The Scapegoat Mechanism in Human Evolution: An Analysis of René Girard's Hypothesis on the Process of Hominization

D. Vincent Riordan
2021 Biological Theory  
AbstractAccording to anthropological philosopher René Girard (1923–2015), an important human adaptation is our propensity to victimize or scapegoat. He argued that other traits upon which human sociality depends would have destabilized primate dominance-based social hierarchies, making conspecific conflict a limiting factor in hominin evolution. He surmised that a novel mechanism for inhibiting intragroup conflict must have emerged contemporaneously with our social traits, and speculated that
more » ... is was the tendency to spontaneously unite around the victimization of single individuals. He described an unconscious tendency to both ascribe blame and to imbue the accused with a sacred mystique. This emotionally cathartic scapegoat mechanism, he claimed, enhanced social cohesion, and was the origin of religion, mythology, sacrifice, ritual, cultural institutions, and social norms. It would have functioned by modifying the beliefs and behaviors of the group, rather than of the accused, making the act of accusation more important than the substance. This article aims to examine the empirical evidence for Girard's claims, and argues that the scapegoat hypothesis has commonalities with several other evolutionary hypotheses, including Wrangham's execution hypothesis on self-domestication, Dunbar's hypothesis on the role of storytelling in maintaining group stability, and DeScioli and Kurzban's hypothesis on the role of non-consequentialist morality in curtailing conflict. Potential implications of the scapegoat hypothesis for evolutionary psychology and psychiatry are discussed.
doi:10.1007/s13752-021-00381-y fatcat:oloe3jjuczedbn7ccqv5cgudka