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Imitation and Literary Evolution


The connection between imitation and literature has been discussed since Plato. Theories of literary evolution have existed almost as long as Darwin’s theory itself. Recent research in psychology and related fields have put the study of imitation on firm enough ground that we can now make a productive analysis of imitation’s role in cultural evolution. The conclusion I draw from this research is that imitation is fundamental to the existence of culture. I examine how a psychological mechanism active at the level of an individual author or text can have repercussions at the level of an entire tradition.


Imitation and Literary Evolution

Ontogeny of Cultural Acquisition

Can we make use of evolutionary theory to understand the way literary traditions change? Some theorists have sketched out parallels at the macro level including descent with modification and some form of “survival of the fittest.”[1] I think we’d do better to start at the micro-level, with how literature is produced by human minds. Let us begin, then, with the ontogeny of the mind.

Each child must absorb the “rules” of his or her culture, a process usually referred to as “enculturation.” This process takes place amazingly quickly. By five years of age, children can recognize if chord progressions are ‘legal’ within their culture (often heptatonic in Classical Western music, or pentatonic in much Eastern and folk music, for instance; Levitin 114). 6-month-old infants show no preference for one cultural rhythm over another, while adults have great trouble learning foreign rhythms and 12-month-olds show a preference, but are still adaptable to new musical schemas (Hannon & Trehub). What is true for music is true to a lesser extent for other aspects of cultural acquisition. Just as children soak up language—both vocabulary and grammatical rules—at a dizzying rate, so culture is imbibed from the environment and codified in some way shape or form. Just as native speakers of English know instinctively that the ‘d’ at the end of “walked” is pronounced as a ‘t,’ whether they know the rules for the voicing and devoicing of consonants or not, the same adults have a sense for which chords are “correct.”

The child in the process of acquiring languages exemplifies the so-called “poverty of the stimulus”: information insufficient to piece together all of the rules of language correctly and swiftly. The inference commonly drawn is that children depend on some form of underlying, innate or “universal” grammar pre-encoded in some way shape or form. A similar logic applies to enculturation (Jackendoff, 147-48).[2]

The ability to generalize and internalize rules from a given set of stimuli is important, but it is not enough to drive a continually evolving system, which requires some force that fosters novelty. A primary source of this neophilia is habituation. We naturally attune to what is new and ignore what has not changed, a cognitive proclivity that appears from birth and is the foundation of many experiments on the infant mind. So while culture will be molded to better push our mental buttons, it will also be constantly altered to attract attention and gain new shine. These are two of the major forces in literary change: the constant drive for novelty, and the cognitive boundary beyond which things are nonsensical, grating, or unattractive.

Three Requirements for Literary Evolution

An evolutionary process requires three things: variation, propagation, and selection. First there must be variation among one or more traits within a population (of meerkats, tastes, or texts); individuals must be different from one another. Second, there must be a mechanism for passing traits from one generation onto a new generation. Finally, there must be a mechanism by which some individuals, or some traits, are either selected for or weeded out of the population (Darwin; Dennett 343).

In biology there is a physical substrate to all physical characteristics—DNA, which is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into proteins that assemble to form the body. Culture has no such concrete foundation.[3] There have been various attempts to theorize cultural equivalents to the gene, including the closely-modeled  “culturgen” of Lumsden and Wilson (7) and Dawkins’ far more popular “meme,” which he defines as “a unit of imitation” (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene 192, emphasis in original; see also Aunger; Blackmore; Brodie); and also Sperber’s looser, and hence possibly more productive, concept of “cultural representations” (Explaining Culture 32-55), whence arises his idea of an “epidemiology of representations.”

These approaches are limited by one basic difference between genetic and cultural inheritance: culture propagates by being picked up and transferred from one brain to another. Each of these processes—acquisition and transferal—entail psychological processes that transform information. Imitation is the most basic way in which information is acquired, transformed, and disseminated. It is, consequently, the primary means of propagation in literary evolution. Imitation also has the advantage of allowing for the conglomeration of multiple sources. Whereas animals are the result of the recombination of two distinct genomes, with the addition of any new mutations, cultural artifacts can combine any number of sources (what Moretti calls convergence; 78-81).

