We tend to vilify imitation. Our culture encourages us to ‘be original’ and ‘be yourself’, and ‘don’t follow the crowd.’ Laws punish copying in serious cases, and society in general looks down on it.
We consider apes as inferior, hence if someone copies others, we call the act ‘aping’.
So I am intrigued by the lessons from the book ‘The Secrets of our Success‘ – which asserts that culture drives human evolution. We have evolved not only by imitation, but we have evolved for imitation. That is, our brains have evolved so that we can imitate better, because imitating the right people helps us survive. And it’s not just our brains either:
The genetic evolution of our big brains, long childhoods, short colons, small stomachs, tiny teeth, flexible nuchal ligaments, long legs, arched feet, dexterous hands, lightweight bones, and fat-laden bodies was driven by cumulative cultural evolution—by the growing pool of information available in the minds of other people. Beyond our bodies, culture has also shaped the genetic evolution of our minds and psychology, as we’ve just seen in how people learn about artifacts, animals, and plants.
We are better at imitation than apes – better than apes at… aping.
The book shares more provocative findings. It states that chimpanzees and orangutans perform on par with human toddlers on tests of Space, Quantities, and Causality (the physical domain). Specifically, it states that:
On all the subtests of mental abilities, except social learning, there’s essentially no difference between chimpanzees and two-and-a-half-year-old humans, despite the fact that the two-and-a-half-year-olds have much larger brains.
Human babies can only defeat the chimps in the social domain, and here they come out clearly superior.
We think that our big brains evolved so that we could make better decisions, make better tools, and such. But it turns out that what culture has designed our brains to copy others who are doing well. We look at a model of a superior behavior, say, a runner, observe the specifics of the behavior, and then perform the behavior. And our minds can quickly figure out the right model to copy. In another part of the book, we find this about the barefoot runners from tribes across the globe:
When he [Dan Lieberman, evolutionary biologist] asks runners of all ages how they learned to run, they never say they “just knew how.” Instead, they often name or point to an older, highly skilled, and more prestigious member of their group or community and say they just watch him and do what he does.
We can see some quite interesting implications.
First, we humans are fundamentally copiers. This has led to the success of our species, and in the area of products, this can also explain the success of Facebook. Rene Girard based his mimetic theory on this idea. And the investor Peter Thiel studied Girard, and according to this account, became the first outside investor in Facebook after being convinced that it will be successful because humans copy each other. According to this NYT article:
Mr. Thiel, of PayPal, said that he was a student at Stanford when he first encountered Professor Girard’s work, and that it later inspired him to quit an unfulfilling law career in New York and go to Silicon Valley.
He gave Facebook its first $100,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media.
“Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,” he said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.”
(Rene Girard’s mimetic theory has more far reaching implications, but I won’t go into them here).
At an individual level, it means that we should go ahead and copy the (7 or more) habits of successful people we hear about so much. In our densely networked world, we can learn very fast from the successful people in our fields, and we should maximize this opportunity.
Second, copying, and culture, makes us smarter with time. One aspect of this is the Flynn Effect – which shows how our intelligence increases across generations. The average human of 2008 has around 14 IQ points more than the average human of 1942. But since we also drive our productivity by better tools, with time and across generations, both the individual intelligence and use of superior tools increases. I think this is getting reflected in maximalist careers a trend I see among younger (and some older) people. They have an array of skills and are ‘living to the fullest.’
This phenomenon might help us reach the golden age faster.