- Series: Popular Science
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 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: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #392,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Meme Machine (Popular Science)
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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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Top Customer Reviews
Blackmore uses the definition that a meme is a unit of imitation, a replicator. Her book is a surprisingly warm, given the abstract nature of the topic, and eclectic survey of the literature to toss around many views and arguments, with ambitious and cogent conclusions offered. While this is the review in a nutshell, I think it embodies a sufficiently important theory that I have included a closer account for any who are interested.
The chapter on universal Darwinism strengthens the definition by examining how memes and genes evolve, making the case for a theory of memetics. Blackwell then reviews the evolution of culture. In considering human behaviour, she teases apart genetic and memetic selection and commences the main thesis of the book to show that both replicators are needed to explain the evolution of culture. There has been excellent work around this work before and since, notably by EO Wilson, but Blackwell's arguments are incisive.
"Taking a meme's eye view" takes the fuzziness out of our perception of a meme. It explains classical and operant learning and shows how these are not memetic. It shows that imitation is in fact "rare and special", driving home the point that a meme or any evolutionary process is subject to three conditions: heredity, variation and selection.
Blackmore's discussion inevitably leads to fundamental challenges to the meme concept. In "Three problems with memes", she first addresses the fundamental unit of a meme. Her analogies such as the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the whole symphony, and the codon and the gene complex in genetic coding, quickly negate this as a problem. Identification of the mechanism for copying and storing memes is relegated to being less a problem to being less a problem for which a solution may be better refined with study. The charge that memetic evolution is 'Lamarkian' is dealt with by challenging too close an analogy between memes and genes, and suggesting that the distinction between 'copying the instructions' and 'copying the product' is helpful basis to identifying memes. This rebuttal by Blackmore prompts a discussion of terminology and a presentation of the confusing views by experts on issues such as genotype and phenotype, vehicles and memeplexes. This is an example of the strength of Blackmore's analysis. Her extensive reading and deliberation prepares her to make summary judgements in these matters, in this case arguing for simplicity. Her plea that this will provide a basis for study and useful work in an emerging science is consistent with her acknowledgement that refinements and definitions may follow this study.
The advantages of imitation are framed as a selective driver for "The big brain", offering a memetic evolutionary model that remains in step with more recent thinking, as do Blackmore's arguments for imitation driving language. She considers many perspectives - some oddly subjective, such as the putative benefits to society of gossip - to argue that human language is meme-driven, and language in turn spreads memes. There is a sound purpose in making this assertion because we can then use memetic models with their fidelity, fecundity and longevity to analyse the merits of languages.
Blackmore then measures up "The limits of sociobiology" and meme theory. Her arguments are boosted by the elegance of Dennett's Tower and show the strong selective powers of imitation. "An orgasm saved my life" drives home many of the points and I am keen to find a review, even a rebuttal, of her points by, for example, E O Wilson. There is no doubt that Blackmore's easy style may encourage credulity. Her arguments for the divergence of sexual lifestyles beyond those favoured by the selfish gene ring true.
"The memetic theory of altruism" puts the pieces of the argument together well. The tit-for-tat strategy is convincing, although I feel that Blackmore could have moved beyond genetic and memetic drivers to also consider the basic philanthropic logic of charitable acts that motivates many practitioners. Nevertheless, the use of memetics to explain and, as a science, predict behaviour is convincing, none less that in considering "Memes of the new age" where Blackmore touches on areas in which she is expert such as the psychology of alien abduction, near-death experiences and fortune telling. A lot of thinking on "Religion as memeplexes" has occurred since this publication, most of it in step with Blackmore's. Similarly, the role of communication in meme replication has been justified as the internet has rolled out and become all but omnipotent in our lives.
In the final two chapters, "The ultimate memeplex" and "Out of the Meme race", Blackmore rambles around a few ambitious arguments, debating Dennett and searching for greater meaning. Whether thanks to her arguments or just the ideas she brought to the table, it is intriguing and feels right to consider the self and consciousness as evolving memeplexes.
Blackmore presents some very compelling arguments describing the importance of memes as "selfish" self replicators. She goes so far as to say that memetic forces can outweigh genetic forces when analyzing what has driven human evolution.
The book was somewhat dense at times, and the last few chapters were somewhat out there (delving into quasi-Buddhist explanations of consciousness), but I would ultimately recommend the book.
"We once thought that biological design needed a creator, but we now know that natural selection can do all the designing on its own. Similarly, we once thought that human design required a conscious designer inside us, but we now know that memetic selection can do it on its own." (source: pg. 242, "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore)