IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE

Let’s [address] the question of how humans acquired music and language, since it helps us to understand the revolutionary power of imitation. Music and language are skills, and skills are not like physical attributes – bigger wings, longer legs: not only can they be imitated, which obviously physical characteristics on the whole can’t, but in the case of music and language they are reciprocal skills, of no use to individuals on their own, though of more than a little use to a group. An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music, or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.

The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.

Let us suppose that there were both a gene for imitation and a gene that favoured a particular skill. Let’s take an example of the acquisition by human beings at some time in their history of some skill or other – say, swimming. (I know learning to swim was never really like this, but try to put that out of your mind for now.) Suppose there were a gene for swimming, and that being able to swim was for some reason hugely advantageous: those who couldn’t swim were going to be left far behind. If swimming turned out to be completely inimitable – either you have the gene for it and can do it, or you can’t do it at all – soon there would be only those with the gene for swimming. Outcome: after a number of generations, everyone would be swimming, all with the gene.

Suppose, by complete contrast, swimming turned out to be so easy to imitate that every individual that saw it could learn to swim. The gene for swimming would have no force whatever, and would be in no way subject to selective pressure, and might even die out. Outcome: just the same, but much sooner, everyone would be swimming, by imitation – a quicker mechanism – but mostly without the gene; though a few might, irrelevantly, have the gene that enabled swimming anyway.

Suppose, however, which is more likely than either of these extreme positions, swimming were partially imitable, but only partially. There would be some selective pressure in favour of those who had the gene for swimming, and gradually more people would have the gene, and therefore would swim: equally some people would imitate it, and would also swim, though lacking the gene. But because the behaviour was only partially imitable, you would be able to imitate it only if you were a very good imitator. So there would also be a strong selective pressure in favour of those who were very good imitators – those with the gene for imitation – who wouldn’t necessarily have the gene for swimming, but would nonetheless be able to swim. Outcome: soon everyone would be swimming, some with the gene for swimming, some with the gene for imitation, and a few with both.

But now suppose that another partially imitable behaviour came along, which had a similar, or even greater, competitive advantage – say, flying. Those with the gene for imitation would have a head start: they would be not only able to swim, but able to fly (and take on the next development, say ‘dive’), and would be streets ahead of those who didn’t, who would have to have both the genes for flying and for swimming if they were to survive.

Several things follow from this:

  • The process that favours the gene for imitation gets started only if the crucial behaviour is partially imitable: if it is either wholly imitable (in which case the gene is irrelevant) or wholly inimitable (in which case the gene is ineffective), it won’t get started.
  • The behaviours in question have to exert sufficient selective pressure, that is, be sufficiently important to survival. The process will work faster if the behaviours to be imitated exert greater selective pressure.
  • The second explosion of learning (in the example, flying) will happen faster than the first (swimming), because it will rely mainly on imitation, and imitation is a faster process than gene transmission. And there will be a tendency for increasing reliance on imitation rather than gene transmission to speed up the process still further when the development of further new skills inevitably comes along.

Now, suppose that for swimming we read ‘music’, and for flying we read ‘language’. Wouldn’t it reach a stage where everyone had the gene for imitation, and imitation was all that now mattered, not genetic mechanisms that favoured particular behaviours? I don’t think so, because it would always be easier to pick something up if you happened to have the genetic (or epigenetic) mechanisms that made that sort of behaviour more likely. But imitation would always work faster, so that in the end what we chose to imitate would govern which epigenetic mechanisms got selected (e.g. a culture in which we learnt to think and speak of ourselves in more computer-like ways would lead to selection for the ‘geek’ brain), rather than the genes that got selected dictating what we imitated.

The achievement of imitation – the meta-skill that enables all other skills – may explain the otherwise incomprehensibly rapid expansion of the brain in early hominids, since there would be a sudden take-off in the speed with which we could adapt and change ourselves, and in the range of our abilities. Imitation is how we acquire skills – any skill at all; and the gene for skill acquisition (imitation) would trump the genes for any individual skills. Thus from a gene – the symbol of ruthless competition (the ‘selfish gene’), and of the relatively atomistic and oppositional values of the left hemisphere [of the brain] – could arise a skill that would enable further evolution to occur not only more rapidly but in a direction of our own choosing – through empathy and co-operation, the values of the right hemisphere [of the brain]. Genes could free us from genes. The great human invention, made possible by imitation, is that we can choose who we become, in a process that can move surprisingly quickly. As I put it above, we escape the ‘cheerless gloom of necessity’. This could also explain the apparent paradox for classical genetics, that communicative skills such as music and language would have to be acquired by individualistic competition, although the skills themselves would be of no use unless the whole group acquired them together. Perhaps we are not the ruthless competitors we have been conditioned to believe ourselves to be by mechanistic models of behaviour. Perhaps, even, the world is not a mechanism.

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

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