24 August 2007


The Monarch butterfly is poisonous. Its body contains cardenolides which are toxic. This biological (i.e. genetic) make-up protects it from being eaten by predators like frogs, lizards, birds and other insects. Its predators avoid it by noticing the very-visible orange and black patterns on the wings of the Monarch butterfly.

The Viceroy butterfly is not poisonous (though it’s known to cause its predators a little tummy upset), but similar looking. Its wings have orange and black patterns similar to the Monarch butterfly. This look confuses its predators, thereby saving it from being eaten. Some biologists say the Viceroy butterfly mimics the Monarch butterfly, using its mimicking capability as deception.

According to Wikipedia, “In ecology, mimicry describes a situation where one organism, the mimic, has evolved to share common outward characteristics with another organism, the model, through the selective action of a signal-receiver.” In human culture, it’s no different. People mimic people (e.g. babies and mothers); cultures mimic cultures (e.g. India and the West).

For us, as it is in the animal kingdom, sometimes, mimicry (or the act of mimicking) is for self-preservation. Sometimes, mimicry is for progress – a way of moving a nation, or the human race, forward. And why not? Mimicry, say social scientists, is a common method of learning: from languages to customs to skills to art. Not to mention our ability to empathise with each other and share our knowledge.

It’s something we have been developing for the last 50,000 years or so. For, it was around this time that human culture experienced a sudden explosion of technological sophistication, art, clothes and dwellings. According to Vilayanur Ramachandran of University of California, San Diego, this ‘big bang’ of human development happened due to our mirror-neurons.

As reported in an October 2005 article, ‘How mimicry begat culture’ by Beth Azar, in ‘Monitor’ from American Psychology Association, “it was Ramachandran’s provocative big bang essay published in 2000 on the Edge Web site (www.edge.org) – an online salon for scientists and other intellectuals – that really got people’s attention.

“I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology,” wrote Ramachandran. “They will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

In particular, he says, mirror neurons primed the human brain for the great leap forward by allowing us the ability to imitate, read others’ intentions and thereby learn from each other.

You can read Beth Azar’s ‘How mimicry begat culture’ here.

[Citation: Wikipedia – Monarch Butterfly, Mimicry.]

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