Here then is my core claim: The concept of “imitation” can help us bridge from the micro to the macro levels in evolutionary analysis, integrating our understanding of individual minds and whole traditions. Imitation is an innate faculty that is likely present at birth (Meltzoff) but certainly manifests itself shortly thereafter and begins to develop rapidly at about nine months of age through the next two to three years (Tomasello 52). It probably plays a fundamental role in such intrinsic aspects of human experience as self-recognition, language acquisition, and theory of mind (Kinsbourne; Nadel; Meltzoff & Decety; Rochat).

Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd describe three types of transmission biases, which can be viewed as three types of imitation. These are “frequency-based,” “content-based” and “model-based” biases. The first, “frequency-based bias,” usually involves imitating the people nearby or the most common examples. Indeed, this is the most common form of imitation, arguably even within the arts and can be seen as the source for coherent schools and movements that last for decades or even centuries.

“Content-based bias” has two aspects:  cognitive predispositions that make certain things easier to process or remember (a “sensory bias” in Geoffrey Miller’s terms [142]), and association with other cultural artifacts. Poetic lines under 3 seconds are easier because that is the size of our short-term memory buffer) (Turner and Pöppel); and line-end rhymes are easier because the repetition of sound makes rhymed verse easier to remember than unrhymed).  The new works that show a similarity to old and familiar works will be more easily processed, but works that are too similar or derivative will not be interesting. And so new works need to be original enough to overcome habituation, but not so original so as to be too difficult or strange.

The third bias is “model-based” and involves the imitation of select individuals instead of a general mass or statistical average. Models chosen for imitation usually display high success, prestige, and status. Attributing prestige and status to cultural figures, many of whom may be long deceased, is guided by the same psychological mechanisms as our everyday social interactions. Prestige is generated by reputation and skill. Reputation can take many forms: being anthologized or included in curricula, receiving critical acclaim, or winning awards. Evaluation of skill is more than simply a matter of execution or end product. Low-valued skills or unappreciated forms will not be appreciated no matter how good the execution is. When Tyutchev’s poetry went largely unappreciated in Russia during the period of Realism in the second half of nineteenth-century it was not due to any inherent fault, but resulted from prevailing tastes, especially the low value accorded the lyric. When verse returned to a position of esteem early in the twentieth century, his reputation rose in tandem.

Literary prestige should often be self-perpetuating: authors imitate prestigious authors, authors who are imitated become prestigious. But it is possible for an author to fall victim to his or her own success, through no inherent fault. Work that is imitated and adapted too frequently acquires a familiarity that breeds contempt, and so leads to less-frequent imitation—or to travesty and parody. One example would be Petrarch’s poems, imitation of which fueled the English poetic Renaissance at the hands of Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir Walter Raleigh, but whom Shakespeare would travesty in sonnet CXXX with the line “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” After the passage of enough time, formerly hackneyed sources can return, cleansed of their overuse, a circularity observed by Martindale (The Clockwork Muse) in French and English poetry and Lieberson in children’s names. Certain names, for instance achieve immense popularity for an extended period, only to decline in popularity or almost disappear as they become “old people names” (for instance, Maud, or Ruth). After enough time has passed the association passes and the names lose their negative connotation and return to favor (for instance Madeline is among the top 60 names for girls during the opening decade of this century after being in the 400s during the 80s). Similarly, one can watch the ebb and flow of “formal” poetry in the American tradition, especially its denigration in the 60s and 70s followed by the “New Formalism” of the 80s and 90s.

Beginning with this observation about the pendulum-like swing of literary, we can identify polar forms of imitation: “copy the product” and “copy the instructions,” (Blackmore 213-15; Dawkins, Forward xi; Sperber, “Objection” 167). (These are terms I borrow from memetics, the field founded by Dawkins.) “Copy the instructions” is a faithful process and produces homogeneous results. Mistakes in one generation are not passed on to future generations unless a mistake occurs in the directions themselves. Note that the “instructions” need not be formally described, but can be elicited either by observing production, or by inferring them from the product itself. “Copy the product” leads to heterogeneous results and products mutate quickly. Imagine the different results of a game similar to “telephone” where participants copy pictures. Asked to copy a five-pointed star, the result will almost certainly be nearly identical with the original since most people have learned to draw such a star in their childhood. Each copier need only revert to this internal set of instructions. On the other hand, if participants are asked to copy something more complex, such as a picture of a bird, as in an experiment described by Sperber (“Objection” 166), the accumulation of small changes will produce a drastically different result.

Habituation leads from “follow the rules” to “achieve the same goal through different means” or “achieve a different goal with the same means.” For instance, the dissemination of the sonnet moves through periods of close attention to formal and thematic structure to steadily broader thematics and more formal variation as well as the use of wholly different forms.

