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Observing Memes and Narrative Culture

Ross Macleay

1. Observations
1.1 Empirical observation
1.2 Psyche’s self-observation
1.3 Observing society
2. Memetic engineering
2.1 Memetic engineering
2.2 Instrumental memetics
3. Observing memes
3.1 The medium and the message
3.2 ‘What’s in a meme?’
4. Society
4.1 Society and culture
4.2 Evolutionary sociology
4.3 Selection pressure
5. Selection in intentional psychology
6. Alien design
6.1 The genealogy of alienation
6.2 ‘The death of the author’
6.3 The canon
6.4 Alien to whom
7. Selves

This paper considers how we observe memes and their replication, and does so in order to introduce a way of
conceiving memes as the elements of society⎯society itself being conceived as a system of human
communications or information transmissions. Memetics and social evolution by social selection are used to
reinterpret some traditional terms from sociology, particularly reification and alienation. The examples used
are drawn from narrative culture, but not just for the sake of illustrating the points made about evolutionary
sociology. The primary concern is with showing how one peculiarly general narrative, that of social evolution
by Darwinian selection, can demystify a number of features of narrative culture that are familiar to but poorly
understood by theorists of narrative and cultural studies. Accordingly, the self-narratives of intentional
psychology are considered, as well as narratives historiographical and fictional, popular and high-cultural.

Key words: observation, heterophenomenological, reflexive, reification, self, alien, society, culture, history,
narrative art.

1. Observations
1.1 Empirical observation

Empirical observations are observable observations. They involve observations of observations, or second order
observations (Von Foerster, 1981). A methodological norm⎯ and a very useful one too⎯prescribes them as such.
Scientific society has insisted upon this norm typically by insisting that empirical observation be repeatable⎯a
requirement whose satisfaction has largely depended on such memes as the printed scientific monograph, the
development of laboratories and standard instrumentation, and methods of statistical inference. Without a print society
the selection pressure for the scientific norm of empirical observation is much reduced, and scientific memes that are
not adapted to the standards of empirical validity may evolve. Of course a modern, scientific society might not choose
to call such memes scientific.

1.2 Psyche’s self-observation

Psyche’s self observation is not empirical⎯except, perhaps in the Kantian sense that it is conditioned by time. It
involves the observation of the phenomenal rather than the spatiotemporal. In accordance with long philosophical
usage, it may be called phenomenological. Another’s report of their self-observation cannot be empirically verified
because phenomenological self-observation is not an observable observation.

1.3 Observing society

Observations of other psyches by means of their communicated reports may be called (after Dennett 1991)
heterophenomenological. Society may be observed by observing communications. Communications are observed
empirically insofar as they are messages encoded in empirical, sensory objects, but to observe the semantic message
(the meaning) requires a mental observer. So the observation of society is heterophenomenological, but, as such, it is
conditioned to no small extent by empirical observation: we may empirically observe the same words on air, page,
stage or screen. However their exact meaning is not empirically observable; as is all too well known, it need not be the
same for two minds. The coordination of meanings that are contingent upon different observers has been a selection
pressure for the natural selection of the linguistic animals with the neurological means for the complex conditional
inferences of symbolic processing, and the social selection of linguistic memes. In the course of interanimating genetic
and memetic evolution, many perplexing features of human meaning are functional adaptations to the selection
pressure of its ‘doubly contingent’ environment.

Descriptions of society are descriptions of the universe of communicated meanings. They constitute society’s self-
observation. The science of society is not a hopeless task, but its epistemological predicament puts particular
constraints on it, and the validity of any of its claims is conditioned by those constraints. Insofar as it must observe
empirically observable communicative objects, it should have the empirical norm as an important selection pressure.

Now is the time to circle back and say a little more about empirical observation. Because empirical observation is a
second order observation, and because it is enjoined by a social norm, it is not simply a matter of immediate sensory
perception. Indeed empirical observation is mediated by heterophenomenological observation. It is a meme for defining
and effectively enabling an especially verifiable kind of heterophenomenological observation⎯one in which others’
testimonies of their sensory experience may be compared and verified. It does this by effectively (albeit not absolutely)
removing the observer’s self observation from its observations. This is most readily effected in the physical sciences. In
the social sciences, however, an observer’s claim (a description say, or a prediction) is a social phenomenon that may
well cause unpredictable consequences⎯whether deliberate flouting by others, or self-fulfilment.

Society’s self-descriptions are social phenomena, and causally significant ones at that. So, like psyche’s self-
descriptions, the science of society is reflexive. It follows that, not only does the science of society evolve; society itself
evolves in the process. It should be said that, by virtue of reflexivity, the epistemological constraints that are attendant
upon the necessity of heterophenomenological and reflexive observation not only limit the epistemic power of the
science, they also place limitations on the nature of the object. For example, the recursive operations of reflexive
observations may have eigenvalues or fixed points (Von Foerster, 278, Barwise and Moss 1996). Von Foerster
proposes that empirical objects are indeed eigenvalues in heterophenomenologically recursive observations. There are
additional constraints that apply to society insofar as it is observable as a universe of evolving, communicative
objects⎯constraints that follow from its being amenable to a principled, Darwinian description⎯and to some extent
the difficulties of dealing with heterophenomenological, reflexively conditioned phenomena are obviated by the
constraints of a Darwinian selection process.

2. Memetic Engineering
2.1 Memetic engineering

If we think of memetics as an instrumental science, then by analogy with genetics, we have been doing memetic
engineering for a long time. Society is a system of memetically engineered signs. We could say that, as plant and
animal breeders⎯and as sexually selective breeders of ourselves⎯we have been doing genetic engineering (even
eugenics) for a long time. However in the case of memetics, if we had not been doing the engineering⎯replicating
certain memes (with variation) combining them for certain purposes, each playing our small part in the selection
history⎯then there would have been no memes and no selection process to study. Since, as communicative, social
animals, we are destined to work on memes, we shall continue doing this, as we have in the past, by working on
empirically observable external signs. So there is something to be said for seeing these empirical objects as the stuff in
which memes are encoded⎯including when the stuff we a referring to is the empirical, neurological stuff of brains.

2.2 Instrumental memetics

For our instrumental memetics we have had to use instrumental descriptions of the things we have been working
on⎯just to get by. Just how adequate this proto-memetic science may have been may be answered by saying: adequate
enough to do the job up until now. One glaring shortcoming, however, has been that until the 19th century we had not
actually attempted a Darwinian description of social evolution, and we had to wait until the 20th century to attempt a
principled description using a term to denote the replicators in social evolutionary processes. (So, we might ask, what
can we use a rigorously scientific instrumental memetics for? The problem has been that as a selection process, social
evolution has gone on over our heads and (until recently) outside our scientific observation. Though we have naively
bred certain memes, there is no necessity that the designs that get selected are in accord with individual intentions or
with the best human intentions. Indeed, under the title of ‘social engineering’, one pre- (or pseudo-) scientific form of
memetic engineering has earned itself a bad name.) Before self-described memetic science we did, however, have other
terms that often denoted certain memes⎯symbol, word, sign, sentence, story, song, work, act, deed, behaviour, tool,
etc⎯and these served the purpose of theorising our memetic engineering.

Note the way that terms such as task, deed, action, and behaviour pick out a distinct, inferentially useful semantic form.
These terms are adapted to the selection pressures of human intentionality, perception, inference and communication.
Because human actions are typically directed towards ends, these terms have been selected in an environment that
exerts a selection pressure for salient, operational primitives that are usefully, teleologically differentiated. They are
also adapted to the environment of communication: both self and other can utter and interpret them, and they are
relatively stable in their references. Some actions are semantic and only heterophenomenologically observable (eg
giving), while others are empirically observable (eg running). The term behaviour tries to sound as general and non-
intentionally constrained as possible⎯this being a rhetorical adaptation to the pressures for generality that operate in
the society of science⎯but the term is still semantically quite distinct because this feature is a functional adaptation to
the environment of intentional, linguistically mediated consciousness and communication. In the use of the term
behaviour, selection pressures that operate in the society of science seem to have selected a memetic adaptation that is
somewhat self-deceptive. We make these things as distinct, inferentially useful memes as we name them, even when,
for the sake of apparent generality we pretend not to be letting their memetic selection be affected by any already
existing physiological, phenomenal or semantic division of experienced events. When we refer to them using noun
phrases, we refer to them as things⎯that is, according to the conceptual category of ‘thing’ (Jackendoff 1993). We use
sentences with verbs like do, act and behave to refer to these things as acts or events. If we use a sentence that has a
continuing verb, this does not mean that what is being referred to is any less distinct. Tense and aspect simply put more
inferential and conceptual discrimination at our disposal. Anything we symbolic, communicative animals can refer to
as a thing, which includes any of those things that those things called propositions refer to⎯namely states, acts or
events⎯can be communicative and a meme.

We have long had memes that described memetic processes, albeit somewhat inadequately. Indeed, for at least as long
as we have had language that has referred to itself, which is at least as long as we have been able to say things like I
said that… which is probably as long as symbolic, intentional consciousness has been around, we have had self
descriptions of communication, and memes for describing of memes.

This should call to mind the predicament of a reflexive science. The self-description of mind or psyche or intentional
consciousness, and the self-description of society are reflexive sciences⎯although not necessarily in the sense of a
rigorous or an empirical science. These self-descriptions have been going on as ‘folk sciences’ or pop science, but also
as philosophy, psychology and sociology, for as long as humans have been coining terms like mind or word or
perception or culture, and describing thoughts, speech acts, and propositional attitudes. Memetics is a reflexive

We can say that everyday instrumental memetics has been around since symbolic communication and linguistically
mediated society got started, and it has been making up its objects⎯memes⎯as it goes along. Sociology and
philosophy have long had a term for the way society creates itself and its objective character according to its own self-
image: reification. Memes, as the elements of society, are themselves real insofar as they are reified. Memes
understood in this way may not seem like well-founded entities, but many phenomena encountered in the study of
logic, philosophy, intentional consciousness, and language are usefully described in the non well-founded terms
demanded by reflexive processes. (Barwise & Moss). Lest this concept of reification be misinterpreted as a claim that
memes are immaterial phantasms or illusions, it must be remembered that the memetic evolutionary process of
reification is constrained by the highly persistent selection pressures of human physiology and neurophysiology, the (in
turn) relatively persistent selection pressures of the common phenomenal experiences that shared human physiology
determines, and the shared physical environment of human organisms. In order to better understand reification,
sociology would do well at least to apply the model of a selection process.

3. Observing memes
3.1 The medium and the message

For instrumental memetics we may define memes operationally⎯that is, as they define themselves in the process of
self-replication, variation and selection. If we have long been replicating memes, the self-replicators are, presumably,
the same as the things replicated by us. We make or enact a replica and we observe it. According to our everyday
memetics, we usually know what a replication of a meme involves. This replica is comparable to the replica in C. S.
Peirce’s (165ff) definition of a symbol as a law instantiated in replicas. The physical materials are
various⎯soundwaves, paper and ink, video screens, laser discs, bodily gestures and actions, plastic, metal, wood, and
also neurological stuff, whatever. Strictly speaking, the meme is information; however, the information may be
encoded in various materials. In fact, the precise nature of the stuff can alter the precise information of the meme⎯eg
King Lear in script is different from the various Lears on stage, screen or video. The medium, as memetic itself, enters
into the selection history of other memes of which it is the bearer⎯as in the case (mentioned above) of print and its
effect on scientific memes.

We may also see the way that the medium becomes part of the message in, for example, the history of history. In an
oral society without durable linguistic, photographic, cinematic or video media, the replication of accounts of events
proceeds at a high rate of variation, and certain kinds of narratives about certain kinds of events (the stuff of myth and
legend, or of rumour) are better adapted to the selection pressures. Narratives associated with places and features in a
landscape (eg traditional Australian ‘Dreamtime’ narratives) have the loci et imaginis of those places as a persistent
feature of their selection environment, however their references are selected less by the pressure of historiographic truth
and more by selection for plots that serve other functions, such as those that Aristotelean poetics ascribed to narrative
art when, after the adoption of writing, poetic and historiographic societies were clearly differentiated: poetic wonder
and social organization.

Historiographic truth is not well adapted to a society without writing. As Hegel pointed out, the term history refers to
both the events themselves and to the telling of those events; the term equivocates events and their representation⎯an
equivocation of highly delusory and also very useful potential, traces of which may be observed throughout all the
memetic strata of the archaeology of virtual reality media, starting with speech. Historical events are not repeatable and
this compromises their empirical verification. Verification must proceed by comparison of accounts and evidence.
Thus, historical inquiry is mainly a kind of empiricism of documents (accounts, images, etc), and the only events that
get selected are what we now call ‘media events’⎯communicative acts that either denote other non communicative
events, or performative, communicative actions like signing the treaty, passing the legislation, or staging the handshake
for the TV cameras. Walter Benjamin said that ‘every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of
its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’ The demand for empirical truth may be an important selection
pressure for history, but certain historical truths will be selected before others⎯for example those published and
preserved by the victors, those that attract the news media, and so on. Whatever events get netted by the selections of
historiographic society, history is never more than a selection of the past⎯the highly edited result of memetic
adaptation and drift. Hence for the historian, whether historical events occur as tragedy or farce, their telling occurs as
romance or satire: the romance of telling the past, in Ranke’s terms ‘as it actually was’; or the satire of showing it as it
has been told. As if to call attention to just what a substantial image history makes of itself and its selections, fiction
responds by making an astonishing media event of non-existent private life. In this, artistic society displays its memetic
function as a kind of semantic antidote to certain memes (in this case those of historiography) that have evolved
functions that are somewhat alien (insofar as they are not always adequate) to the human interest in truth.

Once historiographic society is up and evolving, each new medium brings its own peculiar selection pressures to bear
on the features of history⎯and on narrative art. Prose narrative brought with it the ability on the part of narrators to
work assiduously on a durable text and thus eliminate the kind of non-chronological order of plot that almost always
characterises unrehearsed oral narrative⎯and, for that matter those canonical works of narrative that begin, with salient
narrative affect, in medias res. Under the selection pressure for this technologically assisted chronological order, most
of the ancient Greek and Latin prose romances, and the early modern prose romances (eg Arthurian romance)⎯the
ancestral forms of novelistic fiction⎯used chronological plots (Bakhtin 1981). While historical narratives commonly
stick to chronological plot, the modern novel had to rediscover the artistic thrill of non-chronological plot, and thus free
itself from an apparently technologically induced degeneration of artistic quality. Something quite similar seems to
have happened in popular cinema during the 1990s, particularly after the artistic success of non-chronological plot in
Pulp Fiction. Meanwhile innovation in narrative technologies still seems to be implicated in artistic degeneration: many
contemporary films are especially adapted to the selection pressure of displaying the fascinating, new technology.

