On Human Sacrifice (Article Nature)

I can’t help but quote the following article by Philip Ball in its entirety. It summarizes an interesting paper that appeared in Nature by Joseph Watts, Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies Nature 532, 228–231 (14 April 2016). For those of us who are familiar with the work of René Girard and mimetic theory, it offers some great factual perspectives. I’ve highlighted sentences that are especially remarkable from a Girardian point of view in purple.

Find more information on how to interpret the following article and similar research from a Girardian perspective by clicking here.

How human sacrifice propped up the social order


James Frazer’s classic anthropological study The Golden Bough1 contains a harrowing chapter on human sacrifice in rituals of crop fertility and harvest among historical cultures around the world. Frazer describes sacrificial victims being crushed under huge toppling stones, slow-roasted over fires and dismembered alive.

Frazer’s methods of analysis wouldn’t all pass muster among anthropologists today (his work was first published in 1890), but it is hard not to conclude from his descriptions that what industrialized societies today would regard as the most extreme psychopathy has in the past been seen as normal — and indeed sacred — behaviour.

In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.

Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images

An Aztec priest removes a man’s heart in a sacrificial ritual and offers it to the god Huitzilopochtli (from handcoloured engraving by Giulio Ferrario’s Ancient and Modern Costumes of all the Peoples of the World, Florence, Italy, 1843).

Sacrifice for social order

The idea makes intuitive sense, but until now there has been no clear evidence to support it. In a study published in Nature2, Joseph Watts, a specialist in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and his colleagues have analysed 93 traditional cultures in Austronesia (the region that loosely embraces the many small and island states in the Pacific and Indonesia) as they were before they were influenced by colonization and major world religions (generally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

By delving into ethnographic records, the researchers tried to tease out the relationship between human sacrifice and social hierarchy. They find that the prevalence of sacrifice increased with the degree of social stratification: it occurred in 25% of cultures with little or no stratification, 37% of those with moderately stratified societies, and 67% of those that had a pronounced hierarchy.

And by mapping the evolutionary relationships between cultures, the team suggests that human sacrifice and social hierarchy co-evolved. Although societies can become more or less stratified over time, societies that practised sacrifice were less apt to revert to milder degrees of stratification.

In other words, human sacrifice seems to bolster stratification: it helped to stabilize hierarchy, and conceivably, therefore, had a common role in the development of highly stratified societies that generally persist even today.

Religious undertones

Human sacrifice seems to have been largely the privilege of priests or others who claimed religious authority. Watts and colleagues say that their results therefore disclose a “dark side” to the social role of religion. (They have previously shown that belief in supernatural punishing agencies in Austronesian cultures encouraged moral observance, and thereby promoted the emergence of stratified and complex social structures3).

There’s a danger of overgeneralization from any study of this kind. Human sacrifice is no more likely than, for instance, music to have had a single role in early societies. In the third century bc, for example, Chinese administrator Li Bing eliminated the sacrifice of young maidens to a river god during the conquest of Sichuan by the First Emperor. Some have suggested that he called the bluff of a local racket in which families rid themselves of unwanted daughters while getting rich on the compensation they received. Whether or not that is true, it’s easy to imagine how rituals could be abused for prosaic gain.

And even in Austronesia, add Watts’s team, sacrifice wasn’t always conducted for purely religious reasons. It could have other motivations, including to punish taboo violations, demoralize underclasses, mark class boundaries and instil fear of social elites, all of which aim at building and maintaining social control. For this reason, says Michael Winkelman, an anthropologist now retired from Arizona State University in Tempe, “I suspect that Watts et al. are assessing some general notion of social legitimated killing.”

Such considerations complicate any interpretation of Watts’s results, but it also gives them considerably more contemporary resonance.

Death-penalty parallels

By today’s standards, human sacrifice scarcely seems to fall within the norms of good morality. But one doesn’t need to be a moral relativist to accept that the connections between human sacrifice, obedience to authority and stable governance persist. To perceive a link between ancient, “savage” human sacrifices and the death penalty in some modern societies isn’t to exaggerate or indulge in melodrama, as Winkelman’s remarks testify.

