WE MAKE SENSE of the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world, as William James put it, by simplifying what we perceive. These simplifications, however, can have us embracing destructive commitments or false gods, especially when they take on a life of their own as memes or “memeplexes” (mutually reinforcing systems of memes). At their best, the arts and humanities — for example, books like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer — can help us perceive memeplexes and their distortions of reality in the same way Plato’s refugee from the Cave perceives realities his fellows can’t and don’t.

None of this is new, but Robert N. Watson’s Cultural Evolution and its Discontents synthesizes a number of recent or relatively recent insights in literary theory, psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to argue for the value of the arts. In a nutshell, resistance is for Watson their true vocation. To paraphrase Paul de Man, they demystify the discourses that would seek to demystify them.

Watson points out that the need to filter out and simplify the data flooding our senses is the sine qua non of all sentient beings: frogs notice flies, water, and possible predators, but not much else; housecats seem to take notice of very little indeed; Saki’s great essay on “Birds on the Western Front,” written in the trenches, is all the more powerful for attempting to show World War I trench warfare via the perceptual filters of avian locals. Unconscious neurological processes or algorithms, in other words, filter out spam (as well as the odd very important item — just as Gmail does), forwarding only a small fraction to awareness. We’re no different from other animals. Even our conscious humanoid self takes shortcuts. As A. E. Housman wrote after demolishing a bad argument: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.” “Slow thinking,” to invoke the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, is irksome, as he and Amos Tversky established after sifting through the prompts that prime or trigger “fast thinking,” what we might call snap judgments. As products of evolution we have developed reflexes — heuristics or rules of thumb — in order to be able to respond almost instantaneously to situations like a lion charging us or a bright blue frog (do not eat!). And as cultures developed over the last 500,000 years or so, our ancestors learned new heuristics — like recognizing when someone has a fever — which we have internalized through imitation and education until they have become second nature. Every driver knows that you turn the top of the steering wheel in the direction you want to go. This seems a natural fact but is actually an engineered convention. Indeed, this is how cultural evolution works in general: a lot of the knowledge stored genetically in other species is offloaded into cultural archives in our own, enabling us to internalize learned heuristics like “eat where the locals eat” or “high prices mean good food” — the right and the “wrong” kind of fast thinking.

In his book, Watson asks how cultures reproduce themselves. Is cultural evolution ultimately helpful or harmful for individual human beings or for humanity in general? Learned heuristics (e.g., milk will be near the back of a supermarket, as everyone knows without knowing it) can be passed down by memes, as Richard Dawkins dubbed them in his book The Selfish Gene. This word “meme” is itself so successful as a meme that I used it in the first paragraph of this review without thinking it needed a definition. Dawkins and many of his readers, including Watson, who have been infected by the “meme” meme, believe memes function more or less like Dawkins’s selfish gene. On a genetic level, argues Dawkins, an organism is essentially a gene’s way of replicating itself. Genes don’t serve us; we serve them. Of course, there’s a dialectic here: they have to give us the wherewithal to achieve reproductive success, but our survival is a means to a genetic end. After we help reproduce them, we can die without thwarting the reproductive goals our genes designed themselves to further. Note that this argument shows why organisms don’t have to reproduce themselves through direct descendants: our genes “want” us to further their reproduction among our kin who also contain them, and collateral descendants will serve this purpose. All prosocial activity can be seen as furthering the interests of genes we share with others.

This may sound anthropomorphic. Genes don’t have selves, so how could they be selfish? But the purchase and importance of the idea of “successin the term “reproductive success” should not be underestimated. Any replicator is an entity for which both success and failure are possible outcomes, which means that any successful replicator will look as though it seeks success, just as water “seeks” its own level or light waves “seek” the fastest pathway through water, glass, and air. Replicators that don’t look as though they’re actually acting in view of success won’t in the end look like anything at all — because they won’t have anything but the most transitory existence. We know the dangers of treating evolution teleologically. But the very fact that what doesn’t replicate doesn’t exist (or doesn’t exist for long) means that you can treat replication as though it were the tautologous goal of the replicator. Since we humans are constantly assessing the intentions of others, we reflexively attribute a success motive to living things in general, even those that don’t have minds — like viruses — and even to what philosophers call “intentional entities” — like pop music earworms.

What about memes? Are they selfish in the same way that genes are? Watson believes they are. He draws on the writer and evolutionist Susan Blackmore’s argument, endorsed by Dawkins, that memes are as selfish as genes. Blackmore is herself building on the kinds of insights developed by British folklorists Peter and Iona Opie. They showed in The Lore and Language of School Children that jokes and songs, spreading from playground to playground, can cross England in a matter of weeks, just by word of mouth. Similarly, nonsense nursery rhymes have been passed down from 11-year-olds to nine-year-olds over the course of centuries. A child in such scenarios is a meme’s way of making another meme, a copy of itself. And, for Blackmore and Dawkins, it seems that memes can be selfish indeed: just as some genetic illnesses like Huntington’s chorea, CADASIL, or fatal familial insomnia don’t manifest themselves until after their carriers have reproduced, so, too, memes can reproduce without sparing or protecting their carriers. The most obvious example of such a meme might be the display of pathological altruism among suicide bombers. After 9/11, some predicted that such behavior was inherently self-limiting, since the bombers were dying or already dead by definition, but the recent attacks in Sri Lanka are only the latest indication that such behavior is in fact contagious and can spread through its performers’ spectacular deaths and their appeal to the minds of some people in their audience.

