Imitation makes us human

In What Makes us Human?
Ed by C.A. Pasternak. Oxford, Oneworld, pp 1-16, 2007

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To be human is to imitate.

This is a strong claim, and a contentious one. It implies that the turning point in hominid evolution was when our ancestors first began to copy each other’s sounds and actions, and that this new ability was responsible for transforming an ordinary ape into one with a big brain, language, a curious penchant for music and art, and complex cumulative culture.

The argument, briefly, is this. All evolutionary processes depend on information being copied with variation and selection. Most living things on earth are the product of evolution based on the copying, varying and selection of genes. However, once humans began to imitate they provided a new kind of copying and so let loose an evolutionary process based on the copying, varying and selection of memes. This new evolutionary system co-evolved with the old to turn us into more than gene machines. We, alone on this planet, are also meme machines. We are selective imitation devices in an evolutionary arms race with a new replicator. This is why we are so different from other creatures; this is why we alone have big brains, language and complex culture.

There are many contentious issues here; the nature and status of memes, the validity of the concept of a replicator, the difference between this and other theories of gene-culture co-evolution, and whether memetics really is necessary, as I believe it is, to explain human nature. I shall outline the basic principles of memetics, show how memes could have driven human evolution, and consider some of these questions along the way.

The new replicator

Taking the meme’s eye view

How we got our big brains

The origins of language

Art, music and the lure of religion

Human creativity

Creative design has always seemed to be somehow magical or special. The way it seems is that clever designs need something even cleverer to design them. Dennett (1995) calls this the ‘trickle down theory of creation’; the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. As he points out, you never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith or a pot making a potter. So it seems obvious that design requires a designer, and that the designer must be something cleverer than the design.

We now know that there is no need for a designer in biological design; evolution works from the bottom up by the mindless power of natural selection. Yet the intuition remains powerful and drives belief in creationism and the theory of ‘intelligent design’.

Turning to human thought and creativity, these too have been described as evolutionary processes (James 1890, Popper 1972), especially in the field of evolutionary epistemology (Campbell 1960). Yet the intuition remains strong that somewhere inside ourselves there must be a designer, a conscious mind which originates novel ideas and creative output. Could we be wrong about this? I think so. Indeed I think it likely that all design works from the bottom up – human creativity included. Memetics shows how.

Let’s take the meme’s eye view again. Think about all the memes that have bombarded you today, from the words on your cereal packet and the news on the breakfast radio, to the ideas you dealt with at work, the emails, the phone calls, the letters and faxes, your favourite TV programme or bedtime reading. All day long memes are competing to get into your head. Those that succeed have some effect on your memory. They may be stored intact or twisted, but more importantly they get mixed up with all sorts of other memes. A human mind is a veritable factory for new memes. Every word in your vocabulary is a meme and you routinely mix them up to produce unique new sentences, but so are all the more complex ideas you come across. And if you are a creative person your new mixtures will be more interesting than other people’s and will set off on their own with a chance of being copied again. This is, indeed, a creative process.

This is all that is happening as I write these words. All my ideas about evolution and memes have come from taking old ones and putting them together in new ways. It is certainly a creative process but not, I think, one that requires a conscious creator inside my head.

Or think of a painter or sculptor or potter who trains for years in techniques developed by others, practices for more years in putting paint to canvas or hands to clay, and then finds novel and exciting products emerging. In this context it is worth reflecting that artists are often surprised by their own creations. They can also be fiercely selective – destroying their own works if they don’t like them. Many describe the state of mind in which their best work happens as a kind of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) in which the self seems put into abeyance and the work creates itself. All this fits with the idea of human creativity as an evolutionary process working through human meme machines. It may seem rather sad to say that we don’t really create anything through the power of conscious creativity, but it can be liberating, and I believe it is true.

Self and consciousness

Living life as a meme machine

What makes us human? In the beginning it was imitation and the appearance of memes. Now it is the way we work as meme machines, living in the culture that the memes have used us to build.

Is it depressing to think of ourselves this way – as machines created by the competition between genes and memes, and in turn creating more genes and memes? I don’t think so. We have got used to the idea that we need no God to explain the evolution of life, and that we humans are part of the natural world. Now we have to take a step further in the same direction and change yet again the way we think about ourselves, our consciousness and free will (Blackmore 2006). But this is precisely what makes it so exciting being human – that as meme machines we can, and must, reflect on our own nature.


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