Imitating Life

Imitating Life

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A review of Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, ed. Scott Garrels, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.

Over the past 50 years, the way we understand imitation and its centrality to human nature, culture, and religion has changed profoundly. In recent decades, scientists and social scientists from a diverse array of fields—including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and primatology—have begun to recognize the importance of imitation in human development, language acquisition, cultural transmission, and sociality.

Yet one of the most compelling theories of imitation emerged not from the sciences but from literary studies. In 1961, René Girard published “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel,” an essay on five major European novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust). Here, Girard argues that great literature offers insights into human nature that surpass those of the social sciences. The novelists he explores understood intuitively that human desire is rooted neither in the objective world of things nor in the subjective world of inner thoughts and feelings. Instead, desire is a social phenomenon involving the imitation of a model (whom Girard calls “the mediator”) who dictates our desires to us, often without our being aware of it.

In combining desire and imitation, Girard brought together two areas of human inquiry that thinkers and scientists tended to keep separate. Plato discusses imitation, yet he limits the concept to the aesthetic field. Freud speaks of desire, yet for him, all desire stems fundamentally from biological drives that spring from within the human subject. Whenever we talk about imitation, we tend to forget about desire; and when we speak of desire, we refuse to recognize its link to imitation. Girard’s theory of imitation, known as the “mimetic theory,” provides a powerful explanation for the origin and function of religion based on the diverse and generative effects of mimetic desire, and it is now finding support in the experimental sciences.

The latest empirical research on primate and human imitation places increased emphasis on the imitation of goals and underlying intentions. Thus, the time was ripe to initiate a dialogue between scholars of Girard’s mimetic theory and researchers interested in goal-directed imitation and its role in social cognition, empathy, and learning. Mimesis and Science, a collection published in 2011 by Michigan State University Press, does just that.

The volume is edited by Scott Garrels, an adjunct professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary and a clinical psychologist in private practice with a background in both the humanities and the hard sciences. With chapters from some of the world’s leading scientists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the book is a rare example of true interdisciplinary inquiry, and instead of being a hodgepodge of academic articles, it reads like a coherent essay, the arguments unfolding chapter by chapter and flowing seamlessly into one another.

In the first chapter, “Human Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives,” Garrels sets the stage for the articles to come: “Far from being the simple and mindless act that we typically associate it with (‘monkey see, monkey do’), imitation is now understood as a complex, generative, and multidimensional phenomenon at the heart of what makes us human,” he writes on the first page, going on to argue that imitation is what makes it possible for us to learn, understand one another, form bonds, and—at the same time—compete with and behave violently toward one another.

This may sound like a bold claim. After all, as Garrels explains in a brief survey of imitation from antiquity to the present, throughout most of human history imitation has either been granted only a narrow sphere of legitimacy (in the arts, or in the spiritual life) or has been denigrated and dismissed as antithetical to the notion of the autonomous self greatly prized by modern philosophy. And by the end of the 19th century, he writes, “imitation as a central concept was substantially marginalized by the most influential psychological theories as they began to emerge in the twentieth century.” This was true not only of the theories of Freud, but also of Piaget, who believed that imitation was an ability acquired in the course of child development, not an innate faculty present from birth.

The contributors to Mimesis and Science argue that imitation is a fundamental aspect of human nature, perhaps even the defining human trait. At the same time, however, the authors emphasize that we cannot come to a full and accurate understanding of imitation, how it works, and the role it plays in human life, culture, and religion without taking into account its goal-directedness. By the same token, we cannot understand human desires, aims, and intentions without recognizing that they are fundamentally mimetic, borrowed from others and co-created in the process. Rather than possessing innate proclivities or desiring objects with inherently desirable qualities, human beings learn what to want from one another.

Indeed, it is because we share our desires that we so often end up quarreling and fighting. When two people desire the same object, their initial impulse is reinforced by the other’s desire. In this way, a flicker of interest can rapidly escalate into a frenzied drive to capture what, in the absence of the rival’s covetous gaze, might soon be regarded with utter indifference. This is why siblings in the nursery, surrounded by expensive toys, fight passionately over a dirty old stuffed animal; diehard sports fans pay astronomical sums on eBay for the sweaty sneakers worn by their favorite professional athlete in the big game; and an obscure tech start-up can suddenly see its shares soar in value.

In a world of nearly infinite (and sometimes paralyzing) choice, we often define the self as the sum of our preferences. Yet if these preferences prove to be derivative, this implies that our individual selves are actually steeped in otherness, our supposedly inviolable individuality sculpted by peer influence. Indeed, the notion of mimetic desire revolutionizes our understanding of the self, as French psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian argues in the chapter “From Universal Mimesis to the Self Formed by Desire.” He notes that most contemporary psychological approaches, even the ones that champion the notion of intersubjectivity, tend to assume that relationships happen between two or more already-constituted selves. In his view, the notion of intersubjectivity is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. He asserts that imitation stands at the root of the self, which is formed entirely through interactions with others. “The self is a purely psychological entity, a structure in constant becoming at the heart of continuous exchanges with similar structures,” he writes. In other words, the self as such cannot be said to exist until it absorbs its attributes from the models around it. Deep inside us, there exists no solid core of selfhood, only layers of otherness folded into a combination that is unique without ceasing to be essentially derivative.

Oughourlian’s ideas about what he calls the “interdividual”—as opposed to the “individual”—self are borne out in the research of developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, who authors a chapter on imitation, intention, and infant research. Meltzoff has been a leading figure in imitation research since the late 1970s, when his work on infant imitation began to overturn what he refers to as “the myth of the asocial infant.” Through now-famous experiments in which he elicited facial imitation from newborns, Meltzoff demonstrated that infants do not gradually become socialized, as many modern psychologists (such as Piaget, Freud, and Skinner) believed. Rather, they are open to others and capable of imitating and learning from the very beginning. Indeed, imitation is the mechanism of socialization, and it is operative from birth (in some experiments, Meltzoff was the first human being the newborn encountered, even before the mother!).

