Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index


to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK


the Complete Review
the complete review - science

The Meme Machine

Susan Blackmore

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Meme Machine

Title: The Meme Machine
Author: Susan Blackmore
Genre: Science
Written: 1999
Length: 259 pages
Availability: The Meme Machine - US
The Meme Machine - UK
The Meme Machine - Canada
Die Macht der MEME - Deutschland
  • With a Foreword by Richard Dawkins

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : solid and clear introduction to the concept of memes

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 5/3/2000 Martin Gardner
London Review of Books . 10/6/1999 W.G. Runciman
Nature . 29/4/1999 Jerry A. Coyne
New Scientist . 20/3/1999 Mike Holderness
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/4/1999 Robert Wright
Sciences . 9-10/1999 Robert Aunger
TLS . 27/8/1999 Matt Ridley

  Review Consensus:

  Reviewers tend to discuss the idea more than the book itself -- and seem more interested in how much influence the book will have than what its qualities and faults might be.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t is unlikely to do for public understanding of the meme-centred approach to cultural selection what Dawkins's The Selfish Gene has done for the public understanding of the gene-centred approach to natural selection. This isn't just because Blackmore doesn't have Dawkins's altogether exceptional gift for accurate synthesis and lucid exposition. It is because she attempts too much too soon." - W.G. Runciman, London Review of Books

  • "(E)arnest and engaging, if not wholly persuasive." - Robert Wright, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In spite of the cavails I have highlighted here, The Meme Machine remains the best introduction to memetics yet published. The publicity alone it has garnered for the topic has had the virtue of putting the issues Blackmore raises on the general agenda for the social sciences. That promises to engender further advances in the scholarly understanding of cultural evolutionary processes." - Robert Aunger, Sciences

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The relatively new concept of memes is by now fairly well-established. Since being coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), -- first as mimeme and then, for convenience sake, reduced to a monosyllable --, the term has gained sufficient currency to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Memetics is also a burgeoning area of study. Susan Blackmore's book, The Meme Machine, offers a solid, broad, and very ambitious introduction to the subject.
       Memes are what is passed on when we imitate someone -- and can be "an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a piece of information." Human imitation takes on many forms -- from copying gestures to retelling stories to adopting ideas. Memes can be considered the determinants of culture, successfully reproducing themselves and adapting to their surroundings to insure that they can continue to reproduce.
       Memes are often compared to genes. The OED definition suggests that they can function as complements, holding a meme to be "any element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means". While there are differences in the nature of genes and memes they seem to evolve similarly in many respects. Dawkins considers them both replicators ("anything of which copies are made").

Dawkins identifies three criteria for a successful replicator: fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. In other words, a good replicator must be copied accurately, many copies must be made, and the copies must last a long time.
       Genes are very successful replicators. As it turns out, so are memes. Blackmore uses these basic definitions -- memes are what is imitated, memes are replicators (and consequently subject to a process of natural selection) -- and considers what all this might mean.
       With memes basically having a life of their own -- and constantly evolving, in a Darwinian struggle -- Blackmore's conclusions reach far: she uses memes to explain why language developed, why we spend so much time idly chattering, sexual behaviour, altruistic behaviour, and beliefs in the ridiculous and the absurd (including alien abductions and religion). In all, Blackmore uses memes to explain most everything about modern society and modern humans (including the notion of self in light of memes). Memes, it seems, are quite a grand theory of almost everything.
       Blackmore's explanations are clear and well-presented (and often very entertaining). Certainly there is a great deal of plausibility to the interpretation she offers. There are also numerous difficulties with memetic theory, and Blackmore does a good job of considering the main ones (though she does not deal with them entirely satisfactorily).
       Among the larger problems with memes is in defining just what they are. Blackmore uses the example of Beethoven: just how much of a specific symphony is a meme -- the famous opening bars, or a bigger chunk -- or perhaps the whole symphony ? Even if the meme "units" could be determined there are still definitional problems. There is also little understanding of how memes replicate themselves and what determines whether a meme will be successful or not.
       Of particular interest is also the predictive value of the theory -- which is, unfortunately, basically still nonexistent. If we know what makes a meme we should be able to artificially construct one, to propagate it, and even to predict how and where it will be transmitted, and how widely it will spread. We should also be able to have a better understanding of the memes already out there, and what we can expect from them -- and at least anticipate the next Pokemon or hula hoop fads. Blackmore offers some reasonable explanations for the past success of memes, and possibilities that arise with the new technologies of our age, but overall there is still very little of predictive value on offer.
       Memes are tantalizing notions (and the memetic theory is itself a fairly successful meme), but it remains to be seen whether memetics will become a truly fruitful area of study. Blackmore suggests how much can be explained by memes, but the evidence is not entirely convincing: it could be as she says, but there are also numerous other adequate explanations for the examples she offers.
       Blackmore makes a good case, and her book is both thoughtful and entertaining. She writes well and clearly, and The Meme Machine is certainly a worthwhile read.

- Return to top of the page -


The Meme Machine: Reviews: Susan Blackmore: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Susan Blackmore was born in 1951. She is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2000-2010 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links