Today the Humanities appear to be drifting in the direction of the social sciences. Textual analysis becomes every day less like biblical hermeneutics and more like archival research–when it doesn’t resemble the presentation of a brief at the Nurenberg Trials. Cultural documents are examined less as sources of universal enlightenment and more as historical evidence, sometimes incriminating, sometimes disculpatory.
An interesting side-effect of this “sociological turn” has been a renewal of interest in Durkheim, whose hedgehog status (see Chronicle 198) reflects his insistence on the unity and independence of the “social.” Durkheim is a key ancestor of GA. Indeed, Girard’s mimetic theory of social organization may be described as a synthesis of Durkheim’s “realist” notion of the social with his rival Gabriel Tarde’s nominalism. Durkheim views society as a transcendent entity that dominates its individual participants; Tarde emphasizes the mimetic structure of human interaction. Durkheim rejected Tarde’s notion of imitation as dependent on the prior existence of the social order whose structures it was meant to explain; Tarde reproached Durkheim with hypostatizing society as a kind of Platonic Idea independent of the individuals that compose it. Girard achieves a creative Aufhebung by making the social itself the product of “imitation” or mimesis in both its positive and negative aspects, which Tarde recognized under the term “opposition.”
But the very hedgehog qualities that made Durkheim instrumental in imposing the idea of “social science” within the academic and intellectual worlds explain why he is not in favor in the social sciences today. In anthropology the triumph has gone rather to Franz Boas, theorist of the cultural tabula rasa and advocate avant la lettre of “thick” cultural description; Durkheim’s universalism seems hopelessly restrictive, not to say Eurocentric. The failure of humanists to challenge cultural relativism when they are not its enthusiastic partisans makes me wonder whether their tips of the hat to Durkheim are more than gestures of symbolic appropriation. Are humanists making a serious effort to resume Durkheim’s agenda, or are they just putting a “scientific” label on their nostalgia for the sacred?
Either way, it should come as a surprise to most humanists that, although in the context of twentieth-century anthropology Durkheim is at the antipodes of someone like Clifford Geertz, the critique of the “standard social science model” (SSSM) associated with the school of evolutionary psychology considers Geertz as Durkheim’s disciple. (See The Adapted Mind [Oxford, 1992], especially the introductory chapter by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who edited the volume along with Jerome Barkow.) We cannot blame either Durkheim or the evolutionists for this bizarre filiation, although we can certainly blame more recent anthropologists for failing to refine Durkheim’s notion of the social–or to recognize GA as a decisive step in this refinement.
What makes Geertz a disciple of Durkheim? For the latter, social facts are irreducible to the facts of individual psychology (this was the heart of his polemic with Tarde). Durkheim sought to establish laws of social action as well as an increasingly religion-centered generative scheme of social organization, whereas Geertz seeks neither laws nor scheme. But once the “social” has been declared an autonomous entity detached from the specific mechanisms of the individual human psyche, it is a short step to the Boasian claim that the human being is a mere cipher wholly determined in all his behaviors by the specific society of which he is a member. Once the specific mental constitution of the human individual has been declared irrelevant to the constitution of “society,” there is no longer any reason to emphasize the unity of society rather than its diversity and, conversely, the noblest reasons for emphasizing the latter over the former.
Can we then follow the path of Durkheim without arriving at Geertz? Originary thinking answers this question with an unqualified “yes.” The originary hypothesis anchors the “social” in the mimetic psychology of human individuals and their interaction; it explains why there is a “society” in the Durkheimian sense of something more than a collection of individuals linked by one-on-one or small-group relationships.
