The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

by Richard Wrangham

Paperback, 2019


Vintage (2019), Edition: Reprint, 400 pages


"Highly accessible, authoritative, and intellectually provocative, a startlingly original theory of how Homo sapiens came to be: Richard Wrangham forcefully argues that, a quarter of a million years ago, rising intelligence among our ancestors led to a unique new ability with unexpected consequences: our ancestors invented socially sanctioned capital punishment, facilitating domestication, increased cooperation, the accumulation of culture, and ultimately the rise of civilization itself. Throughout history even as quotidian life has exhibited calm and tolerance war has never been far away, and even within societies violence can be a threat. The Goodness Paradox gives a new and powerful argument for how and why this uncanny combination of peacefulness and violence crystallized after our ancestors acquired language in Africa a quarter of a million years ago. Words allowed the sharing of intentions that enabled men effectively to coordinate their actions. Verbal conspiracies paved the way for planned conflicts and, most importantly, for the uniquely human act of capital punishment. The victims of capital punishment tended to be aggressive men, and as their genes waned, our ancestors became tamer. This ancient form of systemic violence was critical, not only encouraging cooperation in peace and war and in culture, but also for making us who we are: Homo sapiens"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
The premise of The Goodness Paradox takes some real effort to absorb, let alone accept. It is that Homo sapiens is actually mild mannered and non-violent, pointing to its self-domestication. That any species which can routinely slaughter its own in the millions while also routinely wiping out
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entire other species can be considered peaceful compared to wild animals requires some suspension of disbelief. That Richard Wrangham pulls it off so splendidly is a tribute to decades of research, a very well documented book, and a fairness exhibited in every chapter.

Wrangham does it by splitting violence into two types: proactive aggression and reactive aggression. Proactive aggressive coalitions are groups at the command of despots, from bullies to presidents-for-life. They kill individuals, families, clans and nations - when they assess that the action will be cost-free to them personally. Proactive aggression is planned and controlled, or at least purposely unleashed. Reactive aggression is a reaction, a self-defense mechanism, a fight or flight decision. It is a level of self-control that allows individuals and clans to back away from massacre, war, or fights. The tamer the species, the less reactive aggression it exhibits.

Some (Hobbesians) say Man is naturally violent, and needs Society to keep him under control. Others (Rousseauians) say Man is naturally peaceful, and Society has corrupted him into violence. Wrangham says both are right. And that’s the paradox. Then he proves both are right in no uncertain terms.

The difference between humans and animals is that you can set two unfamiliar two-year-old humans beside each other and they will not attack each other. We interact peacefully as the default option. We are helpful and altruistic without training. Chimpanzees – not so much. Chimpanzees fight every day. They will gang up on the alpha male and kill him, torture and kill females, and bite of the heads off infants. Chimps turn out to be so viciously brutal that Wrangham prefers to compare us to Neanderthals and previous editions of Homo, rather than our supposed nearest relatives.

The bulk of the book is based on the truly remarkable process of domestication. It’s not just cows and dogs and chickens that have been our charges for thousands of years. Wrangham tells the story of Dmitry Belyaev, who examined and fostered the process of domesticating wild silver foxes and minks in the USSR, even just in his own lifetime. He studied from generation to generation, while the foxes and minks changed physically as they became tamer.

More remarkably perhaps, domestication can be a self-administered process. There are examples in many species where branches have self-domesticated, with no input from Man. It happens all the time on islands, where predators and/or competition are no longer factors.

The Congo River separates chimpanzees to the north, from bonobos to the south. Bonobos self-domesticated in their more peaceful environment. Where chimps are vicious, bonobos are cuter, cuddlier, tamer, and far less violent. They both come from the same ancestor.

