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  • On Sylvia Wynter's Darwinian Heresy of the "Third Event"
  • Jason R. Ambroise (bio)

In her interview in On Being Human as Praxis (2014), Sylvia Wynter puts forth the most far-reaching discussion of her meta-Darwinian, meta-biocentric view of our species as a uniquely third level of existence, as well as of its implications for our contemporary global sociohuman community and "global problematique" that threatens the overall viability of both humankind and the planet's biodiversity.1 With the coevolution of the human brain—including its storytelling/mythmaking region—along with our species-specific capacity to convey meanings/symbols and stories/myths via language, she holds that our uniquely human existence emerged via a fundamental moment of rupture and discontinuity with the purely biological realm.2 In turn—and in heretical opposition to Charles Darwin's "part science, part myth" proposition that we humans are constituted solely by laws of bioevolution in pure continuity with those of the rest of the living world—Wynter argues that as a result of this rupture/discontinuity, being human is hybridly determined both by laws of bioevolution and by what she terms "laws of auto-institution," of "autopoesies."3 Consequently, our origins, nature, and social ways of existing emerge out of the mutation that she further identifies as the "Third Event."4

Here Wynter modifies and extends the 1990 thesis of the 1977 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, Ilya Prigogine. Prigogine argued that the universe we inhabit is a "dual" one composed of both laws and events. Laws are "associated to a continuous unfolding"; events, on the other hand, "involve discontinuities." He then concluded that "the most decisive events we know are related to the birth of our universe and to the emergence of life."5 Yet to Prigogine's two decisive events, Wynter adds a third: "the origin of specifically human life" as a "hybridly bios/logos or bios/mythoi level of existence" whose thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are irreducible to the first two events' respective laws of functioning.6 For if, as Terrance Deacon asserts in The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997), that "though we share the same earth with millions of living creatures," humans alone "tell stories about our real experiences . . . invent stories about our imagined ones, and . . . make [End Page 847] use of stories to organize our lives," doing so in "shared virtual worlds," then Wynter's Third Event formulation necessarily makes use of Deacon's insights by proposing that his thesis not only calls for a rethinking of the laws specific to "us."7 But she further asserts that such a thesis also calls for our redefinition beyond the dually reinforcing, Western-bourgeois and purely biocentric (i.e., biology-centered) terms of Man(2) as Homo economicus/Homo sapiens. For via a rhetorical strategy that presumes that the similarity of sound between "Man" and "Human" necessarily implies the same referent, Wynter demonstrates how Man(2) as Homo economicus is overrepresented in Darwin's "part science, part myth" origin story as put forth in his The Descent of Man (1871) as the species itself, thereby securing what she identifies as this self-definition's "monopoly on being human."8 Instead, Wynter counters this "monohumanism" by meta-pro-posing that its ethno-class, purely biocentric self-definition should be replaced with a new one of "us" as the hybridly biological and storytelling/mythmaking symbolic species that we are—that is, what she terms "Homo narrans."9


Wynter's new Homo narrans species' self-definition extends the pioneering proposals of the Martiniquan activist-intellectuals Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. Césaire, in his 1944 lecture "Poetry and Knowledge" (published in 1945 and translated into English in 1946), argued that the natural-scientific world-view remains "impoverished" and "half-starved" with respect to our uniquely human level of existence. Yet this "silence" urgently requires and provides the conditions of possibility for the formation of a "new science" that takes our capacity for language or "the word" as its starting point.10 Césaire's 1944 call for a hybrid nature/word science of the human was paralleled by Fanon in the latter's...


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