2.2.2 – Modulating Memetics

Stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate. The breath imputed by this book’s title (Letting Stories Breathe) is the breath of a god in creation stories, as that god gives life to the lump that will become human. Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose

— Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe (2010, as cited in Zipes 2012)

In this lesson and throughout our readings, many explanations (or disclaimers) are offered regarding our contemporary inability to discern true meaning from stories of old–many if which hold true for stories of all origins, beyond our studies of first nations literature. One of these challenges is first presented as a paradox whereby possession is made of the story by the storyteller them-self, thereby modulating the meaning to fit their own circumstance and world view. Thereby, there story changes each time the story is told to fit the advances and alterations concerned with each subsequent generation. This idea closely links to the theory of cultural information transfer known as “memetics”, first developed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970’s. Dawkins contended that a “meme” is a unit of evolutionary memory that is passed down through generations. Modern use of the word has taken reference to referring to technologically aided cultural transmission of symbols, jokes, and various other artifacts–yet the contemporary research being memetics spreads far beyond this use. Researcher Susan Blackmore, in her article “Consciousness in meme machines” states,

When people copy actions or words, those actions or words are copied with variation and then selectively retained and copied again. In other words the actions and words (the memes) fulfil the conditions for being a replicator in a Darwinian evolutionary process (Dawkins, 1976; Dennett, 1995)

This idea very well repurposes this theory into a context of the cultural transmission of morality and information contained within the art of storytelling.

The next reason that is proposed very well reinforces the importance the act of knowledge and morality sharing contained in the first. By outlining the tragedy of residential school systems and the other requirements contained within the Indian Act in Canada–the disconnect from understanding, especially amongst youth removed from their homes and culture–is profound. Between 1880-1951 this practice was banned across the country, thereby limiting most opportunities for the dissemination of stories amongst Indigenous cultures.

Source: mohawknationnews.com

This idea is very important as the residential schools by design directly removed children from the peak time when children are most affected by acculturation and/or develop their sense of place in the world.

This research comes from a interesting article on the phenomenon of cross cultural instances of similar fairy tales–stories which offer meaning to children in moral and social matters. As these children were removed from their communities during these formative times, and instead filled with Western ideology, these values and information were modulated by Western thought. Without placing judgement on that particular aspect, what this obviously presents is a compounding modulation of the stories upon reintegration to fit their altered world view

He meticulously describes why and how memes function for children within a civilizing process, or what he calls acculturation.
Memes, or cultural units of Information such as stories, form meme or culture pools over time. Children’s acculturation depends on
memes, which do not always function smoothly. They undergo change through innovation, the influence of chance events,
the social transmission between populations, the movement of carriers between populations,
the natural selection of cultural variants, preservation through free decisions, and coerced preservation.
Konner points out that “cultural constraints include the limits imposed by technology, mental habit, and other inertial
factors that correspond to stabilizing cultural selection, the default condition of cultural transmission.
Values, imposition, and cultural constraints, among other factors, affect the flow of memes,
so that different ones have different degrees of likelihood of being transmitted to the next generation’s culture pool.

Furthermore,  this gives significance to Harry’s alternation of stories to fit current reframed realities, such as the moon landing, in Wickwire’s introduction.  Wickwire presents two other reasons for the level of skepticism which needs to be applied to stories.  The first is presented by quoting Michael Harkin, “As Harkin explained, the collectors’ goal was to document “some overarching, static, ideal type of culture, detached from its pragmatic and socially positioned moorings among real people. Thus they, “systematically suppressed … all evidence of history and change”” An example of this is offered as removing the symbol of a gun from a published story to better fit the narrative of precontact Aboriginal culture. The anthropologist seeks to capture the wisdom of a “mythteller”, when the stories are told by individual storytellers who inflect their own wisdom unto the stories. You can see how each of these potential problems are all intertwined in a problematic feedback loop of sorts.

While a commonality amongst first nations storytelling can be offered as the interconnected nature of the natural, supernatural, and human worlds–the introduction of outside influences of the latter has modulated our collective recall of the stories themselves. As “Indigenous people had no gods”, the introduction of these foreign settlers emerged merely as varied “spirits” which took the form of human beings.  However, we also see the in Living in Stories how the separation of whites into the realm of a spiritual “Other” is bypassed, in lieu of a direct comparison of wisdom and morality amongst two distinctly similar human beings. Harry Robinson told this story of two twin brothers,

 …A pair of twins (were) charged to undertake a series of important tasks related to the creation of the earth and its first inhabitants. The elder twin performed his duties exactly as instructed, but the younger twin stole a written document— a “paper”—he had been warned not to touch. When confronted about his actions, he denied having done this. Because of this, he was immediately banished to a distant land across a large body of water. The elder twin was left in his place of origin.

