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Mutations in genes and text not dissimilar

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2010

In a post called Mutated Manuscripts: The Evolution of Genes and Texts, Sam Arbesman compares genetic mutations with textual mutations caused by humans.

While fun to chronicle such similarities, these similarities can also be exploited in the same way. Mutational differences between DNA sequences can be used to understand the evolutionary history of a population, or even a group of species. And so too with variants of the same manuscript. A famous example of this is from a 1998 research article in the journal Nature that quantitatively studied the differences between the 80 surviving versions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. By subjecting the variants to a battery of genetic analyses, the researchers were able to better understand the contents of the ancestral version, Chaucer’s own copy!