Mimesis and Science

Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion


Edited by Scott R. Garrels


Michigan State University Press


Available from: Powell's | B&N | MSUP


This book brings together some of the foremost scholars of René Girard’s mimetic theory with leading imitation researchers––such as Vittorio Gallese, co-discoverer of mirror neurons, and Andrew Meltzoff, a pioneer in the study of infant imitation––and includes a closing interview with Girard himself.


"Engaging and stimulating... There are no weak chapters in the collection; every article is nuanced and interesting, taking mimesis both backwards to its originator Girard in insightful ways and reaching forwards at other times in suggestive and often compelling fashion into areas such as infant research (Andrew N. Meltzoff), social identification theory (Vittorio Gallese) and cultural anthropology, in particular in two chapters on the cultural origins of violence and war contributed respectively by Mark R. Anspach and Melvin Konner... This collection of essays is indispensable for those who have long been fascinated by Girard’s work but never quite been sure of how (and how far) to take it."

—Tim Mehigan, University of Queensland, in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts


"The latest empirical research on primate and human imitation places increased emphasis on the imitation of goals and underlying intentions. Thus, the time was ripe to initiate a dialogue between scholars of Girard’s mimetic theory and researchers interested in goal-directed imitation and its role in social cognition, empathy, and learning...  With chapters from some of the world’s leading scientists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the book is a rare example of true interdisciplinary inquiry, and instead of being a hodgepodge of academic articles, it reads like a coherent essay, the arguments unfolding chapter by chapter and flowing seamlessly into one another."

—Trevor Merrill, California Institute of Technology, author of The Book of Imitation and Desire


"Infants can map acts of other people onto acts of their own body. Because human acts are seen in others and performed by the self, the infant can grasp the bidirectional personal connection: You can act 'like me' and I can act 'like you'... My research suggests that infants may be 'natural Girardians'... Girard's mimetic theory hypothesizes a primordial role for imitation in the genesis of human culture, cognition, and sociality. From a developmental perspective, my research corroborates and elaborates this claim by demonstrating that infants are able to imitate much earlier in life than we previously suspected, and that they subsequently follow the gaze of others in a way that draws them into the powerful orbit of adult behavior, goals, intentions, and desires... In addition to addressing 'positive' or 'cooperative' learning and sociality, Girard's mimetic theory, as articulated by several authors in this volume and others, also makes predictions concerning the role of imitation in the emergence of human desire, rivalry, envy, and violence. Girard's observations seem to be particularly relevant to a variety of phenomena that can be observed in children, including sibling rivalry."

—From the chapter by Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Science and co-author of The Scientist in the Crib.


"Most discussions of conflict and rivalry are still dominated by a 'common sense' approach rooted in folk psychology. This approach is object-centered; it locates the reason for rivalry in the object at stake. Anything people fight to possess is assumed to be intrinsically valuable––otherwise, why would they want it so much? ...The folk-psychology assumption that a hotly disputed object must be valuable is itself based on imitation: it does no more than reproduce the dynamic in which the perception that other people desire an object makes that object appear desirable. If others are 'like me' and they see something as desirable, nothing is more natural than for me to follow their lead. But when I try to get hold of the same thing they want, we may end up fighting. Our very likeness has set us at odds."

—From the chapter by Mark Anspach


Read Brian Harding's review of Mimesis and Science in the COV&R Bulletin:


(Please scroll down to the fourth book under review)