|The Selfish Meme|
|publisher||Oxford University Press|
|summary||Minds Are Memes|
Oxford Professor and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins launched the idea of the meme in 1976 his now famous book "The Selfish Meme" with these words: "when you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propogation in just the same way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell."
The meme was born, one of the most interesting and timely ideas in media and/or culture.
The idea that ideas are infectious is radical and controversial. To this day, prominent scientists like Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould argue that the meme is a "meaningless metaphor." Other academics (H.Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester) complain that memetics is nothing more than "cocktail-party science."
But the idea has taken hold, especially on the Net, where memes are launched every second and spread just like microbes. (If you want to see how memes work, study the recent writings about Weblogs, on Slashdot and elsewhere, and how the notion has spread electronically into the culture). Information viruses such as memes, wrote Dawkins, follow natural laws much like those governing the change and transmission of biological viruses.
Dawkins saw memes as a unit of cultural evolution. He considered ideas as replicators, working in the exact same way as microbiological organisms like viruses to do spread through the culture. Memes are transmittable, infectious.
Dawkins didn't have the Internet in mind when he coined the term, but new technologies like the Net and TV spread memes faster than was ever possible, elevating his theory.
Big techno-driven media are fusion meme machines: God is Dead, OJ was Framed, Video Games Turn Your Kids Into Killers, Kids Don't Need Parents, the Paparazzi killed Diana, Boris Yeltsin is crazy, a missile shot down TWA Flight 800. Monica and the dress was a nuclear meme.
But according to Dawkins and other memeticists, memes come in all shapes and sizes. They shape culture and politics, through movies, music, books, lectures and word-of-mouth.
In "Wired Style," author Constance Hale defines a meme as a "contagious idea," also as a "virus of the mind," or "unit of cultural inheritance." An especially infectious idea, she says, is a "viral meme." These replicating thoughts are to cultural inheritance what genes are to biological heredity.
When most people talk about memes, they are describing discrete units of knowledge, information, gossip, jokes, faiths. Memetics is the belief that just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.
In his smart, useful and very clear-headed book about memes - "Thought Contagion, How Belief Spreads Through Society" - Aaron Lynch took Dawkins' idea a step farther. In memetic evolution, he wrote, the hardiest ideas aren't always the most helpful but the ones that are simply the best at replicating.
Despite their growing popularity, memes remain controversial, and they just got more so. Susan Blackmore, a professor at the University of the West of England has elevated the meme to whole other plane - with the blessing of Dawkins, who has written a foreword for her new book.
In "The Meme Machine," (Oxford University Press, US $25), Blackmore argues that memes account not only for the evolution of culture but also for consciousness itself. The mind, she believes, is essentially a nest of memes. The mind is essentially -- and almost entirely -- a vehicle for virulent notions.
"Everything that is passed from person to person is a meme," writes Blackmore. "This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others and the games you like to play. It includes the songs you sing and the rules you obey. So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza or coke, whistle the them tune from "Neighbors" or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behavior to get itself copied.
Blackmore brings us laboriously to a final point of reference and conclusion, to the nature of the inner self, the part of us that is the center of our consciousness, that feels emotions and has memories, holds beliefs and makes decisions.
Some people call this the soul, or the spirit. Blackmore calls it the "inner self." Her argument is that this inner self is an illusion, a creation of relentless memes for the sake of their own replication.
It's nearly impossible to understand this theory, or how it squares with biology or genetics, let alone buy it. We don't just transmit memes, says Blackmore. Memes 'R Us.
This book is a sorry illustration of how to take a great idea and bury it under much more weight than it can possibly bear. Blackmore's writing is academic, dry and loaded with incomprehensible notions like the "memeplex," her memetic inner self. The book reads almost as if some 12-step therapist co-opted memes for her next group therapy session.
If Dawkin's original thesis was brilliant and simple, Blackmore's is impenetrable. In his foreword, Dawkins says he is "delighted" to recommend Blackmore's book, triggering a personal meme. He's a generous man.
Humans are two kinds of thing, Blackmore has concluded: meme machines and selves. Having read this several times, I have no idea what it means. Or why anybody would care.
It's almost impossible to pay attention either to media or the Web and not believe in memes and memetics, whatever the academics say. Ideas are infectious, and they do move through the culture like viruses. In a way, columns, posts, software programs, even flames are memes - they spread precisely like viruses, and they do replicate as units of cultural evolution.
Anybody on the Net sees this almost everytime they get online.
Technologies like TV and the Net have given memes powerful new ways in which to travel and replicate. That makes them significant, a social, business and political tool as well as a cultural idea. Memetics do affect all of us, and ought to be taken more, not less, seriously.
But books like "The Meme Machine" will have the opposite effect. Memeplex theory in this form is loopy, not revealing or penetrating.
Blackmore has taken an important idea and made it obtuse, almost ridiculous. Anybody interested in the idea would do a lot better to get Dawkin's landmark The Selfish Gene or Lynch's blessedly excellent, clear and direct study (published last year by Basic Books, $US 26) of contemporary memes, and how they affect politics, media, culture and thought.
If you still want the Blackmore book, pick it up at Amazon.