The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine – Susan Blackmore


My introduction

To cut a long story short – don’t worry I will summarize in some detail the train of thought hereafter anyway, because I am not going to get away with it just like that and you will miss nothing – Blackmore suggests to annihilate Dawkins’ hope for the human condition and Dennetts expectations (however small) about it: we cannot rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators (the gene), because there is no one to rebel. And it is exactly this realisation, according to Blackmore, that allows us to live a truly free life. Wow.

We humans in her view are susceptible to the thought that we are capable of thinking, hoping and expecting, but in fact she suggests we are ‘meme machines’. These thoughts above are memes themselves. Humans are biological computing machines, fit to run any utterable program. The programs fight or negotiate between themselves, in our heads, for attention. They may or may not be favourable to us humans, their hosts, where they live.

It is them, the memes, that live in our minds. And it is them that make us think we think, memorize, expect, and hope. We believe we do these things. But we don’t, not really. In other words: humans are susceptible to invasions of ideas and concepts that shape their thought and, henceforth, their actions. These memes have their own intention to survive. Like all natural processes they are ‘stupid’ processes, they don’t have a ‘will’, they just survive.

Let’s call large complexes of integrated and complex sets of memes, their subsets and their interrelations memeplexes. Then culture is an ‘ensemble’ of memeplexes, say related to work ethics, cooking habits, dinner etiquette, religions and their interrelations, economic behaviour, traffic regulations and customs and so on and so forth. In this world, humans are the computing machine that culture runs on. Cultural elements called memes are struggling to survive on a human substrate.

And conversely: if a human being actively enters any such cultural environment, by upbringing, by local or social circumstances, or for personal reasons or a profession, the memes in vigor in that environment at that time will have an influence on the thoughts of that individual. And consequently on his or her actions and behaviour, and lastly, on her or his own utterances, thus propagating the culture in his environment.

The linking pin between this train of thought and my research subject is that people, when dealing with a company or in fact any organisation, willingly give up some of their autonomy to have their behaviour increasingly steered by the culture in vigor in this (new) environment: by the ruling memes. In many cases company culture shows some traits resembling religious belief and in some cases to work at a company requires a faith bordering the religious. When defining company behaviour, I suggest that the leading principle be therefore not defined by the specific details of the people and processes it encompasses, but by the ‘ensemble’ of cultural elements that shapes it and defines its corporal behaviour. That is: behaviour that is autonomous and in a sense independent of the behaviour of the constituent human beings that are merely the computer that the company runs on.

The central thesis of my research project is this: companies are behavioural patterns in space and time steered by memes, through which material, people and information flow.

My Summary of Susan’s Book in some Detail

The thesis of ‘The Meme Machine’ is that what makes us different from all other animals is our capability to imitate (p3). Whenever you imitate someone, something is passed on. And this something can be passed on after that and on after that. This something is called a meme. Since Dawkins quoted the word meme in ‘The Selfish Gene’, the intent of evolution has become much clearer: there is no will, no goal or even an intent that drives evolution. The evolutionary direction is merely the result of genetic information competing for replication of the individual member of a species (i.e. its genetic information) in a specific environment. For that reason Dawkins made the distinction between the replicators (e.g. genes) replicating themselves, and their vehicles (the instance, the individual creature), protecting their replicators. He says: all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities (1976, p192).

This is the conception of Universal Darwinism: the application of Darwinian thinking beyond the biological arena. Or in other words: the evolutionary process requires any replicator and its vehicle, but they are not necessarily ‘wet’. This was the foundation (birth if you will) of the meme, simply another type of replicator. Everything that is passed on in this way from human to human is a meme. From the meme’s eye view it is like this: ‘we humans have become just the physical hosts needed for the memes to go around’ (Blackmore p8).

Universal Darwinism
Pivotal, once again, is the evolutionairy process, described by Darwin. Due to the geometric (exponential) increase in numbers of a species, there will inescapably be a struggle for life, because resources will become scarce at some point. Any variation in the characteristics of a living being may be to its advantage in the struggle. When the numbers are sufficiently large and given enough time, it is extraordinarily unlikely if there isn’t some variation that turns out to be advantageous. The individuals with these features then have the best chance to have their genetic make-up preserved. This is the process of natural selection, there is no more to it: variation (imitation of varying quality), selection of the fittest (or in fact withering of the least fit) and retention (storage of the information leading to the advantageous variation for use by later generations). In other words: if replicators exist that make copies – of varying quality – of itself, then evolution must inevitably occur.

