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As expected, the narratives underscore the cruelty ofAmerican slavery and the bitterness of its victims. One woman teUs how an abusive mistress crushed her head under a rocking chair, deforming her face for life. Others tell stories of serving as beasts of burden and of the excruciating ordeal of witnessing a family member or friend sold to another master. But there are also stories of happiness —of marriage and family, religious experiences, celebrations such as com shuckings, of bonding together and looking out for one another, of outwitting masters and overseers and of escaping or helping others to escape. We hear Civil War stories from a unique perspective— experiences by slaves behind Confederate and Union lines. Finally, we hear Emancipation described—and freedom defined—by the people who endured the worst oppression in American history. (BR) The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore Oxford U.P., New York, 1999, 286 pp., $25 The word "même" was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins , author of the controversial theory that the gene, not the organism , is the unit of selection (The Selfish Gene, 1976). Dawkins argued that DNA is not the only conceivable medium in 'which Darwinian evolution can occur. He posited the existence of mêmes, nonbiological units of replication and competition that produce cultural evolution. Mêmes are abstract units of culture—concepts, images, instructions, stories, facts (or myths), jokes—anything that can be copied and spread. Susan Blackmore's new book, The Meme Machine, explores the possibility of a full-blown theory of memetics. With a blend of caution and boldness (she duly notes several fundamental problems in defining the nature of the même but then sidesteps these obstacles to pursue larger game), she applies memetic theory to some of the most controversial issues in evolutionary psychology and consciousness, including the origin of language, sexual attitudes, altruism, and the proportionately enormous human brain. According to Blackmore, the rise of mêmes on our planet is intimately connected with the evolution of the human species, with each one causally dependent on the other. Humans, she says, are the only animal that imitates all kinds of observed behavior , as opposed to acting by instinct, conditioned response or learning in a narrow, preset range (e.g., some bird calls). We tend to think of our imitating ability as the result of our general intelligence. Blackmore says the ex-planation is just the opposite: we were imitators first, and then the pressure of memetic selection (in combination with genetic selection) generated the increased mental power and other traits that seem to be unique to humans. Yes, being smart helps an animal stay alive and reproduce, but the human brain is so big and so costly in biological terms that it has long been a question whether it really earns its keep. But memetic selection provides an explanation for our seemingly oversized brains: more available intelügence means better même reproduction. In the modern developed world, where The Missouri Review «211 genetic selection pressure on humans is pretty low, memetic selection is going stronger than ever, forcing us to invent ever more highly refined meme-spreading techniques: better computers, faxes, photocopiers, telephones , televisions, movies, CDs, etc. The idea of an evolutionary force similar but not identical to genetic evolution is an exciting one that deserves attention regardless of whether one buys Blackmore's argument in its entirety. Some readers will be deUghted, others appalled, by Blackmore's more far-reaching speculations . There is no such thing as an "inner," "true" self, she argues. That self is an illusion, just a coUection of especially vigorous mêmes that maintain themselves in our minds by convincing us that we are them. If The Merne Machine is speculative, though, it is honorably so: Blackmore doesn't try to disguise the foundational weaknesses ofher theories, though she may be inclined to take them too lightly. The Meme Machine is pleasurable reading. It covers a lot of ground fast and skirts some controversial points, but it is engaging. Some 150 years ago the theoretical revolution that started with Darwin gave us the tools to begin thinking about life on earth without recourse to supernatural explanation. Memetic theory...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 211-212
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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