An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

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WATCH ALSO: GIRARD ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION (CLICK HERE)

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KLIK HIER VOOR VERTALING VAN FAQs OVER MT

I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL VIDEO TRANSCRIPTION (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN VERTALING (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN OVERZICHT (PDF)

CURSUSMATERIAAL AFGELEID VAN VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK-‘N-ROLL

COURSE MATERIAL BASED ON VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

 

Denkgelacherig atheïstisch narcisme

DENKGELACHERIG ATHEÏSTISCH NARCISME

De volgehouden logica in de evangeliën en de verder ontwikkelde christelijke traditie, wijst in de richting van “Jezus als ultieme, soms pijnlijk consequente realist in een wereld van narcisten”. [Voor meer hierover: klik hier]. Dat bepaalde mensen, ondanks alle rationele argumenten, blind blijven voor die logica, heeft niet te maken met een veronderstelde “vaagheid” van de christelijke bronnen, maar met een koppig narcisme.

God works in mysterious waysFundamentalistische christenen, bijvoorbeeld, hangen nogal eens vast aan het geloof in een almachtige God in een eigenlijk niet-christelijke zin [Voor meer hierover: klik hier]. De ervaring leert dat zij moeilijk afstappen van een godsbeeld dat incompatibel is met het godsbeeld dat kan afgeleid worden uit de Christusfiguur van de evangeliën. Als ultieme verdediging van kromme redeneringen trekken zij vaak de kaart van het adagium “Gods wegen zijn ondoorgrondelijk”. Daarmee beëindigen ze iedere vorm van dialoog, discussie en kritische (zelf)reflectie. Maar ook sommige atheïsten houden liever vast aan hun ideeën over het christelijke verhaal (en theologie of zelfs godsdienst in het algemeen) dan dat ze die in vraag zouden stellen. Narcistische, intellectuele zelfgenoegzaamheid is niemand vreemd. Vooral niet als een eerder vijandige opvatting tegenover het christelijke verhaal identiteitsbepalend is. De commentaar van sommige atheïsten, wier blik veelal door negatieve emoties wordt bepaald, op het betoog uit een vorige post [Voor meer hierover: klik hier] is dan ook voorspelbaar: “Dit is een particuliere, misschien zelfs hoogst individuele interpretatie, en uiteindelijk is het allemaal relatief. Wat kunnen we uiteindelijk weten? Met ‘theologie’ kun je alle kanten op!” Alweer duikt het gemakzuchtige en laffe “argument” van “ondoorgrondelijke wegen” op. Tja, voor wie gelooft in rationele argumenten, ondersteund door wetenschappelijke inzichten (van literatuurwetenschap en geschiedenis tot antropologie) zal de ene interpretatie beter en plausibeler zijn dan de andere. Het is allemaal niet zo “ondoorgrondelijk” of “vaag” of “incoherent”.

Op de vragen “Welke beweringen doet het christelijke verhaal en wat is de essentie van het christelijke geloof?” bestaan wel degelijk antwoorden die, vanuit rationeel en wetenschappelijk verantwoord onderzoek, plausibeler zijn dan andere. Wat narcisten ook mogen beweren. Zowel gelovigen als ongelovigen kunnen een onderzoek instellen naar het antwoord op die vragen.

Wat het intellectuele narcisme van sommige atheïsten betreft, is een “debat” dat georganiseerd werd door Het Denkgelag een mooi voorbeeld. Op 17 oktober 2013 hielden Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss en Massimo Pigliucci onder de modererende leiding van filosoof Maarten Boudry een panelgesprek over “de grenzen van de wetenschap”.