Certainly the suggestion could seem glib, and the parallels cannot be taken too far. Unlike today’s death penalties, traditional ritual sacrifice was generally for religious purposes and it tended to exhibit no bloodlust or contempt for the victims. Often they were seen as godlike, and before their sacrifice, they might be treated with reverence and affection, and perhaps fed well like the biblical fatted calf. The remains of the dead body — it’s not even clear whether the word “victim” is appropriate — were imbued with power. If the flesh was chopped up, it was to share out this potent relic among the tribe.

Yet a contemporary state’s arrogation of the right to slaughter through the death penalty — breaking an otherwise rigid prohibition — still serves as, among other things, a demonstration of authority and a ritual of appeasement, whether towards supposed religious strictures or public opinion.

To future anthropologists, whatever explanations or justifications states offer today for imposing capital punishment may seem less revealing than the broader view of how such sanctified killing reinforces the social order. We can expect time’s retrospective gaze to lay bare the real reasons why we, no less than the ancient Aztecs or Samoans, valorize murder.


  1. Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1890).
  2. Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J. & Gray, R. D. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature17159 (2016).
  3. Watts, J. et al. Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20142556 (2015).

One of the oldest written religious texts, the Rig-Veda (the oldest of the four Vedas of Hindu religion), contains a creation myth that tells about the sacrifice of the giant Purusha. This sacrifice serves as the basis for the Indian caste system. Once again, in light of mimetic theory and the above mentioned scientific research, the existence of such stories comes as no surprise.

From the Rig-Veda

Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it.

Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food.

Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven.

With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not.

From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.

When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.

The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers].

From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.

From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep.

Purusha MandalaWhen they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called?

His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born.

The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.

From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds.

Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim.

With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.

Source: The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.

Find more information and an alternative, younger version of this myth by clicking here.


Mimetic Big Bang Theory

Sometimes, just sometimes, quite revealing scientific insights slip into popular culture. I was watching a rerun of an episode of The Big Bang Theory sitcom on Belgian television. More specifically, I found out, I was watching The White Asparagus Triangulation (episode 9, season 2 – click to watch).

Mimetic DesireThe title itself can already be connected to a basic concept of René Girard’s mimetic theory, namely mimetic desire. As it turns out, “triangulation” indeed refers to the triangular nature of human desire (beyond instinctive needs) as described by Girard: the desire of a subject towards a certain object is positively or negatively influenced by mediators or models (click here to watch an example of negatively mediated desire from another popular sitcom, Seinfeld). Humans imitate others in orienting their desires – their desire thus is mimetic.

In the case of this episode from The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon tries to positively influence the desire of Leonard’s new girlfriend, Stephanie. After all, she is the first of Leonard’s dates to meet Sheldon’s high intellectual standards, so Sheldon does everything to increase Stephanie’s desire for Leonard. At some point he tries to persuade the girl next door, Penny, to present herself as a rival/model for Stephanie. Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: Outside Penny’s door.

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny (knock, knock, knock) Penny.

Penny: What?

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny. Zucchini bread.

Penny: Oh, thank you.

Sheldon: May I come in?

Penny: No.

The White Asparagus Triangulation Penny and Sheldon Zucchini

Sheldon: I see. Apparently my earlier inquiry regarding you and Leonard crossed some sort of line. I apologize.

Penny: Well, thank you.

Sheldon: So, have you and I returned to a social equilibrium?

Penny: Yes.

Sheldon: Great. New topic. Where are you in your menstrual cycle?

Penny: What?

Sheldon: I’ve been doing some research online, and apparently female primates, you know, uh, apes, chimpanzees, you, they find their mate more desirable when he’s being courted by another female. Now, this effect is intensified when the rival female is secreting the pheromones associated with ovulation. Which brings me back to my question, where are you in (Penny slams door). Clearly, I’m 14 days too early.

Female Chimpanzee Sexual Swelling KanyawaraSeveral lines of evidence indicate some female competition over mating. First, at Mahale, females sometimes directly interfered in the mating attempts of their rivals by forcing themselves between a copulating pair. In some cases, the aggressive female went on to mate with the male. At Gombe, during a day-long series of attacks by Mitumba females on a fully swollen new immigrant female, the most active attackers were also swollen and their behaviour was interpreted as ‘sexual jealousy’ by the observers. Townsend et al. found that females at Budongo suppressed copulation calls when in the presence of the dominant female, possibly to prevent direct interference in their copulations. Second, females occasionally seem to respond to the sexual swellings of others by swelling themselves. Goodall described an unusual incident in which a dominant, lactating female suddenly appeared with a full swelling a day after a young oestrous female had been followed by many males. Nishida described cases at Mahale in which a female would produce isolated swellings that were not part of her regular cycles when a second oestrous female was present in the group.
The White Asparagus Triangulation eventually gets its title from another scene in the episode. Sheldon tries to establish Leonard as “the alpha male”. Sheldon will pretend that he is unable to open a jar of asparagus. If Leonard then opens the jar he will have won the mimetic competition over the question “who is the strongest?”, resulting in an increase of his sex appeal. Of course, for the sake of comedy, things go terribly wrong :). Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: The apartment.

