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.
I'd bet money he quotes a book I've heard of...bah, I can't remember the title, but it was about anthropology. Basically the author explored the role of primitive weapons in squelching super-aggressive and physically dominant personalities by making it possible to counter their violence. Amazon isn't producing the name on my searches, but it was quoted in "The Righteous Mind".
Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.
That was it.
fascinating. i've been trained to view evolution as a physical manifestation having to do with fossils, mostly, but in truth there's no reason it couldn't be a psychological driver as well... this sounds like a very worthwhile book and may be in itself an indication that humans are becoming more rational... although it's hard to believe that in light of recent political upheavals... great post, tx...
Interesting. But why don't we have something more akin to the bonobos with females policing behavior? Fmeale-centric human cultures were not unknown and females can be violent too. How is it that human violence tends to be so male dominated/focused?
There is a lot of food for thought here. Thank you for defining the goodness paradox. I will start with that. Fascinating commentary, Brian Joseph!
Hi Stephen - The book is mentioned and he mentions the work of its author, Christopher Boehm many times. Boehm‘s book sounds very interesting.
Thanks Muddpuddle. Evolutionary psychology is pretty popular these days. I think that much of what we are and how we behave is based on evolution.
I think that the world is slowly getting better. Sometimes it is hard to see and there are setbacks. Hence, our current political situation.
It would be rather nice to think that bullies don’t live to breed, but dictators still seem to manage to get into power by being the biggest one of their kind! However, It can’t be an accident that a large percentage of Roman Emperors were assassinated.
Hi Stefanie- The author explains that in the case bonobos, a unique situation involving thier food supply allowed the formation of social groups that facilitated the female groups policing violence.
I think that in the vast majority of primate species, males tend to be more violent then females. Of course it is just averages. So any given human woman can be more violent then a particular man. But on average, men are more likely to be violent then women for biological reasons.
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing:)
Hi Sue - Obviously the bullies have not been totally wiped out. But according to this book, amoung chimpanzees and most other primates, they dominate everything. In humans, bonobos and a few other primate species it is different.
Hi Suko -,Thanks for reading.
Hi Lisa - Thanks for reading.
Hi Brian, fascinating book because even today to encounter animals in tne wild its very much a predatory world in which the weaker animals will try to run away, hide or disguise themselves but what they don't do, as I understand, is band together to confront the stronger animals which would be proactive violence. Is it that they lack the brain power that humans have which would make planning for collective self defense possible? Neanderthals interesting too. I used to think they were our ancestors but read somewhere that they were a species that simply went extinct.
Hi Kathy - Amimals banding together would be proactive aggression. As per tve book, A few do but it usually is to hunt or to act against members of their own species.
This book talks a lot about the Neanderthals. As per this book they were not a cooperative among themselves as humans and were thus probably out competed by humans.
Hi Brian, as usual a great review.
I think that the author has thought carefully over his premise and fastidiously built upon it, however, he leaves too many variables unanswered so I find his conclusions unsatisfactory.
For instance, he leaves out violent women, which are many, and contribute disproportionately to child abuse, if you include abortion as an act of violence against one's own offspring. And also the increase in single mom households.
Coming from a Christian perspective, man suffers from a sin nature, which is why it is natural for us to act selfishly and unnatural to act altruistically. I'm not saying people cannot act unselfishly, but the motive that drives our actions are rooted in selfishness and we primarily care only about ourselves and those connected with us.
This is obviously contrary to survival, which is why I wonder how the author can use the theory of evolution to explain violent people.
By that I mean, so much violence is not necessary for survival, yet it happens. I think of the regimes in countries in Africa that are letting their whole country starve to death, not to mention North Korea.
Well, you've got me thinking again, Brian. I appreciate your blog posts.
Hi Sharon - Your comment was thought provoking. I think that like many things that make us human, violence at times can give one a survival and reproductive advantage. Evolution would favor it to some extent. Violence does not always come out in ways that are to an individuals advantage. It is just tool that we are left with. Sometimes it backfires. That is one reason that we evolved moderating factors such as repulsion to violence, a conscience, etc.
I think that one can find lots of instances where woman are violent and it does not really contradict the author's theories. The frequency and type of violence that men perpetuate allowed the mechanisms that the author postulates to go forward. However, I am not sure that he has it correct at every turn.
In most cases men on average are still more violent. In the case of child abuse women may, on average be more violent then men. I would guess that there is a biological component here but I am not certain, I would need to know more. I am pro voice, however, you raise an interesting point, is abortion a foe=rm of aggression? I have to think about that.
Your review gives me lots to ponder. I am also intrigued that you say the world is getting better. Sometimes I wonder if all these dualities: violence/nonviolence; male/female; proactive/reactive; even better/worse are only a way of organizing observations but are not entirely true. In every one, there are so many gradations. Just musing.
