René Girard and CBS’s Sunday Morning on the Future of Human Evolution: From Violence to Love
That was the question posed earlier in the week by CBS’s Sunday Morning in a segment called “The Future of Evolution.” But before looking to the future of human evolution, Sunday Morning briefly examined its history. This was a wise direction for the segment, in my opinion, because before we speculate on what we’re evolving into, we need to know what we’ve evolved from.
The key point CBS made about evolution concerned the social aspect of being human. As we evolved, “Socialization and communication became more important than brute force, giving humans the advantage,” said Sunday Morning correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.
How have advanced socialization and communication skills given humans the advantage? LaPook found the answer by interviewing Yale University evolutionary biologist Stephen Stearns. When he playfully asked Stearns who would win in an arm-wrestling match – a Homo sapien or a Neanderthal – Stearns replied:
Oh, I think the Neanderthal would probably take you down. But I think that as soon as the humans in the area found out about that, they would gather together, and three or four of them would gang up on the Neanderthal.
DING! DING! DING!
The bells in my Girardian head reverberated! I was excited to hear about the human propensity for scapegoating and the escalation of violence from arm wrestling to murder. (Okay, excited is not quite the right word, but I’m a Girardian nerd and this was right up my alley.) Stearns points to this essential aspect of human evolution: the reason humans survived and Neanderthals didn’t was that humans found social cohesion by ganging up against a common enemy.
Unfortunately for this Girardian nerd, the rest of the segment speculated that due to natural selection – well, really sexual selection – our descendents will evolve to have darker skin and darker eyes; blondes and redheads will become “endangered species”; and humans will be hairless.
Like Stearns, the anthropologist René Girard (Girardian nerds unite!) has put violence front and center in the human evolutionary process. But there is an important difference between the two theorists. Girard states that the problem of violence wasn’t presented by an external enemy, such as a Neanderthal. Rather, the problem facing our ancestors was internal tensions within their own community.
According to Girard’s mimetic theory, human desire is social. That is, human desire is not based on a desirable object, such as a caveman’s club, a watering hole or an iPhone. (How about that for an anachronistic leap?) Rather, human desire is always based on the desires of others. In other words, I want that club, watering hole or iPhone because someone else has it. From the very beginning of human evolution until now, this social nature of desire can lead us into dangerous rivalry and violence for objects. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Girard discusses our evolution in this way:
Based on the presuppositions of the mimetic theory, one can argue that many groups and societies perished and were destroyed by lethal infighting, by the explosion of mimetic rivalry being unable to find any form of resolution. The scapegoat mechanism provided a fundamental contribution to the fitness of the group. (99)
The internal rivalry and violence threatened the first humans in a Hobbsian war of all against all. Over a long period of time, that crisis was averted in what Girard calls the “scapegoat mechanism.” The group united against a scapegoat, who was blamed for causing all the internal tensions. A war of all against all transformed into a war of all against one, which restored relative peace and social cohesion within the group. Girard sums up the importance of the scapegoat mechanism by claiming that “it channels the collective violence against one arbitrarily chosen member of the community, and this victim becomes the common enemy of the entire community, which is reconciled as a result” (65).
Many have accused Girard of promoting a theory that claims humans are intrinsically violent. But the truth about violence that Girard points to is also the truth about peace. The reason Girard emphasizes the human propensity for violence is that he hopes we will be converted from it. If there is a next step in human evolution, conversion away from violence must be it.
Near the end of the Sunday Morning segment, LaPook asked Stearns if he has any sense of how the human story will end. Stearns replied apocalyptically, “99.9 percent of all species on the planet are extinct.” What Stearns didn’t say is that humans are the only species alive capable of causing their own violent extinction.
Fortunately, Girard claims there is hope. We are not doomed to apocalyptic violence. But if we are to avoid human extinction, we must evolve from our propensity for social violence into a propensity for social nonviolent love. When it comes to the future of human evolution, Girard proclaims our only hope: “This is the deeper meaning of all this: we will always be mimetic, but we don’t have to be so in a satanic fashion. That is, we don’t have to engage perpetually in mimetic rivalries. We don’t have to accuse our neighbor; instead, we can learn to love him” (Evolution and Conversion, 225).
If there is a next step in human evolution, conversion away from violence should be it.