IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE - HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)



KNOWING WHAT WE DO ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE DIFFERENT WORLDS EACH hemisphere brings about, and understanding their relationship, we can, I believe, begin to see a pattern in the course of Western history. I believe there has been a succession of shifts of balance between the hemispheres over the last 2,000 years, and the second part of this book will explore this point of view, with the particular aim of understanding what is happening in the contemporary world.

The history of the West shows times when a move forward in one hemisphere ‘releases’ a move forward in the other, according to Nietzsche's assertion that ‘these two very different drives [the Apollonian and Dionysian] exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring, in whom they perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them’.1 But we have now reached a point where, for reasons I have suggested, the balance has swung too far - perhaps irretrievably far - towards the Apollonian left hemisphere, which now appears to believe that it can do anything, make anything, on its own. Like the emissary in the fable, it has grown tired of its subservience to the Master, and as a result the survival of the domain they share is, in my view, in the balance.

In this second part of the book I shall consider what the principal shifts in Western culture reveal about themselves, specifically within the frame of this metaphor. I will begin with the rise of the written word, the use of currency, the origin of drama and some facets of the new kind of civilisation that erupted in sixth century BC Athens, but will concentrate attention on the regeneration of Western civilisation in the Renaissance, the upheavals of the Reformation, the rise of the Enlightenment, the transition to Romanticism, and the emergence of modernism and post-modernism. All I can hope to do in these chapters is to point to a few characteristics that have relevance for the topic of this book. It goes without saying that to deal, in what is no more than a series of inevitably short chapters, with topics so vast that each would now be considered too great for a whole lifetime of research, is inevitably to be hugely selective; and there will be those who think I should not have been so foolhardy as to attempt it at all. To them, I can only say that I am wholly conscious of the pitfalls, but still feel that, unless we are quite sure that there could never be an overall pattern to be discerned, we are obliged, in full knowledge of the temerity of the undertaking, to make the attempt.

I do not propose to deal in any detail with non-Western culture. Partly this is a function of my ignorance; partly the scope of such a book would threaten to be unmanageable. I also wonder if the same cataclysmic changes in the intellectual climate are really to be found outside of the West: I will have some reflections to make towards the end of the book on hemisphere balance in Far Eastern cultures which suggests that the two hemispheres enjoy there a better symbiosis than they do in the West.

But there may have been important shifts in other cultures, possibly coincident, in some cases, with those in the West: Karl Jaspers certainly thought there was a crucial shift in the way we see the world that occurred not only in the West, but in China, and India, at the same time that it occurred in Ancient Greece, between about 800 and 200 BC. He called this a pivotal period, or Achsenzeit (sometimes translated ‘axial age’), in world history, and in his The Origin and Goal of History identified common characteristics between some of the greatest thinkers of the period, including Plato, Buddha and Confucius.2 This was also the period of Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, the Upanishads, and the Hebrew prophets. Similarly, some of the developments in the West have parallels elsewhere: with regard to the Reformation, one could point to other times and places in which the visual image was proscribed, and where there was a text-based, black-and-white, intolerant fundamentalism, at odds with any richer understanding of myth and metaphor: such tendencies form an important part of the history of some other religions, including Islam.

But there is nothing like the extraordinary divarication of culture that seems to have characterised the history of the West - no equivalent of the Enlightenment, with its insistence on just one, rectilinear, way of conceiving the world, and (because there was no need for it) no Romanticism that aimed to redress it. As Max Weber demonstrated in his histories of Chinese and Indian culture, and of Judaism, it was only in the West that unchecked, acquisitive rationalism in science, capitalism and bureaucracy took hold.3 ‘It is sometimes asked why the Scientific Revolution occurred in the West in the modern era and not, say, in China, or mediaeval Islam, or mediaeval Paris or Oxford,’ notes Stephen Gaukroger, at the outset of his magisterial exploration of the rise of science, and of the reasons why, in the West, there has been a ‘gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones’.4 He continues,

But it is the Scientific Revolution that requires explanation, not these developments … [In those other cultures where there have been major scientific advances] science is just one of a number of activities in the culture, and attention devoted to it changes in the same way attention devoted to the other features may change, with the result that there is competition for intellectual resources within an overall balance of interests in the culture… . [In the West] the traditional balance of interests is replaced by a dominance of scientific concerns, while science itself experiences a rate of growth that is pathological by the standards of earlier cultures, but is ultimately legitimated by the cognitive standing that it takes on. This form of scientific development is exceptional and anomalous.5


