Is Richard Dawkins the god of memes?
Could the world’s most famous atheist himself be a god? Did Richard Dawkins invent memes? What is Richard Dawkins’ take on present-day meme culture?
Nope, in fact, to all of those. The answer, randomly, is an elderly English professor who is probably most famous for arguing online with religious people.
Clinton Richard Dawkins – he doesn’t use the Clinton part, fair enough – was born to a well-to-do family living in post-colonial Nairobi, Kenya in 1941.
A big fan of biology from an early age, he went on to study zoology at the University of Oxford. He later taught at Berkeley, before returning to Oxford in later life.
He rose to fame as a writer of popular science books in the field of evolutionary biology. If you’re interested, my favourite book of his is ‘The Ancestors Tale‘, a total banger. His most famous book, and however, came out in 1976, and was called ‘The Selfish Gene’.
The Selfish Meme
The basic idea of The Selfish Gene is that genes – for height, for eye-colour, for the ability to grow wings etc – do everything they can to spread through populations. They want to be ‘dominant’.
The revolutionary idea is that individuals – people, animals, plants – don’t actually matter that much. We’re just vehicles for genetic information.
Fairly late in the book – possibly because he was running out of ideas with his publishers deadline looming – Dawkins suggested that as well as the physical information being transmitted from parent to child in the form of genes, individual ideas or units of culture could also be transmitted, and follow the same basic rules as genes.
He named these units of cultural exchange (wait for it)… memes.
Of course, he was writing in the 1970s, and the internet wasn’t really a thing.
So really it’s all the more impressive that his idea still holds up in the 2020s, as he told Wired in a recent interview.
‘The [current] meaning is not that far away from the original,’ explains Dawkins.
‘It’s anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus.
‘So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.’
The word meme, in case you’re wondering, originates from the Greek word ‘mimeme’, which translates as ‘imitated thing’.
Basically, Dawkins reckons that any idea, behavior or trend that has the ability to transmit from person to person qualifies as a meme.
In 2006 Dawkins wrote his most important, controversial work – The God Delusion. In the book, Dawkins calmly and methodically demolishes all justifications for belief in a higher power.
He even argues that religion is a ‘meme’, of sorts. An idea that is especially persistent, and spreads easily, across time and culture. Like Sponge Bob.
Scourge Of The Woke
Nowadays basically a cranky old dude, he pops up on television and in the better class of newspaper to rail against the scourge of, as he terms it, postmodernism.
That is to say, the modern idea that feelings are more important than facts.
He did a lot to amplify the Sokal Affair – when a physics professor wrote a fake paper suggesting quantum gravity was, essentially, gendered, and got it published in a legit journal.
A massive, really-fancy troll, in essence.
God Of Memes
Is Dawkins proud of his creation? Yeah, just a bit. A few years back he said this on his Reddit AMA (ask me anything) interview:
‘I’m pleased that the concept of meme has become widely understood, but the true meaning is a bit broader than the common understanding.
‘Anything transmitted with high fidelity from brain to brain by imitation is a meme.’