February 28, 2010

The Meme Machine - by Susan Blackmore

The Meme Machine - by Susan Blackmore

Meme - meaning from Oxford Dictionary - An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

The thesis of this book is that what makes us different is our ability to imitate. When we imitate someone else, something is passed on. This 'something' can then be passed on again and again and so take a life on its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information... but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is the 'meme'.

Take a the song "happy Birthday to You'. I only have to write down those four words to have a pretty good idea that you may soon start humming it to yourself. Those words affect you, probably quite without any conscious intention on your part, by stirring up a memory you already possess. And where did that come from ? like millions of other people you have acquired it by imitation. Something some kind of information, some kind of instruction, has become lodged in all those brains so that now we all do the same thing at birthday parties. that something is what we call the meme.

Memes - irrespective of it brings positive or negative means - are selfish like genes and will simply spread if they can. Successful memes are the ones that get copied and spread while unsuccessful ones do not. This is the sense in which memes 'want' to get copied, 'want' you to pass them on and 'do not care' what that means to you or your genes. This is the power behind the idea of memes.

Dawkins (Richard Dawkins's best-selling book The Selfish Gene) introduced the important distinction between 'replicators' and their 'vehicles'. A replicator is anything of which copies are made, including 'active replicators' whose nature affects the chances of their being copied again. A vehicle is the entity that interacts with the environment, which is why Hull (1988a) prefers the term 'interactors' for a similar idea. Vehicles or interactors carry the replicators around inside them and protect them.

"We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme."

Universal Darwinism
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is, to my mind, the most beautiful in all of science. Itis beautiful because it is so simple and yet its results are so complex. Itis counter-intuitive and hard to grasp but once you have seen it the world is transformed before your eyes. These is just a stark and mindless procedure by which we have all come about - beautiful but scary. He reasoned that if living creatures vary (as they certainly do) and if due to their geometric increase in numbers, there is at certain times a struggle for life (which cannot be disputed), then it would be most extraordinary if there were not some variation that wasteful to a creature's welfare. The individuals with these characteristics will then have the best chance of being 'preserved in the struggle for life' and will produce offspring with the same characteristics. this was the principle,he called ' natural selection'.

Darwin's argument requires three main features - variation, selection and retention(or heredity). That is, first there must be variation so that not all creatures are identical. Second, there must be an environment in which not all the creatures can survive and some varieties do better than others. third, there must be some process by which offspring inherit characteristics from their parents.

Language provides a good example of cultural evolution. Sir William Jones who in 1786 found remarkable similarities between Sanskrit, Greek & Latin and concluded that all thee languages must have sprung from a common source. There are many languages, but only few could survive. Darwin pointed out the parallel between species and different languages: "We find it distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent and analogies due to a similar process of formation.. A language like a species, when extinct, never... reappears".

Probably the most important of all inventions is human history was that of farming. But why did farming spread at all? Farming did not make life easier nor did it improve nutrition or reduce disease. Why would people world over have given up an easier life (hunting and gathering) in favor of a life of toil and drudgery? British writer Coil Tudge assumes 'that agriculture arose because it was favored by natural selection' and therefor looks for a genetic advantage. He suggests that because farming produces more food from a given area of land, farmers will produce more food from a given area of land, farmers will produce more children who will encroach on neighboring hunter-gather's lands and so destroy their way of life.

yawning, coughing and laughter are all extremely contagious in humans. Indeed it can be difficult not to laugh if everyone around you is already laughing. This kind of contagion is thought to rely on specific stimulus feature detectors which detect laughing or yawning in someone else and then trigger the same innate behavior as the response. This kind of contagion is not true imitation.

Humans are 'the consummate imitative generalist' Unlike any other animals, we readily imitate almost everything and anything and seems to take pleasure in doing so. If we define memes are transmitted by imitation then we must conclude that only humans are capable of extensive memetic transmission. If we define memes as transmitted by imitation then whatever is passed on by this copying process is a meme. Memes fulfill the role of replicator because they exhibit all three of the necessary conditions, that is heredity(the form and details of the behavior are copied), variation (they are copied with errors, embellishments or other variations) and selection (only some behavior are successfully copied). With Darwin's 'selection of natural process, this is true evolutionary process.

