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.