Holonic structure of the meme: A structure for the unit of culture
by JT Velikovsky (11th December 2013)
I suggest that movies (i.e.: feature films) are memes, and memes are holons.
I therefore wish to suggest:
(1) a structure for the meme, the unit of culture;
(2) the structure of all culture;
(3) the laws and mechanism of cultural evolution.
These structures, laws – and indeed this mechanism – have novel features which are of considerable cultural and biological interest.
What is culture?
In 1952, in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Kroeber and Kluckhohn located and published over 150 varying meanings and definitions of `culture’ (Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952).
In 2007, Van Peer et al concluded `As far as can be seen, there is no consensus on the notion of culture anywhere to be found.’ (Peer, Hakemulder & Zyngier 2007, p. 30)
However, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) defines domains, and culture:
A domain `consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures… Domains are in turn nested in what we usually call culture, or the symbolic knowledge shared by a particular society or by humanity as a whole.’
`The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.’
`The unit of culture’ – the meme – has therefore been proposed (Dawkins 1976, 1982); developed in (Hofstadter 1983, 1985), discussed in the Journal of Memetics from 1997-2005, and also in (Dennett 1995), (Blackmore 1999), (Aunger 2002), (Distin 2005), (Saad 2012); and criticized (Benitez-Bribiesca 2001), (Pinker 2009) etc. in the emerging domain of memetics.
The Domain of Memetics
Notably however, the domain of Memetics has been stalled, as: `the structure of the unit of culture’ has not yet been scientifically and empirically defined, identified or `discovered’.
Memetics awaits its `Watson and Crick 1953’, when the structure of DNA was correctly identified.
In a 2009 Harvard lecture, Steven Pinker (rightly) stated:
`…just empirically, the idea of memetics, of a science of cultural change based on a close analogy with natural selection, it is just a fact: it’s never taken off. It’s thirty-five years old almost at this point. Every five years a paper appears that heralds the final development that we have all been waiting for – of a science of memetics – and nothing ever happens.’
With all of the above in mind – this thesis therefore asserts that the meme, the unit of culture is the holon:
Definition: The meme – the unit of culture – is the holon
The structure of the meme (the unit of culture/the unit of selection) is the holon.
Note that this structure is fractal: it contains copies of its own structure, within itself. (Note also that the number of holons within each holon can vary. It is not always: two. Just as – not every atom only has one proton and neutron and one electron. See: the Periodic Table of the Elements. But – each atom is still: an atom. In fact, every atom is a holon.) Koestler’s (1967) diagram of a holon has 3 holons in each. The number varies.
As Funch notes, holons in holarchies: compete with other holons on the same level; integrate into holons in the level above them; and command holons below them. (see: Funch 1995).
`Side view’ of the holon of: the Biosphere.
Example `top view’ (transparency) of a holon. (Actually, this is a `transverse cross-section’ of a holon/holarchy).
Example of another holarchy:
As Brett Cooke notes in Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (1999):
`Sociobiology and with it biopoetics not only promises to contribute to the cross-matrix sciences concerned with our behaviour, it is best equipped to account for the structure of the matrix itself, thanks to the particulate manner of genetic and, possibly as well, memetic transmission.’
All memes (ideas, processes and products) are also ideas - when abstracted in the mind.
Memes and memeplexes (holons / holarchies) work via the 3 Laws of Holarchies. See: (Funch 1995).
The following is an extract from Funch’s online essay “Holarchies” (Funch 1995), which paraphrases Koestler (1964, 1967) on holons and holarchies:
- “A holon is a node in a holarchy.
-  A holon looks up for what it needs to cooperate with and integrate with.
-  It looks sideways for what it needs to compete with.
-  It looks down for what it wants to command.
- Each holon cannot be fully explained by or predicted by a study of its parts. It is something more. A holon is also part of something bigger that it is being affected by. But at the same time it has a high degree of autonomy, it has a life of its own.” (Funch 1995)
Given these three laws above, clearly there are also forces in operation, in holarchies.
