DynaPsych Table of Contents

To Imitate is Human:
A Review of The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore

Liane Gabora
Center Leo Apostel,
Brussels Free University,
Krijgskundestraat 33,
B-1160 Brussels, Belgium


Reprinted with permission from The Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/JASSS/JASSS.html


The Meme Machine follows through on Dawkins’ (1976) fascinating suggestion that culture, like biology, evolves through the processes of variation, selection, and replication. TMM does a nice job of laying out the basic idea--that, much as organic life evolves into more complex forms through progressive adaptation to environmental constraints, ideas and artifacts build on what came before in response to the necessities of human survival. Like Richard Brodie’s (1996) Virus of the Mind, and Aaron Lynch’s (1996) Thought Contagion, TMM explores how this kind of evolutionary perspective on culture can shed light on various aspects of the human experience, such as why we talk so much, believe in alien abduction, and fantasize about sex. (Though the chapter titled ‘An orgasm saved my life’ never gets around to explaining how an orgasm saved someone’s life.)

1. Is Imitation What Distinguishes Humans from Animals?

TMM is about imitation rather than innovation. Blackmore lays this out explicitly: "The thesis of this book is that what makes us different is our ability to imitate" (p. 3). The story goes: humans can imitate, and animals can not, and that is why we alone have evolved culture. The idea that conformity, not creativity, is the hallmark of the human condition, will inevitably strike some readers as so unappealing and counterintuitive, they won’t get past Chapter One. And in the end, the case she makes may not be convincing. Nevertheless, the possibility is at least worth considering, and it is interesting to see how it fares.

Blackmore begins by arguing that imitation is natural and ubiquitous in humans, but almost nonexistent in animals. Though the first part of this argument is clearly true, the second is highly controversial. As it turns out, as the book was being written, the consensus was swinging in favor of the view that animals do imitate. (An article by Byrne & Russon (1998), and the accompanying commentary, provide an insightful review of this topic.) Despite the fact that animal culture is impoverished at best, the do appear to have some imitative capacity. So from the get go, there are doubts as to whether Blackmore will suceed in pulling her 'imitation drives culture' thesis off. But you don’t know for sure.

The next few chapters spell out how memes function as replicators, and discusses how things look like from the ‘meme’s eye view’ (Dennett 1995). The ‘imitation drives culture’ hypothesis leads Blackmore to narrowly circumscribe what counts as a meme and can be culturally transmitted; i.e. she limits the transmission process to imitation of one human by another. So, for example, if a child learns to peel a banana by watching her mother, a meme has replicated. But if the child learns this skill from a cartoon character on t.v., no replication has taken place. By the end of the book (particularly in the chapter on the internet) she eases up on this a bit. Human-made artifacts now seem to play a role in her vision, though elements of the natural world still don’t. Thus if a child gets the idea for how to peel a banana by watching the petals of a flower unfold, her flower-inspired 'how to peel a banana' meme is not transmittable. In the blink of an eye, Blackmore discards the possibility that any experience can be food for thought and thus food for culture, on the on the grounds that it is "extremely confusing" (p. 45). The worldview implied by the Shroedinger equation is extremely confusing too, but its batting average as a predictor of experimental outcomes is unsurpassed. ‘Confusing’ is not synonymous with ‘wrong’.

Blackmore also claims that "perceptions and emotions are not memes because they are ours alone and we may never pass them on" (p. 15). It follows that the feeling evoked by a painting of a stormy night at sea has no relationship to what the artist was feeling at the time... that a teacher’s attitude of compassion has no impact on the cultural dynamics of the classroom. Thus it isn’t certain how Blackmore’s narrow definition of meme clears up the confusion.

