LogoBoyd, G. (2001). The Human Agency Of Meme Machines: A review of the Meme Machine.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 5.

The Human Agency Of Meme Machines

An extended review of:

 Blackmore, Susan (1999) The Meme Machine
Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 264 pp. ISBN 0 19 850 365 2

Gary Boyd
Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

1 Importance

For any thoughtful reader, Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine is an important book because it clearly explains and illustrates the basic import of the new field of memetics. Actually memetics did not just spring from the head of Zeus (Dawkins) fully formed, but like Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby's (1998) evolutionary psychology, rather it is part of a general contemporary movement to extend evolutionary explanation beyond the purely biological world. At best, memetic evolutionary explanation will become nearly as central to the social sciences as Darwinian evolution has been to the biological sciences. At worst, memetics might conceivably become another way to deny the uniqueness of each mysterious human being. Or as Jacoby (1975) would caution, memetics qua ideology like the computer-metaphor for mind, could become yet another example of "social amnesia"- of reification leading to further alienation. Having acknowledged that possibility I must go on to state that current work makes me rather confident that memetics insights will actually help us find many new solutions to educational and political problems.

"How is memetic evolution steerable?" that is the key question and the one which Blackmore's Meme Machine poses and partly answers with good heuristics which should lead to real progress.

2 Three Key Achievements:

2.1 Educating engagingly:

The first of Susan Blackmore's main achievements in this volume is to provide a pleasantly, even intriguingly, readable understandable respectable book which one can offer to friends and students who ask: "What is all this meme or memetics excitement about?"

Susan Blackmore has written a thoroughly enjoyable and informative book for all reasonably well educated people such as readers of the New Scientist, or the Scientific American and Harper's' magazines. Her style is fluent, clear, coherent, convincing, and entertaining. The Meme Machine is itself a carrier of an infectious and contagious 'memeplex' carefully crafted to become a symbiocytic fellow-traveler for us altruists who are teachers of the various sciences.

2.2 Advancing Science:

As Dr. Blackmore the scientist describes science (p. 202) "Science like religion is a mass of memeplexes ... Science is fundamentally a process; a set of methods for trying to distinguish true memes from false ones. At its heart lies the idea of building theories about the world and testing them, rather like perceptual systems do". She points out that "Evolutionary theory faced enormous opposition because it provided a view of humans that many humans do not like. The same will probably be true for memetics. However at the heart of science lies the method of demanding tests of any idea. Scientists must predict what will happen if a particular theory is valid, and then find out if it is so. That is what I have tried to do with the theory of memetics."

The prediction of probable ubiquity of memetic theory among social scientists, can be tested by trying out the explanatory framework on various `hard' case phenomena in the various social sciences. This is what Blackmore begins to do in a schematic qualitative way. Her analytic forays are well grounded in the literature, and self-critical enough to be plausible. They are also exciting enough, and controversial enough to inspire much further thought, and to warrant much further work. That I believe is her main scientific achievement here.

Social science theories such as memetics and e.g. 19th century social-Darwinism, can however be either self-fulfilling or self defeating prophecies. As they gain currency they become ever more true; or contrariwise as in the case of social Darwinism as it gained currency it evoked a wave of objections which constructed it to be false.

Memetics is first of all an explanatory theory with great heuristic value. I am confident, partly from reading Blackmore as well as Dawkins, Dennett, and many of the others, that it will indeed lead-on self-fulfillingly to important new truthful explanatory sub-theories and also even to, at least fuzzily, quantitative predictive models of cultural propagation, and evolution.

2.3 Liberating memeplexes:

Blackmore's third main achievement (- very much in line with her previous works - e.g. Blackmore, 1996) is to make challenges which liberate us from habitual and wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. For example, consider this statement of hers on p. 241-2: "But this is still a cop out". As Daniel Dennett (1984) says 'The "independent" mind struggling to protect itself from dangerous memes is a myth'. So 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 of memes installed in a complicated meme machine. The choices made will be a product of my genetic and memetic history in a given environment, not of some separate self that can 'have' a life purpose and overrule the memes that make it up. This is the power and beauty of memetics: it allows us to see how human lives language and creativity all come about through the same kind of replicator power as did design in the biological world.

