by: Yann Gourvennec

An interview with Susan Blackmore, author of “The Meme Machine” by Denis Failly, consultant at Nextmodernity.

medium_themememachine.2.jpgDenis Failly - “Susan Blackmore, could you remind us shortly the basics of Memetics and the Meme concept?”

Susan Blackmore - “The term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any kind of behaviour that is passed from person to person by imitation. Like genes, memes are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. While genes compete to get copied when plants and animals reproduce, memes compete to get stored in our memories (or in our computeres or phones) and passed on again to someone else.medium_susanblackmore_copie.2.jpg
On this view our minds and culture are designed by the competition between memes, just as the biological world has been designed by natural selection acting on genes. Familiar memes include words, stories, TV and radio programmes, chess, Soduko and computer games, glorious symphonies and mindless jingles, the habit of driving on the left (or the right), eating with a knife and fork, wearing clothes, and shaking hands. These are all information that has successfully been copied from person to person.

Without them we would not be fully human. In my view our large human brains were forced to grow by the pressure of memes, and have been sculpted by a process of “memetic drive” to be ever better machines for selecting, copying, and storing meme. That is why we talk, draw and paint, and like music - because those memes thrived and caused brains to get better at copying them. So we humans are meme machines, and our nature reflects the history of past memetic competition.”

Denis Failly - “How birth and spread of the ideas, are there any specific emerging conditions for a Meme, a kind of life cycle ?”

Susan Blackmore - “Any meme that can get copied will get copied. So the world is full of the successful memes - the rest having simply died away. There are countless ways in which memes can emerge. Every time you speak a new sentence that is a potential meme that might, or might not, get passed on. Your brain is a vast melting pot for memes and can easily put together old memes in new combinations to make new ones. This means that there is constantly a creative evolutionary process going on inside your head and between you and the people you communicate with.
Some memes have long life-cycles. Plato’s Republic is a memeplex (group of memes that get passed on together) that first emerged thousands of years ago, was widely circulated, then nearly died out, and was later revived many times. Then it was translated into different languages and spread all over the world by modern technological meme machines.
Other memes have short life cycles. A piece of gossip you heard and passed on to your neighbour may go no further and simply die out there.”

Denis Failly - “I suppose we coiuld say that the Internet (and especially blogs, wikis, and presence software etc.) is a preferred channel for memetic transmission; what’s your opinion about this and do you focus on that topic for your research?

Susan Blackmore - “The Internet is heaven for memes. Computers store information much more accurately than human brains, and can copy that information to vast numbers of other computers very quickly. This means a new process of memetic drive is going on in which the increase in available memes drives an increase in the machines for copying them, and so on. The result is not only the Internet but mobile phones, CD players, MP3 players, DVDs, video phones, and much more. We biological meme machines have nearly had our day. Few people in developed societies can now hold out against getting a mobile phone. Soon they will feel they just have to get the latest implanted phone receiver, transmitter, thought enhancer, control switches and all sorts of enhancements that will turn their merely biological brains into super computers as well. They will then be able to store and transmit even more memes and the memes will go on driving the expansion of capability. We are already getting badly overloaded.”

Denis Failly - “Could memetics be labelled as a fully-fledged scientific discipline (with methodologies, tools, processes etc.)?”

Susan Blackmore - “Memetics has not yet developed into a mature science. There are plenty of people working on memetic topics but the whole area remains highly controversial. Critics argue that memes have not been proved to exist, cannot be identified with any chemical or physical structure as genes can, cannot be divided into meaningful units, and provide no better understanding of culture than existing theories. Others are frightened that memetics undermines the notions of free will and personal responsibility.
Proponents respond that memes obviously exist, since humans imitate widely and memes are defined as whatever they imitate. Also, the demand for a physical basis is premature. The structure of DNA was not discovered until a century after Darwin, so we may be in the equivalent of the pre-DNA phase in memetics. The question of units is tricky for genes too, and we can study memes by using whatever unit is replicated in any given situation - which may be anything from a few notes to an entire symphony, or a few words to a whole story. As for free will - there have always been people arguing that it is an illusion. Memetics provides a way of understanding how that illusion comes about. More important is whether memetics really can provide new insights into human behaviour or culture. I am convinced that it can do so. A simple example is that memetics provides a far better understanding of religions, why they are so dangerous, and why people keep on falling for them. A broader one is the idea that humans have evolved as meme machines. I think language was once a meme-parasite that co-evolved to become symbiotic with us, and that culture is a vast system that is parasitic on human beings. If these ideas are right then memetics is a set of very powerful ideas and we badly need the science of memes.”

Denis Failly - Susan Blackmore, thanks a lot

Susan Blackmore on the Internet:

Her personnel website:
Here site dedicated to memetics:

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