Dit theekransje van atheïsten oversteeg zelden het niveau van filosofische cafépraat, maar misschien was dat wel de bedoeling – om de drempel laag te houden. In ieder geval, je zou denken dat het “om te lachen” was als ze zichzelf niet zo ernstig namen. Genant was onder andere hoe bioloog en filosoof Massimo Pigliucci en filosoof Daniel Dennett aan fysicus Lawrence Krauss moesten uitleggen dat de criteria om te oordelen over het morele of immorele karakter van menselijke daden niet door de wetenschap kunnen bepaald worden. Eens die criteria bepaald zijn – eventueel door langdurig na te denken, dus door “rationaliteit” -, kan wetenschap natuurlijk informatie opleveren aangaande de vraag hoe die morele opvattingen het best in de praktijk worden omgezet. Als je bijvoorbeeld gelooft dat het morele gehalte van een daad bepaald wordt door het geluksniveau dat het oplevert, kun je wetenschappelijk kennis vergaren over de mate waarin een daad in “geluk” resulteert. Op voorwaarde natuurlijk dat je eerst gedefinieerd hebt wat “geluk” dan inhoudt. Wat alweer impliceert dat een filosofische, rationele discussie over “geluk” voorafgaat aan ieder mogelijk wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Het is bijzonder eigenaardig dat dergelijke basisinzichten in het lang en het breed (expliciet een twintigtal minuten) moeten uitgesmeerd worden op een avond die pretendeert een hoogmis voor de rationaliteit te zijn. De aanvankelijke “onenigheid” tussen Pigliucci en Krauss had dan ook geen enkele intellectuele spankracht. Ze was gewoon te wijten aan een gebrekkig inzicht bij Krauss. Pigliucci vat de les wijsbegeerte voor eerstejaarsstudenten uiteindelijk samen (tussen minuut 42:40 en 44:00 van het gesprek):

“Nobody in his right mind, no philosopher in his right mind, I think, is saying that empirical facts, or even some scientific facts – as should be clear by now, I take a more restrictive definition of science or concept of science than Lawrence does – but even if we want to talk about empirical facts, broadly speaking, nobody is denying […] that empirical facts are relevant to ethical decisions. That’s not the question. The question is […] that the empirical facts, most of the times, if not all the times, in ethical decision making, are going to underdetermine those decisions, those value judgements that we make. So the way I think of ethics is of essentially ‘applied rationality’. You start with certain general ideas. Are you adopting a utilitarian framework? Are you adopting a deontological framework, a virtue ethics framework or whatever it is? And then that essentially plays the equivalent role of, sort of, general axioms, if you will, in mathematics or general assumptions in logic. And from there you incorporate knowledge, empirical knowledge, about, among other things, what kind of beings humans are. Ethics, let’s not forget, is about human beings.”

Terecht wees Pigliucci er trouwens op dat Sam Harris in zijn boek The Moral Landscape eigenlijk een gelijkaardige denkfout maakt als Krauss. Harris zal wel veel verdiend hebben aan de verkoop van zijn boek, maar bij nader inzien is het intellectuele volksverlakkerij die weinig om het lijf heeft. Niet verwonderlijk dat Pigliucci er het volgende over zegt (48:22 – 48:44):

the moral landscape“Sam Harris, who you [Maarten Boudry] introduced as a philosopher, I would characterize mostly as a neuroscience based person. I think he would do it that way. When I read his book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ which promised a scientific way of handling ethical questions. I got through the entire book and I didn’t learn anything at all, zero, new about ethics, right?”

Daarnaast ergert Pigliucci zich, opnieuw reagerend op een aantal beweringen van Krauss, aan wetenschappers die generaliserende uitspraken doen over filosofie zonder eigenlijk enig idee te hebben waarover ze spreken (1:12:57 – 1:13:28):

“First of all, most philosophy of science is not at all about helping scientists answer questions. So it is no surprise that it doesn’t. So when people like your colleague Stephen Hawking – to name names – starts out a book and says that philosophy is dead because it hasn’t contributed anything to science, he literally does not know what he is talking about. That is not the point of philosophy of science, most of the time.”