Some people may reasonably doubt that any such shifts have occurred. At any one period of human history there will, it goes without saying, be many different factors at play, and many, sometimes conflicting, points of view will have been expressed. Individuals, as befits individuals, will fail to conform to an overall pattern. It is in the nature of generalisation that there will be many exceptions, and experts will always disagree with any generalisation, as experts should. Fine-grained analysis is the expert's prerogative. However, the more fine-grained the expert analysis, the more difficult it may be to see an overall pattern: it cannot be other than the view from close up. This will inevitably lead some to the conclusion that no pattern exists, but I believe this to be a mistake. One has to stand back in order to see patterns at all; there is a ‘necessary distance’ for such pattern recognition to work.

If I am right that there have been shifts in hemisphere balance, why have they come about? To the historian, a multitude of social and economic factors will inevitably be involved in the process whereby many events unfolded which led to such cataclysmic movements in the history of ideas, and I have no doubt that, as always, chance also played an important role. However, such social and economic factors inevitably exist in an inextricably involved dynamic relationship with changes in the way we look at the world, and are indeed simply part of another way of describing the process. Each aspect that we choose to bring into focus makes a different aspect stand forth out of a nexus in which no one element can be said to have caused all the others, since what look like ‘elements’ are simply facets of the indivisible human condition. If one holds one set of factors steady - say, the economic - then one appears to have accounted for everything in those terms. But hold another set steady - whether social, institutional, intellectual, or of any other kind - and the picture may look equally convincing. The fact is that nothing can in reality be ‘held steady’ in this way: all is in a constant state of dynamic interaction. And one of the factors in this interaction, I suggest, has been the need to resolve the inherently unstable relationship between the worlds delivered by the two hemispheres.

One does not need to posit drives that are instantiated in the hemispheres. Up to now, the discussion has been of the cerebral hemispheres strictly within the context of the single human individual. In that context, I may sometimes have spoken almost as if they were personalities, with values and goals of their own. As I have argued, that is not as big a distortion as might first appear: they are substantial parts of a living being, which certainly does have values and goals. However, we are now turning to look at the ‘battle of the hemispheres’, as one might call it, over long periods of history, often, though not invariably, longer than the lifetime of any one brain. It may seem that I am suggesting that there is some cosmic struggle going on behind the scenes here, with the left and right hemispheres slugging it out on a grand scale. Metaphorically speaking that is true. Whether it is more literally the case that there are conflicting forces of a metaphysical nature driving the ways of being in the world represented by the cerebral hemispheres is obviously not a question I can answer, and it does not need to be answered in this book.

Many philosophers and all theologians over the ages have thought that there were forces that acted in and through our minds and bodies, not just individually, but over expanses of time. More recently Freud spoke of the drives (Triebe) behind human behaviour, eros and thanatos, the life and death ‘instincts’. Jung too believed there were attractive and propulsive forces that worked over long periods of human history. Nietzsche called the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies ‘drives’ (Triebe). Scheler spoke of Drang and Geist. Such forces are conceived as operating through natural processes - invisible, but made visible over the long, long run in their effects, in this case on the human brain, mind and culture, just as the invisible wind is made visible in its effects over millennia on the rock. Are there wills to be seen at work in the hemispheres? One might equally ask, is the gene really selfish? It's a legitimate question. Richard Dawkins’ epithet is no idle turn of phrase. It was chosen to do some hard work, conveying a picture of the cosmos, one might even say a philosophical standpoint; while at the same time being comfortably metaphorical, and therefore easy to disown. Officially the gene has nothing to do with any forces that might be driving evolution, a ‘neutral’ process onto which we tend to project our own moral values. The cerebral hemispheres, being intimately related to the occasioning of mental phenomena, are in a different position from the gene in this respect, but the same question may be asked. To ask questions about the existence of such drives is, I believe, perfectly legitimate, but they simply seek explanation at a different level. Whatever the answer, the picture would look the same.

I am not committed to the view that the brain is the driver of culture, any more than I am to the view that culture is the driver of brain development. They will inevitably mould each other. But one of the constraints on how we see the world has to be the balancing of the options given to us by the two cerebral hemispheres. These constitute relatively stable differences over the length of human history. Cultural shifts can exploit such options: but hemisphere differences would still constrain the options available to the human mind.

