Susan Blackmore (2000)


In this article I will give you a summary and review of an impressive and inspiring book that I read last summer: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The Meme Machine refers to our human brain. We have the unique ability to imitate, and to copy from one another ideas, habits, skills, behaviours, inventions, songs and stories. Isn’t that a great thing?

What is a meme?

A meme can be defined as information that is transmitted by our culture. How does this happen, and why? Why do we humans have language and an understanding of the meaning of words? Why do words (or other memes) replicate themselves? How are ideas/words/culture or behaviour selected and which ones are favoured? Even if they are malicious for the bearer of the gene? For instance, for a species, celibacy, suicide bombing or birth control (i.e. not having any kids) are not beneficial to their genes.

The meme theory explained

In the - somewhat difficult - The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins - 1976), Dawkins suggests that - in an evolutionary sense - memes recently appeared on our planet. How can we prove that this idea is real? In the years after The Selfish Gene, the meme theory (and memes being self-replicating units) has been researched by many. And it has proven to be a real science of itself. Blackmore investigates why we humans have big brains and why we do have language. She also explores why and how memes copy themselves (for the benefit of themselves?). For some, the meme theory may be counter-intuitive. I recognize this struggle, the idea of memes is abstract, and difficult to test in reality. But cognitive science has given us tools to test and examine this idea. Blackmore helps us, and she explores, for instance, the problems with memes and the relation with our genes: how did co-evolution of genes and memes happen? What is the mechanism, and how does this work?

“Memes have ignited the development of philosophy, science, technological or cultural innovation”

The origin of language (and thus of writing grant applications!)

Especially interesting to me was the chapter where Blackmore handles the origin of language. To me, language and writings or calculations led us to where we are now. Writing helps us to transfer all cultural information in a most effective and cumulative way. Nevertheless, many different (sub)cultures, sects or religions have arisen that may be weird to you, not to another. By the ‘cumulative transfer of information’ I mean, in a strong sense: if something is not useful to you or your culture: throw it away! An idea or better a meme may reappear, and you can check and assess earlier information/research/ calculations/ communication et cetera to see whether the meme is a useful one for you to use and pass it on to others. Language has given us the ability to be critical and think things through. But nevertheless, quite frequently I think, bad memes or memes that are not in touch with reality replicate and spread themselves through a population.

The origin of innovation

Memes, being the new self-replicator - on top of, or in interaction with our genes - have ignited all the development of human society with all related progress, such as the development of philosophy, science, technological or cultural innovation, or the development of music (see also: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds – Daniel Dennett, 2017). As we have seen above, not all memes are beneficial or aimed at progress for the bearer. Yet, that is how it works, it is what it is.

Challenge yourself and read it!

It is difficult for me to state that The Meme Machine is a must-read, but I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in above mentioned questions - and why wouldn’t you? - to read this book. It is well-written, well-founded and a thorough examination. Challenge yourself and read it!