This process is algorithmic (Dennett 1995): a mindless procedure resulting in an outcome. Algorithms are substrate-neutral, they run on a variety of different materials. The procedure may be executed using pen and paper, an abacus, a human brain, a digital computer or a combination of the above. Not the substrate matters, but the logic of the procedure. In the case of Darwinism, the substrate consists of living organisms in their environment. Again: any substtrate will do as long as it allows for variation, selection and retention. And also again: this is a mindless procedure for which mind, nor strategy, nor will, nor goal, nor orientation, nor blueprint, nor central authority for that matter, is required. Exponential replication leading to survival pressure and time to test the results are what is required. Whenever this algorithm gets going, design ensues: what kind of design it will be is unpredictable.

Memes as replicators
To fit the definition of a replicator, memes must show variation, selection and retention. As an illustration: no story will be told exactly the same way twice, no two conversations are exactly the same: the best bits will remain and the unclear or less succesful bits will be left out or changed. When succesful, the story will remain alive to be retold time and again. A meme therefore fits the definition of a replicator (Dawkins) and of an algorithm (Dennett) as per the above.

Not all thoughts are memes: immediate thoughts, emotions and perceptions are ours alone, and they do not need to be replicated and therefore are not necessarily memes. Many of our thoughts, however are driven by snippets of information from other sources and are memes. Some of our thoughts are new to the world and when we utter them, they are new memes. Memes are our tools for thinking.

Essential for the understanding of the mechanics of this procedure is the fact that memes do not replicate in one human brain. They replicate jumping from one brain to another, regardless the intermediate substrates. Memes are therefore not a direct consequence of or intermediate step in genetic evolution, a part of the biological evolutionary process that developed the brain, but a mechanism in itself, resulting in the evolution of the meme itself. Memes, to cut it short, are perfect replicators and memetic evolution is inevitable, precisely as genetic evolution is.

The Evolution of Culture
It is obvious that ideas and culture evolve: that changes are gradual and build on what went before. What distinguishes memetics from other schools of thought is that memes are replicators in their own right. They are not a function of biological evolution and its processes are not in some way dependent on it. The evolution of memes serves the memes – not the genes. He whole point of memetics is to treat the meme as a selfish replicator. Dennett (DDI 1995) asks: ‘Cui Bono?’ and answers: ’to the benefit of the replicators themselves’.

There is of course a relation between genetic and memetic evolution: humans needed to avail of a brain and communication equipment first to then be able to function as a meme machine. Once established, the question is, between the meme and the gene, on which side of the leash is the dog and on which side the owner? The answer of course is that all combinations occur: dogs or owners on either side or even alternating. As an illustration of culture keeping biology on a leash: genetic changes in human brains have occurred because of tens of thousands of years of culturally driven improvements in food availability and quality of health care.

Taking the Meme’s Eye View
Imagine a world with a limited number of hosts for memes (i.e. human brains) and a number of memes vastly greater than can be accomodated by this. Which memes will be the ones finding homes and reproduce (i.e. replicate)? The vast majority will remain unsaid, unread, unheard or otherwise unreplicated. The selection pressure for succesful memes is enormous and only a limited precentage will survive. The ones surviving are the ones ‘on top of mind’: the meme’s survival chance increases when then host is prone to repeat it – to himself and then to others. These get replicated and are – from the meme’s eye view – the more succesful. And in all fairness: they really don’t care (even if they could) whether their existence in any way benefits the host. They are mindless replicators.

Three Problems with Memes
Memes have no unit of measurement: is it the 5th of Beethoven that is the meme, or just the first 4 notes? It makes no difference: the definition is about replication, not about a specific amount of information or functionality involved. A condition is that a meme should be long enough to include all that is required to replicate itself, not shorter. It can also be argued that it should be short enough to be practical when remembering and repeating it by a human being. In practical terms: a word is too short to copyright, a library too long, a book just right. A pink dot is too small to appreciate or dislike, a gallery of paintings too big, a single painting generally just right. On the other hand: the four notes of the 5th no doubt are a meme in their own right and right next to the entire suite.