Innovation and the Renewal of Tradition

There is no such thing as true innovation in the sense of something entirely original that bears no connection with the past. Innovation consists in the transformation, adaptation, conglomeration, or repurposing of old innovations. As Barnett puts it, “Innovation does not result from the addition or subtraction of parts. It takes place only when there is a recombination of them” (9). Modern written literary traditions owe their beginning to domestic oral and folk traditions and to the importation or translation of foreign materials into a domestic context: postcolonial nations from/against their colonial traditions; Russia from Western Europe; England from the continent; Spain and France from Italy; and all of these from Rome; Rome from Greece; etc..

Literary change within a given movement or period will occur by the steady tweaking of established norms (loosening the “classical unities” in Neoclassical drama, for instance). This tweaking can be accomplished by importing new forms, styles or themes through the translation of foreign works. In the Russian tradition we can point to Vasily Trediakovsky’s translations of Tallemant’s Le voyage à l’île d’amour [Voyage to the Island of Love], the first work in Russian to deal explicitly the theme of secular love, and Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque [Adventures of Telemachus]. Both these groundbreaking works paved the way for innovations by Mikhail Lomonosov and Nikolai Karamzin among others. We can point as well as to Vasily Zhukovsky’s translation of Gray’s “Elegy” and Bürger’s “Lenore” which he readapted into a russified version called “Svetlana.”

Literary evolution progresses by small, incremental changes begun through some form of imitation. Once a new element is imported, it can be changed, adapted, and melded with other domestic elements. But this reworking can only last for so long. Eventually novelty cannot be created within a given paradigm, and some form of renewal is required, a new round of innovation, importation, and imitation. What we most need now, for a theory of literary evolution, is a more adequate psychological framework. Imitation adds this additional level of detail to a previously established framework.

Works Cited

Aunger, Robert. The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Barnett, H. G. Innovation: The Basis of Cultural Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.

Blackmore, Susan J. The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Brodie, Richard. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Seattle, Wash: Integral Press, 1996.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: The Modern library, 1936.

Dawkins, Richard. Forward to: S. Blackmore’ s The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

—. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Hannon, E. E., and S. E. Trehub. “Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102.35 (2005): 12639-12643.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: Ecco, 2006.

Jackendoff, Ray. Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.

Kinsbourne, M. “The role of imitation in body ownership and mental growth.” The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution and Brain Bases. Andrew N Meltzoff and Wolfgang Prinz Eds. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2002. 311–330.

Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, N.Y: Dutton, 2006.

Lieberson, Stanley. A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Lumsden, Charles J, and Edward O Wilson. Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Martindale, Colin. The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1990.

Meltzoff, Andrew N. “Elements of a developmental theory of imitation.” The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution and Brain Bases. Andrew N Meltzoff and Wolfgang Prinz Eds. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2002. 19–41.

Meltzoff, Andrew N., and Jean Decety. “What imitation tells us about social cognition: a rapprochement between developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358.1431 (2003): 491-500.

Miller, Geoffrey F. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2005.

Nadel, J. “Imitation and imitation recognition: Functional use in preverbal infants and nonverbal children with autism.” The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution and Brain Bases. Andrew N Meltzoff and Wolfgang Prinz Eds. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2002. 42-62.

Rabkin, Erik and Carl P. Simon. “Culture, Science Fiction, and Complex Adaptive Systems: The Work of the Genre Evolution Project.” Biocomplexity at the Cutting Edge of Physics, Systems Biology and Humanities, Gastone Castellani, Vita Fortunati, Elena Lamberti and Claudio Franceschi, eds., Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2008. 279-294.

Richerson, Peter J, and Robert Boyd. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Rochat, P. “Ego function of early imitation.” The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution and Brain Bases. Andrew N Meltzoff and Wolfgang Prinz Eds. Cambridge UniversityPress, 2002. 85-97.

Sperber, Dan. “An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture.” Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 163-173.

—. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996.

Tomasello, Michael. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Turner, F., and E. Pöppel. “Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time.” Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1988.

[1] See Rabkin et al on the evolution of science fiction.

[2] For a similar approach to moral sentiment see Hauser.

[3] Attempts to search for a “neural correlate” of cultural representations have failed. Even basic mental representations such as a simple square, although housed in the same parts of the brain, cause a different constellation of neurons to fire in different individuals, and even the same individual at different times.

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