Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford

The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford is an examination and critical assessment of what many are labeling as call-out culture and public shaming that has been prevalent over recent years. Though Blackford covers a lot of ground here, the main point of the book is how non - government pressure has led to censorship and damaging personal attacks on individuals relating to all manner of speech, expression and art. I found the book to be both engrossing and important. I very much agree with most of the author’s assessments.

Blackford is an Australian philosopher, legal scholar and literary critic. He has written numerous books and articles on such topics as religion, atheism, ethics and morality, science fiction and more. I am a fan of his Twitter activity, which tends to reflect a lot of what this book is about. 

I think that it is important to understand where the author starts from in regards to political and social issues. Blackford holds ideas that are mostly characteristic of the political and social left. He has previously written articles and books where he has vigorously criticized the right and, in particular, right-wing extremism. Nevertheless, most, but not all, of what Blackford is talking about here is coming from the left. 

On the issue of challenging behavior in the current atmosphere that is mostly coming from his own side, Blackford writes, 

I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances.

He goes on to say,

I’m afraid, as a matter of fact, that this very book will lose me friends (no, not my closest friends; but still … ) and get me ostracized in some circles, but I’ve taken a deep breath and started writing.
  
In the first half of the book, Blackford covers a lot of philosophy as well as social science relating to freedom of speech, conformity, the definition of liberalism, etc. He relies heavily of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. He also refers to many other philosophers and social scientists who were active in the past as well as in our current times. He covers areas such as the difference between government versus non-government censorship. He examines the concept that some speech may indeed be harmful and rightly banned. He talks about the difference between traditional liberalism and what he calls revisionist liberalism or identity liberalism. What Blackford refers to as identity liberalism is roughly analogous to what I have called the postmodern left in some of my previous writings.  The two terms are not entirely congruous, but more less overlap on many issues. I should mention, however, that when I have discussed this issue previously on this blog, I was referring to people who engaged in civil disagreements and differences of opinions.   Much of the behavior that is referenced in this book is unethical and has been harmful to individuals and to the general concept of free expression. Blackford describes identity liberalism as valuing the fight against oppression over values such as freedom of speech, due process, democracy, etc. 

Throughout this first part of the work the author sprinkles in his own opinions. He is more or less a moderate on these issues and, in a few cases, even goes further than I do in terms of being receptive to the government and other platforms banning some forms of hate speech. Blackford also lays out a strong case that censorship by non-government actors, such as employers, academic institutions, social media mobs, etc., is harmful to individuals and to society. 

Later in the book Blackford describes many individual cases that illustrate the problem that he is talking about. He cites multiple examples where scientists who have shown results that run counter to identity liberal ideology have been exposed to personal attack and slander. Unfair charges of racism and bigotry abound.  These scientist sometimes come under fire for theorizing that negative aspects of human behavior, such as rape and other forms of violence,f have an evolutionary biological origin. Next, he looks at several college campuses where students have harassed and threatened professors to the point of resignation. The case of Erica Christakis is a perfect example. Christakis was professor at Yale. She wrote an email directed at students relating to the issue of Halloween customs that might be offensive. The text of the email can be found  here. It clearly was a moderate and reasoned couple of paragraphs that was an attempt to find common ground. It sparked a firestorm. In ensuing weeks both Erika Erica Christakis and her husband Nicolas Christakis, who was also a Yale professor, were subject to a torrent of outrage, misrepresentation of their positions, physical intimidation and harassment. They both ended up resigning from their positions, citing a hostile work environment. This is just one example of many. Once again, ludicrous accusations of racism sparked the fury. 

The book turns its attention to the Young Adult book industry and online community where several authors have been harassed, slandered and exposed to actual and attempted censorship prior to or following the publication of books. The authors, who are themselves usually very liberal, are often attacked because they do not share the same nationality, race or sexual preference as the characters that they have created. Some now consider this an act of bigotry in and of itself. Other times the authors draw the ire of the social media mob because they do not portray the issues in line with certain identity left dogma. Social media mobbing relates to many of the cases that Blackford discusses. This is especially true when authors have been attacked as  writers tend to have a large social media presence.

