The current debate about Darwinism might surprise someone who thought that only obscurantists still resisted the theory of evolution. In its most general, that is, cosmological, sense, this theory requires only that the universe consist of stuff capable of varying degrees of organization over time: under these conditions, the “fittest” organizations will tend to survive. Cosmologists willing to entertain the unprovable hypothesis of the plurality of universes because they find “miraculous” that ours is so nearly at the critical density suffer from a profound naivete; the moment when reality becomes miraculous is the one in which one’s theory has been falsified. If this is the only universe of which we can have knowledge, then our models must set the probability of its being created to one; naivete would be the mother of discovery only if data from other universes were somehow obtainable.

In the specific domain of living organisms, Darwinism adds a single critical condition to the quasi-tautology of the survival of the fittest (== the survivors): the distinction between genotype and phenotype, between a relatively stable and limited “code” and the mortal creatures that “express” it. (Cosmological Darwinism implies at least the possibility of such a code, since nothing in principle prevents the varying degrees of organization from reaching the level where self-replication is possible.) Although Darwin knew nothing of genetics, the genotype-phenotype distinction is as fundamental to Darwinism as it is incompatible with Lamarckianism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics). The notion of natural selection in the life-world implies this distinction so strongly that it may serve as the very definition of life. Even if in the first living creatures, the minimal realization of the code (the gene) is coextensive with its expression (the living organism), these “naked genes” would have to perform the two essentially different functions of assimilating matter and energy to build new copies of themselves and of reading the instructions for this building. They would thus be phenotypes of themselves, and selection pressure would inevitably lead to coding the construction of organs external to the code itself.

I don’t think Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) or Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) would be unhappy with these remarks, which do not trivialize, let alone put into question, the idea of biological evolution. But if there is still a debate over evolution, it reflects something contemporary apologists of Darwin are not really capable of dealing with: the origin of the human–a subject on which, rightly considered, the Bible has more to say than The Origin of Species.

Not that originary thinking has an interest in what Dennett calls in his slightly cutesy style skyhooks, intrusions of dei ex machina to explain the emergence of human language and culture. Nothing in GA contradicts the Darwinian concept of evolution. But the problem isn’t that evolution is “false,” or even that it doesn’t in the most general sense “imply” the emergence of language, just as it implied the origin of life. Why should creatures constructed according to the genetic code not eventually become able to represent the world in codes of their own? But even if we assume that the survival value of internal neuronal representations will be enhanced under a plausible set of circumstances by the elaboration of external representations or signs, the question that should interest us most as humans, and which indeed has traditionally interested humanity–which massively participates in religion, not philosophy or positive science–is what this plausible set of circumstances might be. The difference between GA and the various Darwinisms is in the way it defines this question. Our own minimal model of the origin of language cannot be of a different nature from that of the first speakers themselves; human origin is historically continuous with the human present. The memorability of the sign without which language cannot be said to exist requires the condensation into the “signified” of a model of the scene in which the sign emerged. Religion deals with the reconstitution of this scene; it formulates minimal models of the human. This fundamental human task–the object of originary thinking–cannot be framed by positive anthropology as it is currently constituted.

One of the most highly regarded recent works on the origin of language, Derek Bickerton‘s Roots of Language, develops a theory of cognitive evolution that limits discussion of the actual origin of speech to a speculative footnote about what the author calls “crossing the Rubicon.” The treatment of this subject by Chomsky and his followers is more perverse still, as though the most important evolutionary development since life itself were a more or less accidental byproduct of the physical evolution of the brain. No doubt positive science can only take on problems it can solve. But to treat the very essence of the human as an unaskable question is to make naive creationism a respectable alternative to rational thought.

 A new epoch in anthropology begins with René Girard‘s insight that the crucial problem of our species is to defer the violence latent in our mimetic intelligence; linguistic structures evolve within the cultural environment defined by this deferral. The primary function of language is and has always been to defer mimetic conflict, not to deal cognitively with the environment.

The originary hypothesis is not incompatible either with synchronic linguistics or with the attempt to trace the evolution of the language-acquisition device that human infants clearly possess. It suggests to positive linguistics new avenues of research–testing in children the ostensive-imperative-declarative sequence discussed in The Origin of Language, or examining the specific traits of the ritual use of language. But its most important effect is to sensitivize us to the untranscendable paradoxicality of the human. The paradoxical structures of the esthetic and the sacred cannot be reduced to Turing machines either now or at the beginning of human time. We should neither despair of our inability to know ourselves nor glory in our infinite unknowability; our role is to add another turn to the spiral that brings us ever closer to the unreachable horizon of perfect self-knowledge.

Generative anthropology is neither simplistically scientific nor humanistic; it problematizes the frontier between the two. It is neither positive science nor cultural hermeneutic nor religion, open or concealed. It is the grandchild of metaphysics that tries to expel violence from language and the rebellious child of deconstruction that misunderstands language as violence. Is its practice conducive to the ultimate unity of positive, textual, religious, and metaphysical anthropologies? We need not speculate on the consequences of a hypothesis beyond what is necessary to persuade ourselves to explore it.