Here, memes look more like viruses (hence the term “viral marketing”) than like the genetic code that helps an organism reproduce. Suicide bombing is contagious in the same way viruses are: a virus (a protein packet of genes) may kill you, but if it does so slowly enough, you’ll have ample opportunity to spread it, which is why Ebola is probably a far lesser danger than HIV. Ebola kills too quickly to spread exponentially. But the distinction between viruses and our own genes isn’t necessarily pertinent from the genetic point of view. Whatever the nucleic acid, an organism can be built or repurposed to ensure its proliferation. Watson likes the idea that corn “domesticated” us through human farming the building of cities and rise of civilizations, and the science of agriculture, which involved the hybridization and ever more efficient production of corn. Voilà, these are corn’s ways of getting itself grown everywhere (as might be emblematized in the winged corn logo of DeKalb Genetics) and then being made invulnerable to the pesticides that kill its eaters (in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn, for example). The learned practice of agriculture is a meme in the service of corn. It’s a positive sum game, of course. We get to eat, and corn gets to grow. But the point is that corn uses us at least as much as we use corn.

Still, most evolutionary biologists are far more dubious than Watson is about memes or at least about the analogy between memes and genes. They have a point. Memes are vulnerable to what Charles Darwin feared was a fatal flaw in his theory of evolution by natural selection, namely, that variation would regress to the mean (or what Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, who came up with the concept, called “regression towards mediocrity”). A giraffe may outcompete other giraffes because he happens to have a longer neck, but his offspring will mix that long-neck inheritance with that of their likely shorter-necked mother, and their offspring will also mate with more average-necked giraffes. In other words, the beneficial variation will eventually become lost in the crowd. Darwin surmised that what we’d call “analogue” variations would dissipate over generations (like 10th generation photocopies or cassette recordings of cassette recordings of LPs), which meant that some sort of digital means of replication-without-loss was necessary for evolution to work. Although his ideas about what he called “gemmules” and we now call genes were wrong, he and Galton saw the problem and the direction of a solution: a digital unit of heredity that was either passed on or not but which would not ordinarily suffer much attenuation or rapid modification. Mendel’s genes turned out to fit the bill.

The problem with memes, a problem Watson doesn’t really acknowledge, is that they’re not very digital. (Dawkins admits: “Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel.”) The relation between our genes and us is symbiotic. They design us to defend them and therefore to defend ourselves so that we can defend them. Genotypes express phenotypes that protect the genotypes, so that what happens to us (aside from mutagens, of course) doesn’t affect our genes. Lamarckian processes, in other words, are rare. But memetic evolution is pretty much Lamarckian. Like Darwinian variation, memes dissipate, whereas genes disperse without diffusion or dissolution. Or to put it another way, memes mutate with dizzying rapidity, which is why those of us who try to sound cool or trendy in the classroom almost always look silly AF.

And yet some memes show great tenacity, as Watson demonstrates. That tenacity is what gives cultural traditions, whether baneful or beneficial, their staying power. Some Christian thinkers thought of “sin” as a destructive meme, spreading infectiously from mind to mind through the mechanism of temptation. Addiction starts off similarly: it’s cool AF to smoke a cigarette, and that destructive coolness spreads from teenager to teenager. Likewise, unhelpful proverbs can offer harmful, even superstitious, heuristics: “Good fences make good neighbors,” says Robert Frost’s cranky neighbor, quoting his father, and the meme gets remembered as an alleged principle, contrary to Frost’s aim but in conformity with the saying’s own interest in replicating itself. Next thing you know, Trump is building a wall.

What gives a meme the tenacity to survive replication without dissipating? Central to Watson’s book is the idea of a “memeplex” (H. C. Speel’s abbreviation for a “coadapted meme complex,” a mutually reinforcing system of memes). The memeplex helps explain how memes can find or create a stable structure. The memes within them support each other, and they combine into a larger stable cultural system — like a nation established on self-reinforcing needs to police and protect itself against outsiders but also like the different elements of a joke or story or poem; lines require that standard filler (as with Homeric epithets) be rhythmical, and rhymes require their complements; loaded guns require discharge; setups require punch lines. Knock-knock jokes and limericks thrive because there is a memeplex of such jokes and rhymes. The memes that thrive in such a system are, tautologously, the ones that will thrive — like the knowingly salacious first limerick line, “There was a young man from Nantucket.” Thelonious Monk once complained, “I made the wrong mistakes” about an improvisation he disliked. If you’re going to make the same mistake twice, it’s usually because it’s the right one, where the right mistakes are those that have a future, replicating themselves from performer to performer and listener to listener. They’re art.

