Content The Meme Machine  
crowds header hiram caton whither-progress  
Susan Blackmore
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 264 pp. US$25.00 cloth. ISBN 0-198-50365-2. Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016-4314, USA.

Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society

Aaron Lynch
New York: Basic Books, 1996, 256 pp. US$24.00 cloth. ISBN 0-465-08466-4. Basic Books, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022-5299, USA.

Hiram Caton Griffith University, Australia

Published in Politics and the Life Sciences September 2000, p 272-75


In his foreword to The Meme Machine, Richard Dawkins compares the spread of the word "meme" to the spread of the Charles Lumsden and E.O. Wilson counterpart, "culturgen." Based on a web search for the two terms, Dawkins concludes that the "meme" meme has replicated like bunnies whereas culturgen is virtually sterile (5,042 occurrences of memetics vs. 20 occurrences of culturgen). Why has the meme word won out so handily in this "Darwinian struggle between the two memes," as Dawkins colorfully styles it? It comes down to wordcraft. "Meme" is a euphonious monosyllable that supports a battalion of coinages—meme splicing, meme pool, metamemes, vaccime, memed out, and more. "Culturgen," by contrast, is inelastic and not easy to hear. Besides, the authors abandoned all possibility of prime time exposure by locking "culturgen" up in equations. So "culturgen" lost the war to control terminology. "But wait just a minute!" I hear you cry. "That's chest beating about market share. What ever happened to truth?"

Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. Memetics construes beliefs on selectionist principles, meaning that it isn't beauty or truth that matters, but adaptability for a particular population. This entails the "paradigm shift" that brandmarks memetics (Lynch, p. 17). The complicated fabric of intentionality, motivation, and belief is jettisoned. It is replaced by an epidemiological analysis of ideas renamed "memetics." Memes (a.k.a. "information viruses") are defined as replicators that have a life history, a phylogeny, and progeny (Lynch, p. 2; Blackmore, p. 7). Memetics launches a germ theory culturology (Lynch, p. 155) that turns the intuitive sense of the relation between thought and self on its head. My ideas are not "mine"; instead, I have been "acquired" by memes that use my brain as the "host" or "vector" from which they will launch new "contagions" (Lynch, pp. 3, 17). I am, in short, the sum of my "infections" (compare sociology: the sum of my social roles). This deep insight, we are told, has hitherto been overlooked in the social sciences. Both authors undertake to close this knowledge gap by founding the new science of memetics (Lynch, pp. 3, 175; Blackmore, p. 36). They are by my count the fourth and fifth claimants to be the Mendel of memetics and the Pasteur of thought contagion.

The meme idea was proposed by Richard Dawkins as the cultural analogue of genes. Memes are the supposed unit of cultural evolution. Genes, in Dawkins's view, hold the "vehicles" (or phenotypes) in which they reside in complete submission. He is fond of spouting that humans and other living organisms are nothing but self-replicating robots. This same idea applies to memes, which hold their "hosts" and "vectors" in complete thralldom. In the debut appearance of this idea, Dawkins glossed it thus:

When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking—the meme for say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous system of people all over the world. (1976:207)

The brain mechanists are right, it seems. Memes and other signals entering the nervous system leave a trace detectable (presumably) by imaging techniques (Blackmore, pp. 39, 57). It's a double whammy. First, subjectivity is robotized by genes; then lobotomized by memes. Could memetics also be a mindless meme competing for space on our hard drives?

Blackmore, a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England, declares the implication that the self is just an illusion. "There is no 'I' who 'holds' opinions," she intones. "There is a brain that can store knowledge... but there is not in addition a self who 'has' the belief. There is a biological creature who eats yoghurt every day but there is not in addition a self inside who loves yoghurt" (Blackmore, p. 233). (That's the theory. Beware of taking it literally, because the publisher's page attributes copyright to Susan Blackmore and states that her moral rights have been asserted.)

The Buddha and a bunch of philosophers agree that the self is illusory. Contemporary psychology knows of dissociated states and other phenomena that establish the persistence of this paradoxical self-perception. Does Blackmore link her meme machine to this "phylogenetic" background? She does not. Instead she congratulates herself on discovering the illusory self: "Now we have a radically new idea of who we are. Each of us is a massive memeplex running on the physical machinery of a human body and brain—a meme machine" (Blackmore, p. 235). The moral rights of the Buddha have been usurped.

The illusory self is not a Nothing. It suffered in the Buddha's time and it suffers today. Blackmore speculates that the various modes of stress, depression, and depletion common today are due to excessive exposure to numerous, often competing memeplexes. She writes:

I wonder just how much memetic pressure selfplexes can take before they blow apart, become unstable, or divide into fragments. The unhappiness, desperation, and psychological ill-health of many modern people may reveal just this. Today's psychotherapy is a kind of memetic engineering, but it's not based on sound memetic principles. That is something for the future. (Blackmore, p. 233)

My selfplex bifurcates to chaotic oscillation trying to imagine my illusory self shifting into a second order of nonentity by exploding. What comes to mind (if you will pardon the expression) is stream-of-consciousness delirium pioneered in literature and perfected by disco strobe lights. I think I shall call it "memebabble." I'm going to upgrade my onboard RAM drive to 64 MB so that I may better understand it.