All cultural evolution (science, the arts; all creativity) works via: selection, variation (e.g.: combine two memes; i.e.: Koestler’s `bisociation’), and transmission-with-heredity. See: (Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly & Wolfe 2000).
Renowned creativity researcher Csikszentmihalyi mentions memes 7 times in Creativity (1996), as does EO Wilson in Consilience (1998).
Memes (units of culture) are at the centre of the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 1996, 2000, 2006):
`An outline of the Systems Model – This environment has two salient aspects: a cultural, or symbolic, aspect which here is called the domain; and a social aspect called the field.
Creativity is a process that can be observed only at the intersection where individuals, domains, and fields interact [see Figure].
For creativity to occur, a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the domain to the individual.
The individual must then produce a novel variation in the content of the domain. The variation then must be selected by the field for inclusion in the domain.
Creativity occurs when a person makes a change in a domain, a change that will be transmitted through time.
(Csikszentmihalyi in Henry, 2006, p. 3)
The Field – `The field… includes all individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly 1996, p. 28) Csikszentmihalyi also clarifies:
`The role of the Field – What does it take for a new meme to be accepted into the domain?
Who has the right to decide whether a new meme is actually an improvement, or simply a mistake to be discarded? In the systems model, the gatekeepers who have the right to add memes to a domain are collectively designated the field. Some domains may have a very small field consisting of a dozen or so scholars across the world. Others, such as electronic engineering, may include many thousands of specialists whose opinion would count in recognizing a viable novelty.
For mass-market products such as soft drinks or motion pictures, the field might include not only the small coterie of product developers and critics, but the public at large. For instance, if New Coke is not a part of the culture, it is because although it passed the evaluation of the small field of beverage specialists, it failed to pass the test of public taste.
Given his formulation of the mechanics of creativity (the Domain, Individual, Field interaction systems model), Csikszentmihalyi can be viewed as “the Charles Darwin of creativity”: his model explains its mechanism via the systems model of creativity. DK Simonton also uses the DIFi systems model extensively, including in his analysis of scientific creativity (Simonton 2004), and also film (Simonton 2011).
All cultural artefacts, and all domains in culture – as ideas - are also memeplexes in human minds (e.g.: languages, scientific theories, religions, novels, films, songs, etc.).
Please note - Ideas (memes/holons) are discrete packets of information. Just as genes – in DNA – are `packets of information’ (i.e.: DNA is a product, and also contains within it: ideas, and processes, i.e. Instructions on how to build amino acids, and instructions for building an organism/phenotype). Genes are self-copying, via DNA in biology, and memes are also self-copying – via minds – in culture.
So too, any meme is also `packets of information’ – ideas – and a `whole packet of ideas’ is a holon. Ideas are holons, and are arranged in holarchies, or memeplexes (holarchies of memes/ideas).
This definition (or: `discovery’) of the structure of the units of culture (memes) would encompass many prior suggestions for the definition/structure of the meme, including (but not limited to) the various categories of: tropes, motifs, patterns, themes, configurations, complexes, ideas, beliefs, values, rules, principles, symbols, and concepts (see: (Chick 1999)). Though each of these individual categories, when compared literally to each other are not exactly all the same thing (that would be a conflation, and therefore a category error), each of those things is, indeed, a meme, and a memeplex; a holon and a holarchy.
The question of ontology: Are memes real?
Yes. Memes – whether ideas, processes, products – when they become ideas in a mind – are abstractions in the human mind, but nonetheless are indeed real. An idea in a brain is: the real firing of real neurones, which can be filmed (Muto et al. 2013) .
Ideas are real. Cultural (social, and material production) processes are real. Cultural artefacts (products) are also real.
