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MIMESIS AND EMPATHY IN HUMAN BIOLOGY William B. Hurlbut, M.D. Stanford University Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus. 19:18) The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew. 6:22-23) On the levels both ofcommon discourse and scientific description, the concept of empathy has found renewed popularity. Like a bridge that spans disparate realms, the idea of empathy can reconnect neurophysiology with psychology and social theory, and reestablish the grounds for a natural concept of ethics. Specifically, it can connect mimetic theory with a possible basis in biology, since empathy seems to represent an extension ofmimetic processes across the animal kingdom. For this reason, empathy/mimesis might be the grounds for a concept of ethics based on natural observation. Drawn from a German term Einfühlung, which means "feeling into," empathy carries the concept of "getting into the feelings of someone else" (deWaal 79). As a medium for the formation of meaningful bonds and William Hurlbut15 sensitive associations, the concept of empathy has taken on, in popular discourse, the somewhat sentimental notion ofsympathy. In the scientific description, however, empathy is seen as the highest human expression of a broader biological capacity for mimesis that seems inextricable from the very progress ofthe phylogenetic process. Among the earliest life forms, organisms drew information from one another to pattern and coordinate such basic biological functions as reproduction and nurture. But with the increased complexity of multicellular creatures, new means of communication arose, making possible more flexible adaptation and sociability. Gradually the direct chemical coordination suitable for collectives or swarms gave way to richer and more individual communication between organisms of higher forms of differentiation. The externally evident demarcation ofthe head region, with its organs ofsensory perception and communication, evolved in parallel with internal cerebral structures capable ofprocessing more complex impressions of the surrounding environment and coordinating greater freedom of motion. These vital powers of action and awareness in turn came to be governed, guided and integrated by an inner felt sense of need, goal or purpose. As Leon Kass says, "desire, not DNA, is the deepest principle of life" (Kass 1994, 48). This quality of "inwardness" is paralleled by an equally complex differentiation and integration of the external "look" ofthe animal. This "look," which is the literal translation of the Latin root of our word species, is the result of a genetically determined plan as important as any internal vital organ. It provides the unity of form that reveals or selectively conceals the inner life of the organism. It communicates and coordinates vital information regarding sexual and other social interactions. This upward process ofcomplex integrated organization of the "inner life" and the external action and presentation of selfreaches its fullest expression in the human form. Along with upright posture and its freeing ofthe hands as tools of "gnostic touching," comes a reordering of the senses and a highly flexible, furless canvas of selfpresentation we call the face (Kass 1985, 287). Upwards through mammalian evolution there is a progressive refinement of the structures of the face that facilitate active and increasingly subtle communication and penetration into the life of the other. With more than 30 finely tuned muscles of facial expression and vocal control, human beings are capable of a wide array of communicative 16 Mimesis andEmpathy expressions of emotions and intentions. Paul Ekman claims to have discerned more than 1 8 forms of smiling, each with a distinct meaning (66). With upright posture came a retraction ofthe snout and bilateral stereoscopic vision. Sight replaced smell as the prominent sense. Whereas smell required direct chemical contact, and sound gave formless information, sight gave a knowing and accurate encounter with the form and unity ofwholes. Sight allowed rapid perception ofobjects and actions at distant horizons. The detached beholding of sight allowed a deeper and more accurate apprehension of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 14-25
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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