2. The Origin of Culture

Chapter Six focuses on the dramatic increase in brain size that began two and a half million years ago during the transition from Australopithecus to Homo. It is here that hopes of pulling off the ‘imitation drives culture’ thesis takes a nosedive. Blackmore correctly notes that the archeological record reveals a sudden increase in tool variety at this time. She does not seem to be aware that this contradicts the thesis of her book. That is, if imitation were the bottleneck to culture, then prior to the origin of culture there would have been variation everywhere, and the onset of imitation would have funneled this variation in a few of the most useful directions. To bolster the thesis that imitation is the cultural bottleneck with archeological evidence, Blackmore would have had to find a period of time where tool variety sharply decreased.

The evidence she cites is, in fact, consistent with the thesis that creativity, rather than imitation, was the bottleneck to culture. The lack of cultural complexity in animals, despite the evidence that, when put to the test, they can imitate, is also consistent with this proposal. Imitative capacity remains latent or hidden until there is variation for it to work on. In ‘Meme and Variations’, my computer model of cultural evolution, when I set the agents' ability to imitate to 1 and their ability to invent to 0, what happened is... nothing (Gabora, 1995). There has to be something worth imitating before the ability to imitate will manifest itself. Novelty can then breed more novelty. Or as one choreographer (whose name I forget) put it: "If we don't do what our predecessors did, we're doing what our predecessors did."

The material that follows, dealing with the relationship of memetics to language and various social issues such as beauty and birth control, is well done. It provides a wealth of intriguing alternatives to explanations offered by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology over the last few decades. Sharpening the contrast between these approaches--for example, contrasting the memetic explanation for gossip with that proposed by Barkow (1992)--would have made this part of the book even more valuable.

3. Memetics and Profound Stuff

Like Dawkins, Dennett, Brodie, and Lynch, Blackmore can not resist going to great lengths to convince us that religion and the New Age movement are nothing but hotbeds of a manipulative tricks. "Religions build theories about the world and then prevent them being tested. Religions provide nice, appealing and comforting ideas and cloak them in a mask of truth, beauty, and goodness. The theories can then thrive despite being untrue, ugly, or cruel... I do defend the idea that science, at its best, is more truthful than religion (p. 202-3)". (One can’t help but wonder here ‘What about religion at its best? Didn’t religion give birth to science?’) I for one am getting bored with this kind of thing. Those who devote their lives to religion may similarly deride science and gloat over how concepts such as 'fallen from grace' and 'purification of the soul' are vastly more meaningful than concepts like 'Turing test', and 'corpus callosum'. Instead of pitting one against the other, it would have been more satisfying to hear about how different experiences open up different memetic niches, which in turn generate different experiences, i.e. the ‘embryology’ of the process wherein a mind incorporates a given memeplex. I’d like to hear what is going on when a meme (whether it be ‘evolution’ or ’human redemption’) percolates far into a conceptual network touching every meme it encounters, resulting in a more consistent or satisfying worldview. In fact there is some disparity between the 'science rules' attitude and the relative paucity of theory or data. If the title leads you to expect material on computer models, cognitive science, complexity, information theory, etc. you might be disappointed. There isn't a lot on the workings of the memetic machinery.

From there the book moves on to topics like consciousness, the meaning of life, and the concept of self. Much of this is intriguing; for example, the cross-cultural comparison of near death experiences. However to define the ‘self’ as "a bunch of memes" (p. 231) is misleading (particularly if emotions and attitudes don’t count as memes!) It's like saying a chair is just a bunch of sticks. Much as ‘chairness’ resides in the way sticks are organized, the self arises from the way memes are structured and interact with one another, something about which Blackmore could have said more.