It may also be noted in this context that an evolutionary description of the genres of narrative art reveals a hierarchy of
adaptations in which the features adapted to later media are often degenerated forms of features that evolved as

adaptations to earlier media. For example, the plots of science fiction films like Star Wars, Mad Max, Alien or Blade
Runner or, indeed most action flicks, are homologous to the plots of oral folktale and pre-modern prose romance,
which are themselves homologous to heroic narratives of pre-writing, oral society. Filmmakers quite self consciously
replicate what mythographers since the 19th century have called ‘archetypal’ narratives, in many instances believing
that they are thereby tapping into profound human truths⎯and a lucrative market. However they are replicating a quite
distinctive modern meme for archaism⎯a custom that likes to equate spiritual with temporal depth. Of course,
narrative art as the mimesis of narrative communication, has used all sorts of genres, developed in all sorts of media to
tell about even the most mundane modern experience; indeed it has made a theme of this by deliberate
display⎯famously in that dazzling, modernist, multi-generic adaptation of archaic hero narratives, Joyce’s Ulysses.

Because genes are all replicas of DNA we tend to pay less heed to the stuff that bears their information. Like Richard
Dawkins (1976, 34) when he said that genes come close to deserving the title of ‘immortals’, we tend to equivocate the
meaning of a gene as an individual replica and as a universal type⎯because the physical, individual character of the
replica is easily disregarded. Upping the rhetoric a little, I would say that Dawkin’s rhetoric imitates that of nature
when it selected this virtually real immortality. Even the notion of self-replication, unless applied to the abstract
information of the gene or the meme, refers to a virtual (i.e. effective) self-replication. Nominalistically, selves do not
replicate. To put it in old-fashioned philosophical terms: memotypes (like genotypes) are universals; their ‘phenotypes’
(despite the suffix –type) are individuals.

I would prefer to think of the stuff in which the meme is embodied as, like DNA, one of the meme’s ‘phenotypic’
expressions. In its physical environment, the empirically observable replica of a meme⎯its empirical
phenotype⎯encounters the vicissitudes of selection as such. A library is destroyed, so Aristotle’s Poetics of comedy
becomes extinct. Analogous to the phenotypic expression of a genotype as living organism in an ecological
environment, the phenotypic expression of a memotype in its psychic environment is a phenomenological experience.
This phenotype must survive in the selection environment of psyche and society (society taking the form of other
communicated memes and their phenotypic expressions). Consider Wallace Steven’s meme: ‘Life consists of
propositions about life.’ That sentence is replicated every time someone prints it or utters it. Each of these acts
produces a new empirical phenotype. But the meme’s semantic phenotype is only expressed when someone
remembers, utters or reads it and experiences the meme semantically⎯an experience that is phenomenologically or
heterophenomenologically observable. I suspect that usually an empirical (neurological) phenotype⎯and therefore a
replica⎯is also produced whenever a meme is remembered or uttered or read. I said above that strictly speaking the
meme is information; nevertheless information is not an absolute concept. The information associated with the
observation of a meme depends on an observer’s ability to draw inferences from a representation of the observed meme
(see Von Foerster, 270); and the operative information associated with a meme is that kind peculiar to human
inferential nous that we call semantic or, more generally, semiotic.

3.2 ‘What’s in a meme?’

I am not sure just where to leave off all the analogising between genetics and memetics, but I suspect that one of the
problems with analogical thought in memetics is that it has created a selection pressure for the neurological definition
of the meme⎯namely that, by analogy with genes, memes have to be empirically observable and sufficiently complex
biological stuff to be self-replicating. I would prefer to think that what makes the self-replication of memes possible is
the complex, neurologically conditioned psychic environment in which historically (but not necessarily) they have
survived. Memes are replicated, but they are effectively self-replicators too. In order to be communicative they have to
be empirically observable. Yet, as entities whose existence is contemporaneous with the heterophenomenological
observation of human communication, their proper mode of observation and self-observation is

I would characterise this way of defining memes as reflexive and heterophenomenological. As such, it places particular
emphasis on the empirically observable replica of the meme. However, rather than a behaviourist definition like
Gatherer’s (1998) it is more like the semantic definition of Wilkins (1999). Since the meme I am defining is a meme for
intentional consciousness, it is the replica as observed. That is, in order to observe a meme we have to observe its
replica’s observation. This is where some confusion in all the analogising about memotypes and their phenotypes may
arise. The confusion lies between empirical second order observation and heterophenomenological second order
observation⎯the confusion to which our semantic perception is, by dint of its genetic-memetic coevolution, especially
prone. The replica may be empirically or semantically observed, but the observation of this observation is, de facto,
heterophenomenological. This is the case even when the replica comes out of one’s own mouth; once uttered, its
meaning, is no longer just ours, not even for our selves.

This externalisation and reification of representations in memetic replicas⎯in relation to subsequent themes in this
paper we may call it their alienation⎯is cognate with the same recursive functions of our symbolic, linguistic nous,

which, as many have remarked, seem to be cognate with human intentional consciousness and self-consciousness.
Human self-consciousness is not simply based on the primary distinction from a not-self; human self-observation
observes itself observing itself distinguishing itself from a not-self⎯a process in which, curiously, it must also be
distinguishing itself as a second order observer from itself as a first order observer. In our recursive observation of
ourselves and others, and our meanings and their meanings, self and other have a non well-founded character, albeit
usually with effectively stable values. Most important among the selection pressures (both natural and social) that make
human communication and self consciousness other than what Quine (1960) called ‘radically indeterminate’ (i.e. that
make them genetically and memetically persistent enough) are common physiology and a ‘mutually manifest’ (the term
is from Sperber & Wilson 1986) physical environment⎯including, most importantly, the mutually manifest empirical
objects in that environment that are the empirically observable replicas of memes.

One ancestral line that must persist in any definition of a meme is that of Williams (1966, 25) via Wilkins (1998);
namely that ‘A meme is the least unit of social information relative to a selection process that has favourable or
unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change.’ The replicas are empirical
phenomena⎯including neurological phenomena of which our best evidence at present is phenomenological experience
or heterophenomenological testimony⎯but bearers of information that is expressed in a psychic environment as
semantic experience. Whether communicative signs refer to empirical, phenomenological or heterophenomenological
events, they also indicate representations of those events inside heads. The problem of signifying what goes on inside
heads was the problem that nature solved with the natural selection of symbolic communication. In fact, until this
happened there were no memes and no memic descriptions of memes. Once it happened, the universe of
communications began to look like an autonomous world of persistent memes⎯a culture by now somewhat alienated
from its human, psychic origins⎯and once we had mnemonic technologies of prosody, or the loci et imagines, or
detailed images, or (most remarkably) the external linguistic memory of writing, large memes could exceed their
endogenous tendency to change. And they didn’t have to be inside any one head at any one time, in part or as a whole.
Whether as short as a syllable or a cliché, or as long as A la recherche du temps perdu (cf. Jan 2000), memes are social,
communicative entities reified in the process of the reflexive, heterophenomenological references of human

Since this externalised, heterophenomenological nature of the meme has been reified and given to us by the natural
processes of its Darwinian selection (natural and social), and since it was itself selected as an adaptation to the
problems of heterophenomenological and reflexive description, a Darwinian description of society based on such a
definition does, as I suggested above, obviate some of the problems of a heterophenomenological, reflexive science.