Kortom, de onenigheid die soms dreigde te ontstaan tussen Pigliucci en Dennett aan de ene kant en Krauss aan de andere werd telkens opgelost door Krauss een aantal “bijlessen” te geven. Pigliucci was dan nog zo vriendelijk om dat vaak ietwat onrechtstreeks te doen, maar het is duidelijk dat zijn zojuist vermelde commentaar op Stephen Hawking een manier was om Krauss terecht te wijzen over zijn “red herring” (de herhaalde opmerking van Krauss dat (wetenschaps)filosofie vandaag geen bijdragen levert aan wetenschap is irrelevant omdat ze dat ook niet beoogt). Pigliucci besloot deze discussie met een analogie (1:13:59 – 1:14:12):

“So, yes, philosophy of science doesn’t contribute to science, just like science does not contribute to, you know, English literature. Or literary criticism, whatever you want to put it. But so what, no one is blaming the physicists for not coming up with something new about Jane Austen.”

Je zou verwachten dat Pigliucci dergelijke analogie consequent toepast als het gaat om de afbakening van verschillende onderzoeksvelden, maar toen het over theologie ging nam hij plotseling ook de weinig doordachte houding van Krauss aan. Boudry en Dennett sloten zich trouwens eensgezind bij hun gesprekspartners aan. Blijkbaar hadden deze atheïsten een doodverklaarde “vijand” gevonden – de theologie – die hen verenigde (1:13:46 – 1:13:48):

Lawrence Krauss: “Well, theology, you could say is a dead field…”
Massimo Pigliucci: “Yes, you can say that. Right!”

Aan het begin van de avond bleek al dat de heren op dit vlak zeker van hun stuk waren:

20:11 – 20:21
Maarten Boudry: “Do you think that science, no matter how you define it, or maybe it depends, has disproven or refuted god’s existence?”

21:10 – 21:30
Lawrence Krauss: “What we can say, and what I think is really important, is that science is inconsistent with every religion in the world. That every organized religion based on scripture and doctrine is inconsistent with science. So they’re all garbage and nonsense. That you can say with definitive authority.”

21:50 – 22:42
Massimo Pigliucci: “I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about ‘the god hypothesis’. Because I think that’s conceding too much. Well, it seems to me, in order to talk about a hypothesis, you really have to have something fairly well articulated, coherent, that makes predictions that are actually falsifiable. All that sort of stuff. […] All these [god-] concepts are incoherent, badly put together, if put together at all. […] There is nothing to defeat there. It’s an incoherent, badly articulated concept.”

De eerder uitgewerkte post over de al dan niet narcistische Jezusfiguur van het Nieuwe Testament is een eerste falsificatie van de beweringen van Krauss en Pigliucci. Georganiseerde religie, gebaseerd op zogenoemde openbaringsgeschriften en dogma’s, is niet per definitie inconsistent met wetenschap. Het nieuwtestamentishe godsbeeld is bovendien allesbehalve incoherent. Een korte samenvatting van de desbetreffende vorige post mag dit verduidelijken [Voor meer hierover: klik hier].

De mensen die ten grondslag liggen aan de tradities die uiteindelijk resulteren in de geschriften van het Nieuwe Testament geloven dat God zich op het niveau van de mensheid openbaart als een liefde die mensen in staat stelt om op een waarachtige wijze zichzelf en anderen te aanvaarden. Zulke, niet direct zichtbare liefde bevat het potentieel om mensen te bevrijden van een leven in functie van het verlangen naar erkenning of, anders gezegd, van een leven uit liefde voor een onwaarachtig imago dat waardering moet opleveren. De auteurs van het Nieuwe Testament definiëren op die manier wat “redding” (Engels: “salvation”) is: wie zich bemind weet, wordt meer en meer bevrijd van de neiging om zichzelf en anderen op te offeren aan “de afgodendienst van het sociale prestige”. Tegelijk geloven de nieuwtestamentische schrijvers dat de liefde die dergelijke offers weigert op een uitzonderlijke wijze belichaamd wordt in Jezus van Nazaret, die precies hierom “Christus” wordt genoemd en als dusdanig wordt geportretteerd ter navolging.