Leonard: All I’m saying is if they can cure yellow fever and malaria, why can’t they do something about lactose intolerance?

Steph: Leonard, you’re going to have to let this go. You had a little cheese dip, you farted, I thought it was cute.

Sheldon: Oh, hi Stephanie.

Steph: Hi.

Leonard: Want some more wine?

Steph: Yeah, I assume I’m not driving anywhere tonight. (Sheldon lets out a loud noise).

Leonard: What are you doing?

Sheldon: I have a craving for white asparagus that apparently is destined to go unsatisfied.

Leonard: Excuse me. What the hell is wrong with you?

Sheldon: I’m helping you with Stephanie.

Leonard: By making constipated moose sounds?

The White Asparagus Triangulation Big Bang Theory

Sheldon: When I fail to open this jar and you succeed it will establish you as the alpha male. You see, when a female witnesses an exhibition of physical domination she produces the hormone oxytocin. If the two of you then engage in intercourse this will create the biochemical reaction in the brain which lay people naively interpret as falling in love.

Leonard: Huh? Would it work if I just punched you in the face?

Sheldon: Yes, actually it would, but let’s see how the lid goes. I’m not strong enough, Leonard, you’ll have to do it.

Leonard: Oh, for god’s sakes.

Sheldon: Go ahead, it’s pre-loosened.

Steph: Do you want some help with that?

Leonard: No, no, no, I got it.

Sheldon: No, yeah, yeah, he’s got it, and that’s not surprising. This is something I long ago came to peace with in my role as the beta male. Open it. (Leonard tries again. Then taps jar on counter. Jar breaks.)

Steph: Oh my god, are you okay?

Leonard: No, I’m not. I’m bleeding.

Sheldon: Like a gladiator!

Steph: Oh, honey, you’re going to need stitches.

Leonard: Stitches? With a needle?

Steph: Well, yeah, I mean, just a few.

Leonard: Oh, okay, yeah, hang on a sec. (Throws up in sink)

Sheldon: FYI, I was defrosting a steak in there.


Objections to Mimetic Theory?

From time to time I’m confronted with objections to mimetic theory that, looked at more closely, are based on some misconceptions. Here are some clarifications, hopefully. (For more on scientific research concerning imitation, click here: Mimesis and Science).


Already in 1961, publishing Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, René Girard made the world familiar with his concept of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is literally desire based on imitation. Like so many others before and after him, Girard observes that human beings are highly mimetic creatures. Humans imitate each other in all sorts of ways and thereby learn from each other – they learn good as well as bad behavior… To name but one example, people imitate the sounds of their environment and learn to speak, for instance, with a Texan accent. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing :).

By introducing the concept of mimetic desire, Girard stresses that our desire is structured by imitating others who function as models for our desire. It is important to distinguish this type of desire from our basic biological or physical needs. When you’re walking in the desert alone and your body is yearning for water, your desire for water is, of course, not based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. True, nature has its impact on human life. However, when our basic physical needs are met, our desire goes beyond them. Our basic need for water is transformed in what eventually became a supermarket world that asks us to choose between different types of water, juices and soft drinks. Growing up, we develop a certain taste, transmitted to us by our social and cultural surroundings. We might even develop desires that not only go further than our physical needs, but also against them (anorexia being one example).

coca cola thirst asks nothing moreSo, it’s not just nature that defines human life, nurture has its way too… We all have the biological need for food, but if we were born in another part of the world we would probably have developed different eating habits. It’s as simple as that. We imitate others. We mimetically learn to quench our natural thirst and to satisfy our natural hunger in a certain, culturally dependent way. No one is born with the desire for the newest soft drink produced by The Coca-Cola Company (indeed, Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets – click to read this article by famous marketeer Martin Lindstrom), as no one is born with the desire to become a police officer. Our identities are not ahistorically determined from birth, they’re co-created with others.

