Nebuchadnezzar's Reviews > The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
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's review
Mar 18, 2012

did not like it
bookshelves: evolutionary-psychology, hack-jobs-and-bullshit, psychology-and-neuroscience

There is an old maxim, "The theory that explains everything explains nothing." This sums up the problem with memetics as a "science." Whenever I see a memetic explanation for some phenomenon, it always seems to either be completely incorrect or simply repackaging a result already well-known within the social sciences in pseudo-biological jargon. The same applies to Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.

Blackmore completely drops the meme-gene analogy, a smart move considering that it was untenable to begin with. Instead, she defines a meme as a "unit of imitation" or "that which is copied." But what, exactly, is this unit or "meme"? It can be anything from the first few bars of Beethoven's Fifth to Gothic architecture, a triune god, and voting Democrat. Memes may also be found on paper, in brains, on television screens, etc. The definition is so loose that it may be bent to fit just about anything. This is, rather incredibly, only the beginning of the problems with memetics.

By disclaiming the meme-gene analogy, Blackmore ends up painting herself into a corner by continuing to posit cultural evolution as a Darwinian (as opposed to say, Lamarckian) process. Without something like a "functional ecology" of memes or a field of "population memetics," memetic "fitness" becomes difficult to define and more or less circular. Which memes are the fittest? The ones that spread the most! Why have they spread the most? Because they are the fittest!

What Blackmore purports to "explain" with memes is, as above, often leads to unfalsifiable pseudo-explanations or a rewriting of earlier theories. Case-in-point: The evolution of the big brain. We really don't know how the big brain evolved, although certain hypotheses are more plausible than others. (Bipedalism as an explanation, for example, was refuted when the fossil record began to show that bipedalism evolved first.) The idea that the big brain evolved as a "meme machine" is patent hokum if meant in the sense that the brain literally evolved "for" spreading these non-existent entities called "memes." In the sense that the big brain evolved because of the advantages of imitation, then this idea is not new at all. It has much in common with the arguments put forth by, say, Michael Tomasello in The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, who has, in addition, taken much more care in fashioning said arguments. Memes seem to add nothing to other models of cultural evolution as well, such as gene-culture co-evolution, which has done just fine without memetic theory.

Speculation is frequently totally un-moored from reality, such as her assertions about the "sexual selection" of memes being supported by observations about love poems and songs. This is the kind of thing one might expect to hear from an alcohol-infused, early morning BS session among evolutionary theorists, but not in a published work purporting to be science.

The book lapses into outright falsehood on the issue of the copying fidelity of memes. Natural selection really hinges on a certain degree of fidelity in copying genes, or memes, in this case, otherwise the process breaks down. There are two points where fidelity becomes a big issue: First in transmission and then in memory. Some amount of fidelity will generally be lost in transmission. (If only these memes could be transferred with perfect fidelity in the classroom, teachers would have much easier jobs!) Fidelity will also be lost in the process of remembering. As memory psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus and Ulric Neisser, among many others, have demonstrated, memory is a reconstructive process. Memories are not stored like information on a hard disk, but rebuilt on recall. Scott Atran, in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, makes a thorough case in his chapter-length refutation of memetics that fidelity is not high enough for Darwinian-style evolution to hold true. The book as a whole also represents an excellent case study in how to study religion scientifically without recourse to memetics. Once again, memes add nothing. They, in fact, likely subtract by confusing the issue with a bunch of half-baked analogies and unnecessary jargon.

Much of the book is written in a quasi-mystical tone. We are surrounded by these things called "memes," constantly colonizing our minds and using them for their own nefarious purposes. The nature of memes, which are not limited by their medium or substrate but exist in some abstract sense, seems transcendental, smacking of a kind of Platonic idealism. This appears to be the end goal, really, as Blackmore argues for a "Universal Darwinism." Surely, Darwinian evolution applies to more than just biological phenomena -- anyone who's worked in the tech industry with evolutionary algorithms and anti-virus software can tell you that. But Blackmore's conception is just another grand theory of everything claiming to have resolved a whole host of heretofore major intractable problems in psychology and anthropology, explaining everything and nothing, and so making it more of the metaphysical than the physical sciences.

I might have given memetics the benefit of the doubt years ago -- indeed, the idea seemed really attractive at first, as seems to have been the case even with many who were memetics proponents at some point. Perhaps it could have been described as a "protoscience." However, it has been a number of years since the memeticists pet journal ( closed shop without producing any results. ( I think it's fair to say that the entire enterprise has descended into pseudoscience. Reading the works of memeticists, I am often reminded of Freudian psychoanalysis in the sense that pretty metaphors are often substituted for empirical argumentation. And it doesn't surprise me that Blackmore abandoned one pseudoscience, parapsychology, for a newer and more fashionable one.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Michael Actually, Susan Blackmore argued for a Lamarckian evolution of memes.

Nebuchadnezzar If I recall, she makes a distinction between "meme-as-instructions" and "meme-as-behavior," the latter of which has the possibility of being Lamarckian.

Brandon The book has problems for sure. But your critique of the theory is pretentious. True, measuring a meme would be difficult, and constructing anything like a theory as detailed as genetic evolution using memes is probably not tenable, but none the less, as a metaphor, it does have a very useful *pedagogical* function, in the way that it makes it easy to imagine how cultural evolution might be subject to separate selection pressures that can, and more than likely do/will effect our genetic evolution in a number of ways. Also, the metaphor does have some testable heuristic value that can be helpful in designing/guiding research using social simulation, and therefore you're presentation of it as totally useless is hasty, and myopic.

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