Cover image for The meme machine
The meme machine
Blackmore, Susan J., 1951-
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Publication Information:
Oxford [England] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xx, 264 pages ; 24 cm
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HM291 .B535 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Memes are ideas, behaviours, or skills that are transferred from one person to another by imitation. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling The Selfish Gene (OUP 1976), in which he described how biological design arises as genes compete selfishly to replicate themselves. Inhis final chapter Dawkins suggested that memes are also `replicators', and that they compete to get themselves copied into as many brians as possible. Examples include tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and new ways of building arches. If memes are true replicators, then our minds are fashionedby memes just as our bodies are fashioned by genes. After twenty years the word `meme' is to be included in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. However, most academics avoid the word, and a true science of memetics has not yet developed. This book will lay the foundations for such a science, starting with a clear definition of thememe and applying the principles of general evolutionary theory to understanding memetic selection. This approach provides new theories of memetic altruism, the development of language and the origins of the enormous human brain.

Author Notes

Susan Blackmore is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Over a decade ago, Richard Dawkins, who contributes a foreword to this book, coined the term "meme" for a unit of culture that is transmitted via imitation and naturally "selected" by popularity or longevity. Dawkins used memes to show that the theory known as Universal Darwinism, according to which "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities," applies to more than just genes. Now, building on his ideas, psychologist Blackmore contends that memes can account for many forms of human behavior that do not obviously serve the "selfish gene." For example, a possible gene-meme co-evolution among early humans could have selected for true altruism among humans: people who help others (whether or not they are related) can influence them and thus spread their memes. Meme transmission would also explain some thorny problems in sociobiology. From a gene's point of view, celibacy, birth control and adoption are horrible mistakes. From a meme's point of view, they are a gold mine. Few or no children free up the meme-carrier to devote more energy to horizontal transmission to non-relatives (monks and nuns the world over figured that out long ago), something the gene is incapable of. With adoption, memes can even co-opt vertical transmission between generations. Blackmore posits that, in modern culture, meme replication has almost completely overwhelmed the glacially slow gene replication. Well written and personable, this provocative book makes a cogentÄif not wholly persuasiveÄcase for the concept of memes and for the importance of their effects on human culture. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

If Blackmore is correct, then imitation is much more than just the highest form of flatteryÄit is the basis of all human culture. "Memes" are hypothesized as discrete units of ideas or behaviors that can be imitated, thereby replicating in a manner similar to genetic replication. The theory is controversial, but if correct it may explain phenomena as diverse as why humans have such large brains and how language developed. Blackmore, a British psychologist, expounds this theory in a very literate style, with examples and anecdotes that are vivid, informative, and sometimes downright charming. This is one of the rare popular science books that presents a new theory in lay terms while also postulating original ideas worthy of scholarly debate. Its publication is a sure sign that the science of memetics has come of age. For most libraries.ÄGregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Over the centuries, there have been many theories about the origin and development of cultures. Ever since God was conceived as the ultimate cause of everything, the reductionist urge has tempted the human mind. Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of the meme in 1976, a sort of nonmaterial gene to keep cultures and civilizations going and growing. It is based on the extension of the Darwinian notion of evolution, from purely biological entities to anything at all "that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive." Like all revolutionary and potentially powerful ideas, this too has been attacked, criticized, even ridiculed, but also explored and expanded by fellow experts. Now Blackmore's book systematically introduces memetics as a new scientific field. The key idea is simple: if Darwin said human beings evolved from apes, memeticists claim that human culture evolved from aping. Based on scholarly research and considerable expertise, the book is written with great clarity and conviction, even though from a partisan perspective. Only the chapter on religion is disappointing, where the author tries to defend her contention that "science is, in some sense, superior to religion." This is somewhat naive; still, readers will learn a great deal from this very informative and persuasive book. All levels. V. V. Raman; Rochester Institute of Technology

Table of Contents

Foreword by Richard Dawkins
Strange creatures
Universal Darwinism
The evolution of culture
Taking the meme's eye view
Three problems with memes
The big brain
The origins of language
Meme-gene co-evolution
The limits of sociobiology
An orgasm saved my life
Sex in the modern world
A memetic theory of altruism
The altruism trick
Memes of the New Age
Religions as memeplexes
Into the Internet
The ultimate memeplex
Out of the meme race