Séminaire hebdomadaire interne par Pascal Boyer, philosophe et anthropologue à l'Université de Paris et à Cambridge, actuellement chercheur en résidence à l'IEA.
Communication discutée par Olivier Morin, chercheur CNRS au Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History et à l'Institut Jean Nicod (ENS - EHESS)
Explanations of misfortune are the object of much cultural discourse in most human societies. Recurrent themes include the intervention of superhuman agents (gods, ancestors, etc.), witchcraft, karma, and the violation of specific rules or “taboos”.
In modern large-scale societies, people often respond by blaming the victims of, e.g., accidents and assault. These responses may seem both disparate and puzzling, in the sense that the proposed accounts of untoward events provide no valuable information about their causes or the best way to prevent them. However, these responses make sense if we see them in an evolutionary context, where accidents, assault and illness were common occurrences, the only palliative being social support to victims.
This would create a context in which all members of a group may be a) required to offer support, b) willing to offer such support to maintain a reputation as cooperators, and c) desirous to limit that support because of its cost. In this context, recurrent explanations of misfortune would constitute strategic attempts to create and broadcast a specific description of the situation that concentrates responsibility and potential costs on a few individuals.
This strategic model accounts for otherwise puzzling features of explanations based on mystical harm (ancestors, witchcraft, etc.), as well as the tendency to denigrate victims, and offers new predictions about those cultural phenomena.