Last week’s Chronicle 687 elicited reactions from two distinguished colleagues that revealed the need for a clarification of GA’s epistemological status.
In contrast with the two opposing perspectives of theism (God creates Man) and atheism (Man creates God), which define respectively the anthropological discourses of religion/revelation and of natural science, GA presents itself as a “humanist” anthropology that avoids deciding between the two. Unlike scientific discourse, GA recognizes that the category of the sacred is both essential to and uniquely experienced by humans, but unlike theistic discourse, it does not posit the existence of a sacred entity independent of the world of human experience.
This seems to me the proper way to situate the originary hypothesis, but it fails to make clear exactly how this “meta-feature” should be implemented within GA’s own discourse. In what way should our description of the originary scene, which avoids reference to divine revelation, differ from that of anthropology as a social science?
Social-science anthropologists, as well as linguists, unanimously consider that the originary hypothesis is not “scientific” because it is unfalsifiable. The idea of a hypothesis that can be made plausible only by reference to its consequences, that is, of a heuristic hypothesis, is unacceptable in domains where conclusions must be based on the analysis and prediction of data. However useful it may be to speak about the scenic nature of known cultural phenomena, the necessity of an originary scenic event evidently cannot be derived from the existence of these phenomena.
I had therefore considered that GA’s dependence on a heuristic as opposed to an empirically falsifiable hypothesis sufficed to distinguish it from “scientific” anthropology. But my colleagues’ surprise at the sentence:
No doubt the originary hypothesis should not be interpreted to suggest that the event it describes occurred at a single point in space-time that divides the prehuman world from the human.
made it clear to me that what I had taken to be a nuanced statement of the hypothesis could be viewed as contradicting its longstanding claim to “minimality,” or conformity to Ockham’s razor, the rule that imaginary entities should “not be multiplied beyond necessity.”
This is indeed a point that I had overstated in the past by affirming, not that it sufficed for our purposes that the event took place just once, but that it necessarily could only have taken place once. For example:
In biological evolution each fundamental transformation takes place only once. The branches of the genealogical tree of species do not converge. . . . Man’s qualitative as well as quantitative distance from other species implies that the biological rule of unique genesis must apply to him even more rigorously. If our hypothesis truly describes the birth of man, the founding event it postulates must have occurred only once: its concentration in a unique event.
(Science and Faith, 2nd ed., Aurora, CO: Noesis Press, 2015: 7-8)
This claim of the originary event to uniqueness is itself a violation of Ockham’s razor. It treats the origin of Man as an “ontological” event in a sense that is in effect theistic. For after “the” event, God would know that “now Man exists,” but if no transcendent consciousness pervades the universe, a second group of hominins not in contact with the first could arguably have a similar experience. That is an entirely different issue that could be settled, if at all, only by the “hard” sciences of paleontology and genetics.
If the breakdown of the Alpha-Beta system led to a “mimetic crisis” that eventuated in the invention of the sign in more than one place, that would hardly be surprising, given the spread of hominids and hominins of different species throughout Africa and the rest of the world. Perhaps this is unlikely, perhaps not, but we need not concern ourselves with this question, because it is not, minimally, an element of the hypothesis. Whether we are all cultural if not biological descendants of the chronologically first group to experience the originary scene is irrelevant to GA’s central thesis that our description of the scene, always of course subject to revision, contains the minimum of elements necessary for language to appear.
A similar discussion could take place around the determination of the exact moment of the first sign. The core of the hypothesis is the collective experience of the aborted gesture of appropriation as a sign. In historical terms, this is indeed a punctual event, but it seems useless to debate whether the sign-experience would be definitive if only one member of the group understood it in this manner, or if we can only speak of a sign when all the members repeat it.
Just as Adam Katz pointed out years ago, correcting my original formulation that the idea of interpreting the aborted gesture as a sign occurred “spontaneously” to the group as a whole, that this idea must first have been grasped by one or more individuals, and only subsequently spread to the others, so it is useless to argue about the uniqueness of the first moment of humanity. What matters is the minimality of this experience. It is true that all known human languages are sufficiently similar to suggest that they had a common origin, but this should be viewed as an empirical question that our ever-increasing knowledge of hominid paleontology may quite possibly be able to resolve. The originary hypothesis refers to the causality of the event, not to its uniqueness.
