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After recent discussion of cultural evolution I realised that I didn’t know much about memes, so I set myself the penance of reading Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine.

It turned out to be a painless penance, as the book is well written and full of interesting ideas. Blackmore doesn’t overstrain the analogy between memes and genes – in fact, she stresses the differences more than the similarities. She believes that the ‘key innovation’ of the human species is the ability to imitate. True imitation is rare among non-human animals, and the range and quality of human imitation are unique. The ability to imitate presumably first evolved because it conferred a genetic advantage, but once the ability had emerged, it created a new selective environment in which genes and memes co-evolve. Blackmore also emphasises that sexual selection would favour the best imitators, and argues that ‘the specific nature of the memes of the time would determine which genes were more successful. The memes began to force the hand of the genes’ (p. 79). Using this concept of ‘memetic
driving’ she attempts to explain the main features of human evolution, including the expansion of the human brain and the emergence of complex language. She goes on to consider major areas of cultural evolution such as sex roles, altruistic behaviour, and religion. Finally, she has some bold ideas about the construction of personality and the ‘self’ as a product of competition and selection among memes in the individual brain.

For all that, I still don’t find the book convincing! This is partly because the analysis of specific cultural traits is naive and superficial. For example, before discussing the celibacy of the (Catholic) clergy in print, one should at least read some ecclesiastical history to find out when, where, and how the rule of celibacy was established. In fact, it wasn’t generally enforced until the eleventh century, as part of the medieval Papacy’s campaign to impose central control over church appointments and property. This had more to do with politics and economics than anything covered by ‘memetics’.

Blackmore’s arguments about ‘meme-gene co-evolution’ are also sketchy and hand-waving. Her rhetoric implies that memes ‘drive’ the genes contrary to natural selection, but if this is really what she means, she needs to spell the process out more clearly. There is no problem if she just means that the products of imitative behaviour create new selective pressures for the genes, any more than there is a problem in the fact that once birds start making nests this imposes new selective pressures for nest-building. But she seems to intend more than this. She relies heavily on sexual selection (by female choice) to promote the ‘meme-favoured’ genes, but the theory of female choice is notoriously tricky (see the discussions in P. Bateson (ed.) Mate Choice, and M. Andersson, Sexual Selection). And there is no guarantee that what works with genes carries over to memes.

Consider especially the ‘Fisher’ process of evolution by female choice. First, we assume that a small but significant proportion of females have somehow acquired a genetically-based preference for males with a certain genetically-based trait. Provided there is some degree of polygyny in the mating system, the preference will give that trait a selective advantage. Females who mate with the favoured males will have offspring who often have genes both for the female preference and for the favoured male trait. The male offspring will often carry (but not express) the gene for female preference and pass it on to their own daughters. And since males with the favoured male trait have higher fitness (and therefore more daughers) than those who do not, the gene for female preference will increase in frequency. And so on, and so on.

But a crucial part of this process depends on males carrying unexpressed genes for female behavioural traits. While this is no problem for genes, it is far from clear that the same applies to memes. Genes can be recessive or sex-limited (expressed in only one sex), which on the face of it is impossible for memes. Why should women have the same memes for sexual preference as their fathers’ mothers, and not those of their own mothers or their mothers’ mothers? Yet Blackmore discusses the ‘Fisher’ process without showing any awareness of these problems, and I am not convinced that she has thought the implications through in detail.

Still, it’s an important book, and well worth reading. Overall, it left me with the feeling that memes do need to be taken seriously, but only as one aspect or dimension of cultural evolution. I suggest that in looking at any cultural trait we should consider at least the following aspects of it:

Historical: what do we know about how the trait has actually emerged and developed?
Economic: what are the costs and benefits of the trait, and to whom?
Evolutionary psychology: how does the trait relate to our ‘basic instincts’, such as sex and status?
Social system: how does the trait fit in with other aspects of the society in question? E.g., if the trait is dowry-giving, one needs to look at the whole system of marriage, property and inheritance, but without the ‘functionalist’ assumption that the trait must serve some purpose in maintaining the system.
Memetic: what characteristics of the trait may enhance its memetic survival and replication? What advantages may it have over rival memes?



  1. I haven’t read the relevant literature, but am going on a few passing uses of the concept here and there.

    However, when you say “This had more to do with politics and economics than anything covered by ‘memetics’” it suggests that you have too thin an understanding of the scope of memetics. Politics and economics, as forms of organization, are memetic. (Examples: in politics, the passage of rule to the oldest male heir; economics: inviolability of contracts). Power relations and sources of wealth are involved in any memetic change, but it’s still memetic.

    Besides just as a way to describe independent cultural and biological development, my interest in memetics is in its analytic nature. In cases of cultural borrowing or influences, for example, some memetic units are borrowed and others not. For example, the case of Japan — two periods of massive borrowing, from China ca. 800 AD and from the US, mostly, after 1850. Japan has not become less Japanese, and is thoroughly strange both to Americans and to Chinese. By looking at what was borrowed and what wasn’t, and how the new memes altered and were altered by the older memes they coexisted with, seems to provide a way of understanding this kind of thing.

