Imitation: The Foundation for Cooperation and Conflict in Human Evolution


Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. As a 2015 Fellowship Recipient in the Human Distinctiveness Summer Seminar, Dr. Hodge’s research project was on Hominization, Mimetic Theory, and Theology. 

Aristotle observed that humans are the ‘most imitative’ of animals. It is this capacity that may explain a great deal about human evolution and distinctiveness. Contrary to popular views, imitation is a sophisticated capacity that humans possess to an incomparable degree.

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The importance of imitation is that it allows for an organic and efficient process of learning. Rather than having to replicate the processes of trial-and-error of the previous generation, imitation allows humans to quickly learn by imitating the means and ends of an activity.

Scholarly literature shows that humans imitate more than other animals. In fact, most other animals do not imitate like humans. Humans spontaneously engage in imitation from the earliest stages of life as Iain McGilchrist describes:

Imitation is non-instrumental. It is intrinsically pleasurable, and babies and small children indulge in it for its own sake. The process is fundamental and hard-wired, and babies as little as forty-five minutes old can imitate facial gestures. It is how we get to know what we know, but also how we become who we are.[1]

Imitation involves imaginatively entering into the action and life-world of other people in a personal, but social, way. In particular, sharing in a common purpose or object (through imitation) is very powerful for human bonding. We identify closely with the other, so much so that our identities become intertwined. Interestingly, it seems that the development of the human brain occurs alongside the burgeoning human capacity for imitation.

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The well-known French theorist, René Girard, provides an insight into why imitation is so important for human sociality and evolution. Professor Emeritus at Stanford and member of the Académie française, Girard identified how imitation is driven by the nature of human desire. Through literary and anthropological analysis, Girard observed that humans desire according to desire of others (what he termed ‘mimetic desire’). Mimetic desire is readily observable in everyday life, such as when a child fights with another over the same toy because the other wants it (though many alternative toys are available). Moreover, the capitalist economy depends on mimetic desire through the modeling of desire in advertising that stimulates consumerism.

Called ‘the Darwin of the human sciences’ by Michael Serres, Girard presents the first and fundamental instance of transcendence in the life of the human. Mimetic desire gives the human the capacity to transcend the limits of instinct and biology to become intensely social as well as acquire personal identity and freedom. McGilchrist remarks:

The enormous strength of the human capacity for mimesis is that our brains let us escape the confines of our own experience and enter directly into the experience of another being: this is the way in which, through human consciousness, we bridge the gap, share in what another feels and does, in what it is like to be that person. This comes about through our ability to transform what we perceive into something we directly experience.[2]

Moreover, human desire is not biologically pre-programmed for certain objects (except for certain appetites for survival). Rather, desire is social, and thereby, free; that is, desire is formed within a social context, and so gives the human subject the ability to decide between different forms of desire.

Based on this mimetic ability, intense levels of cooperation and competition are made possible for groups of Homo sapiens. Imitative desire leads humans to collaborate on shared goals, but it also results in the possibility of conflict over shared desires, particularly for objects that can’t be shared. Paul Dumouchel summarizes the relation between cooperation and conflict:

If the interest we take in each other’s interest augments cooperation by making us attentive to each other’s needs and desires, thereby providing more reasons to collaborate toward shared goals, it simultaneously increases occasions of conflict. …Cooperation and conflict are not polar opposites; they are interdependent, reciprocal functions.[3]

Thus, according to Dumouchel, the juxtaposition of cooperation and competition in evolutionary studies is a false one. Competition and cooperation are driven by the same imitative capacity. As part of this capacity, intense forms of reciprocity grow—both in positive and negative ways—which are the basis for cooperation and competition.

In their study of trade and cooperation in the evolution of human societies, Oka and Fuentes show the importance of cooperative networks that are based on practices of reciprocity. These networks develop social practices and rules, based around reciprocity and mutual support, to ensure a stable system of trade and to guard against occurrences of violence. In this way, positive network reciprocity is a form of protection against negative forms of reciprocity such as conflictual competition and violent targeting.

The importance of reciprocity in human societies shows imitation in its two-sided expression: it stimulates humans to imitate and replicate the positive or negative actions of the other in reference to one’s self. Reciprocity can be positive, such as in exchange or in the cooperative stabilization of trade networks, but it can also lead to the explosion of competitive behavior and violence, particularly in times of crisis, consistent with Girard and Dumouchel’s observations: ‘…Cooperation and conflict are not polar opposites; they are interdependent, reciprocal functions.’

[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2009), 249.

[2] McGilchrist, 248.

[3] Paul Dumouchel, “A Covenant among Beasts: Human and Chimpanzee Violence,” in Can We Survive Our Origins?, ed. P. Antonello and P. Gifford (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 19.