The Man Behind the Meme
An interview with Richard Dawkins.
But Gould would surely have conceded that, I said. Where was the real disagreement?
"I suppose it's really a matter of emphasis," he replied. "For me, the level at which natural selection causes the phenomenon of adaptation is the level of the replicator—the gene."
Another kind of selfish replicator to which Dawkins has called attention are "memes"—things like ideas, fashions, tunes, and so forth that multiply by leaping from mind to mind. When Dawkins introduced the meme concept a couple of decades ago, hopes were raised that the evolution of culture, or even of the human mind, might be explained as a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. But little has come of this project, even if the word "meme" does continue to get tossed around quite a bit by pretentious intellectuals. I asked Dawkins if he had cooled on the meme idea over the years.
"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."
At this point, Dawkins' wife, the actress Lalla Ward, shimmered into the lobby to collect him. One could not help noticing that, in her radiant blondness, she is even more attractive than her husband. Book tours are hard work, so I regretfully relinquished the celebrated author. Still, I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.
"You've called religion a 'dangerous collective delusion' and a 'malignant infection,' " I said. "Don't you think you're underplaying it a bit?"
Dawkins turned, smiled a small fox smile, and said, "Yes!"
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Photograph by Lalla Ward/Houghton Mifflin.