On violence.

I do not necessarily want to endorse all aspects of Girard's theories, although they strike me as considerably more fruitful than the intellectually incurious "religion is a bad by-product of evolution" solution of Dawkins and others.  But one thing that it relies on is the ubiquity of violence.  Indeed, if Girard is correct, then violence is absolutely pervasive and ready to spiral out of control the whole time unless it is alleviated in some way.

For many years, intraspecific violence was considered to be, to use the technical language, a human autapomorphy; ie a feature unique to humans.  Thus, it was reasonable to consider it part of the general complex of other human-specific features: language, culture, religion etc.  But this simple view had to be modified after the discovery of violent intraspecific conflicts in chimpanzees.  The initial detailed reports of chimpanzee behaviour by Jane Goodall implied that, like other primates, they lived rather peaceable lives.  But later reports contradicted this pacifism, suggesting instead that chimpanzees went on hunting parties to attack and kill other groups of chimpanzees.  

As a result of these revelations, it seems reasonable to ask if human violent behaviour is in fact a synapomorphy of these two closely related apes; ie something shared between them.  In fact, this question is hard, if not impossible, to answer from a formal point of view.  Gorillas seem fairly peaceful, and bonobos, the sister-group of chimpanzees, are famous for being so.  So it is possible that humans and chimpanzees evolved their violent tendencies separately.  Conversely, bonobos may have evolved into more peaceful animals from their violent ancestors.  Still, the idea that humans did inherit their bloodthirsty natures seems quite reasonable.  Unfortunately, investigations into intraspecific violence in Palaeolithic hominids has been rather sporadic and has yielded ambiguous results, although it is clear that at least some violent conflict is deep-rooted (see Thorpe (2003) below for a useful summary: he concludes, however, that levels of violence seem, from the limited evidence available, to be variable).

It seems that we are not totally fantasising when we suggest that the origins of violence lie deeper than the origins of culture and religion. What caused it?  The several theories suggested all have problems: violence does not seem to correlate with resource availabiity, for example, nor with population density.  Perhaps, again, Girard's notion of mimesis, of wanting the thing someone else has, may have some evolutionary explanatory significance in this context.  In any case, his general idea that religion and indeed culture arose as a response to violence rather the other way round seems to be the view that needs no special explanation; whereas the alternative view does.

I. J. N. Thorpe (2003).  Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare.  World Archaeology, 35, 145-165.


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