Imitation, Mimetic Theory, and Religious & Cultural Evolution
 
 

The role of religion in society and the human capacity for both immensely altruistic, as well as terribly violent, acts of social behavior are two of the most significant and pressing topics of our contemporary world. How we understand the two, including their relationship with one another, has enormous bearing on the future survival and flourishing of humanity and the world in which we live. Recent and convergent research on human imitation from both the humanities and social sciences offers a unique perspective on these seemingly paradoxical aspects of our human nature. Imitation research allows for direct and revolutionary links to be made from the neural basis of social interaction to the structure and evolution of religion. The analysis proposed by this project is therefore essential to understanding not only the complex and evolutionary relationship between culture and religion, but perhaps more importantly, the pressing and complex relationship between our human nature and many of the social and relational dilemmas of our contemporary world.

 

Until recently, the pervasive and foundational role of imitation in human life was either largely ignored or misunderstood by empirical researchers. This is no longer the case. It is now clear that investigations on human imitation are among the most profound and innovative areas of research contributing to the future of a more unified and coherent understanding of the cognitive and social sciences. From neurophysiology (mirror neurons), to child development, and cultural evolution, empirical research provides an abundance of unprecedented support for and clarification of the foundational role of imitation for sustaining human culture and relationships.

 
 

Several decades before empirical research prompted a resurgence of interest in imitation, René Girard had already articulated his Mimetic Theory, which detailed the profound significance of imitation in human relations, including the broader religious, cultural, and historical implications. Fundamental to Girard’s work are two essential aspects of imitation that have been overlooked by empirical researchers: 1) the elemental role of imitation in generating uniquely human forms of relational competition, rivalry, and violence, and 2) the mimetic nature of religious/cultural beliefs and practices and their emergent and evolutionary role in transforming the effects of human imitation into viable and sustainable communities.

 

 

Remarkably, there have been no substantial inquiries concerning the critical question of human imitation, which have applied and synthesized recent empirical research with the mimetic theory of culture and religion. Mimetic theory provides an invaluable contribution to many areas of research that are just now beginning to be explored as well as many that have yet to be considered. At the same time, the entire body of mimetic scholarship rests on the primacy of human imitative behavior, the significance of which must be measured against, and integrated with, the unfolding and revolutionary research in the sciences. It is our hope that this project will establish cross-fertilization between mimetic scholars and imitation researchers, which will be used as a long-term initiative in helping us to better understand and appreciate the incredible nature of human life, culture, and religion; an appreciation that is essential for transforming human relationships and culture through infinitely more imaginative and non-violent ways of relating.

 

1. The overall objective with this grant project is to initiate cross-fertilization of research findings between mimetic scholars and empirical researchers concerning the foundational role of imitation for human motivation, behavior, development, social & cognitive functioning, and religious & cultural evolution. This work will be accomplished by a select group of scholars and researchers with interdisciplinary expertise in the fields covered by the scope of this project. This core group of participants will facilitate integrative dialogue between the interpretive hermeneutics of mimetic theory and empirical research on imitation during three separate symposiums over the course of three years.

2. In addition to these meeting, mediation of these important issues will be provided for general education through lectures, conferences, internet resources, and written scholarship, including the publication of the results of the grant project in edited book form for dissemination to a wider academic and scientifically educated lay audience.

3. It is hoped that this interdisciplinary project will serve as the beginning of a long term initiative in the attempt to achieve consilience across such a wide range of disciplines concerning the core mechanisms and cultural forces of human life.