Such shifts as occur in this story need to be accounted for by processes that work in the world as we commonly understand it, and I will outline my thoughts about the means by which such shifts occur shortly. But, however they may occur, one is still left with the question, why they occur.

Shifts in culture are hugely important, not just matters of intellectual fashion: it's not simply a question of ‘last season the collar was narrow, this season it'll be broad’. Without imputing drives to the hemispheres, one can see that each hemispheric world is complemented by the other, and in a situation where one predominates, the lack of the other will become increasingly apparent. As I hope to demonstrate in the next chapter, it seems that the two hemispheres became more independent of one another's operations at an early point in the history of the West. Greater independence allows each hemisphere to go further in its own direction, with a relative enhancement, or exaggeration, depending on the point of view, of its intrinsic mode of operation. This situation has its dramatic rewards, but is also more unstable than one in which there is less polarisation, and invites divergence from, and subsequent regression towards, the mean position, rather than an enduring equipoise. That divergence is a contributory factor, therefore, to the shifts of balance.

More specifically we know that there is a continual tendency for the authenticity of right hemisphere ‘presencing’ to be transformed into an inauthentic ‘re-presenting’ in the left; in essence, what was living becomes a cliché. The experience of the inauthenticity of the right hemisphere's world as it is represented in the left may then, logically, lead in one of two directions, and I believe we can see them both exemplified in the history that we will be looking at in this part of the book.

In the first, we remain within the realm of homeostasis, of negative feedback, of ‘swings of the pendulum’. There is a natural reaction, resulting in a return to the authenticity of the right-hemisphere world itself. This, however, in turn is doomed soon to be co-opted by the left hemisphere and become inauthentic again.

In the second, however, there is not a return to the right-hemisphere world, but on the contrary a rejection of it, since it now comes to be seen as intrinsically - rather than contingently having become - inauthentic, and therefore as invalid. Instead of a corrective swing of the pendulum, therefore, there is a loss of homeostasis, and the result is positive feedback, whereby the left hemisphere's values simply become further entrenched. This also helps to explain why the left hemisphere necessarily gains ground over time.

Today all the available sources of intuitive life - cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art - have been so conceptualised, devitalised and ‘deconstructed’ (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constituted by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that it has set up has been largely drained from them. I have referred to the fact that a number of influential figures in the history of ideas, among them Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, have noted a gradual encroachment over time of rationality on the natural territory of intuition or instinct. In terms of the evolutionary history of the brain, Panksepp has expressed similar ideas:

The level of integration between brain areas may be changing as a function of cerebral evolution. One reasonable way for corticocognitive evolution to proceed is via the active inhibition of more instinctual subcortical impulses. It is possible that evolution might actually promote the disconnection of certain brain functions from others. For instance, along certain paths of cerebral evolution, perhaps in emerging branches of the human species, there may be an increasing disconnection of cognitive from emotional processes. This may be the path of autism, in its various forms.6

It has not been a smooth and even process, however: more like a tug of war in which the players move back and forth, but ground is continually lost by one side. And I agree with them that ultimately the balance has gone further and further towards what we can now see to be the world of the left hemisphere - despite everything we know from Part I suggesting that what it knows must be reintegrated with the broader understanding of the right.


First, I need to make it clear that, despite my pointing in the first few chapters to structural and functional asymmetries that we know took millennia to arise (and even began to arise in other species), I am not suggesting that the major shifts in the history of ideas involved fluctuations in the structure of the brain over the tiny time scales of recent history. It is conceivable that, were it possible to scan the brain of pre-Achaean humans - say, in the eighth century BC - one might find some small, but possibly measurable, differences in the structure, or more probably in the functioning, of the brain, compared with the brains of those who lived 1,000 years earlier, or with the modern human brain. But such changes could take place only over very long time scales. As to what is actually happening in the brain when the more recent ‘swings’, those of the last five hundred years or so, take place, nothing is visible (at least nothing on a scale that we could actually measure). Is there anything going on at the brain level at all?

I think the answer is ‘yes’. Our experience of the world helps to mould our brains, and our brains help to mould our experience of the world. Patterns of brain function, if not changes in visible structure, are likely to be involved. But by what processes?

