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This review appeared in Volume 10(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
The Meme Machine follows through on Dawkins' (1976) fascinating suggestion that culture, like biology, evolves through the processes of variation, selection, and replication. TMM does a nice job of laying out the basic idea -- that, much as organic life evolves into more complex forms through progressive adaptation to environmental constraints, ideas and artifacts build on what came before in response to the necessities of human survival. Like Richard Brodie's (1996) Virus of the Mind, and Aaron Lynch's (1996) Thought Contagion, TMM explores how this kind of evolutionary perspective on culture can shed light on various aspects of the human experience, such as why we talk so much, believe in alien abduction, and fantasize about sex. (Though the chapter titled 'An orgasm saved my life' never gets around to explaining how an orgasm saved someone's life.)
The next few chapters spell out how memes function as replicators, and discusses how things look like from the 'meme's eye view' (Dennett 1995). The 'imitation drives culture' hypothesis leads Blackmore to narrowly circumscribe what counts as a meme and can be culturally transmitted; i.e. she limits the transmission process to imitation of one human by another. So, for example, if a child learns to peel a banana by watching her mother, a meme has replicated. But if the child learns this skill from a cartoon character on t.v., no replication has taken place. By the end of the book (particularly in the chapter on the internet) she eases up on this a bit. Human-made artifacts now seem to play a role in her vision, though elements of the natural world still don't. Thus if a child gets the idea for how to peel a banana by watchingthe petals of a flower unfold, her flower-inspired 'how to peel a banana' meme is NOT transmittable. In the blink of an eye, Blackmore discards the possibility that any experience can be food for thought and thus food for culture, on the grounds that it is "extremely confusing" (p. 45). The worldview implied by the Shroedinger equation is extremely confusing too, but its batting average as a predictor of experimental outcomes is unsurpassed. 'Confusing' is not synonymous with 'wrong'.
Blackmore also claims that "perceptions and emotions are not memes because they are ours alone and we may never pass them on" (p. 15). It follows that the feeling evoked by a painting of a stormy night at sea has no relationship to what the artist was feeling at the time... that a teacher's attitude of compassion has no impact on the cultural dynamics of the classroom. Thus it isn't certain how Blackmore's narrow definition of meme clears up the confusion.
The evidence she cites is, in fact, consistent with the thesis that creativity, rather than imitation, was the bottleneck to culture. The lack of cultural complexity in animals, despite the evidence that, when put to the test, they can imitate, is also consistent with this proposal. Imitative capacity remains latent or hidden until there is variation for it to work on. In 'Meme and Variations', my computer model of cultural evolution, when I set the agents' ability to imitate to 1 and their ability to invent to 0, what happened is... nothing (Gabora, 1995). There has to be something worth imitating before the ability to imitate will manifest itself. Novelty can then breed more novelty. Or as one choreographer put it: "If we don't do what our predecessors did, we're doing what our predecessors did."
The material that follows, dealing with the relationship of memetics to language and various social issues such as beauty and birth control, is well done. It provides a wealth of intriguing alternatives to explanations offered by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology over the last few decades. Sharpening the contrast between these approaches -- for example, contrasting the memetic explanation for gossip with that proposed by Barkow (1992) -- would have made this part of the book even more valuable.
From there the book moves on to topics like consciousness, the meaning of life, and the concept of self. Much of this is intriguing; for example, the cross-cultural comparison of near death experiences. However to define the 'self' as "a bunch of memes" (p. 231) is misleading (particularly if emotions and attitudes don't count as memes!) It's like saying a chair is just a bunch of sticks. Much as 'chairness' resides in the way sticks are organized, the self arises from the way memes are structured and interact with one another, something about which Blackmore could have said more.
Similarly, we can either say that DNA, chromosomes, etc. are vital components of evolution, and memetic change is analogous to evolution, or we can redefine evolution as any process wherein the iterated variation and selection of information induces adaptation to environmental constraint, and view memetic change as a second form of evolution. In so doing, one finds that concepts such as fitness, epistasis, drift, mutation, morphology, niches, attractors, and so on provide an extremely useful scaffold upon which to investigate how ideas unfold as one individual after another assimilates them and gives them their own unique slant. (See Radnitzky & Bartley 1988; Hull 1988a, 1988b).
