The meme machine

I was having coffee at my parents last week. With the coffee came a cookie, and a paperback. “Have you heard of this?” asked my mother, and put the book on the coffee table. I hadn’t. I examined the blurb, which informed me that the term meme has been around as long as I myself. It was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. “Memes, like gene, are replicators, competing to find space in our minds and cultures” — I thought of blog memes replicating across cyberspace, and I thought of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Then another part of the back cover caught my eye.

It brings a sort of rigour to
thinking about cultural change
that has hitherto been lacking
MATT RIDLEY, TLS

A sociobiologist who claims that an evolutionary psychologist finally sets us straight on cultural change? It made my mind boggle. I borrowed the book.

Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine picks up from Dawkins the idea of the meme: everything that is passed from person to person by means of imitation. Tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches — like selfish genes, memes replicate, and they do so when one person imitates another. Memes, then, do not originate from creative minds, but are ideas that replicate by using persons as hosts. We are no more than copying machines in a cultural evolutionary process driven by the memes. The power behind the idea of memes, in Blackmore’s words, is that

to start to think memetically, we have to make a giant flip in our minds […] Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and as working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied. We humans, because of our powers of imitation, have become just the physical ‘hosts’ needed for the memes to get around.

The ‘giant flip’ that Blackmore asks us to make sounds familiar. It sounds rather like the paradigmatic change from humanist notions of individual creation and identity to poststructuralist notions of epistemes and discourses. Perhaps, you might ask, this theory of cultural change combines the ideas of philosophy, paradigm shifts, and discursive dynamics with those of evolutionary thinking? Not quite:

I have explored various approaches to cultural evolution to see whether any use the same ideas as memetics but under another name. The answer, with the limited exceptions that I have discussed, is no. It seems that there is no ready-made science of memetics waiting to be taken over. If we need a science of memetics, as I am convinced we do, then we shall have to build one up from scratch.

Foucault’s name is not in the chapters, index or bibliography. Nor is the anthropologist René Girard, whose central theme is mimetic violence. Nor are many other thinkers from the humanities. A shame, because I would have been interested in a combination of poststructuralist theory with findings from psychology or evolutionary biology.

There are quite a few problems, in my view, in memetic theory. For starters, the straightforward principle of imitation does not take into account the workings of power. Take the example of the recycling of glass bottles. In Blackmore’s view, this kind of behaviour is a meme, since we imitate the behaviour from others. But what about the leaflets the city council sends me once a year to remind me of the do’s and don’t of domestic waste management? What about the way in which you feel good about recycling, because you have internalized discourses of discipline?

Secondly, memetic theory provides the answer to everything, from the gossip of the first human beings to the urbanization process, rather too straightforwardly and without any regard for historical specificity. Why do we have so many cities, for example? Well, because there are more people in the cities, there are more memes as well, and they are picked up more easily. People want to go to art galleries and bookshops because they want to copy memes. In the countryside, however, one meets fewer people, and therefore:

There is a critical imbalance operating here. When city dwellers go to the country they meet few rural dwellers because they are widely spread out, and pick up few rural memes because few exist; but when country folk go to the city they meet lots and lots of city people and lots of new ideas. The consequence is memetic pressure for city dwelling.

Well, that takes care of the process of urbanization in three sentences. And no, don’t write to Blackmore to tell her of the social history of industrialization, because she has already covered the argument of economic forces in one sentence: “but is this really so? Economic necessity is often not a question of food and clothes for the family, but of buying televisions and cars and all the other trappings of a meme-rich life.” I think that the problem of memetic theory lies precisely in the blurb’s rigour it brings to thinking about cultural change.

I googled around a little, and it seems that the meme-meme is copying itself all around the internet. I have been missing a trend, that much is clear. I found some indications of attempts to bridge the gap between memetics and cultural theory. Lionel Boxer came close to fusing Foucault’s episteme, Kuhn’s paradigm and Dawkins’ meme, but his PhD supervisor advised against it. Gary Taylor wrote a book called Cultural Selection (1999), which combines ideas of cultural change from the humanities with memetics, and which I am going to try and find in a library or second hand book shop, since it is apparently out of print. If you know of any more attempts to ‘bridge the gap,’ or even works that provide a Foucauldian reading of the meme episteme, do drop a comment!

Earlier meme books:

  • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)
  • Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996)
  • Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society (1996)
  • Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995)
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