In 2546 Richard Dawkins will be remembered for “memes”

In 2006 South Park premiered the episode Go God Go. It synthesized Buck Rogers in the 25th century, the Wii craze of the middle 2000s, and Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion engendered fame (or infamy). 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 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 concept in The Meme Machine I think it is fair to say that “memetics” as an analog to “genetics” was moribund for several decades. This is not to say that cultural evolution as a field did not exist, but that discipline is distinct from memetics and emerged around the same time as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

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. Dawkins is seen as a writer on evolution and religion. Not the originator of such a ubiquitous word.

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

5 thoughts on “In 2546 Richard Dawkins will be remembered for “memes”

  1. Memes? You are kidding. At 500 years, everything in our era will be thought of as the Little Dark Ages. The epoch will be the Holocaust, Hiroshima, or perhaps the collapse of the 2nd Russian Empire (a/k/a Soviet Union).

    The symptoms are all around us. Music, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Philosophy are all dead. Completely played out. The sciences limp along, but many of them are paralyzed. When is String Theory going to be supported by anything other than vapors. We may survive, but we won’t do anything that the 26th Century will find interesting or memorable.

    500 years is a very long time. The world of the early 16th Century is very dim to us, even though it contained such luminous creatures as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Copernicus. Our world, as diminished as it is, will be even dimmer to the inhabitants of Century XXVI.

    “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall,
    I’ve heard their stories, heard them all,
    but love’s the only engine of survival.
    Your servant here, he has been told
    to say it clear, to say it cold:
    It’s over, it ain’t going any further.
    And now the wheels of heaven stop,
    you feel the devil’s riding crop,
    Get ready for the future: it is murder.

    Things are going to slide, slide in all directions.
    Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore.
    The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
    and it has overturned the order of the soul.

    Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) “The Future”

  2. It’s amazing how the term “meme” has spread into our lexicon, and I think that very few of those using the term know its origins. Dawkins obsessive focus on attacking religion has not really enhanced his reputation, and I agree with you that his coining of the term “meme” will likely be his legacy.

  3. I always thought the meme idea was stupid. Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017) has convinced me it isn’t. But I still don’t see that it adds much to understanding.

  4. The term and concept is useful for looking at culture from a more objective and evolutionary perspective and of course for breaking larger complex structures down. It helps to fundamentally change our perspective on cultural phenomenons and does a lot for the fact that cultural development is, after all, very similar to biological evolution. Which is something a lot of people don’t realise or can’t accept, especially those which have, because of religious or other ideolotical constraints, problems with evolution and the biological nature of human existence as such.
    Like genetic variation, cultural or memetic variation can be more or less adaptive for its carriers. Thats something which is most important for the human future and culture should be analysed from this perspective much more than it has been done. Because some cultural trends are obviously wrong and will lead to a dead end for the people practising it.

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