What she does raise explicitly is the question of free-will and human agency pointing out that (p. 237) "...the self that is supposed to have free will is just a story that forms part of a vast memeplex, and a false story at that. On this view all human actions whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes genes and all their products , in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not have consciousness, and it does not 'do' the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this is false so is the idea of my conscious self having free will."

This is arguably the most controversial claim in Blackmore's book. It is well warranted by the rest of the book. Yet it sits oddly in the lifework of a very responsible creative and apparently self-determined author who in her previous work has been circumspectly devoted to the critical scientific exploration and as it turned out refutation of most of the ubiquitous claims of para-psychology, and of the para-normal (Blackmore, 1996).

Right now I feel I can and must choose between going on with this review or going for a walk amid the beauty of the falling maple leaves. Without these in a sense illusory options I would feel my life to be pointless. The conflict between the option to go on writing versus the option of a Sunday stroll is a conscious epiphenomenon of contending memeplexes embodied in the neuronal groups of my CNS (Central Nervous System), and triggered or reinforced by various current perceptions. The human-being which chooses encompasses all this and moreover has historical depth in my and others' socialization and geographical and biochemical history. It seems we memeplex nexii must tell our stories anew if we wish to go on elaborating and propagating critical realist science.

Is this possible? Yes, theoretically it is if the memetic science memeplex proves to be contagious enough and co-travels with the Critical Realist Science memeplex. This can happen but not without the pruning and re-organizing or killing off (and grieving?) many religious memeplexes which have evolved to behave to prevent pruning and re-organization let alone replacement.

In my view the memetic explanatory mechanism does not rule out purposive intention or at least Dennett's `intentional stance', but it does requires a different account of it -one which has not yet been scientifically articulated. Dennett went some way along toward a better account, but without making links to memetics, in his (1984) book on the varieties of free will worth wanting. Probably the best currently accessible treatments of consciousness are those of the neurophysiologists D'Amasio (1999) e.g.- p.313. "...the plotting of a relationship between any object and the organism becomes the feeling of a feeling. The mysterious first-person perspective of consciousness consists of newly-minted knowledge expressed as feeling ...Creativity - the ability to generate new ideas and artifacts requires more than consciousness can ever provide. It requires abundant memory, fine reasoning ability, language. But consciousness' revelations guide the process." (Tonini and Edelman, 2000). My reading of both is that they are fully compatible with meme-complex acquisition (in the form of synapse weightings and neuronal group selections), and neuronal memeplex execution processes which generate both plans and the emotions that evoke feelings which along with other physiological homeostatic regulators, produce our decisions.

According to this theory, whether you will actually allow yourself to accept the tempting memeplexes which Susan offers, and so to see all the human world in the memetic realist way, or not, is up to the ways memeplexes are executing in your body, which together are you!

3 Four Adumbrative Criticisms:

3.1 Memes as replicands or replicators?

Like others Susan Blackmore sidesteps the task of defining memes any more precisely than Dawkins did. Are memes replicands or replicators? - i.e. are they merely catalysts for their own reproduction via the host's pre-existing reproductive mechanisms like viruses, or do they become embedded as self-reproducers in the host human animal (- like bacterial parasites)?

As others have pointed out precise definition poses a serious challenge which must be taken up. My own offering as a possibly better (?) definition is: that a meme is a bounded set of modulations on any carrier which when received by an animal has by virtue of its configuration (Shannon information of an aesthetic, &/or pseudo sustenantial, &/or proto-propagative propitious character which is attractive to that animal's pre-embodied memeplexes) an high probability of being transduced into neuronal group and synapse threshold representations which result in effectively identical replications of the meme as outputted modulations on other carriers (which of course tend to produce further propagation (- seduction, infection and contagion) via other animals. This definition depends on the engineering definitions: of carriers and modulations, transducers, receivers, Shannon-information and transformation which in all fairness, may not be commonplaces for Blackmore nor for others writing memetics. It also assumes something like Gerald Edelman's (1992) extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (neuronal group Darwinism) as one basis for transduction of received input into active neurophysiological quasi-self-organizing, transformative and reproductive humanimal (i.e. human physiological) processes.

