Article ID: CBB823341248

The Scapegoat Mechanism in Human Evolution: An Analysis of René Girard’s Hypothesis on the Process of Hominization (2021)


According 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 this 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.

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Authors & Contributors
Ruse, Michael
Jansen, Janneke
Sober, Elliott R.
Hecht Orzack, Steven
Davis, Frederick Rowe
Rudge, David Wÿss
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Science and Education
Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis
Journal of Biosciences
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Journal of the History of Biology
Cambridge University Press
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Amsterdam University Press
Princeton University Press
Adaptation (biology)
Philosophy of science
Natural selection
Darwin, Charles Robert
Steinmetz, Sebald Rudolf
Kettlewell, Henry Bernard Davis
Harrison, John William Heslop
Dobzhansky, Theodosius
Hinshelwood, Cyril Norman
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
19th century
18th century
20th century, late

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