Atheist. Biologist. Writer. Thinker. Richard Dawkins has developed an international reputation of spreading the word that evolution happened and that there is no “intelligent design” or higher being, as you might gather from the title of his book “The God Delusion.”
But no matter what you think about his convictions, his ideas have gone viral – including the word “meme.”
CNN caught up with Dawkins while he was passing through Atlanta earlier this year. His next U.S. tour is in October.
Here is an edited transcript of part of the conversation. Watch the video above for a more focused look at Dawkins’ ideas about evolution vs. intelligent design.
Today, a lot of people think a “meme” is a LOLcat or a photo that’s gone viral. How do you feel about that?
In the last chapter of “The Selfish Gene,” I coined the word “meme” as a sort of analog of “gene.” My purpose of this was to say that although I’d just written a whole book about how the gene is the unit of natural selection, and that evolution is changes in gene frequencies, the Darwinian process is potentially wider than that.
You could go to other planets in the universe and find life, and if you do find life, then it will have evolved by some kind of evolutionary process, probably Darwinian. And therefore there must be something equivalent to a gene, although it may be very, very different from the DNA genes that we know.
I wanted to drive that point home. And rather than speculate about life on other planets, I thought maybe we could look at life on this planet and find an analog of the gene staring us in the face right here. And that was the meme. It’s a unit of cultural inheritance, the idea that an idea might propagate itself in a similar way to a gene propagating itself. It might be like catchy tune, or a clothes fashion. A verbal convention, a word that becomes fashionable, like “awesome,” which no longer means what it should mean.
That would be an example of something that spread like an epidemic. And the word “basically,” which is now used just to mean “uhh.” That’s another one that’s spread throughout the English speaking world.
These are potentially analogous to genes in the sense that they spread and are copied from brain to brain throughout the world, or throughout a particular subset of people. The interesting question would be whether there’s a Darwininan process, a kind of selection process whereby some memes are more likely to spread than others, because people like them, because they’re popular, because they’re catchy or whatever it might be.
My original purpose was to say: It’s not necessarily all about genes. But the word has taken off.
There are people who use meme theory as a serious contribution to the theory of human culture and I’m glad to say that the idea of things going viral has also gone viral.