The evolutionist critique has the potential for drastically modifying the anthropological landscape within which we operate, in a direction I believe quite favorable to originary thinking. Assuming that this critique eventually succeeds in discrediting the SSSM (whose intellectual vacuity has been no secret in these quarters), what will remain is a biology-based anthropology on the one hand–and humanistic studies on the other. Despite the evolutionists’ use of vocabulary such as “machines” to describe human beings and “epidemiology” to describe cultural diffusion, these are no more than hopeful heuristic metaphors. However salutary it may be to reject the dogma of cultural relativism and to examine cultural phenomena as products of evolution-driven adaptations, evolutionary analysis is not yet ready to take the place of the interpretative study of texts.
The relativistic social science model that has lately become so attractive to humanists as an alternative to moribund traditional models of “high culture” can no longer serve them when it is losing validity in its own domain. This suggests that, just as biological adaptationism proposes a yardstick to judge and classify the efficiency of human behaviors, an analogous evaluative tendency will reemerge in humanistic studies, if only to explain the persistence of certain cultural works (e.g., Shakespeare’s plays, but also folksongs) beyond their immediate historical context. More importantly, it implies that new and more rigorous models will be required to mediate between the cultural and the biological. The “Integrated Causal Model” (ICM) proposed by the evolutionists must respect the specificity of the human just as much as that of living as opposed to inanimate matter. The originary hypothesis as a minimal explanation of this specificity is far more at home in the more rigorous context of the ICM than it ever was in the dogmatic gradualism-relativism of the SSSM.
The only way to defend the validity of Durkheim’s concept of society in a context redefined by the evolutionary critique is to offer a model of its generation out of the interactions of its individual members. The constitution of human society as something more than a population of mutually fertile individuals and even than the “social” groups found among our primate cousins is most parsimoniously explained as the result of an event commemorated by a representational sign. If humans are unique in their possession of a “language module,” the originary hypothesis offers an explanation of how this module first appeared as an adaptation to increased mimetic tensions within the proto-human group.
But it also explains why the social is more than the sum of its constituent modules. The presence in all cultures, concomitantly with language, of the ritual enactment of mimetic phenomena suggests the existence among humans of a particular propensity to mimesis already remarked by Aristotle, a propensity that may be described in modular terms as a focused adaptation, but one that at the same time leads to the “dialectical” transcendence of the narrowness of the modular in general. It is the very domain-general form of language that we call metaphysics that permits us to formulate scientific theories, including, in particular, the modular theory as a refutation of the domain-general view of language. But modularity and universality in language are not mutually exclusive. The generative critique of metaphysics as a set of declarative sentences (“propositions”) that denies its historical roots in the ostensive has much in common with the evolutionary critique of the SSSM as a history-denying theory of language and thought.
Although the evolutionists convincingly confute the relativist-descriptive anthropology founded on the Boasian rejection of human nature, which they explain as a noble but wrong-headed reaction against colonialism and eugenics, their failure so far to persuade the more humanistically oriented sector of the social science community cannot wholly be laid at the door of the latter’s fuzzy-headed dogmatism. Whatever the weakness of the domain-general learning-oriented psychology of the SSSM, it reflects, however crudely, an awareness that humans differ from animals in their possession of a formal system of information processing that permits what Derek Bickerton calls the “off-line” manipulation of ideas. However modular its operation within the brain, such a system is qualitatively different from the sensory and signal-based information-processing systems available to animals. Although the human system can only physically exist in individual brains, it can function only in the context of culturally shared meanings that is Durkheim’s “society.”
If our language modules are beneficial adaptations to anything, it is not to our internal information-processing needs, but to the communication of information to others in the context of these culturally shared meanings. The parsimony of the originary event as the origin of these shared meanings contrasts with the conjectural complexity of hypotheses, such as the one referred to in Chronicle 200, that attempt to model the generation of such meanings through one-on-one interactions. The minimality of the originary hypothesis is the antithesis of the SSSM’s minimalistic depiction of the brain as a tabula rasa of non-dedicated neurons that leaves it to the “environment” to define the parameters of human nature.
I hope to explore in future Chronicles further implications of the evolutionist critique and its potential effects on both the narrowly academic and broadly intellectual contexts of the originary hypothesis.