Evolution and Conversion, cont’d (3)

(Previous posts on this topic: here and here.)

I’m into chapter 5 now (page 173) and have read chapter 3 twice. A lot of it still eludes me (the last time I read The Origin of Species was in high school), but here’s what I’ve noticed:

Chapter 3, The Symbolic Species

This chapter, more than the others, is directly related to Darwin’s theory of evolution, and concerns how the mimetic theory of culture parallels Darwin’s theory of genetics as it also explores the evolution of mimetic theory and culture itself, the order in which things have occurred.

** “The theory of evolution seems to me quite powerfully sacrificial. … Darwin … stresses the importance of death just as much as the importance of survival. In some sense it is representing nature as a super-sacrificial machine….”

Girard agrees with sociobiologist E.O. Wilson that religion is adaptable: “I claim that religion protects men and societies from mimetic escalation. Religion has an adaptive value. But this is not enough: it is also the source of hominization, of the differentiation between animals and human beings, because … through sacrifice it creates culture and institutions.”

“One can argue that many groups and societies perished and were destroyed by lethal infighting, by the explosion of mimetic rivalry being unable to find any form of resolution. The scapegoat mechanism provided a fundamental contribution to the fitness of the group. This is the reason why such a practice is found throughout the world. This is the result of a form of systematic selection, which lasted thousands of years. It was the scapegoat mechanism, and subsequently religion, which provided that fundamental instrument of protection against natural instraspecific violence that any group of hominids [primates] is bound to trigger at some point for purely ethological [behavioural] reasons.”

In other words, I think he’s saying, the groups that didn’t make it were those that didn’t successfully scapegoat. Those that made it, did. Therefore, scapegoating persists as a behaviour, because it rendered groups that used it successfully fit enough to survive.

The authors talk at some length about Konrad Lorenz‘s animal studies, which I do remember from college studies. The most interesting one to me here concerns geese behaviour:

“When two geese approach each other, showing signs of hostility, most of the time the common aggression is redirected and discharged against a third object. This redirection of aggressiveness has been ‘crystallized’ by evolution in an instinctual pattern which can create a bond … through a kind of incipient scapegoating mechanism, even if it isn’t proper to call it scapegoating since the third element often is an inanimate object. One can see here the first sketch of future scapegoating, very much in the sense of redirecting violence onto a third party. This observation, if correct, could account for the emergence of a bond among individuals who together scapegoat a third party, a victim. The redirection of the inner aggression of a specific group against an external element (or an internal element perceived as external which is expelled) creates a strong cohesion within the group itself.”

Soon afterwards, Girard reinforces this idea: “To have a common symbolic or real scapegoat is the most efficient mechanism to reinforce friendship.”

There is much back and forth about whether animals truly scapegoat, whether they exhibit the complete mimetic mechanism. In general, Girard says no — though I’m not sure if it’s because animals’ brains aren’t large enough, or they don’t operate with symbols, or they didn’t experience the crisis (the “centre of signification”) necessary to trigger it all (all three ideas are given some play, it seems) —  though Girard admits that “there are forms of collective violence present in these groups [of chimpanzees]. There are also forms of hunting with ritual aspects. Therefore, there are clearly signs of the emergence of the scapegoat mechanism. This is another stage of the long evolutionary process that led to the scapegoat mechanism.”

There is some discussion on the movement from the violent, crisis event to the symbolicity (their word) of it in ritual — went over my head for the most part.

** Then discussion of language and whether language precedes myth or myth language.

Girard’s feeling is that “[L]anguage and the symbolic sphere could only be generated by a systemic ‘catastrophe’ …. One cannot explain taboos, prohibition and the complexity of symbolic exchange systems simply via biological explanations of the emergence of unselfish behaviour. There must be that upheaval there, which forced the change in behaviour. … The same reasoning can be applied to language. The only thing that can produce such a relational structure is fear, fear of death. If people are threatened, they withdraw from specific acts …. Prohibition is the first condition for social ties and the first cultural sign as well. Fear is essentially fear of mimetic violence; prohibition is protection from mimetic escalation. All these incredibly complex phenomena were triggered by the founding murder, by the scapegoat mechanism.”

Much of the rest of this chapter and the next  is Girard’s defence of the founding murder as the only possible trigger.

** Next, they tackle the origins of animal domestication, which Girard, apparently in contrast to everyone else, says came about through sacrifice and not the other way around (people didn’t first domesticate animals and then think to sacrifice them): “I believe that one starts treating animals like human beings in order to sacrifice them. [Doesn’t bode well for my dog.] … [T]here is no incentive directly related to domestication and its advantages since no one knows about them at the start, and they will only become evident as time goes by.” Worse, to begin with, animal domestication is anti-economical. Girard concludes that “[d]omestication could not have been foreseen, nor even planned!” In parts of the world where there were no animals that could be domesticated (apparently some culture tried polar bears …), “there were also massive ritual killings of human beings, because the process of animal substitution in ritual sacrifices never occurred.”

The animal makes a good ritual substitute for the human because the best sacrificial victims are both insiders and outsiders. Domesticated animals are not quite humans but are enough insiders to work.

** On to the origins of agriculture. “What” says Girard “could have given to the human being the idea of putting seeds into the ground? They buried them hoping they would resurrect like the community as a result of sacrifice — and they weren’t wrong.” Apparently agricultural societies had a lower quality of life than hunter-gatherers, working harder for the same amount of food, less healthy, prone to famine, etc., so “why was this behaviour reinforced (and hence selected for) if it was not offering adaptive rewards surpassing those accruing to hunter-gathering or foraging communities?”

Girard thinks it “became reinforced because … it has a sacrificial origin. The hunter-gatherers started to settle permanently because of the increasing importance of ritual sites and the complexity of the rituals of which they were part, and which in turn produced, as I said, the domestication of animals and the discovery of agriculture.” While climate change and soil conditions, etc., were also important, discovery around the place of sacrifice was most important.

I’m not entirely persuaded. Couldn’t a group have another reason for either remaining in one place for a while or for wanting to do so, and couldn’t they chance upon the planting of a seed (tossing a seed that plants itself is not an uncommon thing to do), noticed it, and used that knowledge? Maybe it wasn’t economical at first, but if the group wanted or needed to remain in this area, for some reason (a bunch of the group sick, someone important disabled, weather or natural barrier creating an obstacle to moving, and so on) they could have developed the practice. I’m more persuaded of the animal domestication hypothesis, which I realise rests on the same foundations, and yet sacrifice seems more directly tied to animals than to plants.

** And on to the origin of language. Eric Gans, a former student of Girard’s, proposes a theory of human origins in which language — or the giving of a sign, a given and received communication of designation, to another — resolves the mimetic crisis rather than sacrifice and scapegoating. Basically Gans posits that at some point, at a moment when all hands reach for the same thing, the sight of the others reaching deters each from grasping it. Thus the desired object becomes a “repellent, sacred force” that “converts the gesture of appropriation into a gesture of designation, that is, into an ostensive sign … that comes to designate the object rather than attempting to capture it.”

It sounds plausible until you read Girard’s rebuttal, which is simple and experientially verified, at least for me: ” In order to believe it, you must believe that there has been violence before.The previous violence has produced fruits of awareness of its consequences,” hence everyone hangs back.

Girard sees this as another “rhetorical manoeuvre to negate the primacy of religion in human culture.”

I feel like I’m typing the whole chapter onto this screen but really, there is much more I don’t understand or don’t have strong interest in, and even the stuff that I’m noting here I’m doing so only cursorily.

Chapter 4 next.


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