The example Blackmore provides to illustrate how biological concepts can mislead is the distinction between genotype and phenotype. Most memeticists maintain that something along these lines is useful; i.e. there is a need to differentiate between the mental representation of a meme in the mind, and the implementation of it as behavior, vocalization, or artifact. Blackmore argues that this distinction does not account for the difference between copying-the-result (as when someone watches you make soup) and copying the instruction (as when you give someone a recipe for soup). In fact, this raises no problem at all for the genotype/phenotype distinction. Both soup and recipe are artifacts, phenotypic expressions of different but related mental representations. As one's understanding of biological concepts increases, the danger of misapplying them decreases.
The exception to Blackmore's avoidance of biological concepts are the two chapters on memetic altruism. The idea that not only genes, but memes, impel us to behave altruistically toward others who bear copies of them, is a promising answer to a problem that has plagued sociobiology for some time. Blackmore does a good job of explaining the concept, though it would have been appropriate to mention that it has been around for some time (Heylighen 1992, 1993; Gabora 1996, 1997, 1998a; Evans 1998).
TMM is worth taking a look at. The issues it addresses are big and important, and memetics offers some compelling answers. Readers should be aware, though, that many of the ideas Blackmore discusses are better developed in other scholarly work in memetics, which often goes uncited here. Blackmore adds her own wrinkles, but she is not quite as alone out there on the wild, dangerous frontiers of human inquiry as the book might suggest.
If we accept the premise that memes evolve, let's use everything we've got and see if memetics has the potential to do for the cognitive and social sciences what the theory of natural selection has done for biology. The Meme Machine is a start. It is not inconceivable that the next century will usher forth more books on cultural evolution than this century has on biological evolution.
Byrne, R. W. and Russon, A. (1998) "Learning by imitation: A hierarchical approach." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 667-721. (http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/bbs/Archive/bbs.byrne.html)
Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. (1995) Darwin's dangerous idea. Penguin.
Evers, J. R. (1998) "A justification of societal altruism according to the memetic application of Hamilton's rule." Abstract of a paper presented at the First Workshop on Memetics in Namur, Belgium, August 1998 (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Conf/MemeticsAbs.html#Heading13).
Gabora, L. (1995) "Meme and variations: A computer model of cultural evolution." In (L. Nadel & D. Stein, Eds.) 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems, Addison-Wesley. (http://www.vub.ac.be/CLEA/liane/MAV/mav.htm
---. (1996) "A day in the life of a meme." Philosophica, 57, 901-938. (http://www.lycaeum.org/%7Esputnik/Memetics/day.life.txt)
---. (1997) "The origin and evolution of culture and creativity." Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1:1. (http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/1997/vol1/gabora_l.html)
---. (1998) "Memetics." In (Paul Bouissac, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, Oxford University Press.
---. (1998b) "Autocatalytic closure in a cognitive system: A tentative scenario for the evolution of culture." Psycoloquy, 9:67.(http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?9.67)
Heylighen F. (1992) "Evolution, selfishness and cooperation." Journal of Ideas, Vol 2:4, p. 70-76.
---. (1992) "Selfish memes and the evolution of cooperation." Journal of Ideas, Vol. 2:4, p. 77-84.
Hull, D. L. (1988) Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.
---. (1988) "Interactors versus vehicles." In: Plotkin HC (ed) The Role of Behavior in Evolution, MIT Press.
Radnitzky, G. & Bartley, W. W. (1987) Evolutionary Epistomology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge. Open Court.
Liane Gabora is a cognitive scientist and writer at the Center Leo Apostel, an interdisciplinary institute at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) in Belgium (http://www.vub.ac.be/CLEA/liane, e-mail: email@example.com)
This review article is printed with permission of JASSS, where it first appeared (April 1999). The Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Stimulation (JASSS), edited by Nigel Gilbert (ISSN 1460-7425), is an interdisciplinary journal for the exploration and understanding of social processes by means of computer simulation. http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/JASSS/JASSS.html