The big brain.
Human brain is enormous. Why? Nobody knows for sure. A common way of comparing brain sizes is to use the ' encephalisation quotient (EQ) which compares a given animal's brain-to-body ration with the average for a group of animals. For any group of related animals a plot of brain size against body size yields a roughly a straight line. If we humans are placed on such a line with our closest living relatives we just do not fit. Our EQ compared with other primates is 3. Our brains are far too large for our bodies. Firstly, this massive increase must have been very expensive in energy terms. It is often said that the brain consumes 20% of the body's energy but consists of only 2 % of the body weight. Unlike muscles which often rest, brain does not even in sleep. Secondly the brain is expensive to build. Thirdly brain is also a dangerous organ to produce.

Did memes drive brain size? I suggested that imitation requires three skills: making decisions about what to imitate, complex transformations from one point of view to another and the production of matching bodily actions. As the new skills begin to spread it becomes more and more important to be able to acquire them. And how do you acquire them? - by imitation , of course. Not only that good imitator becomes increasingly important, but it becomes important to imitate the right people and the right things (e.g. Imitate the most successful people might be one; imitating people who have the most impressive tools, the brightest cloths or the newest skills). As a consequence, whatever is deemed best, spreads fastest.

Another important decision is whom to mate with and again the answer should be the best imitators because they will provide you with children who are more likely to be good imitators. The best the system can do is probably to evolve heuristics such as 'copy the most obvious memes' or copy the most popular memes' or 'copy memes to do with food, sex and willing battles'.

This theory suggests that the main tasks or our larger brains are first, the general ability to imitate and second , the particular ability to imitate the kinds of memes that have proliferated in our species past.

The origins of language.

Why do we talk so much? talking all the time must cost energy. Thinking uses energy, but talking uses a lot more. There are several ways of looking at how memes exert pressure on us to keep talking First, since talking is an efficient way of propagating memes, memes that can get themselves spoken will be copied more often than those that cannot. So these kinds of memes will spread in the meme pool and we will all end up talking a lot. Compare two people - one speaks more and one does not speak. people who hold these memes will talk more; therefore the things they say will be heard more often and have more chances of being picked up by other people. Introductory psychology textbooks tend to make 'obvious' statements like 'The ability to engage in verbal behavior confers decided advantages on our species(Carlson 1993, P.271).

Dawkins identifies three criteria for a successful replicator: fidelity, fecundity and longevity. In other words, a good replicator must be copied accurately, many copies must be made, and copies must last a long time.

Sex and sociobiology:
Life is full of mistakes. male frogs quite frequently try to mate with other males and in some species even have to make 'release call' to escape the unwanted clutch. Homosexuality in many animals and even in humans is sometimes interpreted as a mistake. Evolution has also given us intelligence which has enabled us to work out the function of sex and manipulate things so as to get the pleasure of sex without the costs of child care.

What is beauty? Men find women attractive when they have all the signs of being young and fertile while women are more interested in the status of a potential lover than in his physical appearance. This turns out to have a good biological basis - if a rather complex one.

The basic difference between male and female is that male produce sperms and female produce egg. Eggs are large and expensive to make, while sperms are tiny and relatively cheap. Females also provide great parental care that really makes the difference when it comes to choosing a mate. For men, the most obvious strategy for passing on the most genes is simply to mate as often as you can with whomever you can. Women will pass on the most genes if they can raise a few high quality children with sufficient resources and care to bring them up. This might mean: a - mating with a high quality male. b- finding a male who will provide a lot of parental care.