Via onder andere literatuurwetenschappelijk onderzoek kunnen deze heren atheïsten voor zichzelf nagaan in welke mate deze karakterisering van de nieuwtestamentische beweringen de kern van het christelijke geloof bevat. Misschien moeten ze dat eens doen vooraleer ze zich overgeven aan de narcistische pretentie om gezaghebbende uitspraken te doen over “alle theologie”. Het blijft vreemd dat Pigliucci zich ergert aan een fout die sommige natuurwetenschappers wel eens maken met betrekking tot “filosofie”, terwijl hij zelf die fout maakt met betrekking tot “theologie”. Vandaag houdt theologie zich bezig met het interdisciplinair wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar het godsbeeld van een bepaalde religieuze traditie, en met de eventuele implicaties daarvan. Dit heeft overigens niets te maken met geloven of niet geloven in God. Om een analogie te gebruiken: je moet het uiteindelijk niet eens zijn met het mensbeeld van Shakespeare om een onderzoek in te stellen naar de mensvisie die in zijn werken tot uiting komt. Kortom, de vragen waarmee theologen zich bezighouden zijn van een fundamenteel andere aard dan de vragen waarmee natuurwetenschappers zich bezighouden, en er moeten op een fundamenteel niveau dus ook geen conflicten verwacht worden tussen beide onderzoeksvelden. In de woorden van Pigliucci’s eerder geciteerde analogie om het onderscheid tussen natuurwetenschap en filosofie in de verf te zetten: “No one is blaming the physicists for not coming up with something new about Jane Austen.”

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinMisschien moeten Pigliucci en co maar een voorbeeld nemen aan Georges Lemaître, Belgisch katholiek priester en vermaard fysicus (onder andere grondlegger van de “Big Bang” hypothese). Lemaître maakt een duidelijk onderscheid tussen de vragen waarmee moderne natuurwetenschappers zich bezighouden en de vragen waarmee de auteurs van het Nieuwe Testament bezig zijn. Sterker nog, volgens Lemaître hebben natuurwetenschappelijke vraagstukken niets met theologie te maken, en vice versa. De gelovige natuurwetenschapper kan zijn geloof dan ook geen enkele rol laten spelen in het strikt natuurwetenschappelijke onderzoek. Enkele citaten van Lemaître uit een artikel (klik hier om het te lezen) van Joseph R. Laracy verduidelijken zijn positie aangaande de verhouding tussen de theologie en de moderne natuurwetenschap:

“Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses . . . As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.”

“The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague . . . In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.”

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less — some more than others — on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them . . . The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.”

De vraag naar wat “redding” of “heil” betekent in nieuwtestamentische zin is inderdaad anders dan bijvoorbeeld de vraag waarom en hoe objecten vallen. Zo eenvoudig kan een inzicht zijn om niet langer als een heroïsche maar narcistische Don Quichot “windmolens” te moeten bevechten. Maar een mens moet zich natuurlijk geen illusies maken: de Maarten Boudry’s van deze wereld gaan zelden of nooit de uitdaging aan om hun geloof aangaande de aard van theologie en religie op een wetenschappelijk verantwoorde manier in vraag te stellen. Maar misschien spreekt nu het narcisme van een theoloog:) ?

