Richard Dawkins at TED

The session was titled "The Design of Life," and the TED audience was probably expecting remarks about evolution's role in our history from biologist Richard Dawkins. Instead, he launched into a full-on appeal for atheists to make public their beliefs and to aggressively fight the incursion of religion into politics and education (quoting Douglas Adams in the bargain). Scientists and intellectuals hold very different beliefs about God from the American public, he says, yet they are cowed by the overall political environment. Dawkins' scornful tone drew strongly mixed reactions from the audience; some stood and applauded his courage. Others wondered whether his strident approach could do more harm than good. Dawkins went on to publish The God Delusion and become perhaps the world's best-known atheist.

As an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has broadened our understanding of the genetic origin of our species; as a popular author, he has helped lay readers understand complex scientific concepts. He’s best-known for the ideas laid out in his landmark book The Selfish Gene and fleshed out in The Extended Phenotype: the rather radical notion that Darwinian selection happens not at the level of the individual, but at the level of our DNA. The implication: We evolved for only one purpose — to serve our genes.

Of perhaps equal importance is Dawkins’ concept of the meme, which he defines as a self-replicating unit of culture -- an idea, a chain letter, a catchy tune, an urban legend -- which is passed person-to-person, its longevity based on its ability to lodge in the brain and inspire transmission to others. Introduced in The Selfish Gene in 1976, the concept of memes has itself proven highly contagious, inspiring countless accounts and explanations of idea propagation in the information age.

In recent years, Dawkins has become outspoken in his atheism, coining the word "bright" (as an alternate to atheist), and encouraging fellow non-believers to stand up and be identified. His controversial, confrontational 2002 TED talk was a seminal moment for the New Atheism, as was the publication of his 2006 book, The God Delusion, a bestselling critique of religion that championed atheism and promoted scientific principles over creationism and intelligent design.