Though obviously not covered in this book, over the past two weeks or so, two writers, Zoe Marriott and John Boyne, had social media mobs come after them. Marriott's fault has been to depict an Asian character in her new book, The Hand, The Eye and the Heart. The fact that Marriott is not Asian in generating the fury at her.  Boyne's upcoming book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica was intended to be a sympathetic portrait of a transgender person. However, several readers of advanced copies as well as many people who have admitted to not read the book, have taken exception to parts of the novel. Boyne has pulled all his social media accounts due to threats originating from this controversy. 

One common thread to most of these cases is that the targets were usually liberals who were expressing traditional liberal views. These views are described by Blackford as enlightenment values but that conflicted with identity liberalism. Usually, charges of racism are made. The charges spiral into a whirlpool of outrage. Blackford writes, 

In its current form, what passes as the political Left eats its own, or if not exactly its own…at least people who could be helpful in the Left’s contemporary social struggles.

The author also talks about a right-wing outrage machine that has also mobbed people on social media and engaged in campaigns of slander and attempts to get their targets fired from their jobs.  As mentioned above, Blackford has been very critical of bad behavior on the right in other writings. He does take certain elements of the right to task here. However, the particular problem that the author highlights in this book seems, at least at the moment, more pronounced and growing on the left. He also tends to mostly focus on cases where liberals have been targeted by the identify left. I think that it is important that we not ignore cases where conservatives, and even some folks on ideological fringes, have been the subject of censorship, slander and harassment. I wish that Blackford had devoted more pages to discussing these cases. However, illustrating how so many folks on the left have been attacked highlights how the problem has become so extreme. Also, and this is based on personal observation, when one is attacked by one’s own “side,” it is often worse. Support from like-minded people is less likely to come. Targets are often bewildered and are at a loss as to how to respond. 


What harm has all of this done? Blackford details people who have lost jobs, reputations and more.  Justine Sacco is just one egregious example.  She was a non-public figure who had less than 200 Twitter followers. She Tweeted a joke that was slightly controversial, Blackford describes the incident and result,

The tweet that she sent…said, ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ She was then subjected to a viral Twitter attack. It evidently began when Gawker journalist Sam Biddle retweeted the Sacco tweet to his 15,000 followers at the time, after it was sent to him by one person among Sacco’s much smaller group of followers. From there it spiraled out of control into an orgy of spite and glee. Justine Sacco’s name was googled 1,220,000 times from that day until the end of December. She lost her job and became an international laughing stock.

The book details so many other examples. 

Books, particularly in the young adult genre, have been pulled before publication. There has been a stifling of speech and thought. The fear that the author talks about is pervasive. I have heard many people, particularly in academia, who have expressed a hesitancy to express opinions or write articles and books for fear of a backlash.  This is a known and growing issue that is affecting people and free discourse on a large scale. Throughout social media, people are also fearful to express opinions. 


Since I have been interested in this subject for awhile, I was familiar with many of the cases cited. I have read articles and opinion pieces in reference to these issues.  I have witnessed the Twitter mobbing that is described here and even had online debates and discussions with people in the midst of the some of these attacks. I have had online discussions with some of the targets.  I have been putting together a post focusing on the topic of the social media backlash aimed at young adult writer Laura Moriarty and her novel American Heart.

As readers of this blog probably know, like Blackford I identify as a liberal. Also like Blackford, I have observed what he describes as call out culture and I am appalled by it. I see it as part of a something bigger  that has been growing on the left. I, along with some others, have been calling it this trend postmodernist leftism. It relates to a rejection of ideals such as a belief in freedom of speech, defense of science and reason, treating people of all ethnicities equally, opposition to oppression even when the oppressors are not white men, etc. As I continue to read books on related subjects, I will have more to say about all this. 

Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am. 

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons.  It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however. 

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.





Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev was first published in 1862.  I found this to be a compelling philosophical novel populated with well crafted and complex characters. I read the Constance Garnett translation. 

This is the story of two young men, Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov. Bazarov is a nihilist. Arkady is a follower who has embraced Bazarov’s beliefs.  Nihilism, which was a thought system spreading through Russia at the time, is a key concept explored in this book. It is described by Arkady as follows, 

A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in. 