atheists and fundamentalists

Nochtans draagt Boudry wetenschap hoog in het vaandel. Zijn vraag aan het publiek aan het begin van de avond luidde dan ook (16:58 – 17:30): “Do you think that science is the sole source of knowing?” Er waren veel mensen die bevestigend antwoordden op deze vraag. Dit impliceert dan dat je een persoon die je nog nooit ontmoet hebt beter kent dan een persoon die je iedere dag ziet als je maar accurate en gedetailleerde wetenschappelijke beschrijvingen hebt van de persoon die je nooit bent tegengekomen (en geen wetenschappelijke beschrijvingen van de persoon die je iedere dag ziet). Een beetje een vreemde vaststelling. Ergens zou je toch geneigd zijn om te denken dat je een persoon die zich iedere dag, oprecht en in vertrouwen, aan jou openbaart beter kent dan de wetenschappelijk beschreven persoon die je nooit hebt ontmoet… Of zou de “echte” en “volledige” identiteit van een persoon (zijn “ziel”, om met een oud woord te spreken) te herleiden zijn tot wat er wetenschappelijk kan over gezegd worden? Opnieuw een beetje vreemd dat je de persoonlijkheid van iemand zou “opsluiten” in wetenschappelijke analyses…

Wat er ook van zij, natuurlijk zijn Maarten Boudry, Massimo Pigliucci, Lawrence Krauss en Daniel Dennett niet louter narcisten. Het is niet omdat ze aangaande theologie weinig zelfkritische ideeën etaleren dat ze op hun eigen onderzoeksdomeinen geen uitstekend werk verrichten. Maar niets menselijks is de mens vreemd. Iedereen is bij tijd en wijle wel eens een narcist. Scholen kunnen een bijdrage leveren om mensen vrijer te maken van hun eigen narcistische impulsen door hen te oefenen in het onderscheiden van hun eigen motivaties: handelen mensen vanuit een narcistisch verlangen naar erkenning, of is de eventuele erkenning die mensen verwerven een gevolg van een liefde die ze ontwikkeld hebben voor mens, natuur en samenleving? 

Prince (1958-2016)

On Thursday, April 21, 2016 legendary pop artist Prince was found dead in his studio.

Love him or hate him, without a doubt he was a true musical genius who inspired and will inspire countless musicians, artists, performers and fans. His was a genuine celebration of Life.

Sometimes it snows in April…

A tribute:

Via Crucis (Wim Delvoye & David Bowie)

Wim Delvoye made an intriguing Via Crucis, using X-ray images of rats to depict the different Stations of the Cross. I used it together with the song Lazarus by the late David Bowie to make a meditation. Apart from some scenes of the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, other images included are:

  • Ash Jesus (Zhang Huan, 2011)
  • Still Life or Pieta (Sam Jinks, 2007)
  • Black Christ (Vanessa Beecroft, 2006)
  • Tote BlaurackeDead Bluebird (Albrecht Dürer, 1512)

Click to watch:

The Porn Star & Ignatius

What makes a saint a saint?

Christian spirituality, and the Catholic spirituality in particular, very much focuses on the power of examples.

feral children amala-and-kamalaAs modern psychology shows, humans get access to their particular cultural environments through mimetic processes (i.e. processes of imitation). Perhaps the importance of imitation as the heart of the human (psycho)social identity formation becomes paradoxically visible with the observation of children who lack the example of other human beings while growing up. Feral children often imitate animals instead, with all due consequences.

It is no coincidence that an authentic spirituality, in line with what makes humans “human”, is based on the question “Who am I?” understood as “Whom should I follow / imitate?” Indeed, we receive our identity from others who either free us to ourselves or enslave us to an alienating social status we learn to uphold. We never build our identity “from scratch”. We are relational beings, our being is essentially relational, and all kinds of relationships are prior to our sense of self or “I”.

Thomas à KempisThe great spiritual figures and mystics of the Christian traditions have always believed that we come to ourselves by imitating Christ (see De Imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis – 1380-1471). This does not mean literally imitating some kind of idol (that is a perversion of spirituality) but imitating the life and love present in the figure of Christ. So what this actually means is: stepping into the realm of a love that allows us to be honest about and true to ourselves so that we become capable of lovingly accepting others as well.

Thus saints in the Catholic tradition are not saints because they are unrealistic examples of so-called ideal, perfect people. That would make them idols, crushing all too pious minds under guilt, shame and resentment. On the contrary, saints are saints because they found the audacity to be “painfully honest” about themselves and no longer hid their imperfections, flaws and “sins” from themselves and others.

