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The Meme Machine (Popular Science) New Ed Edition

122 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0192862129
ISBN-10: 019286212X
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Editorial Reviews Review

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of the meme as a unit of culture, spread by imitation. Now Dawkins himself says of Susan Blackmore:

Showing greater courage and intellectual chutzpah than I have ever aspired to, she deploys her memetic forces in a brave--do not think foolhardy until you have read it--assault on the deepest questions of all: What is a self? What am I? Where am I? ... Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme.

Blackmore is a parapsychologist who rejects the paranormal, a skeptical investigator of near-death experiences, and a practitioner of Zen. Her explanation of the science of the meme (memetics) is rigorously Darwinian. Because she is a careful thinker (though by no means dull or conventional), the reader ends up with a good idea of what memetics explains well and what it doesn't, and with many ideas about how it can be tested--the very hallmark of an excellent science book. Blackmore's discussion of the "memeplexes" of religion and of the self are sure to be controversial, but she is (as Dawkins says) enormously honest and brave to make a connection between scientific ideas and how one should live one's life. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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 cogentAif not wholly persuasiveAcase for the concept of memes and for the importance of their effects on human culture.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Popular Science
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; New Ed edition (May 16, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019286212X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192862129
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 0.8 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #206,271 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

126 of 133 people found the following review helpful By Panini on August 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
Susan Blackmore's bold and fascinating book "The Meme Machine" pushes the new theory of memetics farther than anyone else has, including its originator Richard Dawkins. The reader should already be well-acquainted with the concepts of memes and Universal Darwinism before tackling this book. Those who are not would do well to first read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (and even better to also read Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea).
Dawkins himself wrote the Foreword to this book, giving it his enthusiastic endorsement, and providing some enlightening remarks about the origin of the meme concept. He concedes however, that his original intentions were quite a bit more modest, and that Blackmore has carried the concept further than he had envisioned.
The central thesis of this book is that imitation is what makes humans truly different from other animals, and what drives almost all aspects of human culture. A meme then, is a unit of imitation. Anything that can be passed from one person to another through imitation -- such as a song, a poem, a cookie recipe, fashion, the idea of building a bridge or making pottery -- is an example of a meme. From the meme's point of view, Blackmore claims, we humans are simply "meme machines", copying memes from one brain to another.
This book is highly speculative. That doesn't mean it's wrong. It just means the claims have not been proven scientifically. To Blackmore's credit she does clearly highlight the areas of speculation. She also points out the testable predictions made by her theory, and describes possible experiments that could be performed to validate or falsify them.
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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Liane Gabora ( ) on March 14, 1999
Format: Hardcover
It is exciting that Oxford has come out with a book on memetics, and Blackmore does a nice job of fleshing out the basics. The Meme Machine follows through on Dawkins' (1976) fascinating suggestion that culture, like biology, evolves through the processes of variation, selection, and replication. It explores how viewing culture as a hereditary system can shed light on many aspects of the human experience, such as why we gossip, believe in alien abduction, and get enthusiastic about sex. (Though the chapter titled 'An orgasm saved my life' never gets around to explaining how an orgasm saved someone's life.)
Her central thesis is that what makes humans unique is their ability to imitate, and she takes the 'imitation is where it's at' thesis very seriously. The idea is: once humans became able to imitate, ideas could be transmitted, and cultural evolution took off. Unfortunately, there are deep problems with this proposal. First, the claim that animals don't imitate is highly controversial, and current consensus seems to sway in the opposite direction. (An article by Byrne & Russon in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 1998, and accompanying commentary, provide an insightful review.) Second, Blackmore correctly notes that the archeological record reveals a sudden INCREASE in tool variety. However, if imitation were the bottleneck, then prior to the origin of culture there would have been variation everywhere, and the onset of imitation would have funneled this variation in the most useful directions, i.e. variety would have DECREASED. The evidence is, in fact, consistent with the thesis that creativity, rather than imitation, was the bottleneck to culture.
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42 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Jake Sapiens on December 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book is a little too ambitious. Although Blackmore does not succeed in making the case for a science of memetics, she does a fantastic job trying to. With things like "Campbell's rule" and copying of instructions vs. copying of the product, she makes some good conceptual headway. She provides some good behaviorist insight on true imitation as a potential basis for memetic theory. The speculative field of memetics has yet to pull all the threads together, though Blackmore does a very good job setting the stage. I think the field as a whole could use a lot more immersion in cognitive science beyond the interesting forays of Daniel Dennett("Darwin's Dangerous Idea" highly recommended). I think the cognitive roles of language while not overlooked, could use more attention. In this vein I recommend to those interested to read "Philosophy in the Flesh" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, after you finish "The Meme Machine."
The Meme Machine reads very well. It doesn't leave me seeing how memetics will get from here (speculative) to there (real science), but it leaves me thinking that there must be a way. Blackmore backs up her own ideas with some good scientific background, but doesn't lay any real empirical foundations for a science of memetics. I think until we have a better idea of the neurological organization underpinning our conceptual thinking that foundation will not appear. For some possible headway on that, again I suggest you read "Philosophy in the Flesh" after you read "The Meme Machine." I think perhaps both of these books may be converging on some similar problems from different perspectives.
I think Blackmore sets some goals that are entirely too ambitious, and fails to achieve them.
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