As Meltzoff explains, infants soon note that the mother’s gaze roves about, and they follow this trusted gaze, their eyes landing on objects in the world around them. In this way—through imitation—the mother initiates the child into the reality of objects outside the mother-child cocoon, and by naming those objects, establishes connections between the “verbal label” and the thing itself. For Meltzoff, intersubjectivity (what Oughourlian would call “interdividuality”) comes before language and facilitates learning. Not only that, but inter-imitation provides the basis for human kinship and feelings of identification: “preverbal human infants immediately register similarities between self and other,” he writes. Not only does imitation come into play before language acquisition, but imitation, he concludes, also picks up on “underlying goals, desires, and intentions.”

Vittorio Gallese’s contribution is also worth mentioning here. Gallese is a professor of neurophysiology at the University of Parma and it was there that he participated in the discovery of “mirror neurons” in macaque monkeys. Mirror neurons are brain cells that, in Gallese’s words, “fire both when the monkey performs goal-directed motor acts, like grasping objects with the hand and/or the mouth, and when it observes similar acts performed by others.” How Gallese handles the implications of this discovery is both sensitive and nuanced. He steers clear of the “mereological fallacy” (which consists of assigning personal-level properties and attributes to things like brain cells; “My mirror neurons made me do it” would be an example of this) and at the same time discards “undifferentiated” forms of holism that discount the complexity and multi-layers of human experience.

His conclusion is that what he calls the “Mirror Neuron System” is instrumental in enabling humans to engage in the imitation of simple movements and the learning of complex skills. More to the point, the MNS can explain many unconscious instances of imitation (this unconscious dimension of mimesis is an element that Garrels emphasizes in his introduction as well) and is, in sum, “a good candidate for the subpersonal instantiation of what enables appropriative mimesis.” In other words, mirror neurons could well be the most basic physiological building blocks of what Girard calls mimetic desire.

Gallese’s discussion of the sociality of emotions resonates with philosopher Paul Dumouchel’s notion that “a given emotional state (say, being angry at someone) is not an instrinsic psychological property of a subject, but the relational property of an individual with a given social context.” Dumouchel is another contributor to the compendium, and the way his findings are shown to be intertwined with Gallese’s is just one of many examples of the care and thoroughness the volume’s editor displays in assembling the articles and building bridges between them. To be fair, the interrelationship of the contributions stems in part from the fact that the book grew out of interdisciplinary work done at Stanford University and the École normale supérieure in Paris that brought together all of the volume’s authors for discussion and debate over the course of three years. However, it also speaks to the willingness of these scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists to reflect intelligently on one another’s work and to venture into methodological terrain that is sometimes unfamiliar.

Ann Cale Kruger’s article on “Imitation, Communion, and Culture” synthesizes the first part of the book before launching into a more anthropological and evolutionary discussion, which is the focus of the volume’s remaining chapters. Moving from child development to primate research, Kruger looks at the cognitive and social skills that separate humans from non-human primates. The articles that follow take a similarly anthropological approach, addressing the link between imitation and violence (Mark Anspach); the question of war (Melvin Konner); the neurobiology of desire and human freedom (William Hurlbut); and, finally, the question of how (and whether) Girard’s mimetic theory should engage with the empirical sciences (Jean-Pierre Dupuy). For Dupuy, the onus is on the hard sciences to account for humanity’s self-evidently mimetic propensities. As he writes:

All but the most die-hard reductionists would agree that the proposition “Man is a super-mimetic animal” is self-evidently true even if the biological mechanisms responsible for it remain unknown. …The truth of this proposition is beyond any reasonable doubt. It is therefore a challenge for the neurosciences and for cognitive science more generally, but not for MT [Mimetic Theory], to account for this fact. A would-be cognitive science that would prove incapable of it should simply be discarded.

Dupuy’s point is well taken, but readers of this volume will, I think, agree that the contributions of distinguished researchers from the experimental sciences, such as Meltzoff, Gallese, and Kruger, offer illuminating new ways of exploring human imitation and its relationship to our intentions and desires.

The book concludes with a long, in-depth interview with Girard himself, covering both his mimetic theory and its development, as well as his thoughts on the recent advances in imitation research from the developmental and cognitive sciences. Overall, Girard views the empirical research in a positive light. His main criticism of the human sciences is that they do not take seriously enough the problem of human violence—mimetic violence, in particular—in accounting for the origin and structure of human culture and religion. Indeed, scientists have shied away from dealing with the potentially violent consequences of goal-directed imitation, and they remain a bit reticent in this regard here.

In contrast, Girardian scholars are often criticized for focusing too much on mimetic violence and ignoring the positive aspects of imitation that are at the heart of overcoming the type of social and collective violence that Girard’s theory illuminates. However, in accepting the 2007 Templeton Prize, philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out that neither human violence nor our capacity to turn away from it are adequately understood:

We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project [collective violence]. But in fact, we have only a very imperfect grasp on this. Some of our most insightful scholars, like René Girard, or Sudhir Kakar, have studied it. Great writers, like Dostoevsky, have cast great light on it, but it remains still mysterious. What is equally imperfectly understood is the way in which charismatic spiritual leadership, of a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Tutu, can bring people back from the brink.

Even if important aspects of human violence and nonviolence remain elusive, Mimesis and Science makes it abundantly clear that imitation is integral to both phenomena, and we now have new interdisciplinary tools for reevaluating these fundamental aspects of our nature.