- Novels: ideas > letters > words > sentences> paragraphs> chapters> novel
- Films: ideas> action/dialog lines>shots> scenes> sequences> acts> film
- Science: ideas> facts>laws> phenomena>theories>meta-theory>paradigm
- Religion: ideas>facts>interpretations/scriptures>believers>spiritual leaders (human) >messiah (human/metaphysical)> deity (metaphysical) >faith> religion
- Poems: ideas>letters>words>stanzas>poem
- Popular songs (lyrics): ideas>letters>words>verse/chorus/bridge>song
Creative fields and domains (such as the film industry) are also holarchies:
- Ideas > Screenplay > Screenwriter > Producer > Financier > Film > Domain of Film > Culture
As biology is ordered in holarchies (atom>molecule>cell>organelle>organ>organism> population>community>biosphere) so too society (human>family>community>state> nation>humanity) and domains in culture (see examples above) can be seen to be organized in holarchies.
Examples – note that, each level of the holarchy is: a meme; a holon. (It is a whole, and also a part.)
There is no culture without biology.
In the diagram above, Directed Evolution refers to memetic enginering: meme-gene directed co-evolution.
In cultural creativity (and cultural evolution), given the DIFi systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, M 1988), (Sawyer 2012), (Simonton 2004), selection takes place at the level of the meme (holon).
Memes (ideas, processes, products) compete in the human mind, and are selected, varied and transmitted-with-heredity. Transmission is via word-of-mouth, and/or via symbolic systems (e.g. books, other media, electronic communications, etc.). Transmission means the meme is copied into more human minds.
Over time, memes can evolve (mutate), and hybrid memes also emerge (e.g. portmanteau words such as: guesstimate, and `Brangelina’; films that are the result of a screenwriter combining two prior film story ideas/memeplexes).
How Does Cultural Evolution Work?
The systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988-2006) explains the mechanism of cultural evolution. Notably this evolution is biocultural, or: meme-gene co-evolution, as both occur at once: it is a confluence model.
For the evolutionary spiral of memes in domains over time, see Koestler on the evolution of ideas, a la Garstang 1922 (Koestler 1989, pp. 168-9).
In a 1922 journal article, evolutionary biologist Walter Garstang expressed how the biological evolution of a species proceeds, until it reaches a (literal) `dead end’, and then an earlier incarnation (that still exists) may split off – and may succeed in adapting and thriving for some time. In The Ghost In The Machine (1967), Arthur Koestler also applied this model to the evolution of ideas (i.e.: memes):
To clarify, in Garstang’s model, the evolution of a species begins at Z (bottom of the diagram). As evolution progresses (`upwards’ in the diagram) it eventually meets `dead ends’ at the left side (the A’s) – and then, earlier, less `evolved / specialized’ species may branch off, towards the right side (the Z’s) and progress leftwards until they too reach `dead ends’ (meaning: they are not well adapted for survival in their environment, and can risk going extinct). Koestler explains how this mechanism also applies to ideas and culture, including scientific revolutions, but also literature and art:
`Garstang’s diagram could also represent a fundamental aspect of the evolution of ideas. The emergence of biological novelties and the creation of mental novelties are processes which show certain analogies.
It is of course a truism that in mental evolution social inheritance through tradition and written records replaces genetic inheritance.
But the analogy goes deeper: neither biological evolution nor mental progress follows a continuous line from A6 to A7. Neither of them is strictly cumulative in the sense of continuing to build where the last generation has left off. Both proceed in the zigzag fashion indicated in the diagram.
The revolutions in the history of science are successful escapes from blind alleys. The evolution of knowledge is continuous only during those periods of consolidation and elaboration which follow a major breakthrough.
Sooner or later, however, consolidation leads to increasing rigidity, orthodoxy, and so into the dead-end of overspecialisation – to the koala bear.
