Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore

Title: The Meme Machine
Author: Susan Blackmore
Rating: Good

This one was a slog up until the last couple of chapters, but that has nothing to do with the book itself. I don't read textbooks well - never have - and this amounts to a textbook, though it is written in a more engaging style than, say, the calculus textbooks I used in college.

The Meme Machine is Blackmore's discussion of memes and her theories on how they have developed in - and changed the development of - humans. In large measure, this book is an overview of memetic thinking and theorizing up through 1999 (when it was published) but Blackmore expands on that by adding her own twists and turns.

What is a meme? According to Blackmore, a meme is an idea or concept or set of instructions that can be passed on by imitation. The concept was originally put forward by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as an example of a replicator that could undergo evolutionary changes, much like genes in the case of our bodies. Since Dawkins first proposed the idea it has taken on a life of its own, and many people have worked with it. Blackmore spends a lot of time - and bibliography space - discussing the work of others in the field.

In my opinion, most of the book discusses fairly down to earth concepts, since I happen to think much of what is written here is correct. If I understand it properly, evolution is the only natural process we know of that can create a body of information from random events. As such it appears - after the fact - to be driven by a desire to attain an end goal, though in reality there is no end goal, and nothing intelligent drives the process. Memes go through a very similar evolutionary process in which they respond to (and change) their environment in ways similar to those that genes do. Blackmore describes how memes and genes can evolve and change separately, and also cases of meme/gene co-evolution, where one can drive changes in the other. As an example, Blackmore proposes that memetically driven change drove the genetic changes that lead to large brains in humans. An interesting idea that she supports pretty well.

Towards the end of the book, things get even more interesting, if a bit more philosophical and/or a theoretical. Blackmore proposes a set of memes that she calls the "selfplex". These memes survive better together, and one of the things they do is give us the illusion of the self. Here we enter into an area of science that I find fascinating but don't understand all that well. Experiments into consciousness and how the brain and body interact are full of unexpected twists and turns. The selfplex may be part of the explanation for these things.

Here's a thought experiment that Blackmore describes. It's been done in real life with people wired up so their brain waves can be monitored as it happens. Extend your arm in front of you and, whenever you want, flex your wrist so your hand moves in some direction. That's it. As you did it, you (and I, and everyone) thinks they made a conscious decision about when to flex their wrist, and then they did so. However, that isn't what really happens. The actual order is that your brain is ready to cause the action about half a second before it happens, but your decision to flex your wrist happens about one fifth of a second before it happens. In other words, the "decision" you made to flex your wrist wasn't the cause of the action. In fact, it may be part of an elaborate cover story that we constantly tell ourselves to give us the illusion that we control our actions, and the selfplex is the proposed set of memes that would create that cover story.

Taken to the logical conclusion, there is no such thing as free will. We're all living a fantasy of sorts, and we really don't control our actions. Blackmore goes on to discuss altered states of perception - particularly those achieved through meditation, where time and individuality seem to disappear - and suggests that such states may be the result of simply getting the selfplex out of the picture for a while. In effect, she suggests an entirely non-spiritual mechanism for some things that many argue are supernatural in nature. It's an interesting argument, and while I'm not sure I understand it fully, I like it on face value. Trying to figure out what it means, however, that's a challenge for me. If the "me" that is doing things like writing this book review is only an illusion created by a set of selfish memetic replicators running in my brain, what does that imply?

As an aside, a while back I read somewhere that Sam Harris - author of The End Of Faith - is going back to his research roots and will eventually publish something claiming there is no such thing as free will. I hope to read that when it comes out.

There are probably many new books on memetics since Blackmore wrote this one, and perhaps some of what is here is now out of date. But it's still an interesting read, and there are some challenging ideas here. If you have any interest in these things, I recommend it.