The first human—in the beginning was the word

It is of course the case that the posts one thinks about at length, beats one’s head with, are those that are of the least interest to most people. Nevertheless, as you’ve noticed, this hasn’t stopped me from flinging it out there…

You see, I’ve been thinking about language. (Apologies to actual linguists and anthropologists.) How common place it seems. And yet, as humans, our most striking feature, it seems to me, is our ability to represent our world, our place in the world, and a host of other wonders, through sign, through language.

Our capacity to respond to linguistic signs with other signs and so engage one another in meaning, even create new meanings, is something so remarkable that it can only be described in terms of a new dimension. That is, language transcends our horizontal world of appetite and survival and places us in a vertical world of signification. Where a world of survival is transcended, a transpersonal world opens up. In other words, language makes it possible to live in community.

girard&gans(L – Rene Girard R – Eric Gans) Anthropologist Eric Gans considers that human language has as its original and primary function the deferral of violence. (Without this cultures don’t get off the ground.)

The origin of language is simultaneously the origin of the human, the moment of non-aggression, the moral moment, even the religious moment.

The deferral of violence by way of the the first sign, the word, creates the space to contemplate, to grow mercy, to love. In this space, however fleeting, it is possible to listen for something more—that was already always present.

Following the anthropoetic thinking of Eric Gans—using his hypothesis as a springboard; who has in turn taken into account the theory of mimetic desire of Rene Girard as well as Derrida’s concept of deferral—and with the obvious allusion to the logos at the beginning of the Gospel of John, here’s a thought experiment (anthropoem?) on the event (understanding of course that this event occurred over time) of the arrival of humans:

Once there was a horizontal world.

       We circled, stopped, crouched around the fresh carcass of a mule deer.

Once there was an event.

       Cyric (though this was a time before names) was in charge, took the choice piece. Betos was next, the rest of us followed, knowing the order.
       Sometimes there was a challenge, a standoff; then, just as quickly the tension broke, Cyric reasserted his dominance and we all fell back into line.

In the beginning was the scene.

       This kill was different: the alpha sensed it, we all did, all of us reaching out at the same time as though this was the last mule deer in the world.
       It had happened before, all of us desiring to be first. But these desires were not full-formed and in that quavering knife-edge moment, things broke down, half groups, setting upon another,
       These were violent days, much blood was on the ground. And the revision to the old hierarchy, while by now repulsive, was still a kind of safety. But in the stretch of time desire grew in concert with every one else’s desire, peaking simultaneously with equal intensity in each of us.

Then it happened.

       We all leaned in. No one lunged. We stayed in this explosive sinuous tension. In unison the group opposing Cyric and in unison the group opposing anyone that moved toward the deer. Everyone desiring to be first, and every one deferring, fearing group reprisal.

In the beginning was the sign.

       It’s hard to say how long we remained like that. Then Algoth raised her arm and turned her palm to the sky and sighed. And we were flung into a kind of clearing.
       The sign, a relief valve; the deer, now surrounded by an aura of human desire became in some way sacred. It was now impossible for it to be appropriated by just one. It could not be owned, but belonged to the community. And the community could now consume it equally.

In the beginning was the sign.

       The event of simultaneous desire, the hesitation and deferral, the aborted gesture of appropriation as the first sign, the object so desirable as to thwart all ownership—sacred. 

Once there was a horizontal world, then there was language, the birth of our vertical world.

In the beginning was the logos.

To those who object (i.e. Christians of a more conservative outlook) to this evolutionary take on the logos of John, consider that it can be read as as much a confirmation of the Johanine understanding of logos than as a secularization of it. The logos, the word, opens up the possibility for us to listen for something that was already there in the beginning.


  1. This is really interesting. It makes sense that signs and language would have evolved to reduce conflict and tension. Communication is all about understanding the other, being able to relate. When you have that common ground of understanding it is much harder to react in violence or anger.

    Many anthropologists believe that human art and music evolved as courtship behaviours. Music and art do not seem to have any measurable survival value in and of themselves but it makes sense that they would have conferred some sort of advantage for attracting a mate.

    However reading this makes me think they could have also been very much linked to reducing tension and promoting group communication. Art is our desire to not only represent our external world and experience but also communicate internal feelings. It makes sense that art especially would have evolved along with language. Also music seems inherently a bonding experience and one of the best ways to share certain otherwise inexpressible feelings.

  2. Of course there’s the historical disconnect – the evolutionary view sees the word as arriving later while you still write – in the beginning was the word. But let me not get side-tracked on this. In the beginning was the word. As a Christian of a conservative bent, I also write that in the beginning was the Word. The creative Word that finds its presence in the re-creative words that we share. Music and art (thanks Teryl!) are as much a part of such words as the delightful poetry and prose that you write.

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