On Philosophy

January 6, 2007

Mimicry Machines

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

People are mimicry machines, especially children. We are exceptionally good at picking up on the attitudes and behaviors of those around us and adopting them as our own, both consciously and unconsciously. Some might deplore this fact, since they value independent thought, and though I agree that sometimes our tendency to copy each other (to conform) can be bad, I think that it is necessary, and may even be beneficial in the long run.

But, before I tackle the question of whether this mimicry is good or bad, let me point out at least a few examples of it in action. An obvious example is language, as children learn their language by mimicking other speakers. Language, however, is not the best example for demonstrating how pervasive our habit of copying others is, because there is really no other way to learn your first language besides mimicry. Even if we rarely copied the behavior of other people language would have to be one of the exceptions, if we were to have language at all. A subtler example is our ethical intuitions (our sense of what is right and wrong). The fact that people brought up in other cultures often judge situations differently than we do is evidence that our ethical sense is something we develop by copying the expressed judgments of others, and not something we are born with (for example, whether you consider racism to be right or wrong). However, unlike language, there are universal ethical principles, which reason alone can uncover (or so I have argued elsewhere). Given this we could develop our ethical intuitions independently of other people, but we don’t; we don’t because we have already developed our ethical intuitions by copying those of other people (via observations of their behavior and expressed judgments), long before we could reason out our own set. Likewise, the institutions of culture, religion, manners, ect are best explained by the fact that we tend to copy others.*

Obviously there are some negative consequences of this. Because people mimic indiscriminately bad patterns of behavior can be picked up as well as good, and because people resist deviating from these patterns it can take a long time for the bad ones to fade away. And, in general, our tendency to mimic other people reduces our ability to think independently. It is hard to question the things you simply “know”, sometimes it is hard to realize that questions are even possible. And so, because we value independence, and deplore those detrimental customs that are passed down from generation to generation, we may be led to think that our tendency to copy other people is a bad thing.

Now I wouldn’t want to deny that sometimes our faculty for mimicry has its downside, but there are advantages to it as well. (In fact it should be obvious that there must be advantages, as our tendency to mimic others seems universal, meaning that it is part of our genes. And if it is part of our genes evolution must have selected for it.) One obvious advantage is that it allows people to avoid starting from scratch. Instead we are able to simply adopt a large number of standards of behavior, many of which are beneficial (language, ethics, ect). If everyone had to work these things out from scratch society wouldn’t be where it is today, because instead of making progress in these areas people would be stuck rediscovering (or failing to discover) the same things for themselves, over and over again. And there is an even greater benefit that stems from our tendency to mimic other people; because of that facility cultures (and ethics, ect) can “evolve” and compete with each other. Because we mimic each other fairly accurately the behaviors that we are copying can be passed down relatively unchanged over time. And these behaviors influence how successful the group practicing them is, which means that different traditions are effectively in competition with each other. The ones that are better for the people practicing them will survive longer, and practiced by more people, while those that aren’t as good will slowly fade away. For example consider two different ethical systems, one that allows murder and one that does not. If we start with two groups of people, one group with each system, the group that forbids murder will be more successful than the group that allows it (since its members will occasionally kill each other, creating discord within the community), and eventually the ethical system that allows murder will go “extinct”, as no one will practice it anymore. (When the no-murder group becomes more successful the people in the group allowing murder become more likely to adopt the practices of that other group (in order to be more successful like them, or perhaps because that group’s norms are beginning to dominate that area). Since those in favor of murder will be at a disadvantage eventually there will be none of them left, simply because fewer and fewer people will buy into that ethical system, and not necessarily because they have all killed each other.) And this potential for selection between various sets of copied behaviors is to our advantage because it ensures that in the long run the best ones will dominate.

Of course in the modern era the potential for our behaviors to “evolve” in this way has diminished, as better communications make it less and less likely for groups to establish widely different norms (although it does still happen, to some extent, but it is logical to suspect that it will diminish even further as time goes on). Now this doesn’t mean that we won’t make progress, that future generations won’t have better ethical intuitions than we do, it simply means it will happen at a slower rate, as groups within a single culture, differing only slightly from each other, make slow progress. And of course I am not against independent thought either. In fact valuing independent thought is an attitude we can copy from other people; certainly I have gotten it from somewhere. But independent thought is most useful when you already have a pre-existing set of attitudes and behaviors, which are probably decent considering how the better attitudes dominate in the long run. In such a situation one can turn their scrutiny on various copied attitudes one at a time, making improvements where possible. And this is better than starting from scratch, because while conducting this process one still has the ability to be a functioning person, versus the hypothetical individual who starts from scratch, who has no idea how to act, and thus starves to death. Ironically then our desire to conform and our desire to be independent thinkers complement each other perfectly; by thinking independently we can make improvements, and through conformity we can pass them on to others.

* Or, more precisely, that we copy other people at a young age. It seems that as we age our tendency to pick up new practices and attitudes by mimicry decreases. This does not mean that we become open to change however, it just means that what we have picked up by mimicry becomes solidified, and less likely to change.


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