THE MEME MACHINE by Susan Blackmore

Oxford University Press 1999. ISBN 0-19-850365-2

At the start of the book Blackmore quotes Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene", saying, "All life evolves from the differential survival of replicating entities." Dawkins went on to ask if there was any other replicator that underwent selection apart from genes and suggested that there was, calling his new concept a "meme".

In a general way a meme is an idea that can be written, broadcast, spoken etc. and which at some point reproduces (ie. enters someone elses mind).

Similarly,as a gene can fail to reproduce and dies (eg. in a dinosaur), a meme can fail to reproduce and fades out (eg. the idea of a flat earth ).

Blackmore starts from here, and explores this second replicator at some length. It soon becomes clear that memes rely on imitation and communication with a great landmark being the growth of the human ability for speech, probably followed by the printed word, and culminating in the amazing modern massive and accurate transfer of information.

The effect of the spread of memes is also clear. As she says, "When the environment changes, a species that can speak, and pass on new ways of copying, can adapt faster than one that can adapt only by genetic change." In other words in an Ice Age you could make a coat rather than waiting to evolve one or you could light a fire to survive the new conditions having seen it done or having heard about it.

Memetic reproduction is helping genetic reproduction in this case and it is no surprise that humanity as "advanced meme manipulators" dominate all other creatures.

What is not so obvious, and which she takes some pains to point out, is that memes are replicators in their own right and are not simply a tool to facilitate genetic reproduction.

Some memes reproduce better than others, and as you would expect we are surrounded by memes that have been tested successfully (eg. our technology) although she shows that a successfully reproducing meme does not necessarily have to be a truthful one.

The worlds religions are memeplexes (collections of self supporting memes) that contradict each other but which have been enormously successful in establishing themselves in the human mind.

Blackmore suggests that they have evolved to reproduce successfully rather like a virus and she gives a set of rules for a successful memeplex: take something unexplained, provide a myth, include a powerful force that can't be tested, add in optional coercion for non-believers, provide a future reward (also untestable) and say that all good people believe in it and that it is the TRUTH.

She looks at the sociobiological view of human behaviour and concludes that "without the concept of the second replicator sociobiology must always remain impoverished". New memes fundamentally alter human behaviour as can be seen in the contrast between modern meme rich societies and the more traditional world.

A further question that she only touches on but that deserved to be looked at more carefully is where this memetic reproduction and selection takes place.

At present it is in the human mind but it is possible to imagine that machines could transmit and select memes themselves.

We would then have a new substrate for memetic evolution with different objectives from our own, and as she says, "we might be quite excluded from their kind of cultural evolution." - a worrying prospect.

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