This being said, my colleagues’ reaction points to a component of human self-reflection that I had previously overlooked, and that is relevant to the whole question of the sacred.
I can only apologize for the naivete of my earlier insistence on the absolute singularity of the originary event. But that insistence, along with these reactions, makes me realize that the underlying attitude they manifested was not simply naïve. It was the expression of what can be called a residual theism, not oriented toward a divine being, but nevertheless focused on a “uniqueness” that, to be fully guaranteed, would indeed require a consciousness whose universal purview could only be that of such a being.
This provides us with an important insight into the basis of religion.
One of the essential functions of the sacred, notably in the Judeo-Christian culture of the One God, is the creation of the world, and more specifically of Man. Conversely, one way of judging the current crisis of Western civilization is to note the increasing reluctance of scientists and laypersons alike to see Man as anything other than just one more—particularly destructive—species.
I have noted (see Chronicle 513) what I consider the curious insistence with which astronomers refer to what is tantamount to the logical necessity of the existence of extra-terrestrial life—not merely on exo-planets in distant galaxies, but even on other bodies in our solar system—although no particle of evidence of such life has ever been discovered. It is as though the scandalous possibility that “intelligent life,” or even life itself, might be uniquely confined to our planet comes uncomfortably close to a “proof of the existence of God,” although logically speaking it would of course be nothing of the sort.
Thus my former unnecessary insistence on the uniqueness of our scene of origin should no doubt be seen as the converse of the atheistic credo of natural science: if our existence falls below a certain minimum of probability, is this not a proof of the existence of God? Logically, of course not, but it is surely not without significance to generative anthropology that the very scenic nature of our culture appears to require the uniqueness of its origin. Just as religious texts describe human history as a sequence of unique events guided by a central will, so is our culture full of fictions in which individual lives and historical phenomena are described by a central will in terms of unique events. That is how scenes function; their epistemological basis is that of a unique revelation, however well or badly it explains the elements of highly complex processes.
The sacred cannot be understood, as many social scientists appear to think, as a useful expedient to maintain social order. As soon as we suspect that it is but an expedient, its expediency disappears. And this is because, whatever we think about God in the privacy of our soul, the very notion of God—and the “soul” as well—is inseparable from the human community in which alone it could have been formulated. Whence the usefulness of religious belief and ritual as a means of insuring group loyalty, a point that has been developed by Rodney Stark (A Theory of Religion , The Rise of Christianity , How the West Won ), in particular relation to Western Christianity. Insects can be “programmed” to sacrifice themselves instinctively for the sake of the group; but the first couple’s felix culpa assures that participation in the human community is mediated through the will of its individual members.
In order for human origin from the perspective of GA to be seen as compatible with its description in the Bible, the point that GA preserves from the biblical story, that of human uniqueness, allows our humanist anthropology to “fraternize” with theism. Like the biblical account of the creation of Man, the hypothetical originary event is not a description of an empirically verifiable happening, but a means of explaining the originary function of the différance that defines the human.
But as my colleagues’ reactions, and my own earlier insistence on “uniqueness,” make clear, however we may qualify our judgment as to the situation of the originary hypothesis in the real world, we must be very clear that the need to affirm the uniqueness of the “first” event of human language is not material to GA’s “way of thinking.”
Nothing in the real world happens “instantly”; nothing creates a dimensionless cut in the time-sequence. If at some future time we have material evidence of one or more “originary” events, we can then concern ourselves with the question of which was earlier and of whether the earlier influenced the later. But none of this is relevant to the minimal hypothesis itself.
What GA shares with religious story of the Creation is the essential ontological separation between the world of the human, which is the world of the sign, of the logos, and the rest of the universe. Whether the originary event we hypothesize took place more than once, or what degree of unanimity in sign-usage should be required to classify a given occurrence as such an event, is peripheral to our anthropology. It suffices to point out that, unlike the emergence of animal species, that of the human—whether our own homo sapiens, or some ancestral species—is defined by an act that is not merely “cultural” in the general sense in which mammals and even insects have a “culture,” but involves a new layer of self-consciousness that can be minimally described as an exchange of signs, a logos.
To put it most simply, we may say that the human emerges as the consequence, not of a gene, but of a scene. It is the uniquely human scene that gives us our sense of the unique moments of history, our own and that of the universe.