we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Old Buddha’s Gift, Part-6: The ‘Sympathy’ of Bodymind

A short selection from Essay Thirty-seven in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.

Unlike monkeys, humans also use mirror neurons to directly imitate actions and understand their meanings. … Gallese and Rizzolatti found that when people listened to sentences describing actions, the same mirror neurons fired as would have had the subjects performed the actions themselves or witnessed them being performed. —David Dobbs [1]

It is impossible to really under-stand another person without a subtle sense of our own covert behaviour becoming coordinated with each movement, posture, and expression of that person. If we are what we do, then there is but one human soul, and it is held together by subtle but real sympathetic responses that we are not always consciously aware of.


The latest neuropsychological research supports the view that human covert impersonation (for this is what our mirror neuron activation amounts to) might go well beyond mimicking other humans to encompass a full cast of animal, vegetable, and mechanical characters. By contrast, the mirror neuron systems of other animals probably ‘reflect’, in this subtle behavioural way, only living organisms of the same species, or of similar body structures. [2] Perhaps this is because species outside the LAST Niche do not need to under-stand techno-logical agencies? Of course, since we technophilic humans are nevertheless strongly attached to our standard mammalian body plans, we might often still have trouble enacting our special mirror-empathy when we meet up with the disparate body of a spider (a disembodied ‘hand’!), of a snake (the limbless passage of a spectre!), or the Manifold Flicker of an inimitably slow, and imperceptibly vast, ‘evo-ecological mind’.


1. Dobbs, David. April/May 2006. A Revealing Reflection. Scientific American Mind, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 22-27.

2. Stix, Gary. Sept. 2014. The “It” Factor. Scientific American, vol. 311, no. 3, pp. 72-79. In reference to Michael Tomasello’s work at Emery University comparing chimps and children: it was not just that “apes do not ape each other the way humans imitate one another”, but “More important, there was no attempt to go beyond the basics and then do some tinkering to make a new and improved ant catcher.” —p. 76. This is not to say that our fellow primates don’t possess the rudiments of that which became accentuated in our hominin line. In The Chimpanzees of Gombe (1986, Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA) Jane Goodall observed that adult male chimpanzees often did a ‘rain dance’ at the outset of thunder storms. When I first read about how they would get all excited, and bang sticks and other noisy objects together, it occurred to me that ‘aping’ the thunder storm was their means of under-standing it. It has become customary for philosophers to try and find some discontinuity between human and nonhuman animal cognition (de Waal 2016, chapter 4), and if I am to play this game, I would say ‘real’ discontinuity can only be found with the completion of the language field to re-present every-interior-thing. (Also see note 7, essay thirty.)

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