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The Meme Machine Hardcover – 20 Feb 1999

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  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (20 Feb. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198503652
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198503651
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 3 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 92,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Habits, skills, songs, stories, ideas: humans are marvellously equipped to keep themselves and each other ceaselessly busy--and it's as well. For no matter how hard we try, we humans just can't stop thinking. So, says Susan Blackmore, what if consciousness is not some esoteric genetic freebie, but is itself the product of an altogether different evolutionary process?

Once humans learned to imitate each other--that is, receive, copy and retransmit "memes"-- the rest, Blackmore argues, is a foregone and somewhat chilling conclusion: we are the product of our memes just as we are the products of our genes; the trouble being that memes, like genes, care only for their own propagation. The ability to imitate each other laid us open to ideas good and bad in equal measure. These proliferated in such numbers that individuals, competing to imitate the best imitators, needed bigger and bigger brains to contain the flood. Now our heads are so big, they are barely birthable.

Blackmore's brilliantly argued version of how humans became conscious--not to say downright troubled--demolishes some of the most intractable problems of human evolution and social biology, with flair. Hers is a book full of careful arguments and thrilling conjectures: riddled, in other words, with promising memes. --Simon Ings


Anyone who hopes or fears that memetics will become a science of culture will find this surefooted exploration of the prospects a major eye-opener. (Daniel Dennett)

Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme I am delighted to recommend her book. (Richard Dawkins) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Simon Laub on 15 Sept. 2002
Format: Paperback
Human bodies evolved by natural selection, just as other animals. But still we are different. According to Susan Blackmore thats because we are capable of imitation. We can thereby copy ideas, habits, inventions, songs and stories. I.e. memes. And now memes are as powerful, if not more powerful, than the good old genes, in directing human evolution. I find the idea intriguing, and certainly Susan Blackmore argue well for the idea. The (evolutionary) pressure for imitation skills requires big brains. So we evolve big brains, as people mate with the ones with the most memes. Language is invented in order to spread memes. Film stars, journalists, writers, singers, politicians and artists become the most attractive, as they are the ones who spread the most memes. Things that are hard to explain in a genetic context (such as adoption, birth control, celibacy) are easy to explain in a meme context (the memes are happy with it, as it help spread more memes). Science becomes a process to distinguish true memes from false memes. Fax-machines, telephones, etc. are created (by the memes) in order to spread more memes. Writing is a battleground in the head between memes wanting to be spread etc.
It all rings true to me. Except Susan Blackmores claim that the self is a complex meme. Certainly it is puzzling that blind people are reported thinking that Their "I" is located at their fingertips, when they read Braille. Still there are other explanations to what a human "I" is than memes. Personally, I prefer Antonio Damasios, as he explain edit in the book "the feeling of what happens". Nevertheless, Susan Blackmores book is a very exciting read, with lots of clever thoughts. Or should I say memes?
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 27 May 1999
Format: Hardcover
Ever since Dawkins wrote his chapter on memes in The Selfish Gene, people have become captivated by the meme meme. Several people have attempted to wrap their minds around the concept, and present it in a useful and comprehensive way. While Blackmore's attempt is, I think, the best yet, it tries to do too much, and ends up collapsing under its own weight. Some of the assertions, such as the development of large brains in humans being a function of memes' imperative, while possibly correct in part, lose the force of their argument by their overstatement. Humans are thinking machines, not copying machines, and brains evolved to think. Memes ride along, for better or worse, on the waves created by the constant motion of our thoughts. Not the other way around. I believe memetics will someday prove to be a valuable tool for understanding some cultural and behavioural aspects of humans. But right now, they still more resemble Gould's "meaningless metaphor" description.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J Bakewell on 26 Nov. 2012
Format: Paperback
Like many other reviewers I found this book a bit flat. The first third of the book is actually very interesting and has some exciting ideas. I like the idea that meme-gene co-evolution caused our big brains. There are certainly a few ideas that memetics sits well with. Culture does evolve and many of things we do do not offer us any particular biological advantage. This book attempts to address the reason why we do those things. It is in some ways a theory of how human culture developed: of interest to those studying art and culture.

What this book lacks however is science. A lot of the ideas are pure speculation and it's hard to take a lot of it seriously without good evidence. As the book progresses, the theory of memetics becomes weaker and weaker until Dr Blackmore ditches the theory altogether. Mid-way she spends some time on religion and alien abduction explaining why people believe in such fallacies. However, none of this really has anything to do with memes and these subjects certainly don't deliver any exciting memetic theory. I don't need to read a book on memetics to learn that most alien abduction stories probably aren't true.

And that's another thing this book lacks: a point. Although the idea of memetics is an interesting one, what grand theory does it really deliver? I was hoping for some exciting and controversial explanation for humanity but this book doesn't offer that. In fact, since memetics is largely concerned with mimicry, I think most people will find more answers and more science in books on psychology which certainly deal with mimicry and learning but use evidence to back their claims.

In a sense memetic theory gives a reasonably good explanation to why humans are distracted by culture, and why some pieces of culture work and others do not.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Roberto on 2 July 2009
Format: Paperback
I feel quite ambivalent about the book. In parts I was introduced or reminded of some great concepts and ideas. In other it felt like there was too much speculation. I would be interested to know whether any of the ideas have been tested experimentally.

It may be that to explain the ideas a very complex subject had to be vastly simplified. I kept finding myself thinking of other possible explanations for things to the ones provided.

However it is worth a read and does make you think at its best it can help allow a kind of detachment from your thoughts and also help with them flowing through the mind.

This is probably where alot of the ideas in the book are stemming from Susan Blackmore's experience of Zen meditation mixed in with her vast academic knowledge.

It could have done with someone critically review the text and looking for weakness in arguments.
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