“Hello, I’m Ignatius, alcoholic”

Saints are people who follow the advice of Jesus in the Gospel of John (8:32), “Know the truth and the truth will set you free…” Free to love. An alcoholic, for instance, who enters the loving realm of an AA meeting and is finally enabled to admit to himself that he is an alcoholic, indeed enters the first step on a journey that will enable him to find himself again. This in turn will enable him to approach others from what he has to give rather then approach others from his particular “needs”.

6219.inddThe conversion experience of Saint Ignatius Loyola (click for more) can be understood in these terms. He converted to “God”, which was a conversion to “himself” at the same time. This does not mean that Ignatius became “God”, but that he found the realm of a love that allowed him to accept himself. Ignatius turned away from the prideful social status he wanted to uphold. The love for a chivalric image and his romantic dreams had prevented him, like some mad “Don Quixote”, from loving others, whom he merely used as “means” to confirm his self-image (either as “enemies” or as “friends”). But at some point in his life, at a moment of a deep identity crisis, Ignatius started to discern between the forces that alienated him from himself and others on the one hand, and the love that allowed him to connect to himself and others on the other. He started to give up the game of “auto- and hetero-aggression” and found true self-respect and respect for others.

The spiritual exercise of Greg, former Porn Star

Greg, the most decorated male porn star of all time, follows in the footsteps of saints like Ignatius who entered the realm of “the life and love present in the Christ figure (among others)”. First of all, Greg became aware of the status he wanted to uphold, as a rich and famous adult film actor, and how this was destroying him. He ended up in an endless vicious circle:

“I had to go to work, to do the porn, so that I could buy the drugs, to bury the pain of doing the porn. So I’d go to work, and do the porn, so I could buy the drugs, to bury the pain. And around and around it went.”

Second, Greg realized what harm this kind of auto-aggression was doing to his ability to love other people:

“What porn did to me, is it changed the way I thought, and felt about women. I began to look at them even more so as a sexual object. I lost the ability to have a loving and caring relationship. I thought I was still able. I was fooled.”

Finally, however, Greg was able to turn away, to convert (Latin: “convertere”), and he transformed his life into a testimony and an example to inspire others:

“I left the set [of a shoot], drove a couple blocks, pulled over, and started crying. Since that day, I’ve never gone back. I changed my life, I began my life. You see, if I can change my heart, anybody can.”

Dirk Draulans, read Girard!

Dirk DraulansDirk Draulans, biologist and science journalist for Belgian Knack magazine, wrote an interesting article on the question of violence in human life (Violence is deeply rooted in us – The biology of terror; PDF: Het geweld zit diep in ons – De biologie van terreur). He drew from several recent findings concerning the ongoing struggle with violence between and within human communities since prehistoric times. Perhaps not surprisingly, he came across questions as well as insights that are at the core of René Girard’s mimetic theory and its explanation of human culture. So I can only advice Draulans to read the work of René Girard and other scholars of mimetic theory. As I’ll try to show, it may resolve some of the ambiguities and dilemmas he touches upon in his article. I’ve translated parts of the article from Dutch, emphasizing certain sentences, before commenting from a Girardian point of view.

First of all, Draulans points to the importance of imitation or mimesis in the origin and maintenance of human culture:

Our culture is not in our genes, but is transmitted by copying and learning behavior.

Island of Wild ChildrenIn this context Draulans refers to a thought experiment conducted by scientists who specialize in the emergence of culture. More specifically, he refers to an article in New Scientist, Island of wild children: Would they learn to be human? (Christopher Kemp, June 3, 2015) that contains the experiment:

100 babies. No adults. One island. Without language, culture or tools, what would they become and how would their own children evolve?

Or, as Draulans puts it:

This led to the key question whether we humans are born violent.