The physical difference between bonobos and chimps is dramatic, and Wrangham shows decisively that it comes from domestication. Skulls are smaller, canine teeth shrink, bodies become smaller and there is a dramatic shift to juvenility, called paedomorphism. They become cuter and infantilized. The physical differences between males and females reduce as well. In many species, white areas appear in the fur on the forehead or as “socks” marking the animal as domesticated. Temperamentally, domesticated animals show Increased social tolerance and reduction in reactive aggressiveness. Domesticated animals are therefore peaceful - as we have come to expect.

So the question arises: is Man self-domesticated? Wrangham shows it unquestionably. Earlier versions of Homo were bigger and stronger. Male faces protruded – they were not as flat as ours. Heads were larger, and so were bodies. A fascinating sidelight is that people are innately afraid of broad-faced men. Study after study shows it. Broad faces represent a much more fierce and threatening being that Man has not forgotten. Narrow-faced men are automatically more trustworthy.

Wrangham then pulls out a new key differentiator: language. It is because of language that people began to conform to rules. Reputations, rumors, accusations, trust and judgment all evolved in Man when language emerged. Language, he says, is the foundation of morality itself. Fear of sanction is the motivator. Morality is the polite cover. Language also allows Man to plan destruction.

Where we differ is that Wrangham thinks (like Steven Pinker et al) that violence has been on the wane, and that wars are on their way out. He is optimistic that Man’s domestication is leading toward a more peaceful race of humans, where a lack of threats means no need for war, and more tolerant attitudes will lead to forbearance rather than aggression.

There are at least two things wrong with this argument. First, the longer we go without war, the more romantic it becomes (as Wrangham himself points out). When World War I broke out, there was universal cheering, and thousands rushed to enlist, to fight the battle over – nothing. For the US Civil War, wives, mothers and children packed lunches to enjoy at the battles (at a safe distance, of course).

Second, although there has been a major reprieve since the unprecedented bloodletting of World War II, there is the ever more ominous and realistic scenario of new wars breaking out all over the world because of climate change. Those without water will have to move. So will those without land. And those whose crops no longer grow mean millions who are hungry will be on the march as well. Countries will close their borders to immigrants, unprecedented waves of them will cause chaos, and several opportunistic nations will feel obliged to grab what they can while they can. This sort of proactive aggression is Man’s specialty, not available in other species, again due to language. It’s not possible to pull together an armed force of chimps, despite their proclivity towards violence. But organizing supposedly peaceful men to kill is a well-worn path.

The Goodness Paradox is outside the box thinking writ large. It changes the perspective of where Man fits in the scheme of things. It explains a lot that has been inexplicable. And Wrangham offers all sides to every argument, so readers can see that the bases have been covered. It is at very least a revelation.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member Tom.Wilson
A powerful new vision of how morality evolved over the past tens of thousand years among humans. As women choose to mate with men who are less violent and as small groups of hunter-gatherers ostracize and then in some cases execute overly domineering humans, the overall gene pool is altered so that
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we become a more peaceful species. In other words, Wrangham argues that we have domesticated ourselves. Entertainingly written and deeply learned - a must read for 2019.
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LibraryThing member BraveKelso
This work has a clear vision of two views of human nature which the author associates with the views of Hobbes and Rousseau. People are selfish and violent or they are altruistic and peaceful. The author, drawing on several disciplines, suggests that evolution has made people both. The author
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suggests that humans self-domesticated, suppressing the genes that cause the hormones promoting "reactive aggression". The author suggest that humans are capable of "coalitionary proactive aggression" which makes humans tend to act aggressively when we believe we will succeed, with low risk of consequences. The author draws on behavioural studies of several mammals including rats, sable foxes, wolves, chimpanzees, bonobos and genetic and molecular biology, The author frequently points out that the fossil record is sparse, and that there are no sources of historical evidence. The author suggests that early humans, like wolves and chimpanzees, engaged in collusion to attack and overthrow alpha male "bullies", which led to cultural pressure to cooperate, and to adopt pro-social moralities. It is an interesting line of speculation.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Lots of interesting ideas here, from an eminent scientist. The development of violence and morality in human evolution, in context with other animals and especially compared to other apes is very thought provoking.




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