As such, Bazarov is critical of most societal conventions, government, tradition and conceptions of beauty and art, among other things. 

The narrative follows the travels of Bazarov and Arkady as they visit several households in Russia. First, they visit Arkady’s father Nikolai Kirsanov. Nikolai is a liberal landowner which, at the time, made him someone who favored moderate reform in Russia. His political and social beliefs are at odds with the radical nihilism of Bazárov and Arkady. Nikolai’s brother, Pavel, is also on hand. Pavel is also a liberal who spends some time debating Bazarov. 

Next, the pair visit a widowed noblewoman, Anna Odintsova, and her sister, Katya.  Anna’s psyche is delved into by Turgenev in some depth. She is a woman who is somewhat obsessed with order and not rocking the boat. She is an interesting character in her own right. Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. These feelings cause his nihilistic beliefs to fray a bit. Arkady is likewise attracted to Katya. The young men's attractions to these women make up a major thread in the narrative through the end of the book. 

The pair also visit Bazarov’s parents. Bazarov’s father, Vassily, is also a liberal Russian. These political and social differences, as well as other issues, also put a strain on the relationship between Bazarov and his parents. This all plays into a major theme of the book as Turgenev explains the tensions between different generations. 

The two young men bounce back and forth between the three households throughout the story. Eventually, Bazarov’s tearing down of everything that Pavel values leads to Pavel calling out Bazarov to a duel.  This ends with Pavel being wounded, but also with the two more or less reconciling. In what I thought was some of the best writing in the book, Pavel comments on Bazárov’s degeneration of art and nature,

Nikolai Petrovitch’s head sank despondently, and he passed his hand over his face. “But to renounce poetry?” he thought again; “to have no feeling for art, for nature ...” And he looked round, as though trying to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was already evening; the sun was hidden behind a small copse of aspens which lay a quarter of a mile from the garden; its shadow stretched indefinitely across the still fields. A peasant on a white nag went at a trot along the dark, narrow path close beside the copse; his whole figure was clearly visible even to the patch on his shoulder, in spite of his being in the shade; the horse’s hoofs flew along bravely. The sun’s rays from the farther side fell full on the copse, and piercing through its thickets, threw such a warm light on the aspen trunks that they looked liswallows flew high; the wind had quite died away, belated bees hummed slowly and drowsily among the lilac blossom; a swarm of midges hung like a cloud over a solitary branch which stood out against the sky. “How beautiful, my God!” thought Nikolai Petrovitch, and his favourite verses were almost on his lips;

I like the way, in the above passage, that Turgenev transitions from Pavel’s objection to Bazarov’s beliefs to his own musings upon the beauty of nature, to his own love of poetry and thus ends with  

his favourite verses were almost on his lips.

Turgenev was himself a moderate who rejected both the far-right reactionaries and the radical nihilists.  Both of these extremes were gaining popularity in Russia at the time that this was written. Bazarov’s character, however, was tame and moderate compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s psychotic and malevolent nihilistic characters, such as Verkhovensky in The PossessedDostoevsky’s nihilists also tend to gather around them a cult like following. Instead, Bazarov is somewhat likable and sympathetic. He has persuaded Arkady to embrace his cause, but he does not end up convincing anyone else. For his part, Arkady easily breaks free of Bazarov’s influence when he falls in love and becomes engaged to Katya. 

Though there was apparently some controversy at the time when this was published as to Turgenev’s view of nihilism, a little online searching makes it clear from Turgenev’s other writings and statements that he meant to be very critical of nihilism in this book. Bazarov is, however, a complex character.  He has flaws but he also has appealing traits. His philosophy is portrayed as terrible. At the same time, he is shown to be both charming and brave as he conducts himself with courage and honor in his duel with Pavel.  I would have liked it if there was more of Bazarov’s philosophizing included in the text. What there was of it, I found it to be interesting. At one point, he muses,

I think; here I lie under a haystack.... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be.... And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something.... Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?

As the above illustrates, Bazarov thinks about the big issues. With that, his ultimate outlook is incredibly negative. 

