Meme Machine reviewed in Science

Bill Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Thu, 15 Jul 1999 11:23:55 -0400

Date: Thu, 15 Jul 1999 11:23:55 -0400
From: Bill Benzon <bbenzon@mindspring.com>
To: Memetics Listserve <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

EVOLUTION:
Flying Over Uncharted Territory

A review by David Sloan Wilson*

The Meme Machine
Susan Blackmore
Oxford University Press, New York, 1999. 286 pp. $25, 18.99. ISBN
0-19-850365-2.

Human culture is still a blank spot on the map of scientific
understanding. Cultural change is often likened to an evolutionary
process, but cultural anthropologists tend to be anti-biological, even
anti-scientific. Theories of cultural evolution, developed primarily by
biologists, present culture as everything from a servant of the genes to
its own master, liberated from the laws of both biology and psychology.

Among this varied crowd is the concept of memes, a term coined by
Richard Dawkins in his famous book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are
units of cultural transmission (or imitation). They share with genes the
status of replicator, because both are copied across generations with
high fidelity. Like genes, memes that evolve are "selfish," existing
only to replicate themselves. In this view, not only are we lumbering
robots controlled by our genes, but we are also controlled by our memes,
which do not always agree with our genes. For example, memes might
compel us to produce symphonies instead of babies.

Dawkins' main point was to show that genes are not the only replicators.
In The Meme Machine, psychologist Susan Blackmore attempts to develop
the meme concept into a full-fledged theory of cultural evolution. Her
book belongs to a genre that strives for both scientific importance and
mass-audience appeal. It is published by a distinguished university
press but has the splashy cover of a trade book, with memes that look
like children's breakfast cereal floating between two human heads and
lightning bolts in the background for dramatic effect. Ideally, it
should be as revolutionary as Darwin's Origin and so readable that you
want to take it to the beach. This genre works best when important
scientific developments are reported to a wider audience by a gifted
writer, who need not be involved in the actual research. Unfortunately,
there have been no recent breakthroughs in meme research, which places
Blackmore in an impossible position. She must achieve the breakthrough
herself and describe it for nonspecialists--all in one book. Not
surprisingly, she fails.

Part of the problem stems from the replicator concept, which has led to
some interesting insights but often merely redescribes the familiar.
Although those selfish genes care only about replicating themselves,
that action usually requires coordination with other genes, suggesting
the conventional view of well-adapted organisms. Genes have "extended
phenotypes" that reach beyond the individual organism, but how does this
change our understanding of familiar examples such as termite mounds and
beaver dams? In much the same way, selfish memes often turn out to be a
convoluted way to describe the obvious. What do we gain by thinking of
the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony as a powerful meme?
Or by saying that "Religious memes are stored, and thus given improved
longevity, in the great religious texts"?

More problems arise when we try to think of culture as broken into
replicating units like genes. Unlike genes, memes do not exist in a
physical form. It is hard to identify a unit (a problem also existing
for genes). And memes may not even replicate with high fidelity, as the
children's game of telephone attests. Blackmore and Dawkins (in his
introduction) confront some of these problems, sometimes quite
successfully, but one of the largest problems is not addressed. The
oft-repeated accusation that natural selection is a tautology fails
because fitness is not defined in terms of whatever evolves but in terms
of the properties that enable organisms to survive and reproduce in
their environments. Moths that are colored to match their background
have a high fitness with respect to bird predation, but cryptic
coloration may not evolve if the appropriate mutations either do not
arise or are lost by genetic drift. The ability to define fitness
independently of what evolves saves the concept of natural selection
from being a tautology. For the meme concept to escape the same problem,
we must define cultural fitness independently of what evolves. If the
first four notes of Beethoven's fifth is a powerful meme only because it
is common, we have achieved no insight.

Another problem is that Blackmore addresses such large issues--our big
brains, language, sex, altruism, religion, the concept of self--that her
analysis becomes hopelessly superficial. In each case, huge literatures
and complex issues are skimmed and found wanting in a few pages, paving
the way for the new memetic approach, which is itself presented in only
a few more pages. The effect on the reader is ultimately boring, like a
person at a cocktail party who approaches you with a new theory for the
fall of the Roman Empire.

Understanding the terra incognita of culture will require hard empirical
research informed by solid theory. It will be more like trudging through
a rain forest than cruising overhead at 30,000 feet. Blackmore's
enthusiasm for the meme concept is genuine and may even be justified,
but to make progress she will need to exchange her pilot's cap for a
pith helmet.

*The author is in the Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton
University, State University of New York, Binghamton, New York
13902-6000, USA. E-mail: dwilson@binghamton.edu

Volume 285, Number 5425 Issue of 9 Jul 1999, p 206
1999 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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William Benzon
Senior Scientist
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