This Chronicle is the third in a series we might call “GA and the Rest” (Part I: Chronicle 444, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos; Part II: Chronicle 490, Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature), in which I examine books dealing with anthropologically related matters for which I think I can demonstrate that GA provides a qualitatively superior explanation.
In the opening chapter of Science and Faith, written some thirty years ago, I pointed out the fallacy of the gradualism of the social science account of the origin of the human. Break down the emergence of the human into infinitesimal stages, and the radical nature of the split between humanity and other animal species dissolves in a cloud of dust. Natura non facit saltus, but there is a difference between making hypothetical transformations plausible and making them insignificant. Just as there is a solution de continuité between the most complex crystals and the simplest life-forms, so is there one between the most advanced apes and the simplest humans, and the theoretical recognition of this ontological split is all the more necessary when the new phenomenon we seek to describe is precisely “theoretical recognition” itself: the ability to think about events and their components by means of arbitrary or symbolic representation, an ability unique to our species, as years of frustrating chimp studies have borne out.
The social science world remains blind to GA’s “new way of thinking.” The absence of GA or Girardian writings among the 250+ works in this volume’s bibliography comes as no surprise. What might strike even the casual reader as surprising, however, is that a social scientist who would dismiss GA as insufficiently empirical can produce a work about the origin of a foundational element of human culture in which the only empirical evidence comes from contemporary laboratory studies of ape and (human) child behavior. Although one might think that “human morality” is a cultural phenomenon whose operations in extant and historical elementary societies, about which a vast ethnographic literature is readily available, would be worth discussing, this book contains no reference whatever to specific ethnological data. The word ritual does not appear in the index and is used, I believe, just once in the book. As for religion, the unique consideration of it, on page 131 of this 163-page text, would be embarrassing in a freshman paper on Nietzsche:
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way. The origins of religious attitudes in general are unknown, but one key aspect could have originated in the kind of agent-independent and group-minded thinking characteristic of modern humans, particularly when given a historical dimension, including ancestors and ancient traditions. Norms and institutions have a kind of abstract, almost supernatural existence and apply not just to particular individuals but to “anyone,” however that might be conceived. A major source of wonder in human experience is where are [sic] our venerated ancestors who founded our society, and indeed, a key foundation of a religious attitude is the veneration and worship of deceased ancestors and traditions whose spirit somehow lives on (Steadman et al, 1996). Leaders then took advantage of this attitude and claimed supernatural sources for their leadership. (My emphasis)
Virtually every question in this paragraph is begged; note in particular the two somehows. Where did the “leaders” acquire their status? Where did they get the idea they were “somehow anointed by a deity”? How did they come to think of “deities” in the first place? What “one key aspect” of religion “could have originated in the kind of agent-independent and group-minded thinking characteristic of modern humans”? Is a reference to an article by Steadman et al sufficient to establish the “veneration and worship of deceased ancestors whose spirit somehow lives on“?
Unfortunately, this atrociously written paragraph is all too typical of the book as a whole. A writer who can toss off “somehow anointed by a deity” can get from A to B by any means possible. In contrast with GA’s attempt at minimality, Ockham’s razor has been tossed out the window, and the beard has grown down to the floor. For the point here is not to minimize “imaginary entities” but exclusively to minimize the conceptual distance between the animal and the human by breaking it down into as many components as it takes. Explaining the emergence of religion on the basis of “group-minded thinking . . . including ancestors and ancient traditions” is purely vacuous, but it creates a pseudo-causal chain that allows us to dismiss the issue of religion as ultimately inconsequential, derivative of other vaguely alluded-to factors.
What is sad is that in this work Tomasello never associates his most significant anthropological concept, the specific and specifying attribution to humans of joint shared attention and its companion, joint shared intentionality, which is structurally identical with the sign-relation as described in the originary hypothesis, with the scenic foundation of the human community. Instead, Tomasello insists on deriving group solidarity from solidarity with individual “partners,” a “second-person morality” that he claims only subsequently developed into a cultural relationship with a larger society.
The first key step occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago, as a change in ecology forced early humans to forage together with a partner or else starve. This new form of interdependence meant that early humans now extended their sense of sympathy beyond kin and friends to collaborative partners. To coordinate their collaborative activities cognitively, early humans evolved skills and motivations of joint intentionality, enabling them to form together with a partner a joint goal . . . . . .
