On Memes, Creativity, Darwin and Dawkins

So – as we all know – “today – is the day “(historically, the 21st December, 2012) that the Mayan `long count’ calendar `ends’.

And, so: Happy Mayan End-of-the-World Day, Everyone-! 🙂

And, thank you for continuing to read my blog, even though there’s currently an Apocalypse on. I certainly appreciate your dedication. …Be all that as it may(a) – on with the show:

More on Memes:

In his 1976 work The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins defines memes as cultural replicators:

`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. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.*

 When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

(Dawkins 2006: 196, emphasis mine)

In Creativity (1996), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states:

`In cultural evolution there are no mechanisms equivalent to genes and chromosomes. Therefore a new idea is not automatically passed on to the next generation. Instructions for how to use fire, or the wheel or atomic energy are not built into the nervous systems of children born after such discoveries. Each child has to learn them again from the start.

The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes, or units of information we must learn if culture is to continue. Languages, numbers, theories, songs, recipes, laws and values are all memes that we pass on to our children so that they will be remembered.

It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 7)

What else did Csikszentmihalyi say about memes, in his work Creativity (1996)?

Csikszentmihalyi on Memes:

Csikszentmihalyi uses the term `meme’ 7 times in Creativity (1996): (pp 7, 8, 41, 318, 319, 321, 372)

Below are the 7 key quotes from Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1996) on memes: I present all 7 quotes below, as, not only is it first essential to understand memes, to understand my StoryAlity Theory – but also, I believe it will help anyone interested in understanding what memes are. Memes are almost all that successful feature films are about.

`Creativity, at least as I deal with it in this book, is a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed. New songs, new ideas, new machines are what creativity is about. But because these changes do not happen automatically as in biological evolution, it is necessary to consider the price we must pay for creativity to occur. It takes effort to change traditions.

For example, memes must be learned before they can be changed: A musician must learn the music tradition, the notation system, the way instruments are played before she can think of writing a new song; before an airplane inventor can improve on airplane design he has to learn physics, aerodynamics, and why birds don’t fall out of the sky. If we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned. And attention is a limited resource: There is just so much information we can process at any given time.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 8 – emphasis mine)

`Fields of Accomplishment – If a symbolic domain is necessary for a person to innovate in, a field is necessary to determine whether the innovation is worth making a fuss about.  Only a very small percentage of the great number of novelties produced will eventually become part of the culture. For instance, about one hundred thousand new books are published each year in the United States. How many of these will be remembered ten years from now? Similarly, about five hundred thousand people in this country state on their census forms that they are artists. If each of them only painted one painting per year, it would amount to about fifteen million new paintings per generation. How many of these will end up in museums or in textbooks on art? One in a million, ten in a million, one in ten thousand? One?

George Stigler, the Nobel laureate in economics, made the same point about new ideas in his domain, and what he says can be applied to any other field of science:

“The profession is too busy to read much. I keep telling my colleagues at the Journal of Political Economy that any time we get an article that fifteen of our profession, of the seven thousand subscribers, read carefully, that must be truly a major article of the year.”

These numbers suggest that the competition between memes, or units of cultural information, is as fierce as the competition between the units of chemical information we call genes.

In order to survive, cultures must eliminate most of the new ideas their members produce. Cultures are conservative, and for good reason. No culture could assimilate all the novelty people produce without dissolving into chaos.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 41 – emphasis mine)

`Creativity and Survival – There is no question that the human species could not survive, either now or in the years to come, if creativity were to run dry. Scientists will have to come up with new solutions to overpopulation, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and the pollution of the environment – or the future will indeed be brutish and short. Unless humanists find new values, new ideals to direct our energies, a sense of hopelessness might well keep us from going on with the enthusiasm necessary to overcome the obstacles along the way. Whether we like it or not, our species has become dependent on creativity.

To say the same thing in a more upbeat way, in the last few millennia evolution has been transformed from being almost exclusively a matter of mutations in the chemistry of genes to being more and more a matter of changes in memes – in the information that we learn and transmit to others. If the right memes are selected, we survive; otherwise we do not. And those who select the knowledge, the values, the behaviours that will either lead into a brighter future or to extinction are no longer factors outside ourselves, such as predators or climatic changes.