I found this to be very good book.   The characters are well drawn. If they are not brilliant they do posses a lot of subtlety and nuance. The themes, particularly that of differences between generations, are well presented and interesting  I liked the political and social moderate change that Turgenev espoused here. The Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy works that I have read seemed to tell bigger stories about bigger characters. Nonetheless, this book worked well in its own way. The plot and characters are very well crafted and are likely to hold the attention of readers who like such stories. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys philosophical and character based novels. 




Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling


This post contains major spoilers. 

Harry Potter and the Half – Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling is the sixth book in the series. I found this to be one of the most entertaining entries of the bunch. Rowling also throws in some particularly interesting elements into the mix here. 

Harry and his friends are back for their sixth year at the magical school of Hogwarts. In this installment, war has broken out between the law-abiding wizarding community and the evil Lord Voldemort and his allies. People are dying.  Voldemort has also hatched a plot to kill Hogwarts headmaster and great wizard Dumbledore. 

Harry also comes into position of an old textbook that someone owned years earlier. The person called himself the half-blood prince and had written all kinds of helpful spells and tips in the book. Harry uses this information to excel in his classes and conjure up some unique spells. Harry’s friend Hermione suspects that the Half Blood Prince might have been evil and that Harry is looking for trouble by using the book. 

The climax of the story arrives when Voldemort’s allies, known as the Death Eaters, invade Hogwarts in an attempt to kill Dumbledore, and an all-out magical battle erupts.

There is a something of a pattern contained within these books. The first two -thirds or so involve Harry’s day to day activities over the summer and then at Hogwarts. Rumors and hints that the evil Lord Voldemort is engaging in nefarious activities abound. The last third of the books usually advance the plot and develop the characters and sometimes reveal some neat surprises. This book more or less follows that pattern but throws in some distinctive touches early on. In what I found to be some of Rowling’s best writing, Voldemort’s origins and his young life are illuminated. Dumbledore has a magical memory device called a pensieve, on which he can replay people’s memories. The great wizard has been digging into Voldemort’s origins and past. He uses his pensieve to show Harry Voldemort’s story through other people’s memories. We see how Voldemort’s parents met when his mother bewitched his father with a love potion. When his mother died, Voldemort, originally named Tom Riddle, was abandoned and left in an orphanage. A few years later, a young Dumbledore, who had discovered that Riddle had magical powers, brought the young Riddle to Hogwarts. Riddle is depicted as a cold, narcissistic and cruel boy who develops a cult-like following. Passages in which Harry views his various life stages are chilling. At one point, Harry watches a young Dumbledore come for Tom top take him to Hogwarts, 



It was a small bare room with nothing in it except an old wardrobe and an iron bedstead. A boy was sitting on top of the gray blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book. 

… He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale. His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Dumbledore’s eccentric appearance. There was a moment’s silence....

“I am Professor Dumbledore.” 

“‘Professor’?” repeated Riddle. He looked wary. “Is that like ‘doctor’? What are you here for? Did she get you in to have a look at me?” 

He was pointing at the door through which Mrs. Cole had just left.

“No, no,” said Dumbledore, smiling.

“I don’t believe you,” said Riddle. “She wants me looked at, doesn’t she? Tell the truth!” 

He spoke the last three words with a ringing force that was almost shocking. It was a command, and it sounded as though he had given it many times before. His eyes had widened and he was glaring at Dumbledore, who made no response except to continue smiling pleasantly. After a few seconds Riddle stopped glaring, though he looked, if anything, warier still. 

“Who are you?” 

“I have told you. My name is Professor Dumbledore and I work at a school called Hogwarts. I have come to offer you a place at my school — your new school, if you would like to come.” 

Riddle’s reaction to this was most surprising. He leapt from the bed and backed away from Dumbledore, looking furious. 

“You can’t kid me! The asylum, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it? ‘Professor,’ yes, of course — well, I’m not going, see? That old cat’s the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Benson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they’ll tell you!” 

“I am not from the asylum,” said Dumbledore patiently. “I am a teacher and, if you will sit down calmly, I shall tell you about Hogwarts. Of course, if you would rather not come to the school, nobody will force you —” 

“I’d like to see them try,” sneered Riddle. 

“Hogwarts,” Dumbledore went on, as though he had not heard Riddle’s last words, “is a school for people with special abilities —” 
“I’m not mad!”