Classical natural selection, which depends on the very slow process of random mutation, with environmental selective pressures then acting over generations to favour certain mutations above others, requires long periods of time. It is just about conceivable that this operated in the ancient Greek situation, since this arose on the back of the incursion of a new population into the central Mediterranean at this time, with a different gene pool. In that sense this change is quite different from those that came afterwards in modern Europe. And the specific migrational factors which apply to ancient Greece do not apply to other contemporary, or earlier civilisations, which may help to account for the very considerable differences between Greek and, say, Egyptian or Mesopotamian cultures (and, still more, of course, Eastern cultures). Genetic shifts might also explain the extraordinary decline which followed the overrunning of the Roman Empire by Goths, Huns and Franks in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, since, however much one may admire aspects of life in what used to be called the Dark Ages, effectively whole ways of thinking and being, whole aspects of the phenomenological world, simply disappeared in the West for nearly a thousand years.

But the later evolution of ideas, from the Renaissance on, is simply not susceptible to this kind of argument, because the time periods are far too short, and there aren't any major migrations of population that I'm aware of that might change the European gene pool sufficiently.

There are other aspects to transmission which do not depend on Darwinian natural selection alone. There is, for example, the Baldwinian effect, which acts as an accelerator on the process. This refers to the way in which we do not mate at random, but selectively promote a certain gene or genes by choosing a mate who has also got the characteristics for which the gene or genes encode (an articulate man is more likely to marry an articulate woman). Similarly we alter the environment so that it favours the genes we carry (the articulate develop a society in which articulacy is at a premium, with the result that the inarticulate are - in theory at least - at a reproductive disadvantage compared with the articulate). I can't believe this can be having much of an effect: it's still too slow, and mostly it's not true to the facts of human history to suggest that the characteristics we are talking about in this book made much difference to gene reproduction.

Despite this, there are thought to be mechanisms whereby brain capacities and cognitive abilities acquired during a single human lifetime could be transmitted to the next generation. These are known as epigenetic mechanisms, because they do not depend on alterations in the actual sequence of nucleotides in the DNA within the genes, but on factors which influence what is expressed by that same DNA.

Consider this. On the face of it, it's odd that the gene sequence in every cell in the body is the same - a kidney cell, though structurally and functionally different from a muscle cell, is exactly the same in respect of its DNA - and yet each kind of cell gives rise only to its own kind of tissue. This is because only parts of the gene sequence in each case get to be expressed. Similarly, processes such as DNA methylation, alteration of the histone molecules in chromatin (which forms the ‘core’ round which the double helix spirals), mitochondrial transmission and X-chromosome inactivation modulate expression of parts of the genome, and form possible mechanisms for learnt behaviours to be transmitted. This is because use of certain cell functions by the organism during its lifetime actually alters the structure of that cell, leading to what has been called ‘cell memory’. (This is a bit like the way in which the structure of a neuronal connection in the brain changes with use, so as to promote preferential use of the same connection in future, part of a process of ‘solidification’ of mind by brain which underwrites the phenomenon of memory.) Cultural developments can be transmitted through genetic mechanisms. Just as the structure and functioning of the brain has influenced the evolution of culture, the evolution of culture has had its influence on the brain:

The relationship resembles one of reciprocating interaction, in which culture is generated and shaped by biological imperatives while the course of genetic evolution shifts in response to cultural innovations … [epigenetic rules may] predispose mental development to take certain specific directions in the presence of certain kinds of cultural information.7

So certain ways of thinking will shape the individual nervous system, structurally as well as functionally. The presence or absence of stimulation affects the number of synaptic contacts, strengthening some and eliminating others. (Incidentally, the process of development through stimulation is one of reduction and pruning; it seems that, even at the level of individual neurones, things are brought into being or not by the system either saying ‘no’, or not saying ‘no’.) The efficiency, rather than just the number, of synaptic connections is altered by adult learning, and this may concern global units (in other words co-operative sets of nerve cells).8 Such changes throughout the nervous system of an individual could then be epigenetically transmitted to the next generation, culture and the brain shaping one another over relatively short time spans.

Further and beyond any of this, surely ideas do spread by contagion, and no doubt in one sense in competition with one another, concepts solemnised in Dawkins's ‘memes’, the cultural equivalent of genes. A meme is said to be a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind, examples being ‘tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches’9 and other concepts, ideas, theories, opinions, beliefs, practices, habits, dances and moods, ultimately, and inevitably, including the idea of God - the Dawkins delusion. This is a perfect example, incidentally, of the left hemisphere's way of construing its own history, not least in its way of breaking a culture into atomistic fragments devoid of context, as though snippets of behaviour, feeling or thinking - of experience, in other words - stuck together in large enough numbers, constitute the world in which we live.

