Having done some recent readings in cognitive science, the titles of which I will leave diplomatically unmentioned, I am struck by these researchers’ neglect of religion when they come to speculate on the origin of human language. No doubt social scientists do study “religion,” in the sense of people’s religious practices. Tanya Luhrmann, for example (who once expressed astonishment that my theory of language origin “ignored empirical data”), has derived much interesting material from interviewing persons who claim that they “talk to God.” But when it comes to the fundamental question of the origin of the speech and “culture” (for the word is used) that makes us humans different from our ape cousins, religion is mentioned at best in passing, as though anything appearing in a “religious” context such as a rite or a statuette or a cave painting can be understood in cognitive terms independently of that context, as a sign of a certain level of neurological development—as shown by the ability to dance in coordination, or to form clay to correspond to a mental image.
In Chronicle 519 I had occasion to deplore the distinguished cognitive scientist Michael Tomasello’s incredibly naïve remarks on the relationship between religion and morality. Apparently the PC forces that lead Tomasello to use “she” as the exclusive generic pronoun are untroubled by his depiction of the moral function of religion as ambitious leaders’ attempts “to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view [by claiming] that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way.” Clearly the psychology-laboratory-focused cognitive science of today has devolved considerably from the anthropological perspective illustrated by Roy Rappaport’s hypothesis that human language and religion emerged simultaneously.
Language, after all, is “useful.” It is interesting to see the old just-so stories about cooperation and the transmission of information (“the food is over the hill”) trotted out by contemporary scientists to explain the origin of language, suggesting that nothing new has been added, but much subtracted, since empirical studies have become the basis for our “knowledge” of the subject. And no doubt observers of children (brought up in presumably religion-free environments) as the proxies for the original users of language fail to note any innate “religious” behavior that would distinguish them from the chimpanzees with whom they are inevitably compared. Unfortunately, however, it is self-evidently impossible to understand the emergence of human language itself from the perspective of infants born into a language-using community. Yet even the absurd idea of “motherese” as the originary source of language still seems to be respectable in cognitive science circles. (Presumably the mothers met together periodically in order to synchronize their lexicons.)
If the real problem were merely a matter of neglecting “the religious factor” in language study, this lacuna would be of secondary importance. Cognitive scientists could do a few laboratory experiments, by showing children and apes, say, pictures of divinities mixed with secular figures, to judge their reactions; similarly with “religious music,” etc. But clearly the point is to study not the relation between religious practice and early language acquisition as we observe them today, but the role such practice must have played at the origin of language, and that is not something susceptible to empirical observation, except to the extent that we can extrapolate, from the traces of archaic religious practices, cave paintings and the like, the way in which language and other symbolic activities may have been deployed in them.
We know that Natura non facit saltum (or saltūs, if you like plurals). But sometimes there are differences that are, as Engels put it in his Dialectics of Nature, qualitative rather than quantitative. That doesn’t mean that these differences can’t be broken down into details and vanishingly small changes. But it means that the effect of these changes can’t just be relative; they have to lead to the emergence of a new structural configuration. Such as I attempted to describe in the originary hypothesis, and such as, by dint of wholly ignoring this hypothesis—first presented in The Origin of Language (University of California Press, 1981)—none of the cognitive scientists have attempted to describe since.
Isn’t it simply common sense that language and religion, two central unique elements of human culture, along with art which certainly was also associated from the beginning with religious ritual, should emerge together? All the available paleontological evidence points to the archaism of religious practices. Indeed, when we seek evidence of human activity, aside from stone tools, the evidence is of cave paintings and statuettes and presumably ceremonial burials, and implicit in our descriptions of these phenomena, even of striations on stone surfaces or hand-prints on cave walls, is that they had some “sacred” function, one presumably not dictated by a wily ruler trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his followers.
