It has been nearly ten years since The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore was published. In this seminal book, Blackmore developed the idea–first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene–that culture, like biology, evolves through the processes of variation, selection, and replication. From this beginning, Blackmore convincingly crafted a fully fledged theory of the ‘meme’. Quoting from the book: “When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own.”
Since then, the theory of memetics has spawned a devoted legion of supporters, and an equally dogged army of critics. What is it about such a simple word that can create this sort of friction? While the word may be simple, its implications are not, particularly for those who cringe at the notion of evolutionary theory playing an explanatory role in culture. Dr. Blackmore was kind enough to spend some time with Neuronarrative discussing the theory of memetics and other topics.
Since The Meme Machine was published roughly a decade ago, how far have we come in better understanding memes and their significance?
Hardly any at all! The whole idea of memes is widely misunderstood and widely rejected (though I don’t know in how many cases the latter is because of the former!). Many social scientists dislike memetics because they dislike any evolutionary approach to culture. On the other hand many biologists reject memetics because they want to restrict evolutionary explanations to biology – because they still believe that genes are the final arbiter. This means that the numbers of people willing and able to do research on memetics is very small.
Then there is the sheer difficulty of working out how to do research in memetics. It is a new way of seeing the world rather than a set of specific hypotheses, so this makes it hard to test. There are, of course, predictions made from meme theory but on many occasions, when these have turned out to be correct, people have interpreted them in some other non-memetic way. It’s very frustrating!
I still believe that memetics provides the best way to understand human uniqueness, the way we evolved, and what is happening now as the third replicator (techno-memes, or temes) is beginning to take over.
Memetics has its share of detractors, some of whom have been rather vocal. What’s at the heart of the controversy?
There are many controversies. Among the valid ones is the question of whether memes are really a new replicator. I say they are but can appreciate arguments against. Another is the question of to what extent actions are really copied, as opposed to being reconstructed by the observer. I say there is a wide range and this does not invalidate memetics while others believe the uncertainty undermines the basic theory of memes.
Sadly, many of the objections to memetics are based on a complete misunderstanding of the whole idea. For example, some people persist in questioning whether memes exist. This shows a failure to understand the principle – memes are “that which is imitated” or “that which is copied”, so they must exist; words, songs, scientific theories and so on all exist don’t they? The relevant question here is not whether they exist but whether thinking of them as a new replicator helps us understand the world. I say it does. Others think that memes are nebulous abstract entities. Again they are not – they are information that is copied.
Others think they are neural patterns inside brains. On this issue there are legitimate discussions but as a general principle, if memes are that which is copied, then we don’t copy other people’s brain patterns.
But perhaps what is really at the heart of the controversy is that memetics is scary. It pushes evolutionary theory right into the heart of everything we think and do, and even into our understanding of the nature of self. Our self, I suggest, is a memplex created by and for the memes, rather than an actual existing entity that has consciousness and free will. Understandably people don’t like this idea. However, not liking an idea is not a good reason for believing it to be false.
The recent discoveries regarding mirror neurons would seem to have significant implications for memetics. Can you briefly describe how mirror neuron research has affected your work?
Not at all. In The Meme Machine I predicted that something like mirror neurons would be found, and in fact they were being discovered at about that time. However, we now know that mirror neurons are found in many species that are not capable of imitation, and without imitation there are no memes. I think it will turn out that mirror neurons are necessary but by no means sufficient for imitation.
From reading your essays, I gather you have spent a fair amount of time thinking through the critical importance of science education. What in your view are the major challenges facing science educators over the next several years?
Sadly, I think people’s desire for there to be a creator and a meaning to life will always make it easier to teach false religious views than to teach evolution. So, after all these years, teaching evolution is still a challenge. In my view the way to do this is to get students to understand how natural selection works. You can pile on evidence forever and people will reject it (God put it there to fool us, scientists don’t know for sure, etc etc), but if they once understand the evolutionary algorithm then everything changes. When they understand that if you make lots of slightly different copies of something and then kill off most of the copies and repeat the process, then design for function MUST appear, then they can no longer use the argument that since the universe looks designed there must have been a designer.
This is the heart of true understanding – that design comes out of chaos without any designer or a plan. Of course they can still go on believing in God if they want to, but they can no longer believe that our existence required a creator God. This is a very big step into wanting to understand how the universe works and hence to enjoying learning science. But we should not underestimate how scary it is for people. If we want to teach science then we need to understand those fears and help people to enjoy finding out the truth rather than clinging to comforting dogma.
What are you working on lately? Anything we can look forward to seeing, or reading, soon?
My next book is called “Ten Zen Questions” and is due out in March. After battling with the great scientific mystery of consciousness for many years I realized that my own Zen practice might help to clear away some of the confusion. I have been practicing Zen for nearly 30 years now, and find its methods of meditation very helpful. For the book I tackled some wonderfully perplexing questions, including “Am I conscious now?”, “Who is asking the question?” and “When are you?” as well as some traditional Zen koans.
I conclude that the science of consciousness is so confused because people have not looked clearly enough into their own minds and so they are trying to explain an illusion. Consciousness is not the way most people assume it is. So we need to start again from a new beginning. I have also illustrated the book with simple brush and ink drawings, something I have never done before but thoroughly enjoyed. (I am also setting up a website where people can share their own experiences with the ten questions and argue with my interpretations too!)
Link to Dr. Blackmore’s website
Link to Dr. Blackmore’s very entertaining and informative TED lecture