex but mysteries remain.

11. Sex in the modern world

From the genes’ point of view the major mysteries of modern human sexual behaviour are celibacy, birth control, and adoption. Each of these can be easily explained in terms of an advantage to memes – not genes.

12. A memetic theory of altruism

Altruism has long been a problem for genetic explanations of behaviour. The varieties of human altruism and cooperation are reviewed. Conflict between genes and memes appear and again can be resolved by seeing that the meme is a replicator in its own right.

13. The altruism trick

A new theory of memetic altruism is proposed. Altruism spreads memes and therefore thrives even at the expense of the genes. Some memes just look like altruism, but whole memeplexes (co-adapted meme-complexes) can use the “altruism trick”. Debts, obligations, and bartering are all affected by memes.

14. Memes of the New Age

Alien abduction is a memeplex, as are many other popular new age ideas. Strong emotions and inexplicable experiences provide specially ripe conditions for spreading false memes. Near-death experiences are another, as are the memeplexes of divination and fortune telling. These may all be relatively harmless but big money is involved in peddling the memes of ineffective alternative therapies.

15. Religions as memeplexes

Religions have been used as a prime example of powerful, and usually false, memes. Their power is explained in memetic terms. Religions and genes have coevolved, providing us with brains that are especially likely to pick up and enjoy religious ideas – even when they are false. The true insights at the heart of some religions can be swamped by other more powerful memes. Group selection (so controversial in biology) may also play a role. Finally, what is the difference between science and religion?

16. Into the internet

The memes took a great step forward when they invented writing – and then printing, and then other forms of communication, from railways and ships to fax machines. The important concepts of copy-the-product versus copy-the-instruction are explained. We can now understand how and why the internet has evolved and guess at the direction the memes will push it in.

17. The ultimate memeplex

This is not some super-invention of the web, but our familiar and ordinary “self”. What am I? A conglomeration of memes – a massive memeplex living in a brain. Many illusions are created by the memes and, if this view of memetics is true, we are not really in charge of our lives at all – the replicators are. Our “self” was created by and for the memes.

18. Out of the meme race

Our place in the universe has to be reconsidered in the light of the power of the memes. We have no free will, and our consciousness is not the driving force of our behaviour. Creativity and foresight owe more to memetic evolution than to individual brilliance. In other words, we are meme machines through and through, and we need to learn to live with it. Dawkins claims that we alone can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but really, the book concludes, there is no one to rebel.



Extract from the foreword by Richard Dawkins

(Dawkins invented the term ‘meme’ in 1976)

I was always open to the possibility that the meme might one day be developed into a proper hypothesis of the human mind, and I did not know how ambitious such a thesis might turn out to be. Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme. I do not know whether she will be judged too ambitious in this enterprise, and I would even fear for her if I did not know her redoubtable qualities as a fighter. Redoubtable she is, and hard nosed too, but at the same time her style is light and personable. Her thesis undermines our most cherished illusions (as she would see them) of individual identity and personhood, yet she comes across as the kind of individual person you would wish to know. As one reader I am grateful for the courage, dedication and skill she has put into her difficult task of memetic engineering, and I am delighted to recommend her book.