Book of the week
The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution
“If we are so good, how can we be so bad?” asked John Hawks in The Wall Street Journal. Thinkers have puzzled over humans’ contradictory nature for ages, and for anyone who’s pondered how we can be both unusually docile and murderous on a grand scale, Richard Wrangham’s new book is “essential reading.” The Harvard anthropologist, who first gained notoriety two decades ago by arguing that humans are intrinsically violent, also agrees with researchers who claim that the species has become gradually less violent. In The Goodness Paradox, Wrangham argues that the change occurred because we “self-domesticated,” and did so in an unusual way: Our ancestors punished alpha-male bullies by working cooperatively to execute them. Over time, the capacity to cooperate became the more prevalent trait.
So score one for capital punishment, said Tom Whipple in The Times (U.K.). But note that Wrangham personally opposes the execution of violent individuals today, and he isn’t claiming that today’s humans, including the beta males who won the evolutionary battle, are saints. The capacity to cooperate, after all, amplifies the human capacity for war and genocide. Wrangham prefers focusing on the evolutionary record, beginning with our two closest primate cousins, said Rachel Newcomb in The Washington Post. Whereas chimpanzees are notoriously aggressive, bonobos are the opposite, and Wrangham claims that the latter species self-domesticated because they had less need for aggression in their resource-rich native habitat. The proposition that humans and bonobos both self-domesticated is backed by shared physical evolutionary changes: Both became milder and more childlike in appearance over time, presumably as they grew more cooperative.
But does capital punishment have to be the key to the human story? asked anthropologist Melvin Konner in The Atlantic. I once spent two years amid a hunter-gatherer group, the !Kung of southern Africa, and found that women, when afforded power equal to or greater than men’s in a culture, will choose men of calm temperament as their mates, thus reducing the group’s propensity for aggressiveness over time. But of course Wrangham’s thesis provokes argument; “that’s what bold theorizing is supposed to do.” Over the course of a long career, he has come up with some of the boldest and best ideas about human evolution, and now he has done it again. The Goodness Paradox highlights a puzzle about our history that can’t be ignored, and reminds us that violence and virtue live together within us. ■