The future is in our hands; the culture we create will determine our fate. This is the evolution that Jonas Salk calls metabiological, or E.O. Wilson and others call biocultural. The idea is the same: survival no longer depends on biological equipment alone but on the social and cultural tools we choose to use.

The inventions of the great civilizations – the arts, religions, political systems, sciences and technologies – signal the main stages along the path to cultural evolution. To be human means to be creative.

At the same time, it does not take much thought to realize that the main threats to our survival as a species, the very problems we hope creativity will solve, were brought about by yesterday’s creative solutions. Overpopulation, which in many ways is the core problem of the future, in the result of ingenious improvements in farming and public health. The loss of community and increasing psychological isolation are in part due to the enormous advances in mobility, brought about by the discovery of self-propelling vehicles such as trains and cars. The loss of transcendent values is the result of the success of science at debunking beliefs that cannot be tested empirically. And so on, ad infinitum. This is the reason, for instance, that Robert Ornstein calls human inventions “the axe-maker’s gift”, referring to what happens when a steel axe is first introduced to a preliterate tribe that knows no metals: it leads to easier killing and it shreds the existing fabric of social relations and cultural values.

In a sense, every new invention is an axe-maker’s gift: the way of life is never the same after the new meme takes hold. It is not only the clearly dangerous discoveries – distilled alcohol, tobacco, firearms, nuclear reactors – that threaten to wipe out entire populations. Even apparently beneficial inventions have unintended negative consequences. Television is a  fantastic tool for increasing the range of what we can experience, but it can make us addicted to redundant information that appeals to the lowest common denominator of human interests.

Every new meme – the car, the computer, the contraceptive pill, patriotism or multiculturalism – changes the way we think and act, and has a potentially dark side that often reveals itself only when it is too late, after we have resigned ourselves that the innovation is here to stay.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 318-19 – emphasis mine)

 (Csikszentmihalyi then talks about the disappearance of the Mayans – as they were too successful, then: a `similar pattern’…)

Mayannaise Shortage

Mayan civilization totally collapsed in the 10th century (circa 1100 A.D.), when they ran out of Mayanaise.

`A… pattern of initial success leading to eventual failure holds for memes that shape human energy through ideas. The promises of Nazism, Marxism, and the various religious fundamentalisms give people a simple set of goals and rules. This liberates a wave of psychic energy that for a while makes the society that adopted the creed seem purposeful and powerful.

In Germany, Hitler eliminated unemployment when the rest of the industrial world was still in the throes of the Great Depression. In Italy, Mussolini for the first time made the trains run on time. Stalin transformed a backward rural continent into a leading industrial giant.

Soon however, the downside appears: intolerance, repression, rigidity, and xenophobia usually leading to wars or worse are just some of the usual consequences when social energies are focussed by memes that promise superiority to one group at the expense of the others.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 320 – emphasis mine).

`It is true that in the past a society that had advanced far in creating complex memes could survive for even hundreds or thousands of years more or less unchanged, living more or less on its initial cultural capital. The Egyptians were able to do so, and so were the Chinese. But such a luxury is no longer available, in part because of the very advances made in the past few centuries. Communications have improved to the point that information, technology and access to capital are almost evenly distributed across the globe.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 321 – emphasis mine)

And this excellent book concludes with this statement:

`There are two dangers as you become involved in a domain.

The first is addiction: some domains are so seductive that you may invest so much attention into it that you have none left for your job and your family. Some chess players become so taken by the game that to all intents and purposes they become zombies; the same can be true of betting on horses, collecting art, studying the Bible, or cruising the internet.

The other danger is the opposite: you can become so diffuse, so eclectic, that what you feel in different domains ends up being the same superficial experience. Like the traveller who goes everywhere and is still the same boring, provincial soul he was before he left, many people seem to gain nothing from sampling the best that the culture has to offer. As is usually the case, the best solution does not lie with the extremes.