Memes are seen mechanistically as ‘replicators’, like genes engineering perfect copies of themselves. In the case of gene replication, variation enters in only by accident, by random mutation caused by errors in transcription, or by interference with gene structure from environmental sources, such as radiation. The machinery makes a mistake or is handed shoddy materials, but, as long as it remains in this story, it remains a machine. The equivalent for a meme would be my misremembering a tune, or mishearing it in the first place. But ‘memes’ if they existed would be replicating, unlike genes, within a mind: a mind whose constant interaction with what ever comes to it leaves nothing unchanged or unconnected with something else. We are imitators, not copying machines.

Human imitation is not slavish. It is not a mechanical process, dead, perfect, finished, but one that introduces variety and uniqueness to the ‘copy’, which above all remains alive, since it becomes instantiated in the context of a different, unique human individual. Imitation is imaginatively entering into the world of the one that is imitated, as anyone who has tried the exercise of imitating an author's style will know. That is perhaps what we mean by style: not a fashion, just something superficial, taken up or put off, as it sounds, like a garment, but an essence - le style, c'est l'homme. Even to attend to anything so closely that one can capture its essence is not to copy slavishly. To Ruskin it was one of the hardest, as well as one of the greatest human achievements, truly to see, so as to copy and capture the life of, a single leaf - something the greatest artists had managed only once or twice in a life time: ‘If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.’10 Imitating nature may be like imitating another person's style; one enters into the life. Equally that life enters into the imitator. In imitation one takes up something of another person, but not in an inert, lifeless, mechanical sense; rather in the sense of its being aufgehoben, whereby it is taken into ourselves and transformed. If one needs to be convinced that there is no necessary opposition between imagination and imitation, one need only look at the long, rich history of Oriental culture. In fact imitation is imagination's most powerful path into whatever is Other than ourselves.

Imitation is a human characteristic, and is arguably the ultimately most important human skill, a critical development in the evolution of the human brain.11 It is surely how we came to learn music, and though Chomsky may have distracted our attention from this, it is how we learnt, and learn, language. Only humans, apart from birds, are thought normally to imitate sounds directly,12 and only humans can truly imitate another's course of action.13 Other species may adopt the same goal as another individual member of their species, and may succeed in finding their own way to achieve it, but only humans directly imitate the means as well as the end.14 This may sound like a rather backward step, but it isn't. The enormous strength of the human capacity for mimesis is that our brains let us escape from 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.

It is founded on empathy and grounded in the body. In fact imitation is a marker of empathy: more empathic people mimic the facial expressions of those they are with more than others. In an important study of this phenomenon, there was a contrast between the empathy people said they felt and the empathy they actually evinced, involuntarily, in their faces and bodies. Individuals who were already established as low in empathy didn't display the same emotion in their faces as high-empathy subjects, but reported in words feeling the same - the feelings their conscious left hemispheres knew that they ought to feel.15 As might be expected, there is significantly increased right-sided activity in the limbic system specifically during imitation, compared with mere observation, of emotional facial expressions.16

There is even some evidence that we identify projectively with people with whom we share a common purpose - when we are co-operating in a task, for example - to such a degree that we seem to merge identity with them. In ingeniously designed experiments where two participants are sitting next to one another, sharing a combined task, but with functionally independent roles, the two individuals appear spontaneously to function as one agent with a unified action plan.17 Children eagerly imitate other human beings, but do not imitate mechanical devices that are carrying out the same actions.18 This is like the finding in adults that we make spontaneous movements signifying our involvement in events we are watching evolve - so long as we believe them to be the result of another's action. Such movements are, however, absent when we believe that (in other respects identical) results have been generated by a computer rather than a living being.19

Imitation is non-instrumental. It is intrinsically pleasurable, and babies and small children indulge in it for its own sake.20 The process is fundamental and hard-wired, and babies as little as forty-five minutes old can imitate facial gestures.21 It is how we get to know what we know, but also how we become who we are.

