Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators

James McComb (jamesmccomb@hotmail.com)
Sat, 28 Aug 1999 00:30:35 +1000

From: "James McComb" <jamesmccomb@hotmail.com>
To: "Memetics Discussion List" <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators
Date: Sat, 28 Aug 1999 00:30:35 +1000

____________Dawkins' Mutation Test

In Chapter 6 of 'The Extended Phenotype', Dawkins outlines a simple test for
determining whether or not something counts as a true replicator. I will
call it the mutation test. Here is my understanding of the test:

** The mutation test: In order for something to be a true replicator, it
must pass on its mutations to its descendant copies. **

Here is a quote showing Dawkins' use of the test:

<< [With regard to Bateson's claim that 'the bird is the nest's way of
making another nest'.] A nest is not a true replicator because a
[non-genetic] 'mutation' which occurs in the construction of a nest, for
example the accidental incorporation of a pine needle instead of the usual
grass, is not perpetuated in future 'generations of nests'. >>

Dawkins uses the test to attack the claims that organisms and species are
replicators. Then comes his notorious 'clarification' that memes are 'units
of information residing in brains'. Presumably, Dawkins changed his
definition because the meme is a replicator, and he used the mutation test
to determine that cultural artefacts and behaviors are not true replicators.

To all memeticists: Naturally, Dawkins' mutation test has great bearing on
what we take memes to be. So my questions are:

1. What is the accepted status of the mutation test? How should we feel
about it?

2. Is Dawkins correct in his application of the mutation test? Does it
really rule out all cultural artefacts (such as chain letters)?

James McComb

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