4. Society
4.1 Society and culture

The selection environment of memes is primarily the mind or psyche⎯not only intentional, symbolic consciousness
but all the unconscious mental states and events that accompany and support consciousness. (This unconscious side of
the selection environment is important in the selection of memes that appear to defy human intentions). The selection
pressures on memetic evolution are therefore mental (conscious and unconscious), but also physical (effecting the
survival and technological replication of the empirically observable texts and objects), and social (because memes exist
in the social environment of other memes).

This last claim about the social leads back to the considerations that compel me to argue for this way of defining
memes in the first place. We tend to think of society as a collection of people. This is the everyday reference of the
meme society. However, I am saying that society is better defined as a set of communications, partially ordered in time.
Perhaps, following Niklas Luhmann (1984), we might say that society is a system of communications⎯the term system
implying that this collection itself has some self-referring coherence and that it is self-perpetuating or autopoietic.
Whether or not I adopt this usage, it may still be observed that this social system has, by selection processes, self-
organised itself into a number of similarly self-organising subsystems eg scientific society, the law, science, the arts,
the political system, the market. Each of these systems exerts specific selection pressures on the memes that find
themselves therein. A scientific meme uttered in a political system may well face extinction in that system. Whatever
the best description of society is in terms of any putative, systemic, autopoietic properties, I think that it is reasonable to
claim, with Luhmann, that it is more sociologically adequate to think of the environment of society being psyche rather
than society being a collection of people.

We may draw a useful distinction between society as a collection of communications and culture as the collection of
the relatively persistent memes of a society. The notion that culture is passed between human generations implies the
relatively persistent character of cultural phenomena among social phenomena in general. It is, however, somewhat

inadequate and misleading to say that culture is something passed ‘vertically’, from generation to generation. This
usage may be adequate with those memes in particular that are persistent relative to a human generation and that have
been passed by communication between parents and children, and to that extent a useful abstraction in modelling the
coevolution of memes and genes (Kendal & Laland 2000). However, the misuse of the generational concept of culture
tends to confuse social with biological inheritance⎯the ancient confusion that has so benighted racist consciousness,
yet replicates itself still even in critique of racism, and in assertions of cultural identity. The idea that culture is passed
from generation to generation implies that it persists longer than an individual human and such a definition of culture is
probably a meme best adapted to early modern anthropological theories of non-modern society. Culture, however, may
be much more short-lived than a generation. An in-joke or a running gag might replicate itself among a group of people
for a few days and then be forgotten. Cultural forms like this may erupt like little eddies in social history and then
disappear, never to reencounter the thaw of mind. More generally, culture is transmitted replica by replica by
communication as society, and its transmission is neither ‘vertical’ nor ‘horizontal’ but, as society, partially ordered in
time. Memetic genealogy is a branching and reticulating network of descent with modification.

4.2 Evolutionary sociology

Evolutionary sociology stands in relation to memetics as evolutionary biology does to genetics. George Williams
(1966, 252) emphasised the value of seeing natural selection less as a way of cobbling together paleohistorical stories
of morphological change and taxonomic cladogenesis, and more as a theory of adaptation and biological design
constrained by genealogical contingencies. Likewise, memetics is useful for inquiries concerned with the evolution of
social phenomena, and in particular with functional analysis of social forms in terms of their being adaptations for the
self-wise replication and survival of memes. I must emphasise that by social phenomena I would like especially to refer
to things that have tended to be major topics in the societies of art, philosophy, sociology and cultural studies. I believe
that emphasis on psychology, sociobiology and biology has limited the development of a theory of memetics that is
properly and powerfully sociological. This is partly because the society of memetic theory has, by dint of its descent
from evolutionary biology, had relatively few humanities memes at the disposal of its selection processes; and partly
because the society of the so called humanities has provided an especially unfavourable selection environment for
anything that might be construed as Social Darwinism or sociobiology, or anything that might be labelled

I think this is evidence that, as in many areas of intellectual endeavour, certain memes get replicated that are quiet alien
to the best conscious intentions of practitioners. In the fields of cultural studies and critical theory, there are handy, rote
critiques that are adapted to selection pressures for familiar forms of discourse, for citation of certain canonical authors,
for prestige among one’s peers, for mystification that can be mistaken for genuinely difficult conceptual prose, for the
practical need to limit one’s reading syllabus and for avoiding a careful consideration of one’s object. Perhaps I need to
add that these disciplines are not alone, and that their serious inquiry into highly significant but otherwise neglected
social phenomena has been subjected to an equally anti-intellectual habit of critique from ‘the other side’. Indeed, the
environment of interdisciplinary conflict, like that of self-aggrandising consciousness, exerts selection pressures for
rote critique that does not first enter into serious analysis of its subject matter.

Certain social practices have been selected precisely as memetic technologies for outwitting the strategies of such alien
memes. The norms of empirical science constitute one such technology. As Hull (1988) points out, by exposing claims
to the scrutiny of other ambitious scientists, empirical science goes some way, for example, to countering selection for
memes adapted solely to respect for authority, for conceptual familiarity, for self-aggrandisement, or just for a good
story. There are similar devices in artistic society. For example, narrative art has long shown images of narrative⎯in
imitations, parodies, irony, satire and generic adaptation⎯in order to scrutinise alien forms and put them to new artistic
purposes. In this regard I would cite Mikhail Bakhtin’s thesis that novelistic poetics involves showing images of
linguistic use; and Aristotle’s thesis that narrative poetry is the imitation of (narrative) life. Having said this, I should
say that scientific and artistic society are not above the memetic hurly-burly and alien memes abound in their midst,
whether those of a poorly tested scientific dogma or habitually fruitless inquiry, or those of artistic schmalz, hype or

Contrary to Dennett (1996, 362), I would say that the society of the humanities actually has a strong anti-humanist
tradition. However, evolutionary theories of society in the humanities have had to disguise their Darwinian ancestry
(sometimes even from themselves) as has Nietzschean genealogy and its successors such as Michel Foucault’s
archaeology; or they have lacked a principled Darwinian description of their adaptationist descriptions, as in the case of
Marx’s and the Frankfurt School’s functional analyses of alien (and anti-humanist) social forms (see, eg Adorno 1951,
228-231). Otherwise, and more commonly, they have simply replicated the pre-Darwinian ‘phase models of social
evolution in vogue since the 18th century (Luhmann 1995, 213).’

Such is the functional differentiation of modern society, that, despite lip service to intellectual interdisciplinarity, a
communication in the wrong environment meets with incomprehension and extinction. Yet without a Darwinian theory
of social evolution many social features defy understanding. For example, as semiotic philosophers from Plato to the
Scholastics to Locke to Hegel to Saussure to Barthes have been constrained to conclude of the objects of their
inquiry⎯notably of the ‘non-natural’ or ‘conventional’ sign⎯they seem arbitrary. Thus, the appearance of
arbitrariness in generic form (or for that matter in linguistic elements) arises because, as suggested above, the features
of these memes have evolved as adaptations to formerly powerful selection pressures⎯often just the imperative of
denoting something willy-nilly by whatever locally available means⎯and have persisted in a genealogical series of
degenerated forms in a series of subsequent adaptations to subsequent pressures. We might not have the evidence to
reconstruct a particular genealogy, but knowledge of its Darwinian character is enough to account for a meme’s
arbitrariness in terms of homologous features selected for a series of localised functions. Meanwhile in a particular
field⎯for example the field of the theory of narrative culture⎯well known and much theorised phenomena, such as
genre, generic structure, artistic influence, intertextuality, authorship, latent ideology, the canon, the ‘judgement of
history’, aesthetic change, historiographic objectivity, the effects of media, and novelistic, cinematic or dramatic
poetics all must remain somewhat mysterious (and subject to mystification) in the absence of historical description and
functional analysis based on a principled process of social evolution by selection.