“I know that you are not mad. Hogwarts is not a school for mad people. It is a school of magic.” 

There was silence. Riddle had frozen, his face expressionless, but his eyes were flickering back and forth between each of Dumbledore’s, as though trying to catch one of them lying. 

“Magic?” he repeated in a whisper. “That’s right,” said Dumbledore. “It’s... it’s magic, what I can do?” “What is it that you can do?” 

“All sorts,” breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. “I can make filings move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.” 

His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer. 

“I knew I was different,” he whispered to his own quivering fingers. “I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something.” 

“Well, you were quite right,” said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. “You are a wizard.” 

Riddle lifted his head. His face was transfigured: There was a wild happiness upon it, yet for some reason it did not make him better looking; on the contrary, his finely carved features seemed somehow rougher, his expression almost bestial. 

“Are you a wizard too?” “Yes, I am.” 

“Prove it,” said Riddle at once, in the same commanding tone he had used when he had said, “Tell the truth.” 

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “If, as I take it, you are accepting your place at Hogwarts —” 
“Of course I am!” 

“Then you will address me as ‘Professor’ or ‘sir.’“ 
Riddle’s expression hardened for the most fleeting moment before he said, in an unrecognizably polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir. I meant — please, Professor, could you show me —?” 

I find the above to be well written. Many aspects of Riddle’s character are illustrated here. Riddle is a psychopath. Rowling depicts a young man who is inwardly seething with malice. There is a reference to the fact that Riddle has hurt people before, how he is angry at those around him, how he craves more power, and how he is able to change his behavior in an attempt to fool those around him. 

Within the story Rowling has begun to weave in the contrast and compare theme between Voldemort and Harry. There are many similarities, both are orphans, both are special children surrounded by people who have trouble understanding them etc. The two are connected psychiclly. However, unlike some other fantasy series however, Harry is not tempted by the dark side. He does at times show imperfections as he becomes understandable angry at people who try to torment him or who he thinks are manipulating him. It is not in his nature to succumb to malice.  

Several people have pointed online that Riddle was conceived via an act of deception as his mother used a love potion on his father. Thus, he was the product of “fake love.” This idea rings true to me. It seems to ease very well into the personality that Riddle and Harry each developed. 

The book also ends strongly. The magical battle within Hogwarts is very well written. Furthermore, Dumbledore has been killed in the battle and as the result of events in other books, many of Harry’s other strong adult protectors are dead. Harry’s realization that he must now take on Voldemort’s without them is powerful and effective. 

And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had ever been before. 

I find that the above is another well written passage. In light of everything that has happened in the series before, it is dramatic,  stark and effective. The books have obviously turned more serious. It seems to me that Rowling has managed the transition in a believable and effective way. 

I liked this book a lot. Because of the above strengths, it may be my second favorite book after the first in the series. It is an enjoyable read, it is full of cleverness and engrossing developments.  The characters, while not all that complex, continue to be fun to read about. There were some serious and interesting aspects woven into it all. I have one more book to go in the series. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham

The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham was published this year. In it, the author explores the evolutionary origins of violence, cooperation and altruism in humans. Wrangham is a renowned primatologist and has written several books on human and animal behavior. As someone who is interested in big picture questions about humanity, I found this book to be enlightening and fascinating. 

Wrangham identifies two types of aggression that manifest themselves in both humans and other animals. Aggression and violence can be classified as proactive or reactive. Reactive aggression is unplanned. Proactive aggression is planned. The author goes on to explain that there is considerable evidence that these two different types are triggered by different processes and parts of the brain.  Humans and other animals practice both types of behavior. 

In people, reactive violence leads to the majority of individual murders and assaults. In some primate species, such as chimpanzees, it leads to near constant violence where alpha males prey upon other members of their groups and females are exposed to beatings on a near constant basis. What humans would call rape also occurs among chimpanzees and some other species due to reactive violence. 

In humans, proactive violence manifests itself in everything from state-controlled police activities to preplanned wars. Proactive violence and the threat of it are not always a bad thing. When manifested by moderate and just systems, it prevents society from descending into chaos and even worse violence. In primates, wolves and other animals, it manifests itself in conflicts between groups and packs. Chimpanzees actually engage in small scale warfare between groups. 

