Although the members of every racial/ethnic/sexual minority belong in the first place to “the human race,” in today’s era of identity politics, affirmations of universal humanity are viewed with suspicion. The multiculturalist critique of universal anthropology argues that since every culture or language is a particular culture or language, any so-called cultural universal is either a vapid abstraction or an unwarranted extrapolation from a specific cultural experience in which the “majority culture” erects its own ethical (religious, political, esthetic,…) practices into universals. Since the lived experience that is the source of our intuitions about the human is determined by our membership in particular groups, the species-wide anthropology appropriate to the natural science of evolution is deemed irrelevant to the human science of culture. This distinction is reflected in the characteristic division of academic anthropology departments into physical and cultural anthropology. But the multiculturalist argument is not simply that any universal model fails to respect the essence of cultural specificity, which is that it can only be defined against other specificities. The field of cultural difference is not conceived as a uniform plane. Multiculturalism takes as its primary model of difference the asymmetric distinction between Western cultures and those of the West’s former colonies and dependencies. To apply a universal model to both a “subaltern” culture and that of its former colonizer is condemned as an act of imperialist bad faith.

Generative anthropology’s counterargument is that a heuristic theoretical construct is necessary to mediate between the necessary specificity of cultural experience, the mere multiplication of which cannot suffice to found a universal notion of culture, and the claim implicit in the very word anthropology that behind the variations of individual cultures lies a singlelogos of the human that explains the universality of all our moral intuitions, the intertranslatability of all our languages, the mutual comprehensibility of all our customs.

It is customary to claim that morality is “socially constructed” while at the same time castigating Western society for imposing its own values on others, oblivious to the fact that this very critique takes for granted a transcultural morality. Only a hypothesis of common origin gives us a basis for applying moral values transculturally. At the same time, it is only once we have defined an originary model of moral reciprocity that we can begin to understand how this model is transmuted into the ethical rules that operate both within and between individual societies. Rather than singling out the West for failing to live up to “its own” moral values, we should judge all human actions by the same moral values. Only when we have leveled the moral playing field can we evaluate every human interaction, whether a Western act of conquest or a precolonial rite, by a universal criterion that takes into consideration the ethical constraints on morality and gives us a means of judging when moral progress is being made and when it is not. The originary hypothesis guarantees the intuition of moral equality that underlies victimary resentment, but without privileging this resentment over the ethical reality it denounces. The moral critique of an national or political ethic cannot take the place of, but should rather proceed from, the analysis of the operations of the overall exchange system in which this ethic inheres. Although the resentment aroused by a violation of our fundamental moral intuition of reciprocity drives us to discover and denounce examples of non-reciprocity in human relations, resentment, which makes moral condemnation an end in itself, does not provide a useful basis for explaining the social function of this non-reciprocity.

With respect to the originary hypothesis, it is important to distinguish between the particularity of the originary event conceived in its concrete reality and the minimal claims of the hypothesis concerning what must have happened. The premise that a sign was emitted abstracts from the specific qualities of this sign and a fortiori from the determination of which features of the physical signifier were selected as significant. A minimal hypothesis of origin reduces to a minimum the traits conducive to the rememoration and repetition of the sign. Once we accept the presupposition that acts marked by the uniquely human process of representation are events and that the very notion of event implies that a “first event” must have occurred, any hypothetical scenario we use to lend the hypothesis plausibility will exceed this minimal requirement in unknowable ways. A scenario that describes more than it must without our being able to determine exactly the location of the excess is one way of defining a heuristic hypothesis. To go beyond the logical minimum in order to impress the hypothetical scene on our own and our readers’ imagination is to accept that whatever actually occurred contained much detail not recuperable by the culture (including language) that formed around it. To abstract from the concrete detail of the first and of any human culture is in no way to deny the necessary reality of the particulars one abstracts from.

One detail in particular of the originary scenario poses a quandary. To construct an all-male model of the originary scene, however plausible this may be given both the masculine quasi-monopoly on intraspecific violence and the dominant role played by males in all societies before our own, is to court the accusation of justifying male dominance. Yet if we deny the pertinence of gender to the hypothesis and refer to the originary community in non-sexual terms, we may equally well be accused of dissimulating the fact of this dominance. The solution to this dilemma, intellectually if not always practically, lies in the notion of firstness, a category first applied to the originary context by Adam Katz. The hypothesis that only males were present at the originary scene of language has no bearing on women’s capacity to use language or participate in all forms of social interaction, hence on their moral equality with men. On the contrary, the hypothesis of male firstness provides a cultural (and not simply “sociobiological”) explanation for the near-universal exclusion of women from many of these activities, an exclusion that has ended only very recently in Western societies and continues to this day in traditional societies.

