Near the end of last week, the Press information Bureau published an announcement that might have been dismissed as too far-fetched to be funny had it been dreamt up as satire. It said the Ministry of Tourism, desiring to develop a cultural hub in Mumbai, had set aside an initial grant of Rs 5 crore to recreate Times Square within the Kala Ghoda precinct. The first two items lifted from the New York landmark were to be a massive, back-lit flag, (a tricolour instead of the Stars and Stripes), and “large electronic billboards [that] will give corporate (sic) an opportunity to advertise their products”. If you think culture ought to serve politics and commerce, you could not imagine a more congenial pairing.

I won’t expend energy discussing why the idea is misguided, because others have already done so, and because it has zero chance of being actualised. I want to concentrate, instead, on social media posts that condemned the idea for aping the west. Hold on, I thought, as I read those Facebook updates, doesn’t Kala Ghoda, named after a colonial equestrian statue, ape the west in many ways? Expanding outwards, what about the gargoyles of Victoria Terminus, the fluted columns of the Town Hall, and the arcades of the university’s convocation hall (the last of these being a precise copy of  a section of the Doge’s Palace in Venice)?

Not only do these imitations represent the best Mumbai has to offer architecturally, many are imitations of imitations, since 18th-century European neo-classicism looked for inspiration to ancient Greece and Rome, and 19th-century neo-Gothic adopted the style of medieval cathedrals. An argument might be made that colonial buildings can’t be said to ape the west because they were built by westerners. In response, I’d point to the lauded stretch of art deco buildings on Marine Drive that were not commissioned by colonial administrators.

Chimps and kids

The truth is that aping is human. Actually, it is distinctively human, in the sense that it is very un-apelike. In July 2005, Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, two researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, published a fascinating paper that compared the behaviour of young chimpanzees with that of human children in solving a tool-using task to gain a reward. The reward was first placed in an opaque box, and the researchers went through a series of actions to retrieve it. Some of these actions, like sliding a bolt at the front of the box, helped in getting to the reward, while others, such as sliding a bolt at the top of the box, were irrelevant.

The chimps imitated all the actions performed by the scientists. Then, the opaque box was replaced by a transparent one. The researchers went through the same routine of mixing relevant and irrelevant actions. The chimps could now see that sliding the bolt at the top did not help in obtaining the reward. When allowed to fetch the reward, they omitted the irrelevant actions and only performed the useful ones. The same experiment was performed on humans, with radically different results. The children replicated all the actions of the researchers, even after they could see that some were perfectly useless. The experiment has since been repeated in different forms, with greater sample sizes than Horner and Whiten could muster, and the results have always been the same: humans over-imitate, apes do not.

The imitation of useless acts by young humans in an experimental setting is profoundly illuminating, because in such replication could lie the roots of magical thinking and religious ritual. That is, of course, a speculative leap. In the realm of data, scientists have suggested, with some evidence to back up the hypothesis, that our linguistic ability is tied to our propensity to over-imitate.

Fundamental mismatch

Coming back to the tourism ministry’s idea, its central fault lies not in the desire to ape, but in the obvious impossibility of carrying out a successful imitation, thanks to the mismatch between one city square filled with glass and steel high-rises and another consisting primarily of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, none of them particularly tall.

Other cultures manage the replication thing better than us. North and East Asia seem to excel at it, right down to recreating Alpine villages brick for brick in China. At some stage, though, simulation is replaced by emulation. Japan, South Korea and China have followed a similar trajectory in product manufacturing, each nation beginning with cheap knock-offs, graduating to higher value products, and ultimately creating category leaders that others copy (China hasn’t quite reached stage 3 yet). It was only yesterday that Samsung phones were a joke. Then, the company began emulating Apple. Now Apple appears to be emulating Samsung.

Original thought is a profoundly human capacity, and one that is deservedly prized. Rather than being the opposite of imitation, though, it is usually the end of a process that begins with studied aping, a trait that is equally human, and one that we should perhaps value more than we do.