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Nate’s Notes 4: Mimicry

By February 22, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

Imagine you are dropped in the Arctic with 10 of the smartest, most motivated people on earth. But all you have is the warm clothes on your back. Will you survive?

Humans, as a species are smart. We’re so smart we’ve risen to the top of the food chain. We can harness fire and electricity. We’ve invented the steam engine and the printing press. We travel at supersonic speed and communicate near instantaneously. We’ve also split the atom.

As a species, we’re amazing. But each individual is quite dumb when compared to the group. And when compared to all past groups.

And to answer the question about you surviving in the Arctic? You would most certainly die.

Because if you wanted to survive, you’d have to find food. For example, seal meat. So, what would that entail?

First, you have to find a seal’s breathing hole (whatever that looks like). But you’d also need to find one that has a lot of snow around it, so the seal doesn’t hear you and leave.

Once you’ve found the breathing hole, you’ll want to smell it to make sure it’s still in use (but do you have any idea what a seal smells like?).

Next, you’ll want to create some sort of indicator that will move if the seal comes or goes.

When you are sure the seal is in the hole, based on the indicator you created and used, you’ll need to spear the seal.

But where did you get your spear? You’ll need some driftwood and a good caribou antler. Which means you’ll need to find and kill a caribou first.

But forget that for now. Imagine you speared the seal and pulled him out of the hole with your line that you made from sinew. Now that he’s out of his hole you can finish him off with a spike, made by extra hard polar bear bone (so you will have needed to find and kill a polar bear first).

Now it’s time to cook the seal.

There are no trees at that latitude, and you don’t want to use your driftwood for fire.

So, you’ll need to create a lamp out of soapstone (but do you know what soapstone is or where to find it?).

You’ll also need some oil for the lamp from blubber.

You’ll need a wick made from a particular species of moss.

And you’ll of course want to drink some water with your seal meat, but all the frozen ice around you is saltwater.

So, you’ll need to find some old sea ice that has lost most of its salt. But do you know what old sea ice looks like, smells like, or feels like?

And remember, all of this was just to get some food in the Arctic. Let alone the clothes and medicines you’ll need, plus the sled to travel on and the home to sleep in.

Several years ago, while at an academic conference I heard Joseph Henrich, the evolutionary biologist, share a version of this story. According to Henrich, our species is successful not because of any one individual. And not even because of our big brains. Our species is successful because we pass down knowledge from generation to generation. While you and the 10 smartest people in the world would most certainly die in the Arctic, the Inuit Eskimos have been passing down knowledge of the Arctic for 1000s of years. And they thrive up there. And the greatest mechanism for this transmission of knowledge is mimicry. We mimic each other. In fact, our species is one of the greatest mimicking species of all time.

As an example of this think about how babies learn to walk and talk. They mimic their parents and caregivers. When a toddler encounters something new, they’ll often look to their mother to check for an emotional reaction. If the mother shows fear, the child will back off.

If we see someone yawn, we yawn. If we see someone shake their foot, we shake ours. When someone touches their face, we do the same. When we see people shake hands, we follow suit. In fact, this happens even in conversations. When two people have a positive conversation they will frequently mimic each other, in terms of their body positions, their voice frequencies, their movement, and their facial expressions.

For whatever reason, our species is a bunch of copycats. Professional copycats. Genetically programmed copycats.

So why does this matter?  Why does it matter that we’re copycats?

For one, this allows us to seamlessly pass down important knowledge from generation to generation. It’s allowed us to rise to the top of the food chain. We don’t need to understand how to make a lightbulb. We just need someone else to show us how to flip the switch. And we’ll copy them.

But all this copycatting comes at a cost. Sometimes our behaviors are completely outside of our consciousness and control. And this is anything but trivial. If we are frequently exposed to harmful behaviors, such as smoking, drug use, suicide, or even negative patterns of thought, we are prone to mimic the behavior.

Tim Ferris, the author and entrepreneur, frequently reminds people of the best advice he ever received: that we are the average of the five people we hang around the most. And Tim thinks this advice is even more relevant today than when he was a kid. Or maybe he just appreciates the power of the idea more now.

But we can use Tim’s advice either to our advantage or disadvantage.

So please use it to your advantage. Choose your friends wisely. And choose your books carefully. And the movies you watch, and the music you listen to, and the video games you play.

Because we are copycats, professional, genetically programmed copycats. So, choose to surround yourself with the kindest, happiest, funniest, most successful, interesting, and selfless people you can. You will copy them, and you will become them.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

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