Original Sin: Part 6, Mimetic Rivalry and Mirror Neurons in a Malthusian World

In these posts I've been speaking a great deal about human selfishness, arguing that selfishness isn't due to an intrinsic human flaw but is, rather, due to our felt biological vulnerability in a Malthusian world. As I've said repeatedly, we are finite creatures in a finite world and that is, inherently, a scary place to be.

In the next two posts I want to move away from selfishness and talk a bit about violence. In this post I'm going to talk about sources of interpersonal violence. My argument will follow the familiar arch: Violence isn't due to intrinsic human aggressiveness. It is, rather, a predictable outcome to living in a Malthusian world.

I can come at this topic any number of ways, but what I'd like to do is approach it by talking about Rene Girard's notion of mimetic rivalry and the recent discovery of mirror neurons in the brain.

I've written a great deal about Girard's scapegoat theory. This aspect of Girard's thinking has tended to get the most attention as it has important implications for how we view the death of Jesus on the cross. What often gets overlooked, from a theological standpoint, is the idea that forms the foundation of the scapegoat theory: Girard's theory of mimetic rivalry. I think mimetic rivalry has important implications for theological reflection on Original Sin.

Girard's mimetic rivalry thesis is easily described. One of our most powerful cognitive capacities as humans is our ability to imitate each other. The word mimetic comes from the Greek μίμησις ("mimesis") which means to imitate or mimic. Psychologists call this ability social or observational learning. Much of what we learn in life comes from watching others and imitating what they do. This mimetic force is what sits behind the powerful effects of group conformity. Take, for example, the famous Solomon Asch study:

Girard's claim about our mimetic abilities is that they are a blessing and a curse. As a blessing, social learning is the main engine by which we learn to be social and cultural creatures. But the dark side of mimesis is that is creates rivalry between us. How does this work?

It's a simple idea. Basically, if you want something I'll imitate you. Which means you and I will start wanting the same thing. This creates a latent rivalry between us. Further, other people begin imitating the two of us. Now many people are wanting the same thing. Soon a latent rivalry is crackling through the entire population. This is Girard's notion of mimetic rivalry.

Generally, this rivalry is kept in check. As long as there are enough goods, money, jobs, blue ribbons, wins, promotions, school admissions, memberships, opportunities, quality health care, and routes toward happiness then the rivalry says localized in small outbreaks, like two co-workers fighting for a job promotion they both want. That is, most people, most of the time, are getting some of what they want. There is enough to go around.

But in a Malthusian world there are times and places when there isn't enough to go around. When this happens the mimetic rivalry intensifies. It reaches a tipping point where the entire population begins to grow increasingly paranoid, competitive, and suspicious. At this point violence breaks out.

Girard's theory continues on from here, describing how ancient cultures solved the mimetic crisis by focusing the violence upon a scapegoat. But for this post we can stop here to reflect a bit.

I would like to note that Girard's theory concerning mimetic rivalry fits snugly with the ideas we've been talking about in this series. That is, human rivalry and violence isn't due to some innate monstrous and blood-thristy quality inside the human soul. No, rivalry and violence are caused by our mimetic abilities. But these same abilities are what make us social and cultural creatures. Our mimetic abilities are the glue of human community.

So on the whole these mimetic abilities are great and vital goods. But they do have a downside, as Girard has pointed out. Generally, we can repress the latent rivalries that simmer in human relations. But there are times when the Malthusian world pinches us. And when it does our mimetic tendencies lock in and begin to escalate in a feedback loop leading to group violence and war.

In short, the root cause of human violence isn't a depraved humanity. It's simply due to imitation, an ability that is not intrinsically broken, evil, violent or depraved. Rather, it's a vital ability that makes us social creatures. An ability that makes us human.

Interestingly, the recent discovery of mirror neurons has shown us just how deeply rooted these mimetic abilities are in the human brain. To begin to explore mirror neurons you might want to start with this New York Times article Cells that Read Minds.

Prior to the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists assumed a division of labor in the brain. There were perceptual neurons and there were motor neurons. That is, some neurons would watch and make sense of the world while other neurons, given what the perceptual neurons observed, would initiate appropriate motor actions in response to what was going on the in world.

