Please do not read this essay until after November 14th!
The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore is a thorough introduction to the science of memetics.
The Theory of Everything
Memetics pretends to be a kind of "Theory of Everything", much like the Holy Grail of an elaborated theory of quantum gravity is in physics. Susan Blackmore offers elegant and satisfying solutions to problems which have troubled science (and me personally) since the very beginning, for example, the excessive size of the human brain and the origins of language (including why language is comprised of words). Genetic evolution by natural selection cannot explain these, even when one drags in discredited notions such as "group fitness" or "group selection" (the debunking of which Blackmore discusses, by the way). Memetics pulls anthropology, linguistics, biology, consciousness, archaeology, economics, ideology, philosophy, sociology, culture, history under its umbrella, among perhaps others.
Spirituality and Memetics
If one reads closely one finds that it's wrong to see Susan Blackmore as some kind of stereotypical smugly atheistic British evolutionary biologist. While decrying religion, or rather, applying her theories with scientific rigor to show how it effectively tricks people into joining and spreading it, she says plainly and in no uncertain terms that spirituality is highly valuable. She discusses her own spiritual practices and how they jibe with her discoveries and theories. Mysticism, according to Blackmore, is problematic not because it is a sham, but because it is difficult to imitate and therefore, memetically speaking, tends not to propagate itself readily. Having said that, the twelfth step of twelve-step programs reads "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps..." and may be an attempt to do just that. She emphatically maintains that the mystic experience is a form of transcendence rare and precious in the human experience, distinct from "religion".
When trying to explain to someone who is interested and open-minded my understanding of the Theory of Memetics, I have trouble getting past the concept of the boot-strapping of the second replicator, and more importantly and specifically how the ability to imitate results in greater reproductive fitness. Blackmore cites, as Dawkins does elsewhere, the example of a certain parasitic fluke which makes its snail host grow a thicker shell, which helps the fluke but not the snail. My perception is that the explanation is very simple, but that it just eludes me, as so many simple things do by the fact that they're so obvious that I traipse past without actually having learnt them properly.
Imitation is obviously a large part of the human experience. Memetics might say that that's all there is. We have the "Dunbar Number" or the "tribe size" of humans and the higher primates, that is, the largest number of other individuals that one is able to "model" emotionally and motivationally. Modelling more other minds leads to more status and power than others less able, more reproductive success, and the "cerebral explosion". In fact, my understanding of why we have a large pre-frontal lobe is for this very purpose, that is, the building of tightly integrated societies. Our big brains are a kind of Faustian bargain with Mother Nature, trading large tribes to save us from predators in exchange for dangerous childbirth and the parasitism of memes bouncing around in our big brains.
Clearly, the "sympathy cortex" is part and parcel of imitation, and the ability to empathetically model others leads directly to the ability to imitate, as anyone can see. So I may have answered my own question. Big brains for bigger tribe size, the ability to deeply understand, and as a side-effect imitate others, sexual selection for better imitation and therefor bigger brains, and finally the second replicator, the meme, is launched, rather by accident, so to speak.
But the other bit is how does memetic evolution "take over" genetic evolution? How do memes force the genes to begin selecting for things such as language, super-big brains, bell-bottom trousers, bad cinema, and digital watches, which are counterproductive to genetic survival? Human survival becomes less about inventing cool technology and more about copying lots of it to as many people as possible. A caveman who works out a better way to bang rocks together or make a bow and arrow doesn't do anybody any good, but a caveman who does slightly less good of a job but whom everybody copies helps all of humanity. Since it's impossible for Joe Schmoe Caveman to know which invention is going to be the Next Big Thing, it's best for him to imitate the best imitators whom everybody else is going to imitate. Imitate the imitators who are the most impressive. So goes the theory.
This is the bit that I have the most trouble getting my head around, at least in terms of explaining it to others.
Then comes the bit about "sexual selection" or where the females try to mate with the most successful imitators. This might be a good point of discussion, this "imitate and have sex with the best imitators" thing. Clearly if memes, such as those for better food production (which as Blackmore points out, farming is not), help human beings survive and reproduce, then having humans and societies of humans made of networks of imitators that help those memes copy themselves makes sense. But not all memes are useful. Are the useless or harmful memes "piggy-backing" on the success of the useful ones and that's all there is to it, or is her argument something else? Every time I read it, it makes perfect sense, but then I forget it again, so I think it may in fact be rather subtle. Might be a good talking point.
Life-after-Death and Alien Abduction
A couple of examples Blackmore cites as examples of virulent social memes attempting to explain terrifying, profound, and ultimately not uncommon human experience are "near-death" experiences and the "alien abduction" experience. Interestingly, she suggested that sleep paralysis may be closely linked to the "alien abduction experience" and its associated memes, and ironically enough writes in detail of her interview with a young man who claimed to have experienced both sleep paralysis and alien abduction. In a near-death experience, as the brain is shutting down, the occipital lobe loses blood supply and goes into a "tunnel vision mode" which would seem to correspond to the widespread impression of a "tunnel with a light at the end" and "one's life flashing before one's eyes" or "family members and loved ones appearing" and so forth could also result from the brain going into a strange state. Religion and tradition all supply "explanations" for these visions. One downside is that people who have a "bad" or "terrifying" near-death experience (as is common) are afraid of talking about it since they would run afoul of these memeplexes surrounding the experience, i.e., that they were "going to Hell" or such, and so they fail to enjoy the sympathy of other people.
The alien abduction memeplex attempts to explain what Blackmore suggests is the terrifying experience of waking up but remaining in the paralyzed state of REM dreaming. The alien abduction memeplex serves to "explain" this. Other more ancient and at the time culturally relevant memeplex which one finds in Northern Europe and Japan, is that of a terrifying hag who appears and sits on one's chest.
