Skilled Performance and Artistry
The human mind is unique in so many ways that it is necessary to recognize that our species is of a different order, in cognitive terms, than other species. If one crucial adaptation had to be singled out as the signature move that started the human journey, I would nominate “mimesis,” or body artistry, which is the platform on which all complex skilled performance, including language, has evolved. A capacity for refining skill started to evolve very early in the emergence of hominids, as testified by the existence of very ancient stone tools that predate the appearance of our species. Such tools cannot be made without a capacity to rehearse systematically, and an ability to imagine an idealized performance.
The evolution of this capacity produced two consequences: a major modification to the primate mind, and a radical change to primate culture. The first was evident in the development of mimetic imagination, whereby the performer’s own actions could be imagined and modified accordingly. Mimetic imagination is functionally equivalent to fantasy and role-playing, which triggered the second change: “mimetic culture,” the culture of skill, performance, theater and drama, that is, of actors, acting out imagined roles in an imagined, shared, virtual world. Paleolithic tool-makers and fire-tenders learned their skills in the same way as modern humans: they imagined their performances in a social context, and played them out as dramatic scenarios. In hominid evolution, this contributed to the emergence of such characteristically human phenomena as craft, athletic performance, ritual, and culturally-specific displays of emotion (as in, for example, public displays of grief or triumph).
Mimetic acts are by their very nature reconstructive, comparative, and creative. The emergence of this capacity, in the context of the a shared cultural space it created, altered the course of brain evolution by creating a virtual environment that might be called a “cognitive ecology.” The latter gradually dominated cognitive evolution, creating a platform for the later evolution of language and symbolic thought, which remain tethered closely to the distributed cognitive systems of culture itself. Mimetic culture still survives in the performance arts, in athletics, and in public spectacle, while mimetic role-playing remains the cognitive foundation for human personal development even in the modern era.