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Talking to the Guy Who Invented the Word 'Meme': Richard Dawkins

And then it got weird.
Photo via YouTube

In his 1979 book, The Selfish Gene, Professor Richard Dawkins gave us a cultural theory of natural selection in which he reformulated the word "gene" to create the now-famous term “meme.” Today, the evolutionary biologist isn’t shy about embracing the internet culture he helped to create. There are a number of Thug Life memes dedicated to his one-liners, the time he took part in an art performance about memes at the Cannes film festival and when he immortalised the words of Alun Anderson: “Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can fuck off!”


I've long admired the way Richard Dawkins states his argument with aggressive wit, unapologetic evidence, and lyrical analogies. Like this one, unleashed at the Hayden Planetarium: “If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly…science works, bitches!”

I think Dawkins' appeal for me is his complete rejection of anything that doesn't stand up to evidence. I was born into a Muslim household and the internet was like a window that religion couldn’t shelter me from. I maintained a spiritual affinity with Sufism, but it was Dawkins' book, The Blind Watchmaker, that opened me up to the possibilities of reason. It just took some soul searching to take the leap and accept Wittgenstein's proposition; "the world is all that is the case."

Last week, I spoke to Prof. Dawkins about his upcoming Australian book tour, Science In The Soul. We also discussed memes, my sister’s education, and the cruelty of nature.

VICE: Hey Richard, could you tell us the correct definition of the word "meme" and how you came up with it?
Richard Dawkins: It is the cultural equivalent of a gene. So anything that gets passed from brain to brain, like an accent, or a basic word, or a tune. It's anything that you can say spreads through the population in a cultural way, like an epidemic. So a craze at a school, a clothes fashion, a fashion for a particular way of speaking, all these things are memes. Anything that could be the basis for an evolutionary process is a meme, simply by becoming more frequent in the population, in the meme pool, in the same way the gene becomes more frequent in the gene pool.


How do you feel about the internet’s sabotage of the word?
I’m quite amused by it, except that the internet uses just one tiny example of a meme. A meme is a much more general concept than that. But the internet is a very fertile ecosystem for the spread of memes.

This video here is from the Saatchi show in Cannes. You were playing some kind of amazing instrument—what was that?
The advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi were producing a film to introduce the festival and they chose the theme of memes. And so they had me giving a short three-minute lecture on what a meme is and then I walked off the stage so they could show a kind of psychedelic light show with my words displayed and whirling around. It made it look as though they had taken words from my lecture and immediately put them into this film. But of course what they had really done was have me give the lecture word for word before, so they could extract the phrases and words they wanted to use, then at the end I had to walk onto the stage again with my ewi, which is an electronic wind instrument, a kind of electronic clarinet or oboe.

How did you come to play the ewi?
I played the clarinet at school and the fingering of the ewi is pretty similar to the clarinet. I was able to pick it up very easily. I actually played it as a trumpet because the sound is actually dependent on the software.

Who were some of your musical inspirations?
Well I love schubert, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.


Nobody contemporary?
Well, when I was a boy I loved the Beatles and Elvis, people like that. I quite like jazz too.

Was it nature, a particular moment or work of art that inspired you to denounce your Anglican upbringing?
I wouldn't say "denounce." That might be putting it a bit strongly. Christianity is somewhat harmless compared to some alternatives. I suppose at about 15 or 16 I decided that there was no God and so I did become a bit rebellious and stopped going to chapel at school.

Okay, so I wanted to ask for your advice. What is the simplest way I can teach my younger sister that evolution is in fact real, even if they aren't teaching it in her science class at the Islamic school she attends?
You’ve only got to look at the anatomy of any mammal. All the bones are exactly the same, just in different sizes. Particularly true of an ape like a chimpanzee, everything is there! If you look at the skeleton, every single bone is there in all the mammals, just different shapes and sizes. They have clearly just been modified—lengthened here, shortened there.

And that's even more true of the molecules. If you look at molecular genetics, and compare the proteins or the DNA of any two animals, you will find massive similarities. And the whole thing falls into a beautiful, elegant, hierarchical scheme. Which can only be a pedigree. You can actually, literally count the number of DNA-based pairs that we have in common with any other animal that you care to name and what you get is a beautiful, hierarchical, branching tree. It has to be a pedigree. There is no other explanation.