Eventually there is a crisis and a new `break-through’ out of the blind alley – followed by another period of consolidation, a new orthodoxy, and so the cycle starts again. But the new theoretical structure which emerges from the break-through is not built on top of the previous edifice; it branches out from the point where progress has gone wrong…
In the history of literature and art, the zigzag course is even more in evidence: Garstang’s diagram could have been designed to show how periods of cumulative progress within a given `school’ and technique end inevitably in stagnation, mannerism or decadence, until the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary shift in sensibility, emphasis, and style.’
What Koestler explains here can be seen to apply to:
(2) The evolution of styles, ideas, `movements’, fads, and `crazes’ in art, fashion and music (in fact, in all domains of Culture).
(3) The way in which the concepts/memes of consilience (Wilson 1998) and literary Darwinism (Carroll 1995) have reinvigorated the Arts and Humanities – in order to rescue it from a crisis of stagnation and irrelevance / blind alleys. (See: (Carroll 1995), (Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010), (Carroll et al. 2012) (Gottschall 2008)).
Notably – literary Darwinism is also the combination of two successful memes/holarchies: literature and Darwinism. This is also, an example of Koestler’s explanation of `bisociation’/creativity/problem-solving.
(4) The evolution of genres, styles and techniques in the domain of Filmmaking (which includes screenwriting/screen storytelling) – and also – in novels, and songs, and poetry, painting, dance, cooking, etc. (i.e. in any creative domain).
As a side note – we are now arriving at the theory (or: synthesis of theories) used in this StoryAlity Theory empirical analysis of the creative person, process and product in the top and bottom 20 RoI (return-on- investment) films. These films are the top 20 most viral feature films ever, when comparing: audience-reach to product budget. Since these films are viral memes (as are many of the ideas in the films), the question is: What exactly is a meme…? And – how do they work…? (This paper, and post is: the answer to those questions.)
Also just to clarify the notion of meme Transmission-with-heredity: When an idea is selected, it is a memeplex/holarchy: it contains other ideas/concepts within it (e.g. the idea/concept of `a car’ contains `within it’ the idea of wheels, and doors, engine/s, fuel, the idea of transport, etc.) When the idea moves from one human mind to another, many or all the smaller/component ideas, are also inherited. The `component ideas’ within an idea are inherited. Each mind has different associations in their own memeplex of `car’. Yet many – or possibly even all – the `component ideas’ are also inherited.
The structure of the meme (the unit of culture/the unit of selection) is the holon.
If the structure of memes are identified in this way (as holons/holarchies; memes/ memeplexes), it is now possible to further develop a Science of Memetics, with:
2) Assumptions and Laws;
3) Assumptions about Initial Conditions;
4) Predictions; and
5) Observation and Experiment,
as per (Chalmers 2000) and see also (Simonton 2004), (Simonton 2011), (Bloore 2013) and (Velikovsky 2013).
In this way, we might empirically measure and track various memes in culture: When they emerged; How viral they are; When they evolved into hybrid forms; What makes a film/novel/song go viral?, etc.
Notably – each Domain in Culture (e.g.: Film, Music, Novels, Poetry, Painting, Photography, Cooking, Dance, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, etc) is an ecosystem, that operates under the 3 laws of holarchies.
The mechanism of culture: the Selection, Variation and Transmission-with-heredity of memes
For example, The Film Field and Domain -
All of culture is a holon. It is also a holarchy. It is also a meme. It is also a memeplex. (These are all the same thing.)
Starting from the `bottom level’ of holons (i.e. memes) in the holarchy (pictured above):
(1) Ideas exist in the meme pool (i.e.: in Culture). They are in television programs, on the news, in novels, in other films, in gossip (“word-of-mouth”), etc. – We are all constantly `swimming’ in the meme pool, immersed in culture. Whenever they write, Screenwriters select (whether consciously – or otherwise) some of these ideas/memes/holons.
(2) Screenwriters select, vary (e.g. combine with other ideas) and then transmit these ideas (as: words) into their…
(3) Screenplays. A screenplay is a meme. It is a holon, and a holarchy. It is also a memeplex. (These are all the same thing.)
