THE MEME MACHINE by Susan Blackmore


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Richard Dawkins gave us “memes,” the cultural analogue of genes; Blackmore gives us memes in spades—humans as meme machines. For Dawkins (who writes a foreword to this volume), the meme is a metaphor for the ideas, myths, customs, works of art and science that are passed along in human cultures as unitary and competing entities. In Blackmore’s formulation, they have become real and serve as an explanatory tool par excellence. Selfish memes, like selfish genes, are interested in their own perpetuation and so, in tail-wagging-the-dog fashion, have guided natural selection (via genes) to favor big brains, development of language, religion, sexual selection, altruism, urbanization, etc. The operation that makes all this memetic evolution possible is the human ability to imitate. In some ways, it’s entertaining to follow Blackmore’s train of thought—even anticipating how she can shape memes to show why we like to gossip or why we love sex. She’s a good writer, and her enthusiasm is infectious (like the memes themselves, which she and other memeticists liken to viruses). But in the end, one is left with reasonable questions: Is that all there is to life? Where is the proof? In many instances, the “evidence” is speculative or laid out as a predictive proposal. The author, a lecturer in the School of Psychiatry at the University of the West in England, even denies the existence of “self”—hence the title. But, clearly, not everything humans do or think comes by way of imitation. Humans are products of variation and chance, mutations, climate, disasters, and moments of opportunity. To counter all this by saying that there are more memes “out there” competing for a place in human brains borders on the magical or mystical. So, enjoy the imaginative leaps and some pithy summaries of current theories and controversies regarding human evolution, but don’t substitute the meme bathwater for the gene baby just yet.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-850365-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999