But it turns out that culture, according to Watson, can easily reproduce the wrong mistakes, at least the wrong mistakes for the human beings who comprise the members of a culture, since the wrong mistakes are parasites within memeplexes, and we humans are their hosts. We use antibacterial soap, which makes us more vulnerable to disease because a wrong mistake has seized our imaginations — with the help of memeplex-like corporations defending and increasing their profits. We believe what cultural structures give us room to believe, and those structures defend themselves by making us believe in them in the manner of the three big religions or, to take an example that Watson recurs to, the religion of capitalism. (He also sees Soviet communism as a memeplex: the difference between capitalism and communism as memeplexes being, for Watson, that capitalism pretends it is the natural order of things, whereas communism presents itself as an intensely interventionist administrative system.) These are the discontents evolved by culture, “discontents” used in this way itself being a meme invented by Freud’s translator Joan Riviere. To quote Wallace Stevens, whom Watson loves to quote, they are why “[o]ne has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.” The malady is the human experience of the downsides of the culture (Freud’s original word) or civilization or memeplex, which is our somewhat self-deluding compromise with reality. For Freud, these discontents come about because of the repression or redirection of our sexual drives. For Watson, they come about through the connivance of structures of power seeking to defend themselves by making us fear taxes, for example, or having us subscribe to slogans like “Better dead than red” or “Live free or die,” the New Hampshire state motto, about which Watson comments: “It matters, of course, who gets to define freedom.” If the National Rifle Association defines it, a more accurate motto might be “Live free and die.”

At his best, Watson is able to show just how much our understanding and actions seem dictated by memes. But how can we even recognize this? Don’t the most parasitic of memes have to disguise their power over us? His answer is that they try to, but art and humanistic inquiry offer radical and novel perspectives on the structures that seek to enlist us as their agents and factotums. It’s no wonder that one of Watson’s heroes is George Orwell, whom he quotes in an equal-opportunity castigation of the ferocious monomania of proponents of such nationalistic commitments “as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism,” all of which feed on how the individual serves a memeplex or “unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” I am quoting Watson’s quotation of Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” from May 1945, about which Watson comments:

One key symptom Orwell observes is a determination to exclude from consciousness facts or ideas that conflict with the favored perspective. That observation fits well with my belief that people subjugate themselves to memeplexes to avoid the burden of fresh and complex thought […] Orwell’s observation also fits only too well with the breakdown of productive debate in the Trump era of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” This comforting flight from the world’s ambiguities damages not only the functions of politics but also the functions of art that (this book argues) can help control political malfunctions.

Slow thinking — “the burden of fresh and complex thought” — is the antidote to malign memeplexes, and one important domain of slow thinking is the kind of humanistic inquiry that pursues Wordsworth’s “hard task to analyze a soul.” It’s no accident that the notorious CIA director of Counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, required all of his subordinates to read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. (Empson thought Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was as much a critique of Christianity as of communism.) Thinking through ambiguity is thinking slowly rather than jumping to the conclusions embedded in weaponized memes (like those now being spread through social media in an analogue to bio-warfare). Granted, Angleton did a lot of damage, but reading Empson can hardly be a bad thing. At the moment, an especially insidious meme is circulating from the United Kingdom to the United States to Brazil’s authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro, who just announced the defunding of all philosophy departments in the public universities there. This meme’s existence suggests that philosophy (Heidegger notwithstanding) is dangerous to people like Trump or Bolsonaro: it can point the way out of the Cave.

Lamenting the 2012 report on “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” from the Council on Foreign Relations, Watson writes that it

persistently deprecates exactly the kind of education that enables an intelligence to imagine other minds and connect a few dots into a hypothetical plot. Sounding very much like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, the report insists that the reading and discussion of fiction must be minimized in education […] A central lesson of [deadly failures to imagine such things as 9/11] thus continues to evade a society that is losing its ability to distinguish between information and knowledge.

A professor of English whose field overlaps with mine (we both write about Shakespeare), Watson has the added experience of having been a high-level administrator at UCLA. He sees the university as a place to defend against the world-destroying memeplex that is neoliberalism. As many humanists have complained, the corporatist university, which uses measurements of financial outcomes to assess programs, majors, and curricula, is itself evolving into a noxious memeplex. This book is not only a plea to resist that transformation but also an argument for the existential importance of resistance. Another great quotation from Monk, one that should itself be a meme, expresses what art can do for us: “Those pieces were written so as to have something to play & to get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal!” Art can turn us from housecats into more actively alert interveners in the world, bringing us together for purposes that aren’t assimilated to the destructive memeplexes of our times. The humanities get us interested in the memes themselves — the structures of poetry or music or art or thought — interested enough, perhaps, to think about how to tear down the fences and start making the right mistakes.


William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis. He is the author of Comeuppance: Altruistic Punishment, Costly Signaling, and other Biological Components of Fiction.