Here’s how Draulans continues:

Protective ButtressingQuite a few scientists who participated in the thought experiment assumed that there soon would be tensions within the group, especially when food is scarce. Indeed, biologically speaking, violence is deeply rooted in us. Chimpanzees, who are models for the ape-men who were our ancestors, are ‘naturally’ violent. The world of chimpanzees is organized around the members of their own group, and neighboring groups are by definition enemies to be fought. Last year, Biological Reviews published an analysis of the skulls of australopithecines, chimpanzee-like ancestors of man who lived several million years ago. The results show that their hands were so evolved that they could easily make fists, not only for handling equipment but also to commit violence. Some skulls, especially of men, were hardened to better absorb punches. Yet in the course of our evolution we gradually became more gentle. We had to, if we wanted to survive in a world with ever more people, many of them we didn’t know. […] An average person would find groups of 150 people or more difficult to handle, for he wouldn’t know everyone personally.

[…]

7000 Year Old Mass Grave GermanyAlthough culture and morality became very powerful in the course of our history, they could never prevent the resurgence of extreme violence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany. It showed that dozens of people, including children, were brutally maimed and killed. It is not the only mass grave from that period. The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another, without any further information about the groups in question.

A Talent for FriendshipScientists are struggling with the difficult balance between our propensity to violence on the one hand and our ability to cooperate on the other. This is shown by two books published last year. In A Talent for Friendship an American ethnographer develops the idea that so-called primitive tribes are not as violent as we were led to believe for a long time. On the contrary, they would have had systems to learn to accept strangers as friends […]. They would even have had ‘ritual battlefields’ to turn hostility into friendship. In another book, Virtuous Violence (CLICK HERE FOR A PRESENTATION IN SLIDES), both an American anthropologist and psychologist defend the surprising statement that violence often is not the result of a diminished moral sense, but rather the reverse: people sometimes use violence because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. They often feel ‘morally obliged’ to be violent.Virtuous Violence

[…]

‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern. It should be possible with our culture, though. But unfortunately it is not always as powerful as it should be.

Pimu Alpha Male Chimpanzee killed by fellow chimps Mahala Park Tanzania 2011In a video compilation I made (on the origin of cultures) as an introduction to mimetic theory (click here), anthropologist David Watts filmed an event that normally doesn’t happen within groups of chimpanzees. True, chimpanzees often collectively inflict extreme violence on individual members of an outside community, but they would not do this to a member of their own community. And yet, that’s what Watts witnessed. It happened in the largest group that was ever observed in the wild, with over a 150 chimpanzees. Indeed, as Draulans writes, groups of 150 people or more become difficult to handle, and people no longer know each member of the group well. It is no surprise that chimpanzees experience similar problems in such a large group: tensions rise, and feelings of empathy are not as strong for every member.

What Draulans only partly emphasizes in his article is the fact that violent tensions within and between groups of primates may also occur when ‘survival’ (of the individual or of the group as a ‘species’) is not exactly the issue. In groups of chimpanzees, males constantly vie for dominance and form frequently changing alliances in order to move up the hierarchy. This has to do with an increased mimetic ability. In many circumstances a group benefits from mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as survival and other skills are more easily passed on from one member of the group to others, but in the context of mutually imitated desires the mimetic ability often leads to violent conflict. Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (for an example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Collective violence of chimpanzees against individual members of an outside community thus also has a social function: it reunites normally competing males of the same group against a common enemy. This behavior forms the basis for the scapegoat mechanism in (primitive) human communities as it is described by René Girard.

