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The Meme Machine [Hardcover]

Susan Blackmore , Richard Dawkins
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)


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Book Description

April 8, 1999 0198503652 978-0198503651 First Edition
What is a meme? First coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, a meme is any idea, behavior, or skill that can be transferred from one person to another by imitation: stories, fashions, inventions, recipes, songs, ways of plowing a field or throwing a baseball or making a sculpture. The meme is also one of the most important--and controversial--concepts to emerge since The Origin of Species appeared nearly 150 years ago.
In The Meme Machine Susan Blackmore boldly asserts: "Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection." Indeed, Blackmore shows that once our distant ancestors acquired the crucial ability to imitate, a second kind of natural selection began, a survival of the fittest amongst competing ideas and behaviors. Ideas and behaviors that proved most adaptive--making tools, for example, or using language--survived and flourished, replicating themselves in as many minds as possible. These memes then passed themselves on from generation to generation by helping to ensure that the genes of those who acquired them also survived and reproduced. Applying this theory to many aspects of human life, Blackmore offers brilliant explanations for why we live in cities, why we talk so much, why we can't stop thinking, why we behave altruistically, how we choose our mates, and much more.
With controversial implications for our religious beliefs, our free will, our very sense of "self," The Meme Machine offers a provocative theory everyone will soon be talking about.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (April 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198503652
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198503651
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,071,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
120 of 127 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Meme Machine August 1, 2000
By Panini
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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57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's All About Imitation 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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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Piques the interest for a future science 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
excellent
Published 5 days ago by michael streams
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating and enlightening: a must-read for the curious
Rad this book after you have read the Selfish Gene by Dawkins. Susan's book uses the idea of the meme to give a satisfying explanation of how we got our large brains. Read more
Published 3 months ago by ryan_giberson
5.0 out of 5 stars Tail wags the dog via mems
Evokes an interesting perspective of possible human brain evolution by social influence; social media etc. Read more
Published 10 months ago by charles richardson
5.0 out of 5 stars an eclectic and stimulating analysis
I was captivated when, years ago, I read Richard Dawkins's incantation of the concept of a meme. In his seminal book, The Selfish Gene, he introduced the concept of a meme late in... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Nigel Kirk
1.0 out of 5 stars Memetics Hijacked
I was SO ready for this book. I passed on Dawkins original because I knew it to be the jumping point that created Memetics and I wasn't looking for Memes-101. Read more
Published 10 months ago by M. Cassio
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought- provoking
Blackmore's "theory of memetic evolution" changed my outlook on some basic philosophical issues - namely agency and self-identity. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Sabian
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent - thought provoking - enveloping
By far Susan Blackmore's best work. Man, this one was pretty incredible. Very eye-opening, it really made me think about what people do and why they do it. Read more
Published 12 months ago by PeterP
4.0 out of 5 stars A great, if not overly thorough, introduction to memetics
I read and review this book for my senior capstone class for Zoology. While the subject is at times more related to psychology, memetics has a clear connection to genetic... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Caleb Cosper
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting ideas
This book is an extension and thoughtful exploration of Richard Dawkins's Meme idea.It is thought-provoking and compelling reading. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A very thorough exploration of the power of thoughts and their...
In this book, Susan Blackmore makes a convincing argument that thoughts -memes- think you and generate the intuitive but mistaken feeling that you are the thinker. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Alejandro Velasco S
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