3.2 Not just Three Essentials for Darwinian Evolution but Six

This extension certainly does not seriously invalidate Blackmore's arguments, but her arguments are rendered somewhat imprecise by the neglect of the additional three factors necessary for Darwinian evolution. It is stated p.10 that "Darwin's argument requires three main features: variation, selection and retention (or heredity)." This is true and necessary but according to Williams (1994) and others, not sufficient. For neo-Darwinian evolution, as now understood, six features are necessary. They all it seems to me, should also be quite important to think about for understanding meme and memeplex evolution:
  1. It must depend on a population of patterns of some type (they can be patterns of activity, not just of objects).
  2. Copies are made of these patterns (the smallest reliably copied pattern defines the basic unit of replication - e.g. a meme).
  3. Variation - The pattern-units must occasionally vary (due to mutation copying errors, or reshuffling of parts).
  4. Competition - Variant patterns must compete to occupy some limited space (e.g. someone's CNS).
  5. Selection - The relative reproductive success of variants must be influenced by the environment (which also usually co-evolves with the organisms - e.g. Dawkins' Extended Phenotype theory).
  6. Heredity -The makeup of the next generation of the population must depend on which variants survive to be copied.
It is worth noting that the main environment for most memes is constituted by other memes and especially by memeplexes (& "selfplexes") (- just as the main environment for any gene is other neighbouring genes). Bhaktin's question: "Who is doing the talking?" (Wertsch, 1991) is also relevant for specifying the selective environment of a meme or memeplex.

3.3 Not just One Emergent Memetic level but about Six memeplex levels

All memes are not created equal, and especially all memeplexes are not created equal. I have argued (Boyd, 1997) that at least six different levels of memeplexes have emerged historically in co-evolution with populations of informationally coupled humanimals (Homo Sapiens) and their/our environments:
  1. The simple viral aesthetically attractive, pseudo sustenantial (or actually sustenantial/symbiotic) memes, { e.g. Happy-faces :-), apples, paper-money}.
  2. above these emerged negotiative ethically and morally attractive memeplexes, {e.g. "do-as-you-would-be-done-by"} above those
  3. what I refer to as conjugative-integrative identi-memeplexes these are what Blackmore has named "selfplexes"- which compose our ordinary personal identites.
  4. Emerging above the selfplexes that we are addicted to, is another level of those memeplexes which can free us from addictions -"liberative" memeplexes. {e.g. Ignore this sentence!}
  5. Then emerging evolutionarily from those are the "scientosophic" (i.e. scientific and philosophic- or universal science) memeplexes (- including those of Blackmore's book itself) which can librate us from superstitious memeplexes, and give us good heuristics and/or gener ative predictive models.
and above those
  1. emerge what I am now enclined to call :"existential" hope-despair imbuing and sustaining, (at best perhaps "symvivial" = harmonious-Life-unity-hope survival-promoting) memeplexes.

3.4 The trouble with one "selfplex" per customer

The trouble with "selfplex" is that it probably lumps together a number of identity component memeplex entities all hosted by humanimal bodies. For most people the self may usually feel singular and integrated, but it is very apparent to others that we often actually exhibit at least several different personae (e.g. Rowan, 1990). The extreme cases are those of Multiple Personality Syndrome on the one hand and the wonderful self-integration of some great figures or saints on the other. For the rest of us we serve as stages on which various personae or identi-memeplexes take their turns at performing and contending with one-another. We each are a little cast of selfplex actors, if you like.

4 The Meme Machine from a Critical Realist Stance

Is Blackmore's unstated philosophical stance possibly Critical Realism?

The presuppositions of a scientific essay are almost always as important as what is explicitly stated. It is a little difficult to determine the philosophy of science which Blackmore espouses. It is clearly not naive realism, nor superficial observational empiricism, nor positivist operationalism. The actual methodology used is unstated. It might very possibly be either Methodological Pragmatism (Rescher, 1997), constructivism (Von Glaserfeld, 1987), or more hopefully Critical Realism (Bhaskar, 1989).

Memetics, this new causal historical explanatory theory which can be used to generate models of particular source systems, is expounded by Blackmore in a particular qualitative way which might fit all three philosophies of science. Some of the scientific commonsense pre-suppositions of Memetic theory, and some of the vested interests which memeplex evolution models (e.g. of a religion) might harm or benefit are clearly indicated - which taken together might allow categorizing her work as a creative foray in Critical Realism. Adding more critical emphasis on identifying the kinds of memeplexes which are the reproductive forms of domination that Marx identified and named 'reification' and 'alienation' would nicely put the work in the mainstream of Critical Realism today.