One point is that both of these memeplexes are very tenacious despite scientific and medical explanations for the phenomena. In a sense, people want to keep believing them.
Napoleon Chagnon and Margaret Mead
I guess one thing that didn't satisfy me was the discussion of human sexuality. Blackmore cites how Margaret Mead's work with the Samoans turned out to be deeply flawed, a lot of it based on a "joke" which the Samoans played on her, and also how they told her a lot of what she wanted to hear. I have read of this happening elsewhere in similar ways. There is a lot of risk of confirmation bias, language problems, and simply not asking the right questions since some things that are obvious in one culture are unheard of in another, and so on. A side point was that Mead's conclusions about the stark differences in human sexuality are an example of a successful meme that spreads false information and is difficult to eradicate despite years of effort and mountains of evidence.
From what I know about human sexuality from my own studies, yes, Mead may be wrong, but that does not mean that the sexual attitudes of Western society are somehow "the norm" as Blackmore seems to suggest. I found this discussion to be rather muddy. My understanding is that "normal" human sexuality is quite different to Western "ideals". This could've been interesting grist for the mill, but this opportunity was missed. Perhaps since a large percentage of Europeans and Americans have abandoned traditional religion, it's possible that religion as a memeplex rather than something that "has to be that way" and anybody who disagrees is a "heretic". However, we are probably still in a state where anybody who deviates from the unwritten but widely understood sexual "norms" is still universally considered to be a "pervert" or a "homosexual" or such. We can't yet see the sexual forest for the trees, so any discussions or attempt to deconstruct this memeplex leave almost all listeners with no place to put their feet, nothing to anchor themselves with to make comparisons, for indeed, there are no comparisons to be made. Even psychotherapy could be said to be thoroughly inerred of the conformist norms.
I thought that Blackmore could have at least left it as an open question for further study rather than trying to take sides when there was only one side to take.
She also cites Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamö people as an example of human beings' warlike nature. Chagnon is considered by some to be a rank charlatan, having not only goaded the natives he was supposedly studying with gossip and other inducements but also supplied them with weapons, including shotguns, to carry out their revenge killings (c.f. "Sex at Dawn").
The former example was a good example of how memes which propagate false information, support memeplexes despite their falseness, exemplify confirmation bias, etc., nonetheless survive for decades or longer, even in the teeth of science and reason. The second example didn't help, for me, but it might have done had Blackmore cited it in the light of what I understand to be the correct story, i.e., Chagnon is a liar and manufacturer of evidence, and yet his propositions continue to be accepted, including in The Meme Machine. I suppose it's rather ironic.
Anyhow, what I took away was that Blackmore was saying that human sexuality is more inflexible than thought and that humans are more warlike, even at the primitive tribal level, than widely supposed. I'm inclined to disbelieve both of these points. I wasn't sure how the treatment of same illuminated the case for memetics, and I felt that the references cited to support it were questionable (as may be the ones I cite to the contrary, for that matter).
What Drives Us to Imitate?
I think I have a grasp on the selection pressure that led to the cerebral explosion, and I get that memes are contagious, and the more successful ones spread because they are easier to imitate and work together with other memes coöperatively in memeplexes. It all makes a lot of sense, but what is it that drives an individual to "deploy" one meme or another (or none at all, as is very occasionally the case) on a given occasion? What motivates this decision and its execution? I feel like this was never really explained, and needs to be, because on an hour to hour basis, individuals decide to deploy one meme or another, and that is how memes get out there, how they get copied. Blackmore's example of why we talk so much was delightful, but still fails to answer this. We talk, talk, talk, and memes for not talking, for shutting up, for keeping silent, tend not to spread because they don't really have a way for transmitting themselves. Talking is a huge effort, evidenced by when we're ill, we tend to talk less, and more quietly, because it's exhausting. But what do we get from talking?
I can't help thinking that there must be some kind of libidinal reward, rather like the attraction to food or sex, that comes from successfully deploying a meme that resonates with others, by their accepting it, laughing, responding with another meme in the same memeplex, and so forth. This "memetic orgasm" (to choose a catchy PR-friendly moniker) could be something that could be verified and measured (and indeed may already have been) and thus provide a scientifically verifiable biological basis for memetic theory, which Blackmore admits is lacking. This lack, of course, as she points out, does not weaken memetic theory any more than pre-neo-Darwinism was weakened by the fact that DNA had not yet been discovered -- it still had all of its explanatory power, even absent a well-understood underlying mechanism (perfectly common in science, by the way).
People Be All Doin' Dumb Stuff
I find memetic theory as presented by Blackmore and others to be enormously comforting. As a lifelong women's liberationist I have long taken equality of the genders to be an article of faith. Memetics proves this to be absolutely true. If our socialization, brain size, intelligence, ability to use language and manipulate complex concepts is all the result of a memetic second replicator which drove our bodily evolution to be able to do all of these things, then it necessarily worked equally on men and women. Indeed the memetic milieu "wants" there to be more individuals, more brains, for it to propagate through. Equally including both genders is the obvious result, and by no means true of all species. My faith is finally and irrefutably vindicated.
I'm also deeply troubled by people being stupid, both on the individual level and at the level of communities and nations. There are rude people, those who argue obviously deeply flawed opinions, people who are bad parents, intergenerational abuse, bad drivers, do-gooders who pretend to be good-doërs, hypocritical religious and political fanatics, right through to Nazis, war, and genocide, and they never seem to care in the slightest about reason, logic, facts, or appeals to kindness and mercy like we were all taught in Kindergarten that they should, or if they do, it is often in a purely cynical, inconsistent, self-serving, or ineffectual way. My mind cries out for a solution, or understanding, or at least a satisfactory excuse for giving up and letting the world go to hell if it wants to, and memetics seems to provide this.