(4) Screenwriters (as per, The 3 Laws of Holarchies) command and control their screenplays. They also seek to integrate with Producers, on the level above.
(5) Producers command and control screenwriters (and indeed – the ideas, in the screenplay). Producers select, vary and transmit these screenplays `upwards’ to Film Financiers.
(6) Producers must therefore integrate with Film Financiers to raise the budget for the film. Film Financiers select, vary and transmit film projects into culture. (Of course this is group creativity, but every film costs money, and so – without financing of some kind – a film does not happen.)
(7) Produced films emerge from the system, and into the Field (audiences, critics, etc.)
(8) These films enter the Domain of Film, where the Field (audiences, critics, etc) `judge’ the film as creative (novel and appropriate) – or: not. (This creativity can be measured in terms of: commercial and/or critical success.)
(9) Various Domains - such as the Sciences and the Arts (including: music, and the visual and tactile arts, etc.) comprise…
(10) Culture. (i.e.: The `meme pool’.)
Given the systems model of creativity, this process can all be seen as a recursive loop, over time. (As Culture/the meme pool is both at the `top’ and `bottom’ of the above holarchy: we have returned to `the source’) Ideas (memes, as holons) are selected from culture – varied – and then transmitted-with-heredity, back into the culture.
An example (selection, variation, transmission-with-heredity) is where films (screen ideas) are pitched (by screenwriters, directors, producers, etc) as Film `A’ meets Film `B’.
A film – as with all culture – and all units of culture – is a holon/meme. The 3 Laws of Holarchies apply.
Another way to analyze a film meme/holon is below. Each of these holons is a meme. (e.g.: a line of dialog from a film can go viral in culture: eg “Play it again, Sam.”, “I’ll be back.”, “The first rule of Fight Club is…”) Also, a (fictional) Character (as – a concept/idea/meme) can become a viral meme (e.g.: Ron Burgundy, Darth Vader, Harry Potter, etc.). In the domain of religion, the idea of: Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha are all viral memes.
The meme – the unit of culture – is the holon
The structure of the meme (the unit of culture/the unit of selection) is the holon.
Given all of the above – for An Outline of a Science of Memetics, see this next post:
And – for more detailed information on memes/holons, please see also, the following StoryAlity weblog posts:
On Cultural Evolution – and Memes
- StoryAlity #44 - Biological Evolution, Cultural Evolution, and Creativity: Film
- StoryAlity #45 - On Movie Memes and Memetics (and: How Memes Work)
- StoryAlity #45B - On Tracking Memes in The Meme Pool
- StoryAlity #46 - On Mayans, Memes, Creativity, Darwin and Dawkins
- StoryAlity #47 - Why are some Screenplays/Films more `viral’ Memes?
- StoryAlity #47B - More on Memes & Film (and: 3 solved problems in Memetics)
On Holons and Holarchies
- StoryAlity #48 - On Film Holons and Holarchies – and How Holarchies Work
- StoryAlity #49 - On Movie Screenplays, Viral Memes, and Cultural Evolution
On Cultural Evolution in Transmedia
And – for screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, etc:
The StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual
Alternately – you might even like to read the entire StoryAlity blog:
The StoryAlity weblog – Index:
- Comments always welcome.
Film Story Analyst/Researcher and High RoI Film/Story/Screenplay Guru
The above is an adapted excerpt from my doctoral thesis: “Understanding And Exploring The Relationship Between: Creativity; Theories Of Narratology; Screenwriting; And Narrative Fiction Feature Film-Making Practices.” It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting and filmmaking researchers.
JT Velikovsky is a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
 Dr Susan Kerrigan has also further developed a model of the systems model of creativity. See:
 Footage of a zebrafish larva’s thought: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130131144419.htm and http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(13)00002-X although notably Richard Feynman suspects everyone thinks (imagines/conceptualizes) differently: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lr8sVailoLw
Aunger, R 2002, The Electric Meme: a New Theory of How We Think, Free Press, New York.
