Chrissy's Reviews > The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
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's review
Mar 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: recommended-by-friends, science, non-fiction, psychology, biology, cognitive-science
Read from February 07 to March 10, 2012

Despite its age (which becomes apparent only in a select few chapters that focus on the Internet and neuroscience), and despite that I disagree with a number of the author's contentions, I really enjoyed this book. Blackmore presents a comprehensive understanding of memes, those cultural self-replicators that drive much of our behaviour in our modern social world. She makes use of a host well-articulated descriptions, examples, and scientific narratives, offering fairly weighted arguments for most of the (many) topics she touches on, and explores the full extent of her theory as any rigorous scientist should. I was even appreciative to see a number of "I have no idea"s and "I'm not sure"s throughout; the honesty of a researcher who recognizes the need for further exploration shines infinities brighter, to me, than does the stark certainty of a popular science writer..... (that old adage that the more intelligent you are, the more you realize how little you know, applies)

My primary complaint about the book was that it retraced its steps a lot, reiterating basic points and redrawing key analogies a number of times. I imagine this was to really drive the point home for those less familiar with biological evolution or memetic theory, which is entirely fair given the book's publication date. Still, I found myself skimming lightly over some of the middle sections, having deja vue moments and wondering when new ideas would be presented.

A secondary complaint is at once more fundamental to the content of the book less critical to my enjoyment of it. And it's simply this: I'm not entirely convinced by some of the author's proposed extensions of memetic theory, which seem in spots to move the explanation back one rung without really hitting at the core "why" or "how" of the question. Meanwhile, she argues that this is the problem with using consciousness as an explanation for anything (and I agree whole-heartedly): it is an epiphenomenon that itself explains nothing, but instead demands further explanation. It's unfortunate that she didn't acknowledge the similar limitations of memetic theory in this respect, especially as it pertains to the chapter on "self" and the "selfplex." As a cognitive scientist deeply interested in the nature of memory, I don't think Blackmore steps back far enough to reach the core of the "self" issue.

Regardless, the notion of memetic selection in this area has added an additional layer to my own theories of self (which rest, naturally, on a foundation of memory). I'm grateful to Blackmore for outlining these levels of analysis for me in such a thorough manner. It's certainly the task of any scientist to run with their pet theories as far as they can, and wait for evidence to contradict them; the contradictions serve as motivation to refine and move one step closer to "truth," with the understanding that capital T truth is an illusion in science and that your ego is thereby best left at the door.

And on that note, I want to underline how much I enjoyed the final chapter, which flirts much more closely with philosophy than the rest of the book. I love this way of thinking, without a self, and I want to practice it and see where it takes my thoughts; I feel it could have tremendous benefits for my work (or my memes, if you will... it's come full circle!) and my ability to think clearly about theory and computational modelling. As a prototypical grad student sufferer of impostor syndrome, it can only help my science to let go of such concerns and let the ideas drive themselves.
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