We always write our personal history together with others, and we mutually influence each other. Since we’re social creatures we cannot escape this influence. Relationships precede and shape our (sense of) identity. Even if we go against our tendency to imitate an immediate social environment that seems indifferent towards the victim of some crime or accident (see “Bystander Effect” – click for more), we probably still imitate heroic examples from stories we grew up with (“The Good Samaritan” may be one of them).

Two questions often appear after these considerations, which show just how hard it is to let go of any type of Ego Illusion:

  1. We often imitate others to adjust to our social environment. We imitate others because we desire social recognition. So, our desire for social recognition must be more fundamental than our mimetic tendencies, no?
  2. If we imitate each other’s desire for something, someone still has to be the first to desire that something. Surely, the latter’s desire cannot be based on imitation, can it?

I’ve answered the first question before, but I’ll repeat it here. Of course we often imitate others to ‘fit in’. However, we could not develop a desire to fit in if it weren’t for our mimetic abilities. Our mimetic abilities allow us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. They allow us to pretend that we are someone else. For instance, a little girl playing with her dolls pretends being a mother by imitating real mothers. Our mimetic abilities allow us, thereby, to imagine – however preliminary – what others are experiencing, expecting and desiring. So our ability to empathize and to adjust to the expectations of others (maybe to gain their recognition) rests on mimetic ability.

The second question seems very logical. Confronted with real life cases, the quest for ‘the first model’ is not that easy to answer though. Even simple situations show it might be the wrong question. Think, for instance, about two babies in a room full of toys. Let’s name the two Bobby and Johnny. Bobby starts playing with a little ball. Note that he didn’t necessarily wake up with the desire to play with a ball. Already in this sense his desire isn’t his own. It is awakened by people who left him the ball to play with. After just ten seconds, Bobby gets tired of the ball. He doesn’t really enjoy playing with it. So he starts playing with some other toy. He has no desire to play with the ball whatsoever. In comes Johnny. He saw Bobby playing with the ball and this raised Johnny’s attention. Now that the ball is left, Johnny takes the opportunity to start playing with it himself. In this situation Johnny is the imitator. However, when Bobby notices Johnny playing with the ball, he immediately leaves the toy that was more fun to him and tries to lay his hands on the ball Johnny is playing with now. In this situation Bobby is the imitator. In short, Johnny’s desire rests on the imitation of Bobby as model for his desire, while Bobby’s desire rests on the imitation of Johnny as model for his desire. It’s no use asking “Who’s first?” Johnny and Bobby mutually reinforce each other’s desire by becoming each other’s model and imitator. Thereby they become each other’s rival. René Girard speaks of the rivalry between mimetic doubles. More generally, we become each other’s rival if we cannot or do not want to share the object of our mimetic desire. Here’s an example – it could have been Bobby and Johnny 🙂 – CLICK TO WATCH:


Some consider René Girard’s explanations on the origin and maintenance of human cultures far-fetched. Well, are they?

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew and/or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations. The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a threat to the survival of primitive human communities. Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. Here’s a powerful example of the mechanism, nonetheless, observed in a group of monkeys. We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad…


Empathisch Brein/Empathic Brain

Dan wil je eens even niet bezig zijn met de onderwerpen van de mimetische theorie, stuurt Arno Couwenbergh – een kersverse oudleerling – dit artikel op uit Knack. Waarvoor dank :)!


Wie nog meer wil weten over Het empathische brein kan hier terecht.Keysers-Het empatische brein@7.indd

To my English reading friends: The Empathic Brain first appeared in English. It might be enlightening to read it together with Mimesis and Science – click here for more information on that book.

It is important to notice that empathy (developed through mimetic ability) is a two-edged sword. For more, click here.The Empathic Brain

Fairness Study (Frans de Waal)

An interesting and funny experiment is the now well-known fairness study by Dutch ethologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues.


The Age of Empathy (by Frans de Waal)It once again confirms some basic intuitions of mimetic theory. Frans de Waal seems to treat the tendency to be competitive and aggressive on the one hand, and the tendency to be empathic on the other, as two different faculties. Seen from René Girard’s mimetic theory both competition and empathy can be attributed to one and the same source: mimesis (imitation).