4.3 Selection pressure

Though a detailed description of social selection pressures may be as difficult as a detailed description of the ecological
selection pressures acting on populations of organisms, the notion of selection pressure is a useful one. Its vagueness
enables it to capture an otherwise ungraspable totality⎯an environment⎯of causal factors. Social selection pressures
are indicated by their expression in memic functional adaptation, although this is not to say that the term selection
pressure should be avoided because of suspicions of circularity. The vagueness of the term may be understood in terms
of the problem of specifying whether a feature is a selected adaptation or the result of memetic drift. The concept of
drift refers to the random component in descriptions of selection. This arises from our epistemic incapacity when it
comes to identifying deterministic selection pressures. This incapacity is not only due to the difficulty of identifying
past selection pressures. It is also due to the stochastic (and therefore temporal) character of the selection process itself:
whether a pressure will turn out, in the long run, to be selective or non selective, is a fact that may only be decided after
the fact (cf. Rosenberg 1994, 81-2).

A more telling problem, perhaps, for the description of selection pressures comes from another source. An objection
that is likely to be raised against the observation of selection pressures and the observation and functional analysis of
memetic adaptations ⎯especially of social forms with latent, seldom recognised functions⎯is that the analysis may be
accused of being ‘ideological’ rather than empirical. Such analysis might be accused of being an exercise in partisan
cultural criticism. This criticism has some validity, because, in the reflexive science of sociology, the empirical
observation of a functional trait is likely to be difficult given the heterophenomenological nature of memetic functions.
What one observer sees as a latent ideological function becomes, at another’s insistence, a mere trifle of popular
culture. Ideology critique and cultural criticism have long recognised their predicament of semantic immanence
(Adorno 1967, 17-35). For now I shall only say that, in the case of observing the self-serving functions of social
features, we might not recognise them unless we recognise that, along with the selfish character of replicators, there are
powerful, localised, social and psychological selection pressures selecting and maintaining them. I can only concede,
however, that descriptions of selection pressures may well themselves be subject to the selection pressure of finding a
description primarily to support one’s claims about a particular functional adaptation⎯a sleight of hand that can abuse
the potential for circularity in adaptationist analysis. I might add that, given the ideological, memetic character of
gender and sexual norms, this is a problem that also infects analyses of sexual selection in evolutionary psychology.

5. Selection in intentional psychology

At this stage I would like to continue this interpretation of evolutionary sociology by considering the evolution of
intentional idioms: firstly, because these use a set of memes that has evolved over a long time to the relatively
persistent selection pressures of physiologically conditioned phenomenology and communication; secondly, because
they exemplify something of the social, memetic character of psyche; and thirdly, because some discussion of psyche’s
self-description may serve as an introduction to subsequent consideration of the nature of self-serving and alien

Consider psyche’s self-description in the expression of propositional attitude I believe that many people believe in God.
It uses the linguistic means supplied by society to refer schematically and usefully to the otherwise obscure and
imponderable complexity of a psychic process that still beggars empirical description. Just what this ‘I’ and ‘believe’
refer to are not easy things to answer, but we have used them in a way that, however much it is neurologically

inadequate, is adequate, for the most part, to our everyday purposes of phenomenological and heterophenomenological
self-description, and for our teleological (including our communicative) interests. These concepts (‘I’, ‘belief’, and
‘people believe in God’) are memes. And they are also externalised representations of intentional consciousness. The
selection pressure for distinct, schematic, external, self-same replicas of symbols generates and maintains these
linguistic memes. The linguistic memes for descriptions of intentional experience have evolved under particular
selection pressures for a common, communicable description of the intentional experience of self and other. Ease of
generation, transmission and interpretation, adequacy to phenomenology (both one’s own and others) for present
instrumental purposes and consistency up to point are all functional adaptations of intentional idioms. Most of the terms
we use for ‘folk scientific’ references to intentional actions⎯that is, for all the nuances of everyday epistemological
and emotional self-description⎯are understood early in life. So a significant and persistent feature of their selection
environment is the child’s mind. As in the case of syntax (Deacon 1996), the common memes for phenomenological
self-description of psyche and the heterophenomenological description of other psyches have evolved under the
selection pressure of a peculiar bottleneck⎯the child’s psyche⎯a predicament that is consistent with the highly
persistent character of such memes. I would also make a prediction based on Darwinian memetics that they largely
enjoy a pancultural distribution. On the other hand, this bottleneck would probably also indicate their conceptual
limitations. They may be adequate for everyday intentional descriptions, but when it comes to, say, a science of the
emotions, just ‘what emotions really are’ is likely to be very different to the everyday ‘folk science’ (Griffiths 1996).

Ever since Plato’s inquiry into knowledge in Theaetetus, the philosophical inquiry into intentional consciousness has
proceeded by means of its own idioms⎯a reflexive predicament that has made its epistemological efforts seem
especially aporetic. As Wittgenstein (4.002) suggested, ‘the silent adjustments’ to understand intentional idioms are
cunning, and (I would add) self-elusive. A great deal of philosophical labour has been devoted to disabusing ourselves
of the handy memetically persistent misapprehensions of everyday self-description.

Undoubtedly misapprehensions, instrumental reductions, makeshift concepts, inadequate descriptions, normative

prescriptions, and downright mistakes⎯all fertile sources of variation⎯have been replicated, varied and selected and
thus insinuated themselves into the memetic evolution of the self-understanding of psyche and society. Indeed, psyche
and society have been reified both in the image of their self-descriptions and their self-misapprehensions.

Deacon (1996) has argued that syntactic structure need not reflect the structure of a neurologically conditioned, mental
‘language module’ Rather, he has suggested that the relation of language to the brain is that of an external structural
system of vocal (or written, or gestural) symbols memetically adapted to our phonologically, symbolically,
conceptually and perceptually adept brains and bodies. In turn, through sexual selection, this external linguistic society
has exerted genetic selection pressures back on the biological evolution of the brain. During this coevolution, external
language has, in a certain sense been re-internalised insofar as it has been selected for the task of symbolising the
obscure mental processes of conceptual and affective processing⎯what we call thinking, hoping, believing, desiring
and the like. It is adapted (genetically and memetically, I assume) to zeroing in on the relevant conceptual, inferentially
powerful gist⎯on what, say for vision, would be the consciously attended figure in the more or less unattended and
unconscious ground. So in language it seems we can trace the relevant details (i.e. relevant in those contexts that have
the evolutionary persistence to constitute a selection pressure) of our embodied conceptual and inferential processing.
These conceptual processes, in all their hidden complexity are, however, also going on elsewhere: the bulk of the
processing never reaches consciousness. With socially selected linguistic memes, we generate (by replication with
variation) thoughts, beliefs, images and so on, giving them the conscious form we know so well, but leaving the mark
of the schematic and social artifice of language on them at the same time.

Thus, in the case of what intentional idioms refer to as thought, we may better understand the way language structures
and reduces it by rephrasing Pope’s theory of wit. I wonder whether, even in its own time, what oft was thought but
ne’er so well expressed captured the norm of wit, let alone the fact. If it did define the norm, no wonder the meaning of
wit has memetically degenerated through ironic use to mean mere wittiness. For the sake of modernity’s normative
meme of originality, dressing up old thoughts in fine words won’t do any more, except perhaps in the case of the quasi-
archaic memes we call eternal verities⎯one of a number of kinds of memes that, in the reflexively described and
prescribed ‘progressive’ society of modernity, are adapted to nostalgia. What ne’er was thought until so well expressed
better describes the relation of language and thought, and the seemingly retroactive effect that external communicative
objects have on the minds of those who utter them.

