Me, me, me, me, meme...

Monday November 14, 2005

The Meme Machine

I first picked up Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine five or so years ago and marked it down as a book that I should read. Only more recently, however, did I get hold of a copy and clear enough space to sit down and give this book the attention it deserves.

Blackmore is a Zen practitioner who refuses the label ‘Buddhist’. Much of her work is in evolutionary theory and the study of consciousness, but as a seasoned Zen meditator herself she is also interested in bringing a scientific rigour to the study of meditation. In The Meme Machine she addresses some hard questions concerning consciousness, human identity and evolutionary theory, using the still-emerging theory of memes. The following brief definition of what a meme is comes from Blackmore’s website.

Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes.

(For a much fuller treatment of memes go here). For Blackmore – as for Richard Dawkins, who coined the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene back in 1976 – religions function as memeplexes: they are co-adapted complexes of transmissible information – about how to act, how to think, how to see the world. And the various flavours of Buddhism are as much memeplexes as any other religious system.

The crucial point of memetics is this: that those memes that which are not those that are necessarily useful to us, they are simply the ones that are good at surviving. Or, to put it another way, religious memes function like viruses: they spread because they are good at spreading, but they do not necessarily serve the interests of their hosts. Take, for example, a religion that has, as a part of its doctrine, the following points:

  1. It is good to convert others.
  2. Those who do not follow this religion will suffer terrible consequences.
  3. The central teachings of this religion must be taken on faith, and are inaccessible to reason.

We can see that once a religion with these characteristics gets going, it is likely to be rather good at protecting its own interests. Coded into the instructions that make up the religion, so to speak, are 1) an imperative to spread these instructions 2) dire warnings about what happens if you don’t follow these instructions and c) the undermining of any rational thought when applied to these instructions. These memes will very likely succeed. They will spread virus-like through a population. Whether those who are infected by them will do well is a rather different point.

It would be a worthwhile reflection to consider some of the memeplexes that make up the traditions of Buddhism and to ask whether these are genuinely useful to human flourishing, or whether they are merely serving themselves as collections of memes. For this reason alone, and for the new perspectives that it throws upon human cultural transmission, Blackmore’s book is worth reading.

But there is another reason why I think this is exciting and challenging to those who attempt to put into practice the dharma, and that is in Blackmore’s reflections on the idea of the self as a vast memeplex – ‘perhaps the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all.’ (p. 231) What, she asks, if we are deluded in our belief that somewhere in this mass of processes that make up our body, heart and mind is a core that we can identify as ourselves, a self or soul that wills, desires, thinks, dreams, hopes, fears and creates? It will be a question familiar to Buddhists, but also a question that is prompted by the findings of recent brain science: the seat of the soul does not exist. There is no one centre in the brain where the mind and the body interact, not in the pineal gland, as Descartes guessed, or anywhere else. It is in meditation, Blackmore says, in the practice of attention, that the absence of the self becomes clear. In meditation we,

…begin to wear away at the false self. In the present moment, attending equally to everything, there is no distinction between myself and the things happening. It is only when ‘I’ want something, respond to something, believe something, decide to do something, that ‘I’ suddenly appear. This can be seen directly through experience with enough practice at just being. (p. 243)

Blackmore sees meditation as ‘meme-weeding’, a process of letting go of any commentary upon experience, letting go of all labels that crop up, all ideas about experience_ It is a process of recognising the processes by which we fabricate the self – in Pali ‘ahamkara’ or ‘I-making’ and ‘mamamkara’ or ‘mine-making’ – as they arise, seeing how the idea of the ‘I’ surges up again and again, but that behind it is nothing other than a series of processes, thoughts, conflicting memes jostling for space and for attention. Elsewhere, Blackmore talks about how we are caught in a ‘meme dream’, at the mercy of this memeplex that we call ‘I’. Meditation, then, is the process of dismantling this meme dream. “Who wakes up when the meme-dream is all dismantled?” she asks. And she replies, with Zen-like inscrutability, “Ah, there’s a question.”

The theory of memetics is still young, and is beset by all manner of debates and discussions. Nevertheless, there is something convincing in the suggestion that many of my thoughts, my ideas, my beliefs are – contrary to what I would like to think – not my own ideas and thoughts and beliefs, but rather the result of the colonisation of my mind by various memes. Blackmore perhaps is offering a new way of thinking about the bases of Buddhist psychology and practice, a way that is at the same time rigorous, clear-headed and revealing.

Susan Blackmore: The Meme Machine. Oxford Paperbacks, 2000. ISBN: 019286212X

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