  1. The ability to imitate another (see: mirror neurons or mirror neuron system!) opens up the possibility to imagine what the other is experiencing – as an “alter ego”. This is the foundation for the development of empathy and compassion.
  2. René Girard also points to mimesis as a potentially divisive force in the context of desire: when two individuals imitate each other’s desire for acquiring one and the same object, they can become each other’s rival. Mimetic desire thus threatens the stability of relationships.

In the words of Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, in conclusion to his paper The Two Sides of Mimesis (click title to read the whole paper): “We have examined empirical results showing how interpersonal relations are made possible — in the first place — by resonance mechanisms that provide the common ground upon which the I–Thou relation can be established. It could be tempting to use such evidence to assert the neurobiological basis of the supposed natural proclivity of mankind to sympathy, fellow feelings, good will and altruism. I think we must resist such temptation, and look at human nature as it really is and not as we would like it to be. In this respect, Girard’s Mimetic Theory is illuminating, because it shows that mimesis when declined as mimetic desire has the intrinsic potentiality of driving humans to aggression and violence. Mimesis, as I have been trying to show throughout this paper, is neither intrinsically good nor bad. It is a basic functional mechanism at the core of our diversified social competencies and activities. Nevertheless, mimesis has two sides. Any serious neuroscientific attempt to shed light on the truest and deepest nature of human condition cannot neglect either side. I posit that the empirical evidence here briefly summarized and future research stimulated and driven by the currently available evidence have the potentiality to shed further light on both sides of mimesis.”

Both above mentioned points can be observed in many of de Waal’s experiments and observations. The second point becomes very clear in this fairness study. Consider the following remark by de Waal:

“Note that the first piece of cucumber is perfectly fine. The first piece she eats. Then she sees the other one getting grape, and you will see what happens…”

The Gift (by Marcel Mauss)In other words, the frustration and anger for not receiving grapes is aroused by comparison with the other monkey. Potential conflict does not arise from inequality as such, but from the tendency to imitate someone else and therefore desire what he receives, desires or possesses. The monkey is perfectly willing to eat cucumber instead of the better tasting grapes as long as her neighbor is in the same position. But would you still be happy with a little Toyota if everyone else in the neighborhood is driving a big Mercedes? We have to keep up with the Joneses, don’t we? Indeed, beyond basic needs, our and the monkey’s desires are structured by imitating others and comparing ourselves to them.

Primitive societies are well aware of the potential destructive outcomes of sharing gifts. That’s why gift exchange is highly regulated in archaic contexts. Besides establishing an acceptable hierarchy (which implies differences and inequalities), the rules of gift exchange also aim to undermine feelings of frustration and envy. To keep the peace! Essai sur le don  (The Gift), the groundbreaking study by Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) [PDF], to this day is very revealing in this regard (e.g. p.11: “To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is – like refusing to accept – the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.”).

The ethical question remains whether the ties and bonds between humans that arise from mimetic interplays (manifested in empathy, fear of violence, but also lust for power and prestige) are a good basis for morality. I guess, as mimetic creatures, we have no choice but to rely on imitation. But this can be tricky. It’s very common to empathize with a friend or a clique and to imitate their hostility towards an enemy. But this kind of loyalty is not necessarily just or righteous. It’s the blind loyalty of the mafia or the mob. What if your friends or your clan is wrong? The big challenge, as put forward among others by Christ, is to include the ones that are considered “enemies” as “members of the community” – as “neighbors”, fellow human beings.

Chimpanzee Politics (Frans de Waal)René Girard claims that an imitation of Christ could guide our mimetic faculties in such a way that they would enable us to “love our enemies”. This is not to be understood in a masochistic way. To protect the victim of bullies doesn’t mean that you want to get bullied yourself. To put it differently: to speak in favor of the socially deprived or “crucified” doesn’t mean that you want to get crucified yourself, although of course you always run the risk that “bullies” don’t “show mercy” but keep on “crucifying”. Nevertheless Christ “turns the other cheek”, not because he wants another blow, but because he hopes that merciful, non-vengeful conduct will eventually be imitated.

So, empathy as the basis for morality? It depends on the examples one imitates and empathizes with. Will you follow the idol of yourself – the important person you imagine yourself to be in a certain group (that structures itself partly by excluding its “enemies”)? Or will you follow the Voice of the one who questions the image of yourself that exists at the expense of excluded others – in order to find yourself in relationship to those others?