Language provides the most important source of information we have for inferring others’ intentions, and it provides
the most important means of giving representations of our intentions explicit, objectified form. Its external character
facilitates the kind of recursion that seems to characterise human consciousness and self-consciousness. Language is a
virtual reality medium for linguistic experience, and, because of its coevolution with the brain (i.e. interanimating
genetic and memetic evolution), for self-consciousness. The iconicity that language lacks vis à vis perceptual
experience, it makes up for with a vengeance vis à vis linguistic, intentional and conceptual experience. When we try to
put concepts into communicative form, when we say what we are thinking or imagining, language may be fishing up its

catch from mental experience, but it is also put to the task of being a succinct likeness of conceptual and intentional
experience. With a little bit more extension of our phenotype into other external media, we can put other thoughts and
imaginings into visual media. Gesture and gestural mimesis, of course, are at least as old as language when it comes to
communication, yet, although we indicate aspects of intentional experience with gestures, we seldom signify
intentional actions in non linguistic propositional forms. For a dancer, an actor, a filmmaker, an animator and their
audiences, vision and gesture are the symbolic bearers of concepts, and objects of propositional attitudes. We believe
the amateur video of the plane crash, we understand the fictional feature film, we imagine the molecule the way the
computer graphic diagrams it; but the intentional actions of believing, understanding or imagining are much more
likely to be represented in the virtual reality medium of intentional experience⎯language. Apart from using the body
language of actors, film has only a rudimentary pigeon for signifying a few intentional actions and then actions that
have some likeness to the phenomenal experience of sensation (eg dissolves for remembering, dreaming, or imagining)
and generally it sticks to its great strength of showing empirical events. Indeed, the art of narrative, as the mimesis of
narrative life, has always been marked by its concern with the external, empirical observation of narrative memes. For a
project supposed, in contradistinction to science, to be subjective, art is scrupulous about objectification. Narrative art
has always treated linguistic expressions of intentional actions dramatically⎯as the actions of characters⎯to be taken
with suitable heterophenomenological disinterest. That great project of communicative actions that we call fiction is
underwritten by provisos just like those of heterophenomenological observation. Works of fiction are like found
narrative objects, their references being to themselves as communicative, narrative acts⎯acts whose references are in
turn nested recursively between their beginnings and ends.

Meanwhile, what selection pressures the multi media environment of propositional communication will exert on human
psyche and society in future is anyone’s guess, but virtual reality has long been and remains a favourite function for
both natural and cultural selection.

6. Alien design
6.1 Genealogy of alienation

Memes are selected for their self-perpetuation and replication, albeit in and by human psyche. This insight helps
elucidate what has been a central theme in the theory of culture since the 18th century, albeit a theme with a longer
ancestry. A selective genealogy of adaptationist memetics might begin with its most famous 18th century ancestor in
Adam Smith, who recognised that markets had their own design, independent of the intentions of individual humans.
Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807, 294ff), famously (or infamously) recognised not only the importance of
reflexive, historical theories of psyche and society, but also the way in which individual consciousness observes society
and culture as a kind of estranged or ‘alienated’ form of itself. Marx used both of these concepts to describe the way the
self-replicating processes of markets are alienated, especially from those who had nothing but their labour to exchange.

To appreciate the way in which socially replicable phenomena (besides market inequities) need not be functioning only
for the sake of the humans who reproduce them, one need only consider such things as dogma, clichés, superstitions,
scientific and artistic ruts, bureaucratic formalities, feuds, and war. At times we all reproduce these things despite our
best interests. There is a real pressure to do so in order to maximise the local fitness or effectiveness of our own social
interactions: we are more or less bound to pursue our most immediate ends by immediately available means. As I
suggested above, the arbitrariness of signs is a consequence of the proximal character of selection processes. Concealed
in the archaeology of an arbitrary sign is a genealogy of homologous traits with functions adapted to past proximal
selection pressures. The term arbitrary is used of the wilful acts of others that demonstrate our own unfreedom. It is
also used of other things whose design appears inscrutable or contrary or implacable to our own expectations or
intentions⎯things, which thus also appear to demonstrate the limitation of our freedom. The idea of the arbitrariness of
signs was a proto-memetic intimation of the alien character of memes. Another even older intimation of memetic
alienation was that of the self-perpetuating nature of conflict⎯an ancient them of narrative art. Social conflict provides
one of the best known selection pressures for alien design. In a way, an ancient culture of conflict is not simply an
archaic curse weighing on the living; it is also intensely localised in time. It is ceaselessly renewed by each local
replication of retaliation. A feud is only as old as the perceived wrong that revenge seeks to redress. Tit for tat may
‘send a message’ to the other side and be a good strategic meme up to a point, but it can eventually cease to serve
anything but itself.

6.2 ‘The death of the author’

Selection processes are programs for the undesigned production of design, and thus they render non-human design
intelligible on objective grounds. A functional analysis of symbols is not just a formal move. But it can be a puzzling
one, because in the functional analysis of symbols, the functional adaptations of the symbols for non-human purposes
are observed in the most intimately human matrix: they are experienced as human meanings. Such is the immanence of

human meaning for humans. The design produced by social selection will be the design of meanings or their symbolic
forms to function and replicate in an environment of meanings, minds and texts. The designed meaning will be read as
a meaning, but it will be a meaning designed to function for a meme.

Even if replicated as my meaning, this does not mean that memes might not have evolved in a way that is quite alien to
my intentions. This is a schizophrenic, psychological way of putting what is a chronic and painful split between people
and their cultures and between psyche and society. The functional adaptation of a cultural form to its environment may
be quite different from the intended function of the form for the individual human who replicates it. My intention may
be to make a complex, dramatic film about female characters, showing a story for adults in sophisticated
cinematography and well-written, conceptually difficult dialogue. However, I have to do this in a given social
environment, so my intention requires some socially mediating intention such as seeking investment or funding. In
Hollywood, I might only be able to get funding for a genre film⎯perhaps a romantic comedy or a crime film. Unless
my complex, dramatic script replicates the elements of one of these genres, it is a non-starter, so I make one character a
prostitute caught up in criminal activity, and another a female detective. Perhaps the two of them will be friends, and I
can pitch it as a new post-feminist take on the old buddy film cliché. I can also make sure to include sex. The cast, of
course, will have to have the same old young-star look. In Hollywood there is not much of a selection pressure for
scripts like mine, so I end up stretching my script on the Procrustean bed of a genre film and, mercifully, the studio’s
final cut eliminates any odd traces of my complex drama, and thoughtful dialogue. Robert Altman’s The Player runs a
subplot about the genesis and outcome of just such a selection process: from the artistic dreams of a screen writer’s
pitch to the box office piece finally selected by the fiction industry. It’s an old story.

