So now you know that “mimetic” is the Greek word for imitation – okay, now you know. The reason Girard chose to call his theory “mimetic” is that he wanted to suggest something more than exact imitation. Humans are definitely not exact copies of each other, though we are unconsciously imitating one another all the time. Just like in the photo above, we can be imitators and still be our unique, marvelously original selves because human imitation is a marvelously complex phenomenon.
Now, there is something that does lead to exact duplicates – well, maybe not exactly exact, but it does not lead to nearly as much originality as human mimeticism does. That something is instinct. In the rest of the animal kingdom, desires are organized and directed by instinct. Cows, chickens, and goats don’t need to imitate one another because they are born with patterns of desiring that are part of their DNA. But because we are human beings, the objects of our desires are not fixed.
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For example, when cows are hungry they eat grass. They don’t have to decide what to eat or pour over Yelp reviews to find a decent restaurant. The object of their need for food is fixed and unchangeable – it’s grass and it will always be grass. But when we feel hungry we have a big decision to make! We must choose the object that will satisfy our desire for food and that object can change a lot, which means there are lots of folks out there competing for us to choose their restaurant, frozen food, or latest recipe. Sometimes we even eat for a completely different reason than to satisfy our hunger. Cows don’t do that!
Let’s dwell on just how good it is to have mimetic desires. Remember, the difference between humans and our nearest primate ancestors is not that monkeys imitate and we do not, but that we are better at it than they are! Human beings are spectacularly good imitators and it was the explosion of our mimetic abilities that triggered our evolutionary development and led to our own branch on the hominid family tree.
Humans have advanced tools, agriculture, language, memory, technology, science, religion, literature, drama, visual arts – all the elements of culture because we are the best imitators around. We are not bound to a narrow set of instinctual behaviors. Instead we are free to explore the world around us, to learn from experience, to benefit from shared knowledge that can be passed from generation to generation. Without the ability to imitate, there would be no human culture and no humankind as we know it. It defies conventional wisdom, but imitation is the key to originality. Isn’t that remarkable?!