It should come as no surprise that the rare event of collective violence against a member of one’s own group precisely occurred in an exceptional group of chimpanzees with over 150 members. Indeed: the bigger the group, the bigger the tensions, and the more individual members may fall outside ‘circles of empathy’, thus running the chance of becoming the victim of a ‘reuniting collective violence’. According to Girard, events of collective violence, releasing tensions within one’s own group, would have happened more in primitive human communities (as those became larger and as humans have even more mimetic ability and thus potentially destructive mimetic desires than other primates). This, again according to Girard, eventually resulted in rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture: ritual sacrifices (for more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion and ‘the sacred’, click here). These rituals try to distinguish so-called ‘good’, ‘justified’ or ‘regenerating’ violence from ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ violence. For instance, in the AndesTinku of Bolivia descendants of the Inca stage a festival called Tinku to receive a good harvest from ‘the mountain spirits’ (this is also shown in the video compilation, on the origin of cultures – click here for more). Almost every year someone dies during this ritual battle, that nevertheless still often ends in an embrace of the fighters. Indeed, this ritual sacrifice of human blood wants to turn potential destructive enmity over scarcity of food into the maintenance of peace because of a good harvest. Honoring the spirits in maintaining certain taboos and sacrifices prevents their wrath (perceived as some sort of supernatural punishment in the contagious disease of destructive violence). A recent study in Science (click here pdf) claims that beliefs like these were necessary to make societies socially and politically more complex: indeed, the establishment of periodic ritual sacrifices would release tensions in a more controlled, structured way.

As said, all these observations from mimetic theory may resolve some of the dilemmas in the article of Dirk Draulans as well as nuance some of his statements. Summarized:

1) Humans are not ‘naturally violent’. We don’t automatically feel nor need to suppress the urge to attack others. What is the case is that we are ‘naturally mimetic’ and that mimetic tendencies in the context of desire might lead to violent conflict (read also pdf The Two Sides of Mimesis by Vittorio Gallese). As Draulans observes, commenting on the study of a prehistoric mass grave:

The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another…

Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (again for the aforementioned example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Humans sometimes even suppress instinctual needs and desires because of mimetically enhanced ambitions. Germany, for instance, entered the first world war as one of the most powerful nations in the world. It had no shortage of consumer products, let alone of basic food supplies and water. It mainly wanted to express its supremacy. Of course, tragically, Germany came out of the war as a broken nation (for more, click here). On an individual level, things like anorexia would not be possible if humans were mainly guided by their ‘natural needs’. Moreover, a recent study once again reveals what happens when mimetic desire is not kept in check by certain beliefs (“I have to accept my social position because of karma”) or taboos (“I cannot question the authority of my king because god will punish me if I do so”). The article of this study, in Nature (October 15, 2015), Conspicuous wealth undermines cooperation, concludes:

Visibility of WealthWealth inequality and wealth visibility can both potentially affect levels of cooperation in a society and overall levels of economic success. Akihiro Nishi et al. use an online game to test how the two factors interact. Surprisingly, wealth inequality by itself did not damage cooperation or overall wealth as long as players do not know about the wealth of others. But when players’ wealth was visible to others, inequality had a detrimental effect.

2) Human culture (and morality – Draulans seems to use this term as a synonym) arises both as an attempt to suppress violence and as an attempt to justify so-called ‘necessary’ violence. Draulans refers to the ambiguity of ‘ritual battlefields’, which is in itself a way out of the dilemma of ‘cooperation vs violence’. Following René Girard and mimetic theory, basic cultural religious institutions such as ritual (sacrifices) allow for a fundamental distinction between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence and provide individual members of human communities with the collective means to justify the violence they inflict on others. This justification is part of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. As it provides ‘distinctions’, ‘definitions’ and ‘(psychological and social) identity’ against the threat of undifferentiated, ‘contagious’ violence, the scapegoat mechanism also forms the basis of human culture according to Girard. It might shed more light on this quote by Draulans:

‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern.

René Girard portraitI guess ‘reason’ alone doesn’t make us human. There are ‘matters of the heart’ too, guiding us to use our brains not to build weapons of mass destruction but to build ‘bridges of solidarity’…

Anyway, Dirk, read René Girard!

Highly recommended:

How We Became Human – Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins

How We Became Human.jpg