Benitez-Bribiesca, L 2001, ‘”Memetics: A Dangerous Idea”‘, Interciencia: Revista de Ciencia y Technologia de América (Venezuela: Asociación Interciencia), vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 29-31.
Blackmore, SJ 1999, The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Bloore, P 2013, The Screenplay Business: Managing Creativity in the Film Industry, Routledge, London; New York.
Chalmers, AF 2000, What Is This Thing Called Science?, 3rd edn, Open University Press, Buckingham.
Cooke, B in (Eds) Cooke, B., & Turner, F. 1999, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Ky.: ICUS.
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1988, ‘Society, Culture, and Person: A systems view of creativity’, in RJ Sternberg (ed.), The Nature of Creativity, Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 325–39
Csikszentmihalyi, M & Wolfe, R 2000, ‘New Conceptions and Research Approaches to Creativity: Implications for a Systems Perspective of Creativity in Education’, in KA Heller, FJ Mönks, R Subotnik & RJ Sternberg (eds), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent, 2nd ed. edn, Elsevier, Amsterdam; Oxford.
Dawkins, R 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
—— 1982, The Extended Phenotype: the Gene as the Unit of Selection, Freeman, Oxford Oxfordshire; San Francisco.
Dennett, DC 1995, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Distin, K 2005, The Selfish Meme: a Critical Reassessment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.; New York.
Funch, F 1995, Holarchies, Funch, viewed 10th September 2012, <http://www.worldtrans.org/essay/holarchies.html>.
Hofstadter, D 1985, Chapter 3, `On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures’, in Metamagical Themas, Basic Books, New York. (Chapter reprinted from the 1983 article in Scientific American).
Koestler, A 1964, The Act of Creation, Hutchinson, London.
—— 1967, The Ghost In The Machine, Hutchinson, London.
—— 1989, The Ghost In The Machine, Arkana, London.
Pinker, S 2009, Post-lecture commentary on `Brains, Computers, and Minds’ with Professor Daniel Dennett, Harvard University, viewed 25th November 2013, <http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k69509&pageid=icb.page334500&pageContentId=icb.pagecontent698262&view=watch.do&viewParam_entry=32931&state=maximize#a_icb_pagecontent698262>.
Saad, G 2012, ‘Nothing in Popular Culture Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’, Review of General Psychology, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 109–20.
Sawyer, RK 2012, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, 2nd ed. edn, Oxford University Press, New York.
Simonton, DK 2004, Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.
—— 2011, Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, New York; Oxford.
—— 2013, ‘What is a creative idea? Little-c versus Big-C creativity’, in K Thomas & J Chan (eds), Handbook of Research on Creativity, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA, pp. 69-83.
Velikovsky, JT 2013, Why Transmedia Is Destiny, WordPress, viewed 21st Feb 2013, <http://storyality.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/storyality-64-Why-Transmedia-is-Destiny/>.
P.S. – Some people have asked why `Creativity Guy’ is holding up those 3 intersecting rings:
For a more detailed discussion on the definition of creativity, see this excellent article by Prof DK Simonton:
What is a creative idea? Little-c versus Big-C Creativity (DK Simonton, 2013)
Some more books/articles I can highly recommend:
The Screenplay Business by Peter Bloore (2013)
Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea by Ian W. Macdonald (2013)
And – for more on the Screenwriting Research Network, please see this post.
And see also – these excellent chapters:
Creativity As A System in Action – Phillip McIntyre
A systems view of film-making as a creative practice by Eva Novrup Redvall
Velikovsky, JT (2013) `Holonic structure of the meme: A structure for the unit of culture’, StoryAlity #100, StoryAlity weblog, Wordpess. http://storyality.wordpress.com/