In this way, participation in joint intentional activities—-engendering both the recognition of partners as equally deserving second-personal agents and the cooperative rationality of subordinating “me” to “we” in a joint commitment—created an evolutionarily novel form of moral psychology. . . . In the end, the result of all these new ways of relating to a partner in joint intentional activities added up for early humans to a kind of natural, second-personal morality. (4-5)
No evidence whatever, paleontological or otherwise, is offered for this Rousseauean vision of proto-humans first establishing a “we” with a “partner” before forming social groups. The discussion of these hypothetical developments is rendered even more unclear by the unexplained introduction of elements previously absent from the discussion. For example:
As modern human groups started becoming larger, they split into smaller bands that were still unified at the tribal level. A tribal-level group—call it a culture—competed with other such groups for resources, and so it operated as one big interdependent “we” . . . (5)
The term tribe, which applies exclusively to human groups, had not previously appeared in the text. Where did “tribes” come from if their group solidarity is only now being established? Why is their split into “smaller bands” (clans?) of significance, since the whole tribe is now treated as a single “culture”? What, indeed, is a “culture” in this context, where not the least reference is made to any of its material or symbolic components?
Animals are very good at pairwise relationships; only humans have collective all-one, center-periphery—which is to say, scenic—relationships. This idea is at the center of Girard’s anthropology. Although Girard never really deals with language, his conception of the social order is essentially symbolic; the symbolic-sacred center of the human community, whether we take it to be the “emissary victim” or the food animal in GA’s originary hypothesis, has the function of deferring (further) conflict, bringing peace through a collective interdiction. Tomasello’s version of cooperation never conceives that the breakdown of ape systems of control is prerequisite to the new human order. Like virtually all social-science constructions, his is purely additive; things just keep getting better and better. But to get to a new collective order from an old implies some form of crisis, be it Girard’s crise mimétique or the “little bang” of GA’s aborted gesture of appropriation. To finesse this transition by beginning gratuitously from a new form of “partnership” unattested in any empirical study is not a breakthrough in model construction, but merely a way of avoiding consideration of a critical event of origin.
It is only on the very last pages of the text (161-2) that the author addresses what even he seems to feel that his readers may find surprising; his utter lack of reference to violence and conflict. Tomasello is perfectly correct to point out that even in wars, the vast majority of human interactions, those within the separate warring collectivities, remain bound by moral codes. But that is only because the moral organization of the individual societies themselves has deferred within each the tendencies to mimetic violence—what the burden of the book was, indeed, to explain. What is central to GA’s and Girard’s definition of the human, that humanity is the only species whose members pose a greater danger to each other than do the forces of nature, is altogether foreign to Tomasello’s understanding. His pseudo-Nietzschean (or is it Voltairean?) contempt for religion correlates with a total unawareness of the problematic of mimetic desire.
This analysis need not be pursued further. The evident lack of intellectual rigor in the passages I have quoted should suffice to demonstrate that although this kind of cognitive science is capable of making valuable contributions to the study of specific practices involving human joint shared attention and joint intentionality, it cannot handle a more complex notion like morality that requires a totalizing view of human society. Thus although Tomasello’s original and most fruitful research focused on language, he never appears to think of associating the institution of morality with the emergence of human language. The symbolic domain here is limited to psychological categories such as “we” and “I,” and the reader has the impression that although the author is aware of the distinction between morality and animal drives, he is incapable of understanding the difference between a moral norm such as Kant’s categorical imperative and a moral attitude such as a feeling of guilt for wrongdoing.
A final irony: in the penultimate paragraph of the book, Tomasello defends himself against what he calls the “criticism of too much rosiness” in positing “a sense of equivalence or equality among persons as foundational to human morality,” given that “it is only with the Enlightenment that social theorists in Western societies began promoting the idea of all individuals as in some sense equal” (162). Students of GA will recognize this “sense of equivalence” as what I have called the moral model, shared by all humans, that derives from the reciprocal exchange of the sign in the originary event. In justifying this “rosy” notion, Tomasello notes that hunter-gatherer societies “were by all indications highly egalitarian.” As the past tense implies, this is a claim about prehistoric societies, taken from C. Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Harvard, 1999). But here for once the author could have found corroboration from the contemporary hunter-gatherer societies observed by ethnologists. Had Tomasello associated reciprocal morality with language and ritual practices in the cultural whole that defines human society, he might have avoided the speculative gradualism that allows him to discuss the origin of morality between “partners” independently of language and religious practice, and grasped the fundamentally scenic nature of the human social order.
The barrier between the methodology exhibited in this book and that of the “humanistic science” of GA might seem insuperable, but this barrier is institutional rather than inherent in the ideas in question. No doubt constructions such as the scenic are foreign to Tomasello’s psychological universe, but that is due to a mindset in which any specifically human element is understood in terms of individual psychology. Yet language and other systems of representation are human precisely because they transcend one-on-one interactions; the (cultural) whole within which the sign is shared is more than the aggregate of the individuals involved. To use representation in the human sense is to enter a sign-world that cannot be reduced to the sum of its individual participants. This “humanistic” concept is not incompatible with the psychological concept of joint shared attention any more than Raymond Tallis’ idea of the pointing human hand is incompatible with GA’s originary hypothesis. Making the connection would require an openness to a new way of thinking, not a leap into the irrational.
In a follow-up to this Chronicle, I will propose some grounds for a potential dialogue with those social scientists who might be willing to envisage enlarging their field of view to include GA.