4. Is Memetics a Second Form of Evolution or 'Just an Analogy'?

Blackmore does not feel obliged to dig her spurs too deep into evolutionary theory, on the grounds that borrowing concepts from biology can lead cultural theorists astray: "There need be no memetic equivalent of the phenotype or the vehicle, any more than there are equivalents for strictly genetic concepts like alleles, loci, mitosis, and meiosis" (p. 66). Repeatedly she insists "We must remember they are only analogies" (p. 42). However, this stance also discourages potentially fruitful directions. Consider what happens when someone familiar with the concept of snow skiing first hears of water skiing. He might continue to include ‘snow’ as vital to the concept of ‘skiing’, and view water skiing as analogous to skiing. Or he might generalize the definition of ‘skiing’ to include both snow skiing and water skiing. Neither is objectively more correct, but the generalized concept of skiing more readily invites the application of knowledge gained through the study of snow skiing to water skiing. This is not equivalent to saying that water skiing IS snow skiing; it’s just a way of organizing world knowledge that is less likely to foster wasting time by reinventing the wheel. Let us suppose that, a few years before water skis hit the market, you had been a venture capitalist, and were approached by two inventors who had both come up with the idea of water skis. One inventor had spent the last few years working for a company that makes snow skis, and talked at length about how the length and width of a ski affect glide and balance, why skis curl up at the tip, etc. The other knew little about snow skis and argued this didn’t matter because snow and water are not the same thing, it’s "just an analogy". Which inventor would you have been more likely to fund?

Similarly, we can either say that DNA, chromosomes, etc. are vital components of evolution, and memetic change is analogous to evolution, or we can redefine evolution as any process wherein the iterated variation and selection of information induces adaptation to environmental constraint, and view memetic change as a second form of evolution. In so doing, one finds that concepts such as fitness, epistasis, drift, mutation, morphology, niches, attractors, and so on provide an extremely useful scaffold upon which to investigate how ideas unfold as one individual after another assimilates them and gives them their own unique slant. (See Radnitzky & Bartley 1988; Hull 1988a, 1988b).

The example Blackmore provides to illustrate how biological concepts can mislead is the distinction between genotype and phenotype. Most memeticists maintain that something along these lines is useful; i.e. there is a need to differentiate between the mental representation of a meme in the mind, and the implementation of it as behavior, vocalization, or artifact. Blackmore argues that this distinction does not account for the difference between copying-the-result (as when someone watches you make soup) and copying the instruction (as when you give someone a recipe for soup). In fact, this raises no problem at all for the genotype/phenotype distinction. Both soup and recipe are artifacts, phenotypic expressions of different but related mental representations. As one’s understanding of biological concepts increases, the danger of misapplying them decreases.

The exception to Blackmore’s avoidance of biological concepts are the two chapters on memetic altruism. The idea that not only genes, but memes, impel us to behave altruistically toward others who bear copies of them, is a promising answer to a problem that has plagued sociobiology for some time. Blackmore does a good job of explaining the concept, though it would have been appropriate to mention that it has been around for some time (Heylighen 1992, 1993; Gabora 1996, 1997, 1998a; Evans 1998).

5. Wrapping Up

I was not convinced of the pivotal role given to imitation, but you may well be. I am perhaps not the most objective of readers. First, because I harbor some possibly overly-idealistic memes about the human condition. And second because my own research supports the alternative proposition that creativity was the bottleneck to culture. A story can be told. Whereas biological creativity is random and ‘breadth-first’--i.e. generate as many variants as possible and hopefully one of them will do the trick--cultural creativity is non-random and ‘depth-first’--i.e. generate novelty strategically, using knowledge of relationships (Gabora, 1996, 1997). For a mind to be capable of strategic creativity, its initially discrete memories and stimulus-response associations must transform into an interconnected conceptual web, or worldview, wherein related concepts are connected by way of abstractions. In (Gabora 1998b) I propose how an interconnected worldview could emerge through an autocatalytic process instigated by a genetic mutation leading to decreased neuron activation threshold.

TMM is worth taking a look at. The issues it addresses are big and important, and memetics offers some compelling answers. Readers should be aware, though, that many of the ideas Blackmore discusses are better developed in other scholarly work in memetics, which often goes uncited here. Blackmore adds her own wrinkles, but she is not quite as alone out there on the wild, dangerous frontiers of human inquiry as the book might suggest.

If we accept the premise that memes evolve, let’s use everything we’ve got and see if memetics has the potential to do for the cognitive and social sciences what the theory of natural selection has done for biology. The Meme Machine is a start. It is not inconceivable that the next century will usher forth more books on cultural evolution than this century has on biological evolution.