In the excellent anthology, Biopoetics (1999):

Emeritus Professor Daniel Rancour-Laferriere has an excellent chapter, entitled Preliminary Remarks on Literary Memetics. (pp 59-70) (the article is reprinted in Biopoetics, from an earlier journal article.)

Here is an excerpt from the article:

`It is my impression that literary theory has not made much progress toward answering the questions of either proximate or ultimate cause. There have been some admirable first steps, but basically literary theory is in as basic a state as biology before Darwin or Mendel. It has neither a developed concept of selection nor a genetics.

Perhaps the lessons learned by biologists can be of help to literary theoreticians. Perhaps at least some questions of definition can be raised, even if the big questions of proximate and ultimate cause are still out of reach. Assume for example, that literary evolution, like the evolution of organisms, is based on the survival of the fittest. A question of definition that would then have to be asked is, survival of the fittest what?

Precisely what are the literary units that endure from century to century?

Or, from the axiological viewpoint, what are the literary units that we endow with value, and thus permit to survive?

Lest the reader react with horror to so biological a metaphor as “the survival of the fittest”, let me point out that this phrase is neither particularly biological nor even a metaphor. In the first place, Darwin borrowed it from Spencer, who happened to use it for purposes of sociological theorizing before Darwin used it for purposes of biological theorizing (Ghiselin 1974, 219; Edel 1978).

In the second place, “survival of the fittest” cannot be a metaphor unless it is implicitly understood what biologists had in mind that survived. In fact biologists have been quite fickle about specifying just what survives. Nowadays in sociobiology it is survival of the fittest gene or allele of a gene (e.g. Dawkins 1976) or the fittest individual (e.g. Trivers 1971, 48), whereas it used to be the fittest social group or fittest species. In any case, if the literary scholar is going to make any use of the concept “survival of the fittest” then that scholar will, like the biologist, have to tackle the problem of determining what exactly is “fit” or “not fit” or “more fit” versus “less fit”.

For starters, I would like to suggest that we follow the lead of Richard Dawkins, who has already begun to study the parallels between biological and cultural (including literary) evolution. In his highly readable book, The Selfish Gene (1976),

Dawkins proposes that the unit of cultural survival is something called the meme:

‘We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which 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 même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream.”

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or 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.’ (Dawkins 1976, 206).

As is obvious, Dawkins’ now famous notion of meme is rather broadly and loosely defined. The range of human behaviours which may be termed imitative is enormous, but the underlying notion is quite straightforward: if it is a cultural entity and if it replicates, then it is a meme. The replication may take place within the central nervous system, as in an idea or concept passed on from person to person, or the replication may involve an external object of culture, as in the reproduction of a painting by photographic means.

Various scholars have noted that there is this dichotomy in cultural replication (e.g. Cloak 1975, 168; Rancour-Laferriere 1979, 183-184; Mundinger 1980, 198).’

(Rancour-Laferriere in Cooke & Turner, 1999, pp. 61-63)

With all this in mind, I have proposed:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture

(Please click the link above, to read the post/the paper)

And – from the above paper, an example holarchy of memes, for novels (or `literature’):

Holarchy of Novels

Holarchy of Novels

An example holarchy of memes, for films: (noting that there are many holarchies, within a feature film)

Holarchy of the Film Field and Domain (Velikovsky 2013)

Holarchy of the Film Field and Domain (Velikovsky 2013)

For more detail, see the post:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture


And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


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/



Cooke, B., & Turner, F. (eds, 1999) Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Ky: ICUS.

Dawkins, R (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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.


3 thoughts on “StoryAlity #107 – Preliminary Remarks on Literary Memetics (Rancour-Laferriere)

  1. Pingback: Compiti per le vacanze | La Rassegna Della Domenica

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

  3. Pingback: StoryAlity#137 – Culturology & the CES (Cultural Evolution Society) | StoryAlity

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