For men, his genes will fare best if he can impregnate a young , healthy and fertile women and hence he prefer women with a low waist-to-hip ratio (narrow waists and broad hips). The reasons for this are still disputed but broad hips appear to suggest a wide birth canal for safely delivering a big-headed baby. A small waist suggests that the woman is not already pregnant and the last thing a male should want is sex with a pregnant female who may trap him into caring for another man's baby.

larger, clear eyes, smooth skin, fair hair and symmetrical features are good indicators of youth and health - fairness because in fair-skinned peoples hair color darkness with age and symmetry because the effects of a disease are often to create asymmetrical blemishes. meanwhile the woman need be less concerned with beauty and physical appearance. her need is for a high-status male who will possess to be a good protector and provider. This fits with the frequent observation that rich and powerful men pair up with young beautiful women. Women certainly want to get as much male investment as possible, but they may not be able to find both good genes and a good provider in the same man. Indeed a man with good genes - tall, strong and intelligent, for example- may find it so easy to get sex that he need not bother with putting effort to child care. On the 'best of both worlds' theory a woman's best bet may be to capture a nice though unattractive man who will rear her children and then go and get better genes from elsewhere. "Marry a guy but have an affair with your boss".

how does the women in the modern world find the right man where memes can be spread. In modern city, cloths fashions might still be one sign, but others would include musical preference, religious and political view and educational qualifications. More important, though, would be the general ability to spread memes - to be the fashion setter as well as the best follower. This suggests that desirable mates should be those whole lives allow them to spread the most memes, such as writers, artists, journalists, broadcasters, film stars and musicians. There is no doubt that some of these occupations give you a good chance of being mobbed by admirers and of having sex with almost whomever you like. Memetics provides a reason - that creativity and artistic output are ways of copying, using and spreading memes and hence are signs of being a good imitator. I would predict that if these things could be teased out, women would, other things are equal, prefer a good meme-spreader to just a rich man.


Whether you look at this from a sociobiological perspective, or a memetic one, the outcome is similar. the successful practice(or successful memes) are those that provide the greatest genetic advantage in the given environment.The same is true for some widespread sexual taboos. masturbation has been as dirty, disgusting , revolting and as sapping your vital energy. Generations of boys have been brought up to believe that 'playing with themselves' will make them go blind or give them warts or make hair grow on the palms of their hands. Given that young men have a strong desire for sex, dissuading them from masturbation is likely to increase the amount of vaginal sex they will have, thereby increasing the number of their offspring to whole they can pass on the taboo(Lynch 1996). Lynch suggests a similar explanation for the success of their circumcision meme, because circumcision makes masturbation ,more difficult , but not vaginal sex. Women do less masturbation as it makes sense because generally women cannot increase the number of their offspring by having ,pore sex, so from this point of view it does not matter whether thy masturbate or not.

Finally, there are many religion that make use of sex to spread themselves. Catholicism's taboo against birth control has been extremely effective in filling the world with millions of Catholics who bring up their children to believe that condoms and the pill are evil, and that God wants them to have as many children as possible.

There are several ways in which memes might have influenced genes. Priests attain power and status by predicting (or appearing to predict) weather, disease or crop failures; by building or being associated with temples and other grand buildings; by wearing expensive and impressive cloths; and by claiming supernatural powers. In many cultures, priests or rulers are given divine status. We know that women prefer to mate with high-status men and that these men leave more offspring, either by having more wives or by fathering children by women who are not their wives. Even in societies in which the priesthood is celibate and could not (or at least should not) pass on their genes, other people could acquire power by association.


Memetics thus brings us to a new vision of how we might live our lives. We can carry on our lives as most people do, under the illusion that there is a persistent conscious self inside who is in charge, who is responsible for my actions and who makes me me. Or we can live as human beings, body brain and memes, living out our lives as a complex interplay of replicators and environments, in the knowledge that that is all there is. Then we are no longer victims of selfish selfplex. In this sense we can be truly free - not because we can rebel against they tyranny of the selfish replicators but because we know that there is no one to rebel..


Ref Books:
On the Origin of Species by means of natural Selection by Charles Darwin
Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie
Thought Contagion by Aaron Lynch.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

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