The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power. In an older language, this is ‘sympathetic magic'; and I believe it is as necessary to the very process of knowing as it is to the constitution and subsequent naturalisation of identities22

So writes Michael Taussig, in Mimesis and Alterity, and he quotes Walter Benjamin:

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.23

Imitation gives rise, paradoxically as it may seem, to individuality. That is precisely because the process is not mechanical reproduction, but an imaginative inhabiting of the other, which is always different because of its intersubjective betweenness. The process of mimesis is one of intention, aspiration, attraction and empathy, drawing heavily on the right hemisphere, whereas copying is the following of disembodied procedures and algorithms, and is left-hemisphere-based. The distinction is similar to that sometimes claimed between metaphor on the one hand and simile on the other: simile has no interiority. Thus writing of the difference between the earliest humans and homo sapiens, Steven Mithen writes: ‘We might characterise Early Humans as having a capacity for simile - they could be “like” an animal - but not for metaphor - they could not “become” an animal’.24 What he is getting at here is empathic identification.

The distinction is explored with subtlety by Thomas Mann, in his commemoration lecture ‘Freud and the Future’ of 1936, where he speaks thus of imitation in the world of classical antiquity:

Alexander walked in the footsteps of Miltiades, and in the case of Caesar his ancient biographers were rightly or wrongly convinced that he intended to imitate Alexander. This ‘imitation’, however, is much more than is conveyed by the word today. It is a mythical identification, a procedure which was specially familiar to the ancient world but has retained its efficacy right into modern times and, spiritually speaking, is open to anyone at any time. Attention has often been drawn to the archaic traits in the figure assumed by Napoleon. He regretted that the modern consciousness did not allow him to give himself out as the son of Jupiter-Ammon, as Alexander had done. But we need not doubt that he confounded himself mythically with Alexander at the time of his expedition to the East, and later when he had decided on an empire in the West, he declared, ‘I am Charlemagne’. Be it noted that he did not say, ‘ I recall Charlemagne’, nor ‘My position is like Charlemagne's’, nor even, ‘I am as Charlemagne’, but simply ‘I am he’. This is the mythical formula.25

I am reminded here of Bruno Snell, also speaking of the ancient world: ‘The warrior and the lion are activated by one and the same force … a man who walks “like a lion” betrays an actual kinship with the beast.’ Homeric metaphors are ‘not only symbols, but the particular embodiments of universal vital forces’. They assign ‘a role very similar to that of the beasts also to the natural elements. We have already met with the storm, the wave, the rock … above all they are regarded as the conductors of fundamental forces such as are alive also in man.’26

Snell's mention of a man who walks like a lion betraying a kinship with the beast is not just poetical, but has a practical meaning. Trackers, in cultures dependent on hunting, learn to ‘get inside’ the animal they are tracking, to reflect it as much as possible in their own being, what it must have been feeling and thinking as it left its track: this is how they succeed in finding it.27 Perhaps, when we empathise, we actually become the object of our empathy, and share its life; in some sense that goes beyond what language can convey - because it can only convey (unless through poetry) combinations of concepts that reflect our particular world picture here and now. Perhaps we can even do this with natural forms that we now call inanimate, as Wordsworth found that the ‘huge and mighty Forms’ of mountains

… that do not live

Like living men mov'd slowly through my mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.28

Thus in Japanese thought, ‘human beings and every natural thing are one body in total’ and there is a ‘feeling of love for natural things just as if the natural things were the people themselves’.29

We already know from the discovery of the existence of mirror neurones that when we imitate something that we can see, it is as if we are experiencing it. But it goes further than this. Mental representation, in the absence of direct visual or other stimulus - in other words, imagining - brings into play some of the same neurones that are involved in direct perception.30 It is clear from this that, even when we so much as imagine doing something, never mind actually imitate it, it is, at some level which is far from negligible, as if we are actually doing it ourselves. Imagining something, watching someone else do something, and doing it ourselves share important neural foundations.

Imagination, then, is not a neutral projection of images on a screen. We need to be careful of our imagination, since what we imagine is in a sense what we are and who we become. The word imago is related to imitari, which means to form after a model, pattern or original. There is ample evidence, some of which I cited earlier, that imitation is extremely infectious: thinking about something, or even just hearing words connected with it, alters the way we behave and how we perform on tasks.31 This was understood by Pascal, who realized that the path to virtue was imitation of the virtuous, engagement in virtuous habits - the foundation of all monastic traditions.

Let's go back to 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 - 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. 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.