Also, if you look at the geographical distribution of species on the islands and continents of the world, it's all exactly what you would expect if they had evolved as Darwin himself noted. The evidence is utterly, sledgehammeringly convincing. All you need to do is look at it. Does your sister's school teach that God created the world in seven days?

Well, I think it’s something like negative teaching, where they carefully choose what not to teach so that the children intuitively fill the gaps.
I understand that and I think it is horrible and I wish your sister was not made to believe it. Did you go to the same school?

No. I was actually enrolled in an Anglican school.
And were you taught proper evolution there?

No, they showed us the Eucharist once a month though. I didn’t really learn about evolution until university.
Well if your sister and her friends are prepared to read a book, The Greatest Show on Earth would be my attempt at setting out the evidence for evolution.

What was it that inspired you to turn away from religion?
I suppose Darwin really. The main reason why I was still religious up until that age was that I was a biologist and I was studying biology, and I was very impressed by the beauty and elegance of the living world and how apparently designed it was. So I thought there had to be a designer. And then I discovered Darwinism and realised there didn't have to be a designer. There was a much more elegant and parsimonious explanation for the complexity and beauty of life. That was when the scales fell from my eyes and I couldn't see any reason for believing in any higher being.


You’ve detailed in a debate at Oxford, the horrific character of “God” in the old testament, describing him as callous and cruel. Do you see the same cruelty in nature?
Yes, well Darwin himself remarked upon it. Natural selection is a very cruel process. It produces great beauty and Darwin gave the example of the hunting leopard or a lion or a cheetah. And the beauty of an antelope that they are pursuing. All are superbly designed, streamlined running machines and the reason they are superbly designed is that natural selection over many generations has cruelly killed those antelopes that weren't quite fast enough, or the lions, leopards and cheetahs that weren't quite fast enough. So it is a very cruel process. It has no regard for feeling, no regard for pain, no regard for suffering. It just happens.

Can the same be said of the human body, is it a perfect design?
Nothing is perfect. It’s as though an engineer, instead of being allowed to start with a clean drawing board and design something afresh, was always forced to take something that already existed and modify it. Step by tiny step. So you could imagine, say, if the jet engine had to be evolved from the propeller engine step by step what a mess it would be. There is a lot wrong with the human body.

The fact that we used to walk around on all fours in our ancestry, and we no longer do. Despite various problems with back pain and things like that. We are upright walking bipeds but we are not designed from scratch in that way as our ancestors were designed to walk on all fours.


Do you think we can excuse religion if it helps people get through life. I personally don’t find the world so dire but for those that do?
I suppose that you could make a case that if your life is utterly miserable, or if you're poverty stricken, turning to some kind of supernatural faith is the only thing you’ve got. I think it’s sad that people have to turn to that, I mean you could turn to drugs or something instead, I suppose.

Is it our duty to enforce secularism, because in the West we think we know better?
I don’t like the idea of enforcing anything. I prefer to let people to think for themselves and in the case of science, you’ve only got to lay it out. It’s just there and it's so utterly convincing. I’m guessing your sister has a mobile phone, how does she think that works? It's science! Cars go because of science! Planes fly because of science! They don’t go by magic carpet or something. She is completely surrounded by a world in which everything she does, everything she touches, is designed on the basis of science. That’s why it works but I'm not in favour of a dictatorial enforcing.

Do you have a new project underway?
Yes, a children's book. A children's version of The God Delusion. Atheism for children, provisionally called Outgrowing God. It’s an attempt to break the cycle whereby children are automatically religious whether they like it or not, simply by inheriting the religion of their parents. I’m hoping children will read this book and then realise there is no God. You could give a copy to your sister.

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Prof. Richard Dawkins "Science In The Soul Tour" will commence this week:
Monday, 14th May | PCEC Riverside Theatre, Perth
Wednesday, 16th May | Southbank Piazza, Brisbane
Saturday, 19th May | MCEC Plenary 2, Melbourne
Sunday, 20th May | ICC Darling Theatre, Sydney
Monday 21st May | Enmore Theatre, Sydney