A fascinating review, Brian. Although I have a minimal science background, I've always been keenly interested in evolutionary biology.
This would be a wonderful book to discuss in a group, as I can see how each of his theories can be open to debate.
Hi Judy - There is a lot going on in terns of your observations. There is a great argument going on right now, between what I will call Postmodernists and liberal humanists and conservatives over the nature of truth and objective reality. It is reaching into politics social issues and much, much more. I have posted about it before but I will be posting about it more in the future. Personally, I favor the liberal humanist position. That is, we must defend objective truth, science, values like liberalisn, democracy, etc, from challenges comming from both the right and left. The challenge from the right seems obvious. The challenge from the left is what I have called postmodernism. More to come on this.
When I say things are getting better I mean that over the long haul, violence is declining, poverty is falling, democracy is spreading, etc. I highly revamend Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature as it encapsulates what I am talking about.
Hi Judith - Evolutionary biology is so interesting. This would make for a great group discussion.
I found that this book was easy to understand as I do not have a science background either.
Fascinating Brian. I'm intrigued by his division between the two forms, because it feels to me like some of what he calls REACTIVE violence of men towards women or children is planned. Not all of course, but maybe as I think about it, even those that seem not exactly reactive can be opportunistic rather than formally proactive by his definition. Hmm.
I'm intrigued - and hope he's right - that proactive violence is reducing. Sometimes it doesn't feel so.
HI WG - I think that you may be correct. Some of what the author is describing as reactive violence may be practice.
I think that the evidence that violence is decreasing is overwhelming. I highly recommend Steven Pinker's Our Better Angels. In that book the author lays out what has been happening with violence over millennia. He also makes a convincing case as to why it is happening.
This is outstanding review dear Brain!
one of my favorite topic
sounds great read!
you covered it remarkably !
writer seems to have strong eye upon human nature's progress through the years
i agree with his observation that (mostly) there exist two kind of people
one who act behalf of their aggressive attitude and other who react to such actions
reactions can be more abrupt and stern than actions sometimes and this is not beyond human nature
we find proactive aggression reaching to it's most dangerous point in world of today
greed of power and longing for controlling others has gotten to worst
in simple we have right to built four walls and place roof upon them to protect ourselves from all possible harm
but planning to destroy other's houses because we assume that
"may be" they can be threat to our power someday (not life) is unfair
i hope we find out that BALANCE IN POWER AND JUSTICE IN SYSTEM ARE THINGS THAT CAN BRING PEACE AND PROSPERITY TO LIFE ON EARTH
i thoroughly enjoyed the commentary today my friend!
Thanks Baili - Mamy types of violence are terrible. Those who prey on people who just want to be left alone are terrible. I do believe that overall, violence is declining. Sometimes it is hard to see and it is no consolation to its victims.
Very interesting book. I like the whole primate component to it. Like you, I'm not too sure about the author's execution hypothesis. Super bullies have led countries in the past, and maybe now too. Eventually they seem to get bumped off, like Hitler. I hope the planet doesn't lose the bonobos, hooray for their female policing.
Hi Susan - I do think that evolution has reduced the frequency and success rate of super bullies in humans, otherwise they would dominate everything. I am not sure that it happened as a result of execution however.
I also hope that the bonobos will always be with us.
Fascinating study. Especially the fate of the alpha male, and Wrangham's conclusion that reactive violence may be responsible for the majority of murders and assaults. I guess it's not totally surprising that proactive aggression is a human dominated trait, but it must be a very interesting book to trace this throughout history. Thanks for the interesting review.
Thanks Paula. I think that when it comes to murder convictions, most are for unpremeditated crimes. Thus our legal system sees them as reactive.
Wow, that's a fascinating idea, Brian! The idea of pro-social people ganging up against aggressive males sounds familiar, but I can't remember where I read about it before. It's a real problem, how to deal with aggressive people who will otherwise dominate a peaceful society. Killing them off leads to other problems and more violence against other groups, as you mention. I like the idea of shunning - in early societies and under harsh conditions, being exiled from the tribe would have been akin to a death sentence anyway.
Hi Andrew- I think that it was a combination of shunning, violent pushback and maybe some deaths that reduced the influence of the super bullies in humans.
Hmm! Interesting that the author argues that despite our genes, humanity has been getting less violent over time and is optimistic that this will continue. I often have this discussion with in particular my mother in law who is convinced with all the reports of growing knife crime here in the UK we are becoming a much more violent society. Nothing to do with social media and 'better' news coverage of course.
This sounds like a truly fascinating read Brian, I'll be sure to make a note of it.
Hi Tracy - It was a fascinating book. I think that over the long haul it is close to incontrovertible that violence is diminishing. There are temporary setbacks and as you say, the media and other sources distort people’s perception. For more details, I highly recamend Steven Pinker’s Our Better Angels.
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