Praxis and Mimesis

Humans act on the world through praxis or skilled movements. Skilled movements are learned slowly by diligent practice. The main adaptive task is to learn what movements are required for survival today. Ten thousand years ago, if you were male, you might have learned to throw a spear and carry a deer carcass on your back. Today, you learn to learn to throw a football, move a pen across a paper surface and push keys on a keyboard.

Humans are animals whose ancestors stood up and walked erect. Bipedal walking is not the newest form of locomotion but it offers some advantages. The planet has seen other bipeds come and go. Birds remain bipeds carrying on an ancient dinosaur tradition. They stride, hop and paddle in water. We retain other patterns of movement and babies quickly review an evolutionary progression as they progress from lying to sitting, crawling, swimming, standing and walking. Our movements are strategic and reflect an ancient life tradition of foraging, hunting, fighting and fleeing. Children spontaneously play the hunter and the hunted and use different styles of locomotion to hide, flee and search. Soldiers walk, run, crouch, waddle, crawl and wiggle on their backs or bellies to advance on the enemy. Their behavior is a quick review of the key ideas in locomotion over the past one billion years.

Humans see farther when they are erect. Arms and hands are free to make, carry and use tools. There is a natural progression from standing, walking, to picking up sticks and stones, to hitting, throwing, threatening and killing. Weapons are tools of lethal force and only an erect walking running creature can hurl projectiles toward prey and enemies. The walking animal with throwing sticks progresses to the walking animal with cruise missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with hydrogen bombs instead of flint arrowheads.

Humans learn by imitating what they see and hear. Learning movement skills is implicit in life experiences and not recognized as learning. For most humans, lessons learned at school are relatively unimportant. The central feature of intelligence is the ability to understand what is really going on out there and to respond to events with successful and adaptive behavior. Praxis is integral to intelligence. If you add mimesis to praxis, you start building a meaningful model of intelligence.

Mimesis is the ability to imitate and copy the movements of others. Humans learn by imitating what they see and hear. This enhanced mimetic capacity is one the important if not the most important advances in the human brain. We can learn to handle words much like objects and do symbolic transactions with each other.

Humans create neuronal models of their own behavior and the behavior of others, remember and communicate these models. We can simulate experience and anticipate what we are going to do in the future. We can practice skills in advance so that can improve our performance. We can expand this modeling capacity into verbal and body communication, invent language and substitute words for objects and action.