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Meme Update #25

In this issue:
    Book Review: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore


What do you do with a spare $200,000 or so? Well, if you go in for that sort of thing, you might want to bid on the right to put your name on a new species of bird recently discovered in the Brazilian Amazon. The winning bidder will be able to create the pseudo-Latin "scientific" name that the new species will be known by forever more.

Traditionally, the discoverer of a new species earns the right to name it anything he or she wishes. Traditionally, they name them after themselves or loved ones. But Bret Whitney, who discovered the new antshrike three years ago, had the idea to auction off the name and use the proceeds to support wildlife.

"My idea is to use human vanity in support of research and environmental conservation," said Whitney to reporters when he made the announcement.

Birds aside, the idea of selling of naming rights to the highest bidder is spreading like -- well, like a successful meme. Where once ballparks were named after geographical features or tradition -- Fenway Park and the Polo Grounds -- now we can go see the National Pastime played in 3Com park or Seattle's beautiful new (wince) Safeco Field. Safeco Insurance paid an estimated $40 million for the naming rights -- the right to have their corporate meme broadcast repeatedly into millions of minds forever more.

You might argue that it makes good business sense to buy a wholesome image for a company in this way. But why do we have such big egos that we feel the need to stamp our own personal names on things? Why do academics live or die to have their name associated with a new idea or discovery? Why do celebrities hire public-relations firms to make their names household words?

From a memetic perspective, we might ask whether this is another example of meme evolution "pulling on the leash" of human genetic evolution (See Meme Update #24: The Evolution of Music). As social animals, humans have a "pecking order" that influences reproductive success. For instance, studies show that women shown slides of the same men dressed differently will rate a man dressed like an attorney as a more desirable mate than the same man in a Pizza Hut uniform. Naturally, there is a tremendous drive to rise in the hierarchy or, if no progress is being made, to relocate yourself into a different hierarchy, such as a smaller company or the corner bar, where you feel like a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

If making a name for yourself gets you higher in this pecking order, your genes are more likely to be passed down among the generations. And so the propensity for a big ego, in addition to helping spread your genes, also helps spread your memes: more people know about you, listen to you, and know your name.

Any time an alliance is formed between memetic success and reproductive success, you have the possibility that the much quicker meme evolution will take advantage of it. This means we may find ourselves feeling good about spreading certain memes even though they confer no reproductive advantage on our genes. The meme of birth control is a prime example. It will take our genes somewhere between a long time and never to catch up to the memes, because the meme evolution keeps happening while our genes are trying to figure out a course-correction

And so Donald Trump puts his name on buildings in every city, Ted Turner broadcasts his name all over the world, and the guy next door buys a $75 brick with his name on it to help pave the Mariners' new ballpark. This ego-meme-ia just feels like the right thing to do. It doesn't really make rational sense, although you can and do justify anything, but emotionally we really feel the need to make our mark in the world. And your memes thank you.

By the way, when you tell people where you heard about this, make sure you spell my name right: it's B-R-O-D-I-E.

Book Review

The Meme Machine
Susan Blackmore
Foreword by Richard Dawkins
(hardcover, 264 pages)

In the most exciting memetics book to come out in years, Susan Blackmore extends the memetics model back into its murky origins and out into an uncertain future. If there were just one really pithy idea in here to make me think about whole new applications of memetics, I'd tell you to buy this book. If it was just a fleshed-out summary of the best ideas in memetics, including Dennett's, Dawkins's, and my own, I'd tell you to buy this book. If it simply related the academic origins of cultural evolution to modern memetic theory, I'd tell you to buy this book. But Blackmore does all this and more. The Meme Machine is a must-read for anyone serious about memetics.

Was the evolution of altruism, one of the most hotly debated topics in evolutionary biology, actually driven by meme evolution? Blackmore makes a case that it might have been. How about our big brains? More than just a survival aid, Blackmore shows how brain size selection might have been driven by -- you guessed it -- memes!

This book is such a work of thought and love that I can even forgive Dr. Blackmore for dismissing my entire philosophy of life in two words (p. 241). As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Blackmore's background in the study of parapsychology gives her a good step or two outside the ivory tower, which seems valuable to gain a healthy perspective on memetics. And she ends her book as I did mine, with an unavoidable inquiry into the meaning of life. If self is an illusion -- if ego is merely an artifact of evolution -- what is to be done? While she doesn't purport to come up with the answer, she, like me, suggests that we all ask ourselves the question.

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All the best memes,


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