Memetics is not the first aspiring science to delete Self. Behaviorists of the 1920s adopted the programmatic doctrine that behavior was explainable by the machinery of stimulus and response. Thoughts, intentions, and emotions do not in any way influence behavior. Learning is strictly reactivity. However, when experimental animals were observed to learn by doing, an agent-based learning concept, "operant conditioning," was embedded in feedback/feedtoward loops connecting stimulus, perception, motivation, and action such that the animal disposes of a learning capacity that functions as a template for interpreting new experiences. Thus, crows safely prey on the toxic cane toad because they have learned where the poison sacs are. Elephants can detect the smell of fermenting beer and raid the Indian peasant's still to appropriate his produce. Operant conditioning restored the agent dimension of "organisms" expelled from the original programmatic doctrine. It only remained to add the neurology of the operant feedback loop to undermine the behaviorist agenda. By describing the hard- and softwired configurations of a species' learning program, we understand better why a given species is unresponsive to a range of sensory inputs but is highly sensitive to others.

Memetics is dumbed-down behaviorism. Memes (stimuli) enter the brain, parasitize (condition) it, and are emitted as responses (retransmission of memes). But it's dumber than behaviorism because it's unable to define memes as an empirical object domain comparable to stimulus and response or genes or gene products. Without a detailed description of this process, memetics is no more than speculative fantasy.

Neither of our wannabe Mendels solves this problem. Lynch refers to Douglas Hofstadter's exploration of self-referential sentences. The example discussed is chain letters, styled "viral texts" because they promise rewards for resending and punishments for disobedience (Lynch, p. 35). Fascinating though they are, chain letters cannot define an object domain. Lynch abandons them to focus on a topology of self-propagating transmission, inter alia, parental, proselytic, adversative, and motivational. Under the parental, he observes that parents tend to rear kids in their own belief system. (This commonplace is made scientific by renaming it "phenotypic cloning.") He doesn't examine the mechanisms of parental transmission of memes. Instead, he tosses out episodic comments about the use of ostracism and threat to impose compliance.

To me this doesn't sound like "hosts" being shaped by memes, but agents (parents) making their kids toe the line. Indeed, whenever Lynch seeks to describe how memes control their hosts, he lapses into agent talk drawn from ordinary experience. This is especially clear in his discussion of barriers to meme propagation. One barrier is the "cynical" attitude of those who regard mass beliefs as "user-made tools for controlling the masses" (Lynch, p. 13). It is regrettable that the author doesn't follow up his lead and examine the techniques for the manufacture of consent. Were he to do so, he would encounter a large and diverse literature on propaganda, promotion, indoctrination, and influence (Eibl-Eibesfedlt and Salter, 1998). We know how spin doctors design candidate images, how ad agencies sell products, and how cults capture minds. Our memeticists ignore this literature. They could make no use of it even if they knew about it because they are committed to the upside-down tenet that beliefs propagate themselves; whereas we know that manufacturing consent is a highly skilled, very deliberate activity. Lynch's one example of a self-propagating meme, chain letters, falls on the sword of agency. Chain letters are illegal if they are sent through the mail. Who should be prosecuted, the letter or the person who sent the letter? The ardent memeticist is undaunted by paradox: the letter did it.

The Meme Machine is an unusual book. At the web site, one reader concluded by saying, "Thank you Susan Blackmore for bringing hope. And a new religion." Religion emerges in the closing chapters as the ineluctable outcome of genetic and memetic determinism. The argument there runs thus: The meaning of science in our cultural context is moral meaning; it empowers self by liberating from ignorance and superstition; and it is the tool for subduing natural forces to human welfare. But this meaning is subverted by the discovery that the self is a pack of lies that continuously renews the illusion of free will, control, intentionality, and rationality. Memetics, if it is to be consistent with its own findings, must abandon the stance inherited from the last century's ethical rationalism. Thus, Daniel Dennett debunks free will and human agency, but clings to its moral remnants by affirming illusory ideas of free will that are "worth having" (1995).