No doubt the most vexed of all examples of firstness is that of the Jews, whose historical priority in the invention/discovery of the uniqueness of sacred Being has earned them centuries of resentment and much worse. Monotheism is a parsimonious doctrine founded on an intuition of anthropological universality–that we are all descended from one scene. The “one God” of the Jews is not their God but everyone’s. Yet even if the Hebrew God lacks a name by which “his” people can call on him, their historical association with this revelation cannot be forgotten. To accept the historical prestige of firstness without attributing to it a claim of ontological superiority is tantamount to accepting the analogous intuition of the uniqueness of the human scene that is the foundation of generative anthropology.


Given that the lesson of the sign is the deferral of appetitive appropriation and the danger of violence that it poses, the question arises as to how the deferral of the originary scene, reenacted in ritual, was first extended to long-term “Maussian” exchanges, notably those related to kinship, whose structures, like those of human language, are wholly cultural rather than elaborations of preexisting animal systems. Considering all human exchange to be mediated by the sacred center established in the originary event, how does sacred deferral insert itself between the parties to what once were animal interactions so that the configuration established in this event may evolve into a complex set of kinship relations? We should not expect to derive the kinship systems we find today directly from the minimal terms of the hypothesis; just as we know of no “primitive” languages, so we know of no “primitive” societies. It is nonetheless important to indicate a plausible path between the originary scene and the kinship system.

In his groundbreaking The Symbolic Species (Norton, 1997), Terrence Deacon hypothesizes that symbolic representation itself originated in the domain of kinship. The protohuman males who absented themselves for long periods to hunt for food needed to establish a permanent bond with their females in order to be assured that the offspring to whom they brought nourishment were really their own. But this hypothesis fails to define an originary event in which symbolic signification could emerge.

According to the originary hypothesis, emission of the sign is both an act of interdiction and an act of exchange. My own supposition that this emission was followed by the sparagmos of the central object is already a step beyond minimality for the purpose of offering a plausible scenario for dividing up this appetitive object after the old alpha-beta hierarchy has been overthrown. The acquisition of comparable or exchangeable parts of the object is far from the “exchange of women,” yet it obeys the same principle of symmetrical distribution. The most parsimonious supposition is that human societies would apply to other objects of desire the violence-deferring configuration discovered in the originary scene.

The establishment of a kinship system regulated by marriage laws, or negatively, by the “incest prohibition,” is surely not an immediate consequence of the originary event. Exogamy of any kind requires the identification of subgroups within a larger community. We may assume that after the emergence of multiple human communities, whether as a result of the splitting apart of the originary community or of its imitation by other groups of protohumans, the evolution of language and ritual permitted–perhaps only with the appearance of modern homo sapiens–the accretion of smaller groups into second-level societies, whose organization around the “totems” characteristic of the member communities establishes a secondary level of exchange beyond that of the “equal” portions of the originary event. This second-level organization would be the likely source of exogamy and kinship systems. Beyond the specifics, on which we can only speculate, lies the essential feature of human culture generated by the sign, that of simultaneous interdiction (of the whole) and exchange/equal division (of the parts).


The originary hypothesis is not a grid whose imposition on historical reality reduces the variety of human culture to the repetition of the “same” human scene and thereby forecloses empirical research. Generative anthropology presupposes that human culture is a reflection mediated by the sacred on the human itself, and therefore always in some sense a “theory of origin.” The configuration or “template” of human interaction that is the substance of the originary hypothesis underlies the variety of cultural activities but does not predict them.

From the perspective of the originary hypothesis, history consists of a series of experiments in social organization that begins with the originary event. The two fundamental models of human exchange are the near-instantaneous reciprocal exchange of signs and the deferred exchange of things. In traditional societies and even in the highest civilizations before the Renaissance, the dominant form of exchange remained the “Maussian” mode in which each transfer is part of an in principle endless circulation of “gifts”: goods, services, and people (the “exchange of women”). Market transactions, in contrast, extend the short-term interaction characteristic of the sign to the exchange of goods and services. The market’s rise to dominance beginning in the Early Modern era brought about the revolution in economic and political organization that gave birth to the modern “Western” social order.

If thus far the analysis of historical phenomena in the light of the originary hypothesis has occurred most often in the Humanities, this is because, in contrast with the entropy-ridden manifolds of real life, the unified imaginary universes generated by religious representations and works of art–works of “culture” in the narrow sense–are in the broadest sense homologous with the human universe as a whole, the single “community of man.” This suggests that as our increasingly global civilization–“culture” in the broad sense–attempts to construct such a community in all its complexity, the hypothesis that all things human derive from a single event should prove increasingly productive beyond the humanistic sphere.