But putting it this way is a genre piece itself: the filmmaker against the studio system. This old generic meme has
actually led my example away from my precise theoretical point about the autonomy of symbols, to its point, which is
its own survival. In my example it was actually the well known meme about the artist versus the studio system that was
replicated; whereas it was really the less well known story or meme about the alien meme’s reproduction and survival
that I particularly wanted to tell: the ruthless career of a symbol, who started out as the everyday genre from next door,
and ended up thriving in the studio system and surviving in an environment of selfish artist after artist, producer after
producer, carping critic after critic, audience after audience and transforming them in the process. To cap it all, when
the film wins an Oscar, I forget any doubts I might have had about it⎯changeling that I am⎯and I accept the credit for
my creation. Hollywood, the source of many a remarkable genre film, is of course an all too handy Babylon, in this all
too familiar topic of ideology critique; but in one way or another the interanimation and antagonism of psychic and
social symbolic ends runs through all communicative endeavour, and is especially crucial in artistic endeavour. The
primary activities of systems of communications like bureaucracies or corporations or scientific, artistic, educational or
legal systems are communicative actions that perpetuate systemically adapted memes. Failure on the part of an
individual to understand and satisfy this communicative demand results in incomprehension, or in charges of
irrelevance, naivety, or pretentiousness⎯and the extinction of the communication. On the other hand, as Martin Amis
has said, narrative art is a war against cliché.

Artistic success, especially where innovation is bound by strict generic selection pressures, involves using old,
alienated generic memes for new semantic purposes. Ever since Don Quixote used the stale memes of prose romance in
a ‘satire of knight errantry’ this kind of deliberate generic replication with variation and functional exaptation of
homologous features has characterised modern fiction. Fiction became a way of showing and scrutinising earlier
alienated kinds of narrative, telling its tale by embedding them in fiction’s recursion and thus uncoupling the meme
from its alien semantic function. In Hollywood, memes are typically selected for their merely gratifying effects. The
narrative industry is well known for exploiting the emotional response to artworks by dividing and ruling the senses
and the emotions, targeting the gratification of one narrow kind of response, and avoiding exciting other emotional
responses. Infantile, pornographic, tendentious, schmalzy and flashy narratives are all like this. By limiting the range of
emotional responses such works elude the cross checking between the different kinds of emotional registers that is so
important in facilitating the cognitive function of emotional experience. The emotions are skilled workers but
especially if they work together; otherwise they are at best quick and at worst misleading. One of the great pleasures of
narrative artworks comes from the semantic resolution (or ambiguity) of a subject’s conflicting emotional responses to
a work. So-called sensational or gratifying entertainment is simply not sensational or gratifying or entertaining enough.
Good Hollywood cinema typically uses the available generic memes for a more complex emotional effect and therefore
a richer semantic and greater cognitive effect. The idea that narrative artists generate their works using the memetic
means inherited from others is as old as narrative culture. We see it in traditional story telling beginnings like It is said
that…; we see it in Aristotle’s advice that authors should, like Homer, avoid speaking in their own voice, and we see its
importance still occupying narrative theorists in Roland Barthes (1977) much misunderstood, ironic claims⎯and in the
counter claims⎯about ‘the death of the author.’ Of Shakespeare, Emerson said ‘The greatest artists are the most

6.3 The canon

One feature of narrative culture that has appeared alien to cultural critics is the canon. It is also a feature that must
remain somewhat mysterious in the absence of memetic analysis. The trouble with canons is that works get selected for
that most easily replicated of meanings⎯revered incumbency. In addition, some supposedly authoritative, univocal
judgement of history is a device for neutralising the critics’ problem of differences of taste. Differences of taste are less
important as subjective responses to art than as an indication of an objective quality of artworks, namely their
ambiguity. Given this ambiguity of art, a selection pressure for a canon is something utterly subjective⎯the critics’
desire for some surety, for something solid and determinate amidst the competing currents of reflective aesthetic
judgement. In addition, in a world overflowing with works there is an additional selection pressure for a limited
syllabus of works worth reading or watching (cf. Dennett 1995, 351). The commonly replicated critique of the canon is
that it comprises works that survive under the selection pressures of patriarchal or some other powerful or victorious
culture; and this, I think is consistent with memetic analysis. However, I also think that a place on, say, ‘the Western
Canon’ is not always a sign of dubious credit. The traditional understanding was along Samuel Johnson’s line: ‘What
has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.’ Though an astute
judge of literature, I think that Johnson’s observation betrays a misunderstanding of cultural history that probably could
not be righted without some inklings of social selection. No doubt many canonical works speak knowingly to persistent
human interest in certain themes. In addition, selection is selection for a function or meaning that might not have
worked at the first appearance of the work. Think of the evolving meaning of Oedipus, or all the interpretations of
Hamlet! Works that speak to persistent human interests and also allow many interpretations are more likely to survive.
Ironically, works that deliberately seek to predict and colonise the canons of the future, often age prematurely, while
those that give themselves over to the happiness of the moment⎯and the momentariness of happiness⎯endure. In this
regard, a comparison of Milton’s grandly intended masterworks, or Johnson’s poetry, with Shakespeare’s
entertainments or Johnson’s essays is instructive. The latter works exploit the fact that cultural selection processes are
localised around each and every replication. Aesthetic teleology can’t afford to telegraph its ambitions while neglecting
its next audience. Advising against ‘reserving one’s laurels’ for posterity, Byron said

…complaint of present days

Is not the certain path to future praise.
(Don Juan, Canto 1, §V111)

6.4 Alien to whom?

Typically, just to communicate, we have to adapt to our communicative environment and use the adapted meme’s
meaning to piggy back our own. Typically, an alien meme represents the interests of some individuals and not others,
yet everyone has to use it, because not to use it means not surviving in the social environment. Often though, any alien
adaptive function is scarcely apprehended and simply denied⎯as is the anachronistically, male-oriented adaptation of
so many Hollywood movies by those who, presumably, haven’t scoured video libraries for movies by, about and for
adult women (Such fiction is better adapted to bookshelves). Because of their incumbency, their adaptation to
technological hype and gratification, and market conservatism, adolescent, male forms still replicate in Hollywood⎯a
kind of archaic, special-effects, narrative haven, busily reproducing adolescent, male cast, genre flicks (with an archaic
romance genealogy that probably represents an adaptation to the bottleneck of adolescent psyche, just as syntax is an
adaptation to the bottleneck of infant psyche). The fact that romantic comedy is actually understood as a market
adaptation to the niche of female consumption, demonstrates just how persistent are the memes of this narrative
society. Just how alien it is, is a moot point.

If an alien adaptive function is apprehended in some cultural institution⎯say when a market appears alien to someone
without money⎯it is typically and easily advertised as an inevitability of social and human nature. Or if such a
phenomenon isn’t apprehended as social nature, it is simply accepted as an individual’s own meaning⎯ as in the case
of my Oscar winner. In some circumstances, shame at our complicity in the injustices of social nature is motive enough
to preserve our passionless ignorance and cold hearts. However it is achieved, what better adaptation of an alien
cultural form than one that perpetuates people’s blindness to its social progress, lest, in recognising it, people should
also try to end it? What better conspiracy than one in which we all breathe the air of the memosphere, while inoculating
ourselves against knowledge with ridiculous conspiracy theory diversions about the machinations of malignant power
elites or vast, invisible enemies, when all the while the effective other is actually our unconscious everyday society?
What more cunning symbol than one that disarms our scepticism with accompanying assertions that all theories of its
functional autonomy are paranoia?

The functional differentiation of society is a great contributor to its alien character. By selection, society may engineer
itself so that unworthy tasks are broken into piecewise processes each memetically adapted to outwitting good old
humanist reflection. Alien memes thereby secure their own unworthy ends by many individual human actions, none of
which is unworthy in itself. The inequities of markets, the delays and diversions of legal, managerial and bureaucratic

culture, the inanities of narrative culture (whether in fiction or historiography), the destruction of complex ecosystems
and the atrocities of war are all achieved in this way.