But the discovery of mirror neurons has changed that assumption. Mirror neurons function as both perceptual and motor neurons. That is, when you watch me pick up a cup you are not simply watching me (perception). As you watch mirror neurons are simulating the motor reactions that would be involved if you were also picking up the cup. In short, as you watch me pick up the cup deep inside your brain you are picking up the cup right along with me. The very same motor neurons you would use to pick up a cup in real life are activated in simply watching me pick up the cup.

What this means is that as I observe the world I'm actually simulating it all in my mind, experiencing what my own body and mind would be doing. As I watch a tennis player serve a ball on TV the motor neurons in my brain are firing in just the same way they would fire if I was actually serving a tennis ball in real life. In short, I can feel the serve being executed as I sit there in my living room watching Wimbledon. This is why watching sporting events is so enjoyable. We aren't simply watching. We are simulating the event in our mind, creating a deep vicarious experience. We aren't simply passive observers. We are moving and feeling right along with the tennis players.

Amazingly, mirror neurons have been shown to simulate human intentions and mental states. That is, it's not just about motor movement. This means that mirror neurons are deeply implicated in our empathic abilities. We understand each other by simulating in our own minds how we would feel in each other's circumstance.

The discovery of mirror neurons provides a nice scientific foundation for Girard's theory of mimetic rivalry. That is, we are beginning to understand how mimesis works at the neurological level. And what we are discovering is that mimesis is deep, biologically speaking. It's not a conscious act that we can opt out of. It happens automatically when we see any human activity in the world. As we observe the mirror neurons fire, simulating both the actions and mental states of the people we are watching. And this ability is behind human love, compassion, empathy and sympathy. But in a Malthusian world, this very same power, when pinched, creates both rivalry and human violence.

In short, the mechanism that makes us like God is the very same mechanism that makes us like the Devil.

Next Post: Part 7

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5 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 6, Mimetic Rivalry and Mirror Neurons in a Malthusian World”

  1. Your whole argument is based on a a social unit as a whole, not the individuals that make up the whole. This is problematic, as though we are social beings, that is not all we are. So, I think your argument is short-sighted.

    Individuals must be whole apart from community determinants. Most do not attain to a stage beyond "convention", but determinatin of role does limit another's "development" within the whole, because the whole focus is on the material things and not on the relationships themselves.

    Of course, if we are only seeking after the highest position, etc. then this would play out, but what if the motivation was not the material, but something else? Individuals would be unhealthy if they always played the role of "hero" or "scapegoat", or "recuser". So, wholistic health is more than communal, it is also personal, which granted cannot happen apart from "seeing" community in a healthy way, and that is not seeing community as an addict would...

  2. Leaving aside whatever theological, Christological, and sociocultural critiques might apply to Mel Gibson's _Passion_, as a work of art it was perhaps the most visceral, physically mimetic experience I can recall.

    That video is hilarious, but it strikes a chord within my inner dissident. This must be how Congressmen get rolled; if everyone else is voting for the stimulus package, there must be something wrong with me that I don't want to see, and I'd better snap into line.


  3. Thinking further...along the lines (sides) of the quadralateral...
    the connection of the social is between the tradition and experience sides (faith communities) of the quadralateral. I imagine the social constructionists would believe this is the best place 'to raise children'...but, the sides of experience and reason, is the psychological sides of the quadralateral...

    the individual/social forms the bottom of tradition/experience/reason

    The other sides tradition/text and reason/text are the sides of cultural history and interpretaion...

    the top side is the "god side" the bottom is the "man side". Doing a tradition/reason connection disconnects the god side from the man side, as faith is not reason...

    on the other hand, the text/experience will cut off reason from faith (tradition), this is where agnostics/atheists have a hard time making sense of faith. experience disconnects from reason and text...or the reason analyzes the text and it disconnects from experience...

    So, we are whole beings within a social context, which includes all that that means...language, culture, tradition, religion, etc..so we cannot assume that we 'fit' any context, or will see things the same way, as that is what makes for diversity...

  4. I'm wondering what psychological conclusions you would draw from mimesis and mirror neurons for art and entertainment intake. That is, what is the difference between reading a book and watching its film adaptation in terms of the consequences for our brains? Does violent or dark visual media desensitize us because we are "doing it" along with what we're watching? To what extent to do we "do it with" characters or actions in a book?

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