Human Evolution and the Single Victim Mechanism: Locating Girard's Hominization Hypothesis through Literature Survey
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Human Evolution and the Single Victim Mechanism:
Locating Girard's Hominization Hypothesis through Literature Survey


René Girard's interdisciplinary theory of human culture, its origins, and its evolution, constitutes one of the more ambitious theories available in scholarship, with manifold applications in the humanities, interdisciplinarians, the human sciences, and peace studies scholars.1 I will not rehearse that theory here (a thorough introduction ought to be sought elsewhere, as in Evolution and Conversion) but briefly recall that he has argued: (A) that pre-cognitive imitation (mimesis) is a key factor driving human behavior and gives rise to numerous benefits and problems, and (B) that early human mimetic capacity coevolved with and through "the victimage mechanism"—i.e., group murder of a victim, which gave birth to the cultural order through its repetition in sacrifice, prohibitions, gods (the transcendent victim), and myth, all of which channeled and restrained violence. That is, sacrifice "domesticated" humanity, safely channeling its mimetic capacities while it outgrew its instinctual safeguards (like dominance patterns).2 Finally, (C) Girard theorizes that biblical myths and their social effects, especially the gospels' explicit representation [End Page 191] of a founding-murder, have played a special historical role in slowly dissolving our "sacrificial safeguards" and making us capable of seeing (a bit less dimly) through our originary, opaque misapprehension.

I want to isolate just the second aspect (B) of that theory for analysis here: the anthropology of human origins and evolution. While it may distort Girard's oeuvre to isolate this aspect from all his other literary and theological aspects,3 his work has, at several critical points, delved into explicit Darwinian evolutionary theory,4 and it thereby warrants some contextualizing among the other specialists in that field. There are already several anthropologists (not to mention psychologists) who employ Girard's work,5 and several others who Wolfgang Palaver sees as resembling and corroborating Girard.6 But I take pause when, although Michael Serres praised Girard as the "Darwin of the human sciences," he is not mentioned once in the wide-ranging compilation of scholars in the recent volume Darwin in the Twenty-First Century.7 Similarly, one of the more expansive analyses on religion, ritual, and human evolution, Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity,8 makes no mention of Girard's work. Dr. Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, dismissed my inquiry about Girard with: "Alas, I am unfamiliar with Monsieur Girard's work, but I doubt that the elements you mention [point (B) above] had much to do with the acquisition of human cognition; rather, they are the product of it."9 Or, theologian and evolutionary theorist, Dr. Deanne-Drummond, passed over Girard in her book on evolution, telling me, "I am afraid I have not given his work serious thought, partly because it did not strike me as being consistent with what is known now about hominin evolution."10

Is this unfamiliarity representative of a broader anthropological consensus and a tacit dismissal? Are the Girardian anthropologists (see endnote 5) on a false trail, working under a confirmation bias? Or are they ahead of their time? To explore these questions, one could explore reasons that his theory would naturally face critique and friction: the academic taboo on grand theory, aversion to a too "Hobbesian" ontology of violence, aversion to ethnocentric theorizing about "primitive" cultures, or his Christian "bias" after a supposed atheistic "objectivity" in Violence and the Sacred. Girard responded to these in different ways, most concentrated in his Evolution and Conversion. For this article, I take a constructive, data-driven exploration to the questions, surveying over 50 sources that are not already being employed by the "Girardians," chosen in consultation with leading anthropologists, seeking to locate Girard's hypothesis among others, asking if it is resonant, dissonant, or somewhere in between. I conclude from the survey that it tends toward a resonance and that the above unfamiliarity should not discourage continued research within [End Page 192] his framework—whether in the sciences or humanities. The myriad data in my survey took shape in largely four themes: religion's adaptive/generative function, our recent and...