Re: Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators

Bill Spight (
Fri, 27 Aug 1999 12:26:50 -0700

Date: Fri, 27 Aug 1999 12:26:50 -0700
From: Bill Spight <>
Subject: Re: Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators

Dear James,


> 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. **

* * *

> 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.


Beg pardon, but cultural artifacts and behaviors pass the mutation test with flying colors. Examples abound, because that is part of what we mean by culture.

Dawkins, quoted by James:

> << [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'.
> >>

A major reason we do not consider nest making by most (if not all) bird species to be cultural is that variations are *not* passed on. By contrast, we do consider the washing of food in the ocean by Japanese rhesus monkeys to be cultural is that that behavior is learned and passed on, and arose from the variation of feeding behavior by one individual female.


Bill Spight

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)