7. Selves
Descriptions of alien memetic design imply selves to whom the design appears alien. But what are these selves? To
answer this we need to use a concept of self-reference; these selves have already referred to themselves, and in any
adequate, operationalised description, it would be foolish to ignore the way nature is already carving itself at its joints.
Memes and genes may effectively be self-replicators, but they are not the only selfish things around. The selves of
organisms are different in kind from those of genes and memes. They may be empirically observed as functionally
differentiated, nonequilibrium, dissipative structures. Since, in order to maintain themselves, such objects are already
representing themselves, once we start describing them, the concepts of self-generation (rather than self-replication)
and self-representation become useful, and with these, the concept of teleology. Organisms’ bodies are selfish in this
sense of self-monitoring, self-generating selves; and they are empirically observable selves. Intentional consciousness
is also self-monitoring and self-generating within its given biological and social environment; however it is a
phenomenologically observable self (or a heterophenomenologically observable other).

The selves in relation to whom I have described certain memes as being alien are the self-represented selves of
intentional consciousness⎯the kind that count for phenomenological and heterophenomenological observation. Human
psyche is beset by the problem of having to construct itself in and from a body and a society of often contradictory
meanings in which it becomes difficult to say what is one’s own and what is alien; and its sense of alienation is
experienced in relation to the biological, psychic and social environment. It should not be surprising that the
teleological ends of both the body and the psyche of a genetically social, performatively linguistic animal should be, at
times, painfully antagonistic. Part of this predicament, and part of its solution for intentional consciousness, lies in
meaning’s communicative function of being able to mean more than one thing at a time. We may be of two minds, but
meaning must always be in order to enable the process of inference involved in the semantic coordination of human
symbolic communication. Presumably, both the problem of the subject’s contradictory constitution, and the semantic
coordination problem of human communication have been selection pressures for the evolution of memetic means of
psychic self-construction.

The construction of subjective autonomy through the psyche’s self-narration (including performative self narration) is
not unlike the enthymematic inferential process of telling or interpreting any narrative argument. Since, as Luhmann
(1985) puts it, we cannot mean everything at once, it takes place, like any narrative, in the narrow straits of time as a
process of observing explicit premises, often in apparent contradiction (at least at their most inferentially accessible
interpretations), followed by the inferential replication and selection of premises that reveal unstated implications and
rescue non contradiction (Sperber &Wilson, 1986). In some cases that selection involves the kind of handy forgetting
or self-delusion that Freud called repression (Nesse & Lloyd 1992). As in the case of any unfolding narrative, an
infinite number of possible questions, whether more or less relevant, remain unanswered at any point. Many possible
narratives are always proceeding at once (cf. Marr 1982, 358; Dennett 1991, 253; Jackendoff 1993, 137ff). That is⎯to
use David Lewis’s terms⎯the reference of the narrative is to many possible selves (or worlds) and though it makes a
more and more explicit reference as it proceeds, there are still more and more possibilities opening up⎯some more
inferentially accessible than others. Ambiguity is the perennial condition and opportunity of narrative argument. Again,
I should note the function of narrative art in bequeathing a rich set of narrative memes as our means of self-narration.

In addition, I have suggested that certain memes are alien to human interests. Since being human is normative and
enjoined rather than being just factual and given, just what human interest is is a matter of meaning, and seldom
unequivocal. It is ethical, aesthetic and political. It is also therefore memetic and evolving. I make no claim for an
unequivocal self-description of humanity. Nevertheless a concept of human interest, as signified by the concepts of the
good, whether in ethics or art, is not a nonsense⎯anything but. Any understanding of the evolution of ethical or artistic
practices demands a concept of the good, precisely because such a meme is a relatively persistent selection pressure in
the evolution of artistic and ethical practices. Presumably, they have that persistence because they have evolved under
memetic selection pressures that are determined by the relatively persistent biological condition of a socially
coordinated, symbolically communicative animal. Memes like the Christian golden rule, or Kant’s categorical
imperative are pancultural even if not universal. And even if art or fiction in their emphatic, modern senses are memes
peculiarly adapted to the environment of relatively modern society, objects of aesthetic salience and narrative genres
such as the heroic quest/test romance have a wide cultural provenance. Judgement of artistic and ethical performance
may not be determinate, but the good in either field of practice does not drift randomly around their respective memetic
fitness landscapes.

A last word on selves. The view put forward here is different from that of Rose (1998) in his critique of ‘self-centred
selectionism’ and Blackmore (1999, 237) in her similar claims about the illusion of human agency. Firstly it involves

no claim that it is wrong to speak of a ‘ “someone” beyond the construct of memes and genes (Rose).’ Such a claim
belongs to the persistent lineage descended from philosophical determinism and is adapted to the selection pressure for
consistency in empirical description. I am happy to speak of the psychic self as effectively self-described. With such
peculiar performative memes as felicitous promises we reify ourselves as selfish agents (albeit ethically unselfish ones).
Since empirical observation is a social, memetic device for virtually eliminating observers from their observations, to
an observer observing an empirical observation this device is just that⎯a device. Its effective elimination of the
empirical observer is a useful illusion⎯and quite adequate in the non-reflexive, physical sciences. Given the
epistemological efforts to achieve effective elimination of the observer in empirical descriptions, it is little wonder that
the re-introduction of references to an observing agent into an empirical description results in contradiction of the kind
that Kant called the antinomy of freedom. If such a self as a human agent is an illusion, it is no more an illusion than is
empirical observation. Both the heterophenomenological observation of free selves and the empirical observation of
unfree constructs of genes and memes are conditioned by the immanent predicament of epistemology naturalized.

Secondly, there is no need to claim that the notion of memetic variation and selection directed by human intentional
consciousness is incompatible with the notion that culture is subject to a kind of Darwinian evolution acting on social
forms. We may attribute acts of replication and variation to individual intentional consciousness⎯to a someone⎯but
these are only individual actions. Evolution by social selection is a social process involving many replications with
variation and selection, and (usually) many agents. We cannot ignore intentional consciousness as a selection pressure
in evolutionary sociology, but what gets selected usually depends upon more than one individual’s intentions. As Locke
said in his Essay (Bk 3, ch.2, §8), even ‘the great Augustus himself…could not make a new Latin word’ as he pleased;
selection is usually a super-individual process. That is, intentional consciousness in social selection is not necessarily
an individual’s intention but a statistical abstraction⎯the selection pressure or central tendency of many individual
intentions⎯and not always conscious intentions either, given the contradictory constitution of selves and the
importance of unconscious processes. Nevertheless, just as one person can breed a particular kind of rose, one person
can breed a particular kind of meme. Sure, they have only the memes given to them by society to work on initially, and
their variations might not be taken up and replicated by others (especially once they are dead). Like Augustus, Lewis
Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty did not manage to make words mean whatever he liked; although Charles Dodgson’s Lewis
Carroll did manage to launch brillig and other terms on successful memetic careers. A lot of artistic creation, for
example, is an intentional process of memetic replication, variation, combination and selection⎯ we need only look at
the cutting room floor for variants that are most likely destined for quick extinction. As for not needing a theory of
social selection to account for memetic design if variation and selection is intentional, the reply is as follows. Even
though intentional consciousness may effect variation and selection according to individual intentions, we must still
look to super-individual social evolution by selection to explain easily recognised, but otherwise mysteriously alien
forms of culture.


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