This is certainly not to say that the Canadian treatment of Canadian culture makes whites deserving of humanized caricaturization in storytelling–however, what this shows is the retelling of a story to fit modern land disputes as a form of memetic expression and continuity.


Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness in Meme Machines.

Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory.  Talonbooks, 2005.

Zipes, Jack. The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling and Fairy Tales: Human Communication and Memetics. Princeton University Press, 2012\

Memetics. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics



4 thoughts on “2.2.2 – Modulating Memetics”

  1. Good morning Rob, I am back with some comments for you this morning.

    In our tradition of literature, the author has traditionally been the owner of the story, until the publisher buys it that is — and interestingly, historically and presently in First Nations traditions of orality, it is not so much the individual tellers of the stories, but rather the community that the storyteller belongs to that owns the stories. The link is between story and community. The listeners own the story as much as the teller. So, this is not an individualistic practice – and meaning is not changed to ‘fit’ individual circumstances; not at all. Remember what Lutz says about the danger of “getting the story wrong” – and as you read King’s novel, you will take note that “it is best not to make mistakes with stories.” I talk more about this on my blog this morning because it is an interesting perspective that we need to follow further as a class – when I am finished all my readings and comments. Yes, I see that you are talking communally: “Thereby, there story changes each time the story is told to fit the advances and alterations concerned with each subsequent generation.”

    “This idea is very important as the residential schools by design directly removed children from the peak time when children are most affected by acculturation and/or develop their sense of place in the world.” Yes, so true, but I think more significant, is the fact of laws that made it a federal offense punishable by imprisonment to tell the stories: when organizing or participating in the Potlatch and the Sun Dance and all the other ceremonies with similar social and political purposes were outlawed, so too were the stories and the storytellers. In B.C. it was illegal for more than a handful of “Indians to gather” anywhere, oh, except the church. So along with the children being taken (an act of genocide according to the United Nations) – the stories were also silenced by law; no tellers, no listeners. But, equally important is that — of course, the stories continued to be told, very quietly, in private, in memories.

    “The level of skepticism which needs to be applied to stories.” – hmmmmm, I would not have thought to apply the adjective skepticism to the problem of understanding the meaningfulness of first stories? I would call the way I think about the quest for discovering meaningfulness as problematic, or even fruitless. But, I see your point now, what one needs to be skeptical about is claims made by others that they have found the meaningfulness?

    Thanks Rob

  2. Erika,

    I agree with all of your statements proposed, and your blog did a great job further clarifying your position. The danger of getting a first nation story wrong (or outright ignoring it) has, in my opinion, been demonstrated time and time again in modern times. The devastating death toll of the ‘Frank Slide’ in 1903 could have been avoided had the residents listened to the native stories about the surrounding land. The stories had even caused the local native populations to rename the looming feature, ‘the mountain that moves’. Yet, in ignoring these stories, or passing them off as tales of fiction, many lives were lost.

    The skepticism I called for referred to the need to account for the modulation of the stories by the story teller. For example, native stories tell of a great earthquake in BC that took place many hundreds of years ago. Scientific post dating has enabled the earthquake to be given a near exact date of occurence in 1700–yet many native stories offer differing dates of the event. The given date for the event from first nations groups varied from 1400-1825 when surveyed by researchers. From this perspective, it gives added meaning to King’s work–it is important to acknowledge the occurrence–but the dates were often changed, perhaps to fit the goals of an individual storyteller.






  3. Hi Rob,
    I really appreciated your inclusion of the meme in your blog post. I really feel that there is no such thing as a ‘new’ story or idea. Although there is much fresh discussion of ideas, they are built off of or a reaction to previous themes, thoughts, and analysis. It is so important to recognize the importance of this in any cultural storytelling practice, in any art, or even things such as business models. It means recognizing history and learning and reacting to it. I think the meme analogy works really well to express this. Thanks, Bara

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