Re: neonatal imitation

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Wed, 21 Oct 1998 15:00:41 +0200

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 15:00:41 +0200
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: neonatal imitation

Bill Benzon wrote:

> >Bill Benzon wrote:
> >
> >I would have no problems in accepting this phenomenon, in case it was
> >also present in at least some animals. If people and only people all of a
> >sudden can do this, we have the same kind of macromutation Bickerton
> >proposed to explain language.
> Mario: The imitation we see in neonates seems to me quite modest. I
> certainly don't know how it comes about but I don't think it has the same
> sort of requirements as language via macromutation.
> >That is what basically bothers me. It
> >sounds to me as: 'And than God created imitation and man was born',
> Well....if what you're thinking is that imitation is enacted by some
> imitation module then, yes, this would seem to be some miracle. I am
> rather doubtful of "modules" of that sort. For example, students of jazz
> will spend hours learning and transcribing solos of musicians whose work
> interests them. This is surely imitation, and it is also much more
> sophisticated than neonatal imitation. I don't think we have to imagine
> that the same "module" that handled neonatal tongue protrusion now
> regulates the business of imitating a John Coltrane improvisation. That
> "module" might play a role in the Coltrane imitation, but the Coltrane
> imitation surely requires neural equipment that was uninsulated mush in the
> neonate.
> Well, sooner or later you're going to have to figure out how we can do
> something utterly unlike our animal ancestors.

To me language is really the only difference I can see.

> The trick is to get the
> miraculous effect without a miraculous cause.

I agree, and that is exactly what I tried to do in the language article:
suggest that language is nothing miraculous once you have a highly musical ape
and show that we are such a musical ape and how that could have been naturally

Now, why this stress on 'imitation as a typically human characteristic' bothers
me, is what I have read about Sue Blackmore's ideas (and I believe Nick Rose,
Derek Gatherer, Paul Marsden all work together at the (virtual?) meme lab as
well. Correct me if I am wrong).

When I am correct, she states that it is exactly our specifically human
capacity to imitate which gives us a 'memetic' mind (to use Liane Gabora's
word).(Though I admit that I should read her work in more detail)

So, my question is: is this imitation some genetically encoded feature or is it
just a possibility which emerges from our capacity to better instruct each
other, a capacity which in turn emerges from our linguistic capacities which in
turn can be explained as a consequence of being musical, ...
I'd prefer the latter explanation because then everything boils down to our
speech capacities again. This is more consistent with my world view.

The emphasis on our innate baby imitation capacities however seems an effort to
underpin the idea that there is something truly special about humans which made
imitation and memes possible.


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