The overwhelming importance of mimesis points to the conclusion that we had better select good models to imitate, because as a species, not only as individuals, we will become what we imitate. We will pass down the behaviours we have learnt to imitate by epigenetic mechanisms, and for this reason William James, in an inversion of the popular prejudice, saw the human species as having a larger array of apparently instinctual behaviours than any other.32

In the mechanical system of cause and effect, causes antedate their effects and, so to speak, push from behind. The logical extension of such systems is closure, in that ultimately what happens is determined by prior events: we go where we are pushed. Human choices appear to be open, but the existence of free will remains hard to argue for, though some have made sophisticated cases based on an understanding of the realms of theoretical physics in which cause and effect cede to probabilities and uncertainties. I am not able to evaluate these properly. Viewed from the phenomenological point of view, however, we feel ourselves to be free, though being pulled, drawn, attracted forward towards and by things that have a sort of magnetic power (such as archetypes), rather than pushed or prodded forward by what's happened. It may be that this is what Nietzsche had in mind when he wrote:

‘Action at a distance’ cannot be eliminated: something draws something else closer, something feels drawn. This is the fundamental fact: compared to this, the mechanistic notion of pressing and pushing is merely a hypothesis based on sight and touch, even if it does serve as a regulative hypothesis for the world of sight!33

These important attractors are perhaps best expressed as values, though the word ‘values’ sounds rather lame to me in the context. Perhaps ‘ideals’ would be more like it, but this word, too, has its problems and has been discredited in our age. These ideals or values stand outside time, unlike cause and effect. They are less minutely determining than prior causes, in that there is some choice of which attractors one resists, and which one approaches. Speaking in this way does not, I know, obviate questions of cause, which come back in some such guise as ‘What caused this person to be attracted to this ideal or set of values?’ These are like the questions about predestination and divine grace that have vexed theology since St Augustine.34

By values I do not mean the principles by which one might resolve a moral conflict - say, whether to make a purely consequentialist calculus or observe Kantian deontological principles (the view that particular duties are primary, or even absolute, and do not depend on the value of outcomes). What is up for debate there is not the value - say, that of preserving life - but the particular course of action in a dilemma which can best be reconciled with that value. What I mean are the values themselves that are at stake: whether, for example, courage or self-sacrifice have value in themselves, irrespective of the outcome, or of any deontological principle. Such values would, however, be excluded from the calculus of an instrumental morality. Values in this sense need to go ‘beyond good or evil’. Scheler not only distinguished realms of value, but arranged them hierarchically, from the realm of those that can be appreciated only at the sense level, or in terms of utility, at the bottom, to the realm of the holy at the top.35 One may or may not be inclined to accept Scheler's particular schema of values, but what is relevant about them to the division of the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere recognises only this lowest rank of value. Other values, which Scheler ranked higher than utility, such as bravery, beauty, intelligence, holiness, require an approach that is not tied exclusively to that tool of utility, sequential analytic logic (which is not the same necessarily as saying that they involve emotion). They have to be apprehended in a different way, which is made possible by the right hemisphere's openness to what is not ultimately justifiable only in logical terms.

In the left-hemisphere world there is, however, a way of accommodating such values: by simply returning them all to the only value it knows, that of utility. Beauty, for example, is a way of ensuring that we select healthy reproductive partners; bravery acts to defend territory in the interests of the gene pool; intelligence leads to power to manipulate the environment, and one's fellow creatures; holiness is an invention designed to promote cohesion of the group; and so on - the arguments will be only too familiar. Those who are not relying solely on their left hemisphere's construal of the world will detect the fraud instantly. It is not that arguments cannot be constructed along these lines, although often they need to be remarkably ingenious to ‘save the phenomena’ - for example, of all the myriad sources of beauty in the world, sexual partners can only form a small part, and even there beauty is not the same as sexual attractiveness. It is just that they fail to convince: back to values - which ultimately lie beyond argument. Rationality is, naturally, reluctant to accept the very possibility of a thing lying beyond rationalistic argument, since the left hemisphere cannot accept the existence of anything that lies outside itself. As always, it is the right hemisphere that is drawn to whatever is Other, what lies beyond.