Blackmore debunks the debunker: "Unlike Dennett I neither think the 'user illusion' is benign, nor do I want any version of free will that ascribes it to a self who does not exist" (Blackmore, p. 237). The prophet of memetics, Richard Dawkins, declared at the conclusion of The Selfish Gene, "We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators." He thinks that a culture dominated by natural selection would be a "terrible place to live." This biological Bolshevism is an ingredient to the moral stance of memetics, which assigns to itself a grandiose agenda for social reform, especially purging society of harmful religion. Blackmore's commentary:

But this is all a cop out.... We must ask who gets to choose? If we take memetics seriously then the "me" that could do the choosing is itself a memetic construct: a fluid and ever-changing group memes installed in a complicated meme machine.... If we take memetics seriously there is no room for anyone or anything to jump into the evolutionary process and stop, direct, or do anything to it. (Blackmore, p. 241f)

Buddhist quietism emerges as Blackmore's reconciliation of science and spirituality. The Buddha ascribed human suffering to the relentless desire to acquire, to achieve, to control. The remedy is withdrawal from the rat race by meditative letting go of all thoughts that run into the future ("meme-weeding"). Blackmore conducts her readers through self-talk that threads through the maze of illusions of control to arrive at spiritual composure: "To live honestly, I must just get out of the way and allow decisions to make themselves.... It brought a great sense of freedom to let so many decisions alone" (Blackmore, p. 244).

This self-talk is a tour de force, not despite of, but because of, its paradox. Writing as an insider who knows which buttons to press, Blackmore shows that the moral stance of memetics clashes with memetic "science." She does not, in my view, show that Buddhist quietism follows from memetics (from a contradiction, nothing follows), but her open embrace of it shows confessing memeticists a possibility occluded by their activist assumptions.

I have attended to the moral issue because most reviewers pass over it in embarrassed silence, and because it has the potential to reshape the debate about memetics. But there is much more to Blackmore's study. If you read the book backwards, keeping her end point in mind, you will see that her demolition of the memeticist's moral stance is preceded by a demolition of its purported science. It is no science at all (obvious to everyone but memeticists). Let me mention just two of her criticisms.

What is a meme? A passably clear definition is required to establish the unit of memetic selection. But alas, memeticists do not come close to agreement; collectively they give the impression that anything at all can be a meme. Blackmore acknowledges that a non-arbitrary definition isn't possible; her own arbitrary definition is that a meme is anything that can be imitated (Blackmore, p. 52). This writes "finis" to the aspiration for a memetic science, for without a unit of cultural selection there can be no reductionist science of cultural evolution. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and political scientists investigating cultural evolution have long known this and today reject units of culture along with the idea of a reductionist science of culture. Blackmore puts a brave face on it by blithely comparing the predicament to the ambiguity of "genes." In two brief paragraphs, she points out that "gene" has no single definition in genetics (Blackmore, p. 53f). Sometimes it is a codon, sometimes a cistron, and neither of these necessarily replicates. This is correct, and it could be taken much further. Ideally (for reductionist science), genes would be the unit of recombination, of mutation, and of function. However, the unit of recombination is a single nucleotide, while the unit of function is the cistron, which is 900-1800 nucleotides long. A single nucleotide was believed to be the unit of mutation, but recently discovered somatic hypermutation (a phenomenon of immune response) is not a unit at all but a process by which somatic cells re-engineer their DNA! If these elementary facts about genes were to become known in memetics, it would so complicate discourse that the "science" would become a quagmire even to its exponents. Blackmore has slipped a mickey into memetics.

The second point concerns Blackmore's central thesis that the evolution of a second type of replicator, memes, dampens, and in some areas extinguishes, genetic determinism, replacing it by cultural determinism. This entails numerous criticisms of gene-based interpretations of human behavior stemming from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Particularly arresting are her commentaries on reproduction ("birth control is a disaster for genes") and altruism, which, thanks to meme-control, extend it far beyond kin selection and reciprocal altruism to humanity at large and to animals. This isn't news; there have been countless criticisms to this effect. But Blackmore inserts it like a Trojan horse into the memetics meme, and that is what makes it different.

The one tenet unchallenged by Blackmore's debunking is what she styles "the most powerful idea in all of science"—evolution by natural selection. It is a powerful idea in neo-Darwinism, but it is not relevant to most of biological science. Moreover, it is not the only acknowledged evolutionary mechanism, and new discoveries about symbiosis, directed mutation, and the like may eventually indicate that natural selection has little to do with cultural evolution. This is shown indirectly by Blackmore's book, which produces not one instance of a meme replicating independently human agency, nor a single lineage of meme evolution.

Memetics appeals to people, mostly New Age types, looking for a spin on the deluge of media and internet messages. We all feel overwhelmed at times, and in such moments the extravagance that I am nothing but a memeplex strikes a chord. In the 1960s, the spin doctors were Marshall McLuhan and George Orwell, whose 1984 helped a generation grasp the horror of mind capture. Behaviorism was the progeny of the then-new experience of all-sided war propaganda and postwar advertising. Memetics is a cyberculture fashion that flourished because it delivers a do-it-yourself kit of buzzwords enabling users to construct their own personal antidote to mind capture by invading memes. In other words, it empowers the Selves of its users. But taken at face value as purported science, it proves to be a phantasmagoria of metaphor, polemic, and babbling self-talk that blocks access to knowledge, both common and scholarly, of how ideas spread.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eibl-Eibesfedlt, I., and F.K. Salter, eds. (1998). Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives. New York: Berhahn Books.

© hiram Caton Whither Progress 2008