Atheist. Biologist. Writer. Thinker. Richard Dawkins has developed an international reputation of spreading the word that evolution happened and that there is no "intelligent design" or higher being, as you might gather from the title of his book "The God Delusion."
But no matter what you think about his convictions, his ideas have gone viral - including the word "meme."
CNN caught up with Dawkins while he was passing through Atlanta earlier this year. His next U.S. tour is in October.
Here is an edited transcript of the conversation with CNN.
Q: Today, a lot of people think a "meme" is a LOLcat or a photo that's gone viral. How do you feel about that?
A: In the last chapter of "The Selfish Gene," I coined the word "meme" as a sort of analog of "gene." My purpose of this was to say that although I'd just written a whole book about how the gene is the unit of natural selection, and that evolution is changes in gene frequencies, the Darwinian process is potentially wider than that.
You could go to other planets in the universe and find life, and if you do find life, then it will have evolved by some kind of evolutionary process, probably Darwinian. And therefore there must be something equivalent to a gene, although it may be very, very different from the DNA genes that we know.
I wanted to drive that point home. And rather than speculate about life on other planets, I thought maybe we could look at life on this planet and find an analog of the gene staring us in the face right here. And that was the meme. It's a unit of cultural inheritance, the idea that an idea might propagate itself in a similar way to a gene propagating itself. It might be like catchy tune, or a clothes fashion. A verbal convention, a word that becomes fashionable, like "awesome," which no longer means what it should mean.
That would be an example of something that spread like an epidemic. And the word "basically," which is now used just to mean "uhh." That's another one that's spread throughout the English speaking world.
These are potentially analogous to genes in the sense that they spread and are copied from brain to brain throughout the world, or throughout a particular subset of people. The interesting question would be whether there's a Darwininan process, a kind of selection process whereby some memes are more likely to spread than others, because people like them, because they're popular, because they're catchy or whatever it might be.
My original purpose was to say: It's not necessarily all about genes. But the word has taken off.
There are people who use meme theory as a serious contribution to the theory of human culture and I'm glad to say that the idea of things going viral has also gone viral.
Q: How do you think evolution should be taught to children?
A: You can't even begin to understand biology, you can't understand life, unless you understand what it's all there for, how it arose - and that means evolution. So I would teach evolution very early in childhood. I don't think it's all that difficult to do. It's a very simple idea. One could do it with the aid of computer games and things like that.
I think it needs serious attention, that children should be taught where they come from, what life is all about, how it started, why it's there, why there's such diversity of it, why it looks designed. These are all things that can easily be explained to a pretty young child. I'd start at the age of about 7 or 8.
There's only one game in town as far as serious science is concerned. It's not that there are two different theories. No serious scientist doubts that we are cousins of gorillas, we are cousins of monkeys, we are cousins of snails, we are cousins of earthworms. We have shared ancestors with all animals and all plants. There is no serious scientist who doubts that evolution is a fact.
Q: Why do people cling to these beliefs of creationism and intelligent design?
A: There are many very educated people who are religious but they're not creationists. There's a world of difference between a serious religious person and a creationist, and especially a Young Earth Creationist, who thinks the world is only 10,000 years old.
If we wonder why there are still serious people including some scientists who are religious, that's a complicated psychological question. They certainly won't believe that God created all species, or something like that. They might believe there is some sort of intelligent spirit that lies behind the universe as a whole and perhaps designed the laws of physics and everything else took off from there.
But there's a huge difference between believing that and believing that this God created all species. And also, by the way, in believing that Jesus is your lord and savior who died for your sins. That you may believe, but that doesn't follow from the scientific or perhaps pseudoscientific that there's some kind of intelligence that underlies the laws of physics.
What you cannot really logically do is to say, well I believe that there's some kind of intelligence, some kind of divine physicist who designed the laws of physics, therefore Jesus is my lord and savior who died for my sins. That's an impermissible illogicality that unfortunately many people resort to.
Q: Why do you enjoy speaking in the Bible Belt?
A: I've been lots of places, all of which claim to be the buckle of the Bible Belt. They can't all be, I suppose. I enjoy doing that. I get very big audiences, very enthusiastic audiences. It's not difficult to see why.
These people are beleaguered, they feel threatened, they feel surrounded by a sort of alien culture of the highly religious, and so when somebody like me comes to town...they turn out in very large numbers, and they give us a very enthusiastic welcome, and they thank us profusely and very movingly for coming and giving them a reason to turn out and see each other.
They stand up together and notice how numerous they actually are. I think it may be a bit of a myth that America is quite such a religious country as it's portrayed as, and particularly that the Bible Belt isn't quite so insanely religious as it's portrayed as.