The originary hypothesis provides a minimal scenario for the generation of religious practices simultaneously with linguistic signs, the very formation of which includes an esthetic moment. The uniqueness of the originary event thus described is heuristic. However messily things occurred “in reality,” the birth of the sign can only take place as an event, and the néant of appetitive activity defined by the sacred/profane dichotomy within which the sign and its esthetic are constructed, even if it only emerged unambiguously over the course of thousands of individual events, is an entirely new element whose internal development is of strictly secondary importance with respect to its all-or-nothing existence.
But this is a kind of reasoning that pleases neither social scientists nor philosophers. For whereas the former cannot operate without empirical and preferably experimental evidence, controllable and reproducible, the latter, when discussing “how to do things with words,” are not interested in originary models but in “ordinary” configurations—not in a scene that arises where scenes have never existed, but in scenes like the ones we experience every day in the faculty lounge or perhaps in the office of the civil clerk. Yet there has to have been a first scene in the human sense that philosophers are familiar with but cannot theorize because they necessarily take it for granted as the locus of their own thought.
Where is religion in all this sound and fury? Well, religion is the one element that, although we cannot deny we are familiar with it—within a mile of my condo in Santa Monica there must be fifteen different churches—however we may conceive evolutionarily selectable “uses” for it in creating solidarity and letting off steam, can’t quite be explained by them. Si Dieu n’existait pas, il fallait l’inventer, but all explanations for God and the activities associated with him have the ring of the a posteriori, of something thought up to “save the hypothesis.”
Except, allow me to insist, the situation of the religious, or of God if you prefer, in the hypothetical originary scene of generative anthropology. The sacralization of the object/referent of the sign is precisely the same phenomenon as the attribution of significance to this object and therefore of signification to the sign itself. Calling the originary sign the name-of-God is not a rhetorical flourish; pointing out the one all-important being is what the sign does, and what signs continue to do however many of them there come to be. Once this is understood, grammar and syntax become categories of only secondary consequence—which is more or less what the “functional grammar” of the cognitivists has been affirming.
Indeed, the simplest way to demonstrate the superiority of GA and its Girardian foundation to cognitive-science theorizations of language origin is in their respective handling of religion. In the days of Durkheim, religion was at the center of anthropological theorization. Writers such as Tylor, Frazer, Malinowski, even Boas, were above all preoccupied with understanding the religious activities of archaic societies because they saw, as Durkheim had understood after studying the findings of Spencer and Gillen and others on Australian aboriginal societies, that religious activity is the central element of archaic or elementary culture, particularly in the simplest egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. The fact that persons lacking in any sensitivity to the parameters of human culture, let alone training in ethnography, have now taken to offering hypotheses concerning the origin of language on the exclusive basis of empirical studies of child and ape behavior does not in any way imply that religion is no longer relevant to the matter. It is no more irrelevant now than when Rappaport published Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity in 1999.
If we simply take it as given that the centrality of religion, in the simple sense of the Durkheimian dichotomy of sacred and profane, must have obtained at the origin of language, which is to say that, as Rappaport affirmed, they must have been “coeval,” then the simplest way to reveal the inadequacy of the current cognitive theories is by their utter failure to demonstrate or even to be able to formulate in hypothetical terms this coeval emergence.
But let me reiterate that one need not be a religious believer to intuitively grasp that if religion and language, along with art which is clearly linked to both, are the central elements of human culture, none of which is exemplified elsewhere in the animal kingdom, then a theory of the origin of one of these elements that does not include the others is prima facie invalid. Un point c’est tout.
Keep this argument in mind. Altogether unrecognized today by either the academic authorities or the popular media, its truth is nonetheless obvious. And once you realize that it is obvious, you should feel confident in seeking to transmit your conviction to others. For the Girardians among you, it is through this primordial unity of human culture that the human superiority in mimesis, despite the violence it occasions, has survived and flourished. We can both defer violence and learn from each other, even truths that are almost universally ignored.
To conclude with one of René’s favorite lines, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1, 5).