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October 27, 2017

In 2546 Richard Dawkins will be remembered for “memes”

Filed under: Cultural Evolution,Memetics — Razib Khan @ 5:15 pm


In 2006 South Park premiered Go God Go. The episode synthesized Buck Rogers in the 25th century, the Wii craze of the middle 2000s, and Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion engendered fame. In some ways, this was a sad reflection on Dawkins’ reputation, because before he got full-bore into atheist activism he was a great science popularizer, most famously for The Selfish Gene. Many would contend that George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection outlined The Selfish Gene‘s ideas better and earlier, while Dawkins himself is most proud of The Extended Phenotype. But warranted or not The Selfish Gene stands head and shoulders above his other work in terms of recognition, in large part due to the sexy title (which Dawkins has expressed some ambivalence about due to its misinterpretation).

When God God Go premiered it was plausible, as the episode suggested, that ~500 years into the future Dawkins would be remembered as the prophet of irreligion. But times change. I now believe that Richard Dawkins’ reputation will in the future hinge on the word and concept of the meme. That is because Dawkins introduced the idea in The Selfish Gene in 1976. Despite Susan Blackmore’s attempt to revive interest in the specific idea in The Meme Machine I think it is fair to say that “memetics” as an analog to “genetics” was moribund. This is not to say that cultural evolution as a field did not exist, but that field is distinct from memetics and emerged around the same time as Dawkins’ suggestion of memetics.

Today we are in a very different position than 2006. The word “meme” has entered the lexicon. As the Google Trends chart above shows the increase began in the late 2000s, but it is has been rather precipitous of the last decade. Among the younger set, the word meme is not exotic. It’s just another word. In fact I mentioned offhand to a co-worker that Richard Dawkins invented the neologism and he was incredulous. He simply couldn’t believe it. And that to me illustrates how ubiquitous it’s gotten in a bizarre way.

Of course, memetics and memes as Dawkins originally envisaged them never developed in the way he’d have imagined. But culture has a knack for evolving in directions we wouldn’t expect….

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