If we start from a 'Critical Realist' philosophical position, i.e. An ontology of the real world as structured differentiated and ever changing, and an understanding of scientific activity as the continual process of the empirically controlled retrodiction of explanatory structures from the manifest phenomena which are produced by them, then Blackmore in the Meme Machine is doing science. The possibly real explanatory structures are humanimally embodied `memeplexes' and in particular `selfplexes' which are proposed to account for a large part of the phenomena of human behaviour. They sustain questioning, and thus are partly validated by her explorations of accepted knowledge.

The Meme Machine also participates in the critical emancipative transformative agenda of Critical Realism. Emancipative critique according to Bhaskar (1989) consists in asking to what extent are enduring structures being merely reproduced in novel forms, and to what extent are they being transformed to replace un-needed, unwanted and oppressive sources of determination by wanted and empowering ones. Memeplex reproduction and propagation is certainly often unwanted and oppressive, but is it also the basis of human agency and indeed the human spirit? Blackmore seems to contend effectively that it is such. What emerges is a rather odd kind of human agency - the agency of millions of complexly interacting memes embodied in various humanimal nervous systems and artefacts.

This poses a problem for Critical Realists with an emancipative concern such as Bhaskar, because if memetic processes are the 'real' underlying generative processes of culture and identity, then the most important needs of human beings as such arise from our biologically evolved imperatives to reproduce and propagate often totally incompatible competitive memeplexes. Does not emancipation now mean that everyone needs to be liberated from those parts of their own "selfplexes" which cannot propagate symbiotically with those of others and with our biophysical niches? This selfplex competition survival question is not explicitly raised by Blackmore, but it is I think implicit in her exposition.

5 Conclusion

All definitions of 'human nature' have been, and are, very political in the sense that their deployment advantages some sorts (classes?) of people at the expense of others. As Berry, (1986) concludes: "Any theory (of human nature) itself is part of the problem and constitutive of the issue." Who then benefits, and who malefits, from the memetic definition of human nature being purveyed by Susan Blackmore? Critical Realist social scientists will benefit. Socio-cultural engineers will benefit. educators will benefit. POST-post-modernist engaged atheist intellectual selfplexes are bound to benefit. On the other hand various sorts of 'True-believers', including possibly even 'true believers' in Memetics, will suffer as this work, with its liberative anti-magical reframing effects, climbs up the best-seller list (and I think it should).


Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. (1998) The Adapted Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1991) Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom. Oxford: Blackwells. See also the Website for critical Realism <http://www.raggedclaws.com/criticalrealism/>

Bhaskar, Roy (1989) A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso.

Berry, Christopher (1986) Human Nature. Atlantic Highlands, Humanities Press. {Any "theory (of human nature) itself is part of the problem and constitutive of the issue."}

Blackmore, S. (1996) In Search of The Light; The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. Amherst NY. Prometheus Books.

Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press.

Boyd, G. (1997) Excavating the Emergent Levels of Cybersystemics with a view to Concerted Progressive Action. Systemica, 11:29-42. BKS/ Dutch System Group.

Brodie, R. (1996) Viruses of the Mind. Seattle, Integral Press. Available June 2000 from <info@brodietech.com>

Cees-Speel, H. (1999) On Memetics and Memes as Brain-Entities - a commentary on Gatherer's paper: Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of memetics, Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 3. <http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1999/vol3/speel_h-c.html>

D'Amasio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens; body and emotion and the making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Dennett, D. C. (1984) Elbow Room; The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Edelman, G. (1992) Bright Air Brilliant Fire; on the Matter of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, G. & Tononi, G. (2000) A Universe Of Consciousness; How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books.

Jacoby, R. (1975) Social Amnesia. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lynch, A. (1996) Thought Contagion; How Belief Spreads Through Society. New York: Basic Books.

Rescher, N. (1977) Methodological Pragmatism . Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press.

Rowan, J. (1990) Subpersonalities; The People Inside Us. London: Routledge.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1987) The Construction of Knowledge: Contributions to Conceptual Semantics. Seaside CA: Intersystems Publications.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991) Voices of the Mind; a Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Cambrifge MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, C. (1994) Evolution. Scientific American, Oct. 1994:105-106.

© JoM-EMIT 2001

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