That being the case, these attractors I speak of will appeal to the right hemisphere. But the weakness of the right hemisphere is the flip side of its strength, that it is embodied, or embedded, in the world. It grounds the natural viewpoint of the self-unreflecting being in the world: it therefore cannot sufficiently, on its own, disengage itself from ‘the natural viewpoint’. The ‘too, too solid flesh’ of everydayness hangs about it. It therefore all too easily lapses: it is constrained by everyday reality, and its viability depends on not being unnaturally ruptured from the lived world. The trouble is that the more ‘natural’ its view seems to it, the less it is really allowing the extraordinary, awe-inspiring fact of the being of anything at all to be present for us. Thus it risks, in its own way, lapsing into the inauthenticity of Heidegger's Verfallen.36 In this state it is the left hemisphere that enables the wilful taking up of an ‘unnatural’ view. By doing this we are enabled to ascend from the gravity of the earth, on the vertical axis represented by the left hemisphere, and see from a different standpoint. We are able to escape, temporarily, the pull of the earth and see things afresh. In Heidegger's terms, Dasein becomes aware of its inauthenticity and strives towards its more authentic self. The swing towards the left hemisphere, therefore, is occasioned by the awareness of inauthenticity. And ultimately it will be the sense of inauthenticity in the world according to the lefthemisphere which will cause the return of the pendulum, the right hemisphere struggling towards something the power of which it senses from beyond the everyday. Each hemisphere risks inauthenticity from a different source, which is why each is vital to the other. The right hemisphere is at risk from the familiarity entailed in its very engagement with the world, as the world ‘presences'; the left hemisphere from the familiarity of cliché - disengaged re-presentation. Each cultural shift can be seen as a response to the eventual inauthenticity of the world according to one or other of the hemispheres, but for the right hemisphere the route back has to be through engagement with an attractive power beyond itself.

If there is anything in the idea that mimesis itself emerges from classical genetic mechanisms, but then comes to overtake them, or, at any rate, pull alongside of them, can we see a hemisphere shift of a kind here, too - the values of the right hemisphere emerging, almost seamlessly, from those of the left? In the atomistic sense in which an individual is understood by the left hemisphere, development takes place through a line of individuals competing with other lines of individuals via their genes - the survival of the fittest. From this point of view, the group is a potential threat to individuality, tolerated by an amalgam of wary aliens, who concede co-operation within it only for the personal benefit that it yields. From the right hemisphere point of view, whereby an individual's individuality can be understood only within a context (the group), what would look to the left hemisphere like the individual's identity being lost in the group becomes merely its being taken up (aufgehoben) within the group wherein it belongs. Out of wary opposition arises empathy: out of the world of ‘eat or be eaten’ comes a shared meal round the fire. A linear striving, my gene against yours, turns into a reverberative process of collaboration, out of which, as in the Prisoner's Dilemma, we all do better - because the ‘battle’ of the hemispheres is only a battle from the left hemisphere's point of view. From the more inclusive standpoint of the right hemisphere, it is simply another reverberative process, in which something comes into being - as all life does - through the union of separated forces, retaining their separation but within that union, one entity acting with another. If, as Heraclitus said, war is the king and father of all things, peace is the queen and mother.

Not only that, but we progress faster, and in the direction of our choosing. At one level, evolution is really just the survival or otherwise of genes - not even their ‘striving’, or ‘competition’, because that suggests intent. Yet Dawkins dubbed the process ‘selfish’: even the best scientists, it seems, cannot help anthropomorphising. But the characterisation was right, since, if we anthropomorphise genes, much as I have anthropomorphised the hemispheres, they do operate in a selfish or ruthless fashion. Through this process we are ‘pushed from behind’, and have no say over where we go. Nonetheless, by an Aufhebungdevoutly to be wished, from all of that emerges a process, that of skill acquisition through mimesis, in which our eyes are opened, in which collaboration plays a part, and where there is a degree of freedom, in that we can choose what we imitate.

The cultural shifts in hemisphere balance that I identify should not, then, I repeat, be thought of as structural shifts in the brain, certainly not at the macro level (we know there are both structural and functional brain changes caused even by individual experience at the microscopic level). They will be functional shifts, which will have been initiated by imitation of beliefs and practices, ways of seeing the world and ways of being in the world which favour one or other of the hemispheres. These might then be given further permanence by epigenetic mechanisms replicating in the next generation the brain changes that go with such habits of mind and brain, and therefore help to encourage and entrench them.

We have, then, become free to choose our own values, our ideals. Not necessarily wisely, of course. This process could be commandeered by the left hemisphere again if it could only persuade us to imitate and acquire left-hemisphere ways of being in the world. That is what I believe has happened in recent Western history. In our contemporary world, skills have been downgraded and subverted into algorithms: we are busy imitating machines.