The Goodness Paradox
How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent
'A fascinating new analysis of human violence, filled with fresh ideas and gripping evidence from our primate cousins, historical forebears, and contemporary neighbors' Steven Pinker
'A brilliant analysis of the role of aggression in our evolutionary history' Jane Goodall
It may not always seem so, but day-to-day interactions between individual humans are extraordinarily peaceful. That is not to say that we are perfect, just far less violent than most animals, especially our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and their legendarily docile cousins, the Bonobo. Perhaps surprisingly, we rape, maim, and kill many fewer of our neighbours than all other primates and almost all undomesticated animals. But there is one form of violence that humans exceed all other animals in by several degrees: organized proactive violence against other groups of humans. It seems, we are the only animal that goes to war.
In the Goodness Paradox, Richard Wrangham wrestles with this paradox at the heart of human behaviour. Drawing on new research by geneticists, neuroscientists, primatologists, and archaeologists, he shows that what domesticated our species was nothing less than the invention of capital punishment which eliminated the least cooperative and most aggressive among us. But that development is exactly what laid the groundwork for the worst of our atrocities.
Wrangham (Catching Fire), a biological anthropologist at Harvard, undertakes a thorough and persuasive examination of this paradoxical observation: "we can be the nastiest of species and also the nicest." He notes that "compared with other primates, we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day lives, yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death from violence in our wars." Wrangham argues that there are two types of aggression, reactive and proactive. The former reacts to an immediate threat while the latter connotes "violence that is coolly planned." Wrangham builds the case that human evolution has selected against reactive aggression, in turn causing a self-domestication process akin to how humans tamed many animal species. Its key component was the human ability to form coalitions and thus impose sanctions, including capital punishment, on the overly aggressive. While "cooperation was a key to Homo sapiens's domination of the earth," it also gave humans "war, caste, the butchery of helpless adults, and many other forms of irresistible coercion." Wrangham does not, however, propose that readers passively accept sanctioned violence as a necessary aspect of modern-day societies, concluding his well-argued treatise by rejecting the continued use of capital punishment and asserting that the "important human quest... is reducing our capacity for organized violence."