However, it turns out that compared to primates and other types of animals that hunt in groups, humans show a lot less reactive aggression and a lot more proactive aggression. The author writes,

overall tendencies are clear: 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 . That discrepancy is the goodness paradox.

Wrangham spends a lot of time looking at the behavior of humans, various ape species, wolves and other animals to illustrate the differences in behavior. He even looks at Neanderthals ad other extinct species and examines available evidence. The book also covers the behavior of domesticated species, such as cats and dogs, to show how humans have bred reactive aggression  out of them in a process that is called domestication. 

Of particular interest are bonobos.  These primates look similar to chimpanzees, but they are a lot less violent. In fact, they are some of the least violent primates. Observation of them shows that coalitions of female bonobos police their social groups and quell the violence of very aggressive males. Furthermore, violent, antisocial males are ostracized to some extent, making it difficult for them to mate and pass on their genes and violent behavioral tendencies.


In regard to humans, the book looks at hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies as well as modern society. In all of these societies, Wrangham finds similar patterns regarding the two types of violence. Humans are relatively low, as compared with other social animals, on the scale of reactive aggression and very high on the scale of proactive aggression. The difference has had an enormous effect on human history and culture. 

The author then looks at the various theories as to why humans are not so reactively aggressive and very proactively aggressive. The mechanism that occurs with bonobos does not seem to apply to human societies. He explains the theories in very understandable ways. Some theorists believe that human behavior is simply attributable to higher intelligence. The author believes that something else has happened, however. 

Wrangham is an advocate of something called the execution hypothesis. That is, the extremely dominant and violent alpha-male type rarely becomes the leader of human communities, regardless of whether the community consists of hunters and gatherers, agrarian farmers or more modern societies. It turns out that, in the remote, perhaps pre-human past, this type of super-bully would try to dominate the community, as they successfully do among chimpanzees.  In human society, a coalition of other males would often end up killing the super aggressive males when they began to become too powerful. Furthermore, this tendency to eliminate such violent narcissists has led the human species to be less reactively aggressive, more altruistic and eventually enabled us to develop a system of ethics. Wrangham calls this self-domestication.

On the flip side, this tendency to execute these super bullies has led humans to evolve to be more proactively aggressive. In order to eliminate the alpha males, the tendency to plan aggression and work together is enhanced. 

The author writes, 

A coalition of militant egalitarians was in a position to cut them [the super violent individuals]down. Selection would accordingly have favored those whose spontaneous generosity and noncombativeness protected them from such a risk by minimizing their selfish urges and increasing their tendency to help others

There is a downside to all of this. What Wrangham calls coalitionary proactive aggression led to the rule of groups of men who were egalitarian but tended towards proactive aggression. While they imposed certain benefits on society, they also imposed their own tyranny upon women, anti-conformists, etc. If accurate, the impact of all of this reverberates through present times. 

Near the book’s conclusion, Wrangham tries to look to the future. He argues that despite our genes, humanity has been getting less violent over time as culture changes and is optimistic that this will continue. He discusses both the promise and pitfalls that the future holds. I should also note that the author makes it a point that he is against the death penalty, even though he believes that it played a key part in human evolution. 

Wrangham has convinced me that there are indeed big biological differences between reactive and proactive aggression. Furthermore, most primates show a lot more reactive aggression than humans. Proactive aggression is much more common in humans than in any other species. In addition, I agree that violence, as well as altruistic and cooperative tendencies, are to a great extent the products of evolution. I am not so sure about the execution hypothesis. The killing of super aggressive individuals in the past may have had an impact upon human evolution, but I suspect that many other factors played a part in formulating human nature. Perhaps the super aggressive males were also shunned and had a harder time surviving and reproducing. The idea that coalitions of individuals helped to tamp down the super aggressive bullies may very well be true. I am not sure that execution was the primary driver of this, however. 

Either way, this is a fascinating book. Even if one does not agree with Wrangham’s theories, the observations of animal behavior contained within these pages are interesting and valuable. I think that even if one does not follow all of Wrangham’s conclusions to their endpoint, the book is still full of important observations about aggression and violence. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in evolutionary science, human nature, culture and history.