    As I see memes, they aren’t necessarily conscious. A steel knife is a meme. The word “culture” in the US seems to have been specialized for consciousness, arts, religion, philkosophy, entertainment, etc., but I think it properly means “everything learned” as opposed to what is biologically inherited.

  2. Martin Gardner said it best in his review of this volume:

    “All of science is a memeplex, but it is hopeless to decide when a scientific assertion becomes small enough to be called an individual meme. Is the fact of evolution a meme or a memeplex?
    Roman Catholicism is a monstrous memeplex. What aspects of it deserve to be called memes? The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Or is this a memeplex made up of such memes as original sin and the Virgin Birth? ….
    The point is that the notion of a meme is much too broad to be useful in explaining human thinking and behavior. A meme is little
    more than a peculiar terminology for saying the obvious. Who can deny that cultures change in ways independent of genetics, ways involving information that is spread throughout society mainly by spoken and written words?
    As Blackmore makes clear, memes have a physical basis of some sort inside brains, where they are stored in one’s memory in ways nobody understands. This is important in helping us
    understand how memes and genes differ. Genes have become visible. They are spots along the DNA double helix that have been isolated and observed. They are as real as atoms. How memes live in brains is a mystery.
    When memes jump from brain to brain, they often are transported by what memeticists call meme vehicles. Obvious examples of such carriers are newspapers, periodicals, books and recordings. Libraries, museums and art galleries are huge vehicles for storing and passing along memes…
    Let’s try a linguistic thought experiment. In all human cultures, even in chimp society, objects not connected to the body are
    shifted from place to place. Call every such move a “tran,” short for translocate or transfer. Moving our shoes when we walk, run or dance is not trans because the objects are attached to our body. Nor are the movements of things in cars, trains, ships, planes and elevators examples of trans because the propelling forces are
    independent of us even though we may direct such movements.
    Examples of genuine trans abound. The motions of pitched and batted baseballs are obvious trans, as are the movements of
    objects in dozens of other sports: football, basketball, bowling, tennis, golf, hockey, pool and so on. When a chess player pushes
    a pawn, it’s a tran. Dealing playing cards is a tran. Raking leaves and moving vacuum cleaners and using dust busters are trans. Serving food and washing dishes are trans. Hammering a nail and sawing wood are trans. Eating is a tran because food is moved from plate to mouth, though swallowing it is not because the food becomes joined to the body. … There are tens of thousands of other examples.
    A vexing question arises: How should we distinguish trans from transplexes? The flight of a pitched baseball is a tran, but if the ball
    is hit, caught and tossed to first base, is that familiar sequence a tran or a transplex? Shall we call an entire inning a tran or a transplex? Should transplex be reserved for a complete game, with its hundreds of trans?
    What is gained by introducing the concept of a tran? Nothing. Trans are no more than a bizarre terminology for saying what is better said in ordinary language. We don’t need a new science of tranetics to tell us that in every culture, persons move things. …
    Are memes here to stay or will they prove to be as irrelevant as trans?

  3. I agree with Martin that memes don’t really denote anything new. The only possibility of memetics becoming useful science is if memes can be described as real physical objects or patterns of energy and rules of transfer and inheritence can be discerned.

    Even then it would be likely that any mathematical modelling of memes, memeplexes and memetic organism would merely be descriptive, that is, we’ll be able to make models where memes unite to create memeplexes, etc., but won’t be able to use it to make and test predictions about the course of cultures any better than we can now.

  4. To misquote John Lennon, “All we are saying is give memes a chance”.

    I sympathise with a lot of the criticisms of memetics, but then I reflect that a lot of them are similar to the early criticisms of Darwin’s natural selection – vague, tautologous, untestable, etc.

    It seems to me (and Blackmore) that many aspects of the theory of memes are eminently testable, e.g. by experimentally introducing new memes into different ‘environments’ (e.g. groups of people with different religious or political views), and then observing which memes are retained, how fast they spread, how they ‘mutate’, and so on.

    On Zizka’s point about economics, I would still try to draw a distinction between cultural traits which are adopted because they have memetic properties which facilitate their own spread, and those which are adopted (or enforced) because they serve someone’s economic interest. We don’t pay taxes because it’s a popular meme, but because governments need money, and they have the power to collect it. But I will admit that even taxation has a memetic aspect, e.g. in the ways that governments may copy ideas about taxes from each other.

  5. Yes, and don’t forget mailing the check to the IRS is a trans.;)

  6. I’ve seen double-entry bookkeeping described as “the soul of rationality”. Initially it was economic, but as a model oif thinking about input-output, or cost-benefit, it spread through the society into non-economic areas. It was economic, but definitely a meme. It is NOT intuitive.

    Again, memes are any cultural artifact or practice, not just things in consciousness.