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Kilroy Was Here

THE MEME MACHINE By Susan J. Blackmore; Oxford University Press: 264 pp., $25

March 05, 2000|MARTIN GARDNER | Martin Gardner is the author of some 70 books, including "Visitors From Oz" and "The Night Is Large." His latest is "The Definitive Annotated Alice" (W.W. Norton)

The word "meme" was introduced in an offhand way by Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins at the end of his book "The Selfish Gene." Reviewers of Dawkins' book liked to quote Samuel Butler's remark that a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg. Dawkins' theme was similar. An organism is a gene's way of making other genes. The genes are "selfish in the sense that they care not a fig about the welfare of the organisms that preserve and keep them going."

A meme (it rhymes with "dream") is short for mimetics, a word denoting mimicry. Dawkins wanted to identify a self-replicating unit of culture that would play a role in cultural evolution similar in some ways to the role played by self-replicating genes in the evolution of bodies. He chose the word "meme" because it had one syllable, like gene, and because it sounded like gene.

A meme is anything humans do or say that is not genetically determined and is passed from person to person by imitation or copying, such as the wish to "have a nice day." The term has already entered the Oxford English Dictionary, in which it is defined as "an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by nongenetic means, esp. imitation." Memes are invisible self-replicators that live in human brains the way genes live in cells. They become tangible when they jump from one brain to another. Relativity theory, for example, slumbered in Einstein's brain as a meme before it went public in a technical paper.

After memes were tossed into the English language by Dawkins, memetics quickly caught fire, especially on the Internet, where it has a cult-like following. Daniel Dennett, Tufts University's energetic and wide-ranging philosopher, has become the top fugleman of memetics. He vigorously defends the meme concept at length in "Consciousness Explained" and at even greater length in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." But, as I will argue here, a meme is so broadly defined by its proponents as to be a useless concept, creating more confusion than light, and I predict that the concept will soon be forgotten as a curious linguistic quirk of little value.

Every idea or form of behavior that you learned from someone else, not on your own, is a meme. The list is endless: gestures, tunes, catch phrases like "Kilroy was here," fashions in clothes such as the current droopy trousers worn by young boys, ways to make anything (pots, chairs, cars, planes, skyscrapers), marriage customs, diet fads, art, novels, poems, plays, operas, tools, games, inventions, ideas in science, philosophy and religion--all are memes. What sociologists call mores and folkways are memes. From a "meme's-eye view"--a favorite phrase of memeticists--all your beliefs about anything are clusters of memes. If you are a skeptic, your skepticism is made of memes. Was Jesus the son of God? If you think yes, that's a meme. If you think no, that's also a meme.

There are three ways in which memes leap from person to person. They jump vertically from parents to offspring. They jump horizontally from person to person in ways resembling the spread of a virus. Third, memes can move obliquely from someone to a near relative or friend. All words are memes. Spoken and written languages are clusters of memes.

Along with Dennett, two authors in 1996 also promoted the meme craze: Richard Brodie in "Viruses of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme" and Aaron Lynch in "Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society." Last year came a third spirited defense of memetics, "The Meme Machine" by Susan J. Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Born in London in 1951, she is best known today among parapsychologists and skeptics for her disenchantment with psychic research. Blackmore goes far beyond her predecessors in her enthusiasm for memetics. In his foreword to "The Meme Machine" Dawkins recognizes that Blackmore's vision of the future of memetics far exceeds his own. She has "greater courage and intellectual chutzpah," he writes, "than I have ever aspired to. . . ." Indeed, Blackmore speaks of her book as actually laying the foundation for a new science.

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Blackmore believes that certain big questions can be answered fully only by invoking memes; for example, why do we have such large brains? The conventional answer is that complex thinking has enormous survival value in the ability of a species to control its environment and keep itself from extinction. Blackmore puts it differently. Our brains are meme machines that have evolved to store and transmit memes. We are back to a version of Butler's topsy-turvy aphorism. Instead of brains creating memes, such as Huckleberry Finn and quantum mechanics, it is the other way around. "The enormous human brain," she writes, "has been created by the memes."

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