Re: Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators

Bill Spight (
Fri, 27 Aug 1999 16:25:11 -0700

Date: Fri, 27 Aug 1999 16:25:11 -0700
From: Bill Spight <>
Subject: Re: Dawkins' Mutation Test for Replicators

Dear Jake,


Surely artefacts and behaviours pass this test with flying colours! The
copying of them as is, is ubiquitous.


I am not as certain. As is?


Good point.


Blackmore addressed this by her copying of the
instructions versus copying of the product. Not all
mutations are passed on.


Ditto for genetic mutations as well. Many if not most genetic mutations with a phenotypic effect kill or sterilize. The mutation test does not require that *all* mutations be passed on.


There is necessarily some conceptual work that goes into the copying (either
behaviors or artifacts) to preserve fidelity and prevent degredation over


As Robin, Tim, and others have pointed out, it need not be an either/or proposition. In Tim's terms memetic replication is typically an ...-L-G-L-G-... affair.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This question is a meme in our society for questions of precedence which cannot be answered. However, biology basically says that the egg came first. Why? Because the chicken develops from the egg, and further eggs are derived from the egg (as well as some sperm, if the egg is fertilized). Alterations in the chicken do not affect the DNA in the egg, but alterations in the DNA in the egg may affect the chicken born from that egg. If that chicken has offspring the alteration in the DNA will be passed on (with 50-50 chance for each offspring). Alterations in the chicken are not passed on.

Contrast that with the typical means of memetic reproduction. Let's start with the L-meme in someone's brain. It may be possible for an L-meme to spawn a copy in someone else's brain (via suggestion, for instance, as Richard pointed out), but typically the L-meme produces a behavior or artifact (G-meme). (OC, more than one meme may be involved. I am using standard shorthand by talking about *a* meme.) A G-meme may be copied directly to another G-meme (via publication, for instance). This occurs not infrequently. But typically the G-meme produces one or more long-lasting states in someone's brain (L-meme). Any alteration, in either the L-meme or G-meme, may be passed along the chain, and typically will be as long as the meme remains viable.

Chickens are derived from eggs, but not vice versa. Alterations in eggs are passed on, but not alterations in chickens. We cannot say the same for L-memes and G-memes. L-memes are typically derived from G-memes, and G-memes from L-memes. Alterations in both are passed on.

BTW, imitation is typically G-L-G. We do not call L-G-L transmission imitation. If I imitate Frank Sinatra it means that I hear Frank Sinatra sing and I sing like him. I may hear Frank Sinatra sing and get a feeling and a meaning of the song which corresponds to Frank's internal feeling and meaning. That may be L-G-L transmission, but it is not imitation. (OC, I am not saying that I receive the meme for singing the song, but for the one for understanding and appreciating it.)

A brief point about observing fidelity:

Suppose that a copy-error mutation (L or G) has occurred. This mutation then competes with the standard meme. The standard meme may not always win the battle. For instance, "Play it again, Sam," has become the standard, even though that is not what Ingrid Bergman said. The fact that any specific mutation may not survive the battle does not mean that the mutation test is flunked.

Best regards,


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)