The mechanism for copying and storing is not known. Although important to fully understand it is not a sufficient lacking of knowledge to not pursue the subject any further. The intricate workings of DNA and their relation to evolution were only found long after Darwin had published his theory (Fisher 1930). We do, however, know which characteristics make a good replicator: they are fidelity, fecundity and longevity (Dawkins 1976). In other word: they must be capable of being transmitted in hi-fi, in large quantities and be capable of being stored for long periods of time. Conversely: the environment of the memes – being the human brain – must cater for such functionalities. There is no proof for this, but there are some clues that it is.

Memetic Evolution is Lamarckian
The evolutionary mechanism suggested by J.B. Lamarck is different from Darwinian evolution, in that current behaviour and experience of a creature can genetically be passed on to offspring. This does not hold true for biological evolution, at least not in sexual species. When formulated slightly differently it is relevant here. Lets say someone watches me making soup. I making a mistake in doing so. When imitating this, he copies the mistake also. The recipe (his imitation) has changed because of my earlier behaviour: this is Lamarckian evolution.

Lets say I write a recipe and someone likes my soup after tasting it and imitates it using the written recipe. Now he makes a mistake (deviates from the recipe). The behaviour is different but the recipe is still the same: non-Lamarckian. Blackmore has coined these different mechanisms ‘copy-the-product’ and ‘copy-the-instructions’ respectively. In itself the difference Lamarckian or not is irrelevant, because genetic and memetic evolution are different animals and they need not be physically identical in all aspects, but these different mechanisms are relevant. Dennett (1995) argues that the physical object is the vehicle for the meme: ‘a cart with spoked wheels not only carries the freight from place to place, but it carries the idea of a cart for carrying freight from place to place’. This train of thought is not flawlessly however: is the soup also the carrier of the idea of this way of making soup? In essence memes do not per se require vehicles in the way that genes do; if there is a vehicle then the question is why is it there?

The Origins of Language
Why do we talk so much? The use of time and energy involved in the exchange of information is phenomenal. Let’s rephrase the question taking the meme’s eye view: what is the advantage of talking a lot for the memes? That one is obvious: it spreads memes. Remembering the argument for the selection between memes: there are many memes competing for homes. Similarly memes are competing for control over your voice and keeping silent is hard work. And some memes are likey more succesful than others: generally the juicier, the better. Memes housed in chatty people will likely propagate themselves more easily and be therefore more succesful than those housed in silent types.

Religions as Memeplexes
The great faiths influence our lives on a daily basis. And yet, for those who are not infected with them, some of their ideas seem bizarre: virgin birth, almighty god, after life to name a few. How is it that these religions survived thousands of years, while others did not? How is it possible that, however strange, impractical, far-fetched and short of the slightest shred of proof their ideas may be, some of them gain believers even today? These are some of the memes and trick many great religions use to hold their believers close:

God is omniscienent and omnipotent and whoever doesn’t comply will be severely punished, preferrably in an after-life. But having raised the fear, it is reduced again: if you turn to god you will be forgiven (Catholicism). God’s love is available but at a price and so the believers end up working for the memes. The religious answers to the questions of the unknown may be false, but at least they are answers. Some of the answers, such as rules for hygiene or preparing food hold (or held) true and they bring other memes with them in their wake. The truth-trick: god and truth are used as synonyms: to bring someone the faith is interchanged with to bring someone the truth. Beauty inspires the faith and brings believers closer to god: religions have brought forth the most beautiful and awe inspiring buildings. He altruism trick is pulled many times: when doing good to others, not only is the altruism meme (do good) itself is propagated, but the religion meme piggy-backs along. Much used are marker schemes like: ‘do good to the ones who behave like you’. Communities built around these are more difficult to be exploited by invaders if the markers are complex rituals or expensive. The result is that people are good to other people in the group and less so to others: the weel-being of the group members is boosted and they are more likely to be followed. Conversely: a religious rule prohibit(ed) the killing of people outside the group, but not other members (Islam, Hindu, Christian, Jew). Belief-trick: truth denies faith and the more impossible the things the member of a religious group manages to believe, the sounder a believer he proves to be. A conglomerate of these memes is a memeplex: a salad of mutually supportive memes that together made a stronger case for survival than their constituent parts (individual memes) could do by themselves. They are stored in many brains, books and buildings and managed to propagate themselves through untestable myths, protected by the belief-trick and the wrath of their god.

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Complexity Scientist