2004-04-10: The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine (1999)

by Susan Blackmore (1951-)

Susan Blackmore is apparently well-known in Britain, having written and appeared on TV many times. The book jacket says her interests include “near-death experiences, the effects of meditation, why people believe in the paranormal, evolutionary psychology, and the theory of memetics.” This book was mentioned by Daniel Dennett and the foreword was written by Richard Dawkins, who coined the word meme, and started the spread of the meme meme. Evidently, some respectable people hold her in somewhat high regard.

I’ve looked into this book before, and decided against reading it. But while rereading Consciousness Explained,  I decided to take another look. I was still disappointed; the book seems very lightweight, and makes very little contribution to the ideas of memetics that I can see. It does speak favorably of both Dennett and Dawkins.

Her early description of the meme depends on imitation of behavior, a view I find much too narrow.

In Three Problems With Memes, she discusses the problem of determining what should count as the memetic “unit”. She uses the well-worn example of Beethoven: the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony are widely imitated, but the entire symphony is too large. So the memetic unit is nearer in size to four notes than to a symphony. She then mentions the phenomenon of the tune you can’t get out of your head, another classic example of a meme. Finally she says, “any catchy tune that gets you to rehearse it in your head will get passed on, and so we will all come across such tunes and be in danger of ‘catching’ them.” After this superficial ‘analysis’ she dismisses any attempt, or need, to define a memetic unit.

Immediately after dismissing the memetic unit, she says, “We do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes. No we do not.”

In Religions As Memeplexes, she defends the view that science is superior to religion, an attitude certain to repel a lot of the people who most need to understand memetics. Of course, her whole approach is based on evolution, so she can’t have much impact anyway.

In Into The Internet, she says, “As I write this book, I think of my mind as a battleground of ideas. There are far more of them than can possibly find their way onto the final printed pages. ‘I’ am not an independent conscious entity creating the ideas out of nowhere.” This seems to me an extreme version of Dennett’s view, and also incorrect. Blackmore’s version leaves no room for creativity, the novel combination of ideas into new ones, ready to take their chances in the memosphere.

Dennett’s view is that the content of the mind is primarily a large number of independent agents, each more or less active at any given moment, and each hooked up to a large number of others. He sees many, if not most, of these as memes, and says that the phenomenon we call consciousness is a result of many such agents promoting an interpretation of the world as perceived through the senses, and the world as interpreted by more inner processes. The interpretation of interpretation involves a kind of rehearsal of various stories that ‘explain’ some aspects of experience (outer or inner), and conscious memory consists of traces of these stories. Blackmore follows Dennett in this direction, and has some comments regarding the effects of meditation, which (if successful) stops the rehearsal of these stories from ‘taking over’ the mind. This is an interesting aspect of the book, but very little space is devoted to it.

In Out Of The Meme Race, she considers Dawkins’s claim that “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” She dismisses any attempt to choose the memes we will tolerate or transmit, as the ‘chooser’ is merely the product of the memes themselves. She promotes the living-in-the-moment that can be acquired by long practice of meditation as an approach, but it is clearly more like a surrender.

What she seems to ignore is the effect of loopiness, the feedback effect of recognizing the existence of memes, and the mechanisms of their actions. If we wanted to make an analogy with genetics, we could consider the effect of sexual reproduction on genetic evolution. Certainly the loopiness of ‘considering’ genes in matching pairs had a dramatic effect on evolution. Similarly the effect of moving into what I call the reflective realm should have a dramatic effect on memic activity in the world. Apparently Blackmore, nor anybody else for that matter, has not thought of this, or at least made it part of memetics.


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