So I’m on a mimesis/meme theory kick. Frankly, I think that it factors into the theory of origins and creatio ex deo, but I’ll get to that later. Mimesis, the book by by Matthew Potolsky which i have just finished, goes from Plato to Dawkins and beyond in discussing mimesis. It was a literary and ethical device for Plato, and for us today, something much more. In 1976, Richard Dawkins published a book, which has been derided, entitled The Selfish Gene. In this book, Dawkins proposes that the conceptual universe of our species operates much like our physical universe does, through evolution. He argues against the prevailing view that culture is a biological advantage, which of course, has caused him to be criticized. He believes that like our physical life, our conceptual life is also governed by genes, or units of imitation (memes). Potolsky seems to agree with him, but with one caveat:
Although no one has discovered a material entity that might prove the existence of memes, a significant group of philosophers, psychologists and evolutionary biologists has taken up Dawkins’ idea.
That, I suspect is about to change.
My good friend Robert, knowing my predilection to all things mimesis, sent along two articles recently. First, there is the discovery of mirror neurons.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And while no one is claiming that mirror neurons are the key ingredient that makes us different from other creatures, what these neurons do suggest about us seems almost self-evident. You can see it any Sunday at a sports bar, that deep in our architecture, down in our cells, we are built to be together.
DANIEL GLASER: There’d be very little point in having a mirror system if you lived on your own. There’d be a lot of point in having a digestive system if you lived on your own. There’d be a good point in having a movement system if you lived on your own. There’d be a good point in having a visual system if you lived on your own. But there’d be no point in having a mirror system. The mirror system is probably the most basic social brain system. It’s a brain system which there’s no point in having if you don’t want to interact or relate to other people.
And second, a fuller discussion on what this means:
Now, some researchers believe that a recent discovery called mirror neurons might provide a neuroscience-based answer to those questions. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. They were first discovered in the early 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.
Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, who with his colleagues at the University of Parma first identified mirror neurons, says that the neurons could help explain how and why we “read” other people’s minds and feel empathy for them. If watching an action and performing that action can activate the same parts of the brain in monkeys–down to a single neuron–then it makes sense that watching an action and performing an action could also elicit the same feelings in people.
The concept might be simple, but its implications are far-reaching. Over the past decade, more research has suggested that mirror neurons might help explain not only empathy, but also autism (see page 52) and even the evolution of language (see page 54).
Now, to many, this may be just another discovery or something to be against, or something to ignore, but in my opinion, we are uncovering something deep within the human existence, something in humanity.
I know, I know… publishing something good about Dawkins… but I do think he is correct about this one.
- John Tropea: Mirror neurons and child development (johntropea.tumblr.com)
- Mirror, Mirror: Mirror Neurons and Shareware (theviralmedialab.wordpress.com)
- Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (3) (creatingreciprocity.wordpress.com)
- Video: What Are Mirror Neurons and What Do They Do? (abelsvoice.wordpress.com)