As you learn to operate within a domain, your life is certainly going to become more creative. But it should be repeated that this does not guarantee creativity with a capital c. You can be as personally creative as you please, but if the domain and the field fail to cooperate – as they almost always do – your efforts will not be recorded in the history books. Learning to sculpt will do wonders for the quality of your life, but don’t expect critics to get ecstatic, or collectors to beat a path to your door.

The competition among new memes is fierce; few survive by being noticed, selected and added to the culture. Luck has a huge hand in deciding whose c is capitalized. But if you don’t learn to be creative in your personal life, the chances of contributing to the culture drop even closer to zero. And what really matters, in the last account, is not whether your name has been attached to a recognized discovery, but whether you have lived a full and creative life.’ 

(M. Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 371-72 – emphasis mine)

So – can we identify any of the memes in these Top 20 ROI Films?

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

To quote the President of The Unified Stations of Americay:


(Stay tuned. More in future blog-posts)

Before we close for today’s post – regarding the concept of memes and creativity – likewise, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2012), Kuhn states:

`An appropriately programmed perceptual mechanism has survival value… it is just because so very few ways of seeing will do that the ones that have withstood the tests of group use are worth transmitting from generation to generation.’

(Kuhn and Hacking 2012: 194-5)

This notion can be compared with (in fact – is identical to) memes – in the systems model of Creativity, i.e. meme selection, variation, and transmission, in the culture).


Measuring/Tracking Memes in the Culture

What is clear is that – up to now, we have not been able to measure and track memes very accurately:

Where they are; how fast they are moving; and what exactly, precisely, is their position and momentum?

But – we now have YouTube. And: Twitter. And: FaceBook. We can see much more precisely `how viral’ things go.

Soon we will have even better tools to measure memes with.

Notably, also in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn states:

`Special telescopes to demonstrate the Copernican prediction of annual parallax; Atwood’s machine, first invented almost a century after the Principia, to give the first unequivocal demonstration of Newton’s second law; Foucault’s apparatus to show that the speed of light is greater in air than in water; or the giant scintillation counter designed to demonstrate the existence of the neutrino – these pieces of special apparatus and many others like them illustrate the immense effort and ingenuity that have been required to bring theory and nature into closer and closer agreement.

(Kuhn and Hacking 2012: 27)

So – as writers / filmmakers, how can we recognize strong memes in advance? (i.e. when we are `creating’ them, by selection, variation and transmission into the culture?)

– And – equally importantly: When conceiving a film story – How can we reject memes that are not as strong (and therefore – are unlikely to achieve our stated aim / goal – of telling a Film Story that will reach the widest possible audience – even though our production budget is comparatively small – as: that is the inescapable reality facing all early-career screenwriters /filmmakers)?

The answer lies in: finding the common story memes in all of the Top 20 ROI films.

For now – my best advice is: bisociation. Choose (select) two memes that are extremely viral (prevalent in the culture) and breed (combine) them (variation). And put them in your film, and if you have done this right, the film will go viral and spread like a virus in the culture (transmission).

This process, when it works – results in memetic hybrid vigour. (See StoryAlity #44)

Memetic (as opposed to genetic) hybrid vigour

Virality of story: the result of memetic (as opposed to genetic) hybrid vigour


I have a chapter on memes, (units of culture) in this book:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

…Thoughts? Comments? Feedback?

P.S. – Notably, E O Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer prizes for General Non-Fiction, wrote Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) in which he argues for the Sciences, Humanities and Arts to work together, with an inter-disciplinary approach to knowledge. This is also the aim of this ongoing doctoral research study.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also 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 for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st edn.; New York: HarperCollins) viii, 456 p.

Dawkins, Richard (2006), The Selfish Gene (30th anniversary edn.; Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1 online resource (xxiii, 360 p.).

Kuhn, Thomas S. and Hacking, Ian (2012), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th edn.; Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press) xlvi, 217 p.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). ‘The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.’ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1st ed.). New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House.


10 thoughts on “StoryAlity #46 – On Mayans, Memes, Creativity, Darwin and Dawkins

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  8. Pingback: StoryAlity #109 – Memetics and Film | StoryAlity

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