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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Anthropology  Sociocultural Anthropology

The Goodness Paradox How Evolution Made Us More and Less Violent

Popular Science
By: Richard W Wrangham(Author)
381 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Thoughtful, bristling with interesting ideas, and sure to be controversial, The Goodness Paradox provides an evolutionary explanation for our docile yet violent nature.
The Goodness Paradox
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  • The Goodness Paradox ISBN: 9781781255841 Paperback Jan 2020 In stock
  • The Goodness Paradox ISBN: 9781781255834 Hardback Jan 2019 Out of Print #243428
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

It may not always seem so, but day-to-day interactions between individual humans are extraordinarily peaceful. That is not to say that we are perfect, just far less violent than most animals, especially our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and their legendarily docile cousins, the Bonobo. Perhaps surprisingly, we rape, maim, and kill many fewer of our neighbours than all other primates and almost all undomesticated animals. But there is one form of violence that humans exceed all other animals in by several degrees: organized proactive violence against other groups of humans. It seems, we are the only animal that goes to war.

In The Goodness Paradox, Richard Wrangham wrestles with this paradox at the heart of human behaviour. Drawing on new research by geneticists, neuroscientists, primatologists, and archaeologists, he shows that what domesticated our species was nothing less than the invention of capital punishment which eliminated the least cooperative and most aggressive among us. But that development is exactly what laid the groundwork for the worst of our atrocities.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Thoughtful and bristling with interesting ideas
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Mar 2019 Written for Hardback

    Humans. How is it that you can herd 200 of them into an aeroplane without a riot erupting, while they also commit unspeakable atrocities such as torture, genocide, and war? Anthropologist Richard Wrangham calls it the goodness paradox. In this well-reasoned book, he surveys research from a range of disciplines to try and answer why humans show this odd combination of intense calm in normal social interactions and a ready willingness to kill under certain other circumstances.

    Traditionally, this debate has been ruled by two extreme viewpoints: we are naturally nice but susceptible to corruption, or we are naturally evil but kept in check by the forces of civilization. Wrangham wants to boldly go where few have gone before and says: “this debate makes no sense to begin with, we are both”. Aggression, he says, comes in two major forms, each with their own biology and evolutionary history. He calls them reactive and proactive aggression throughout the book but explains we can also call them hot and cold, or impulsive and premeditated. It is the difference between lashing out in a fit of rage or deliberately planning a murder.

    Wrangham starts off with what primatological research tells us about violence in ourselves and our closest relatives, something which he explored before in his book Demonic Males. Anthropological research, furthermore, has shown the “peace at home” and “war abroad” dichotomy that characterises humans. Our levels of reactive aggression are low, while levels of proactive aggression are high.

    The bulk of the book then goes into the question of why we are so tolerant. Wrangham’s argument runs something like this: Reduced aggressiveness is a hallmark of domesticated species. Taken together with other hallmarks, a convincing case can be made that we are a domesticated species. A self-domesticated species to be precise. How? Social control in the form of execution by groups of adult males drove a reduction in aggression. Sounds controversial? Let's unpack this a bit more.

    Tolerance is rare in nature but common in domesticated species. Wrangham discusses Belyaev’s classic work on silver foxes in Siberia at length (see How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)). It has shown that selection against reactive aggression results in domestication and comes with a suite of morphological changes: shorter faces, smaller brains, floppy ears, and white patches of fur. As an aside, at the very end of this book, the authors referred to work done by Wrangham and others on the underlying mechanism. He picks up the baton here and shortly explains his research on migration of neural-crest cells (a kind of stem cell) during embryonic development and hormonal control exerted by the thyroid gland, and how these produce the observed changes in morphology.

    Archaeological findings show the same kinds of changes in human fossils (yes, including, only recently, a reduction in brain size). Traditionally, scientists have tried to explain this by finding individual adaptive explanations for each of them. But, says Wrangham, they are more likely a byproduct of domestication (mildly ironic, if you ask me, as Wrangham has contributed to this discussion himself in the past; his book Catching Fire argued that cooking led to reduced jaw and tooth size).

    The idea of modern humans as a domesticated species is not new and Wrangham shows how it has been around since Darwin and before. But who domesticated us? We did. This allows Wrangham to discuss primatological research on bonobos. Generally known as the peace-loving primates that solve every problem with sex, the question arises of how a tolerant species is not invaded by selfish, aggressive individuals. In bonobos, females form coalitions to punish bullying males.

    In what will probably be seen as the most controversial point the book makes, Wrangham says that in humans it is coalitions of males that kill other males. To support this assertion, he turns to the rich body of ethnological research on hunter-gatherer societies that shows capital punishment is universal. In subsequent chapters, he argues how it explains why we care so much about reputation and how morality came about. Vital in this model was the acquisition of language, which made possible both conspiratorial gossiping and the careful planning required for capital punishment.

    This leaves the other form of aggression, the proactive one. You might see where Wrangham is going at this point in his book. The corollary of the proposed mechanism for reduced reactive violence is that of carefully planned proactive violence. So, as we evolved to become a more socially tolerant, more docile species, we simultaneously gained the capacity for organised violence.

    The idea that war comes naturally to us is something that many people really do not like. Stephen Jay Gould did not. Nor do people like anthropologist Agustín Fuentes (see Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You) or Bad Religion songwriter and zoologist Greg Graffin (see Population Wars). Others see no problem with an evolutionary explanation (see recently e.g. War – What Is It Good for? and Why We Fight).

    The interesting thing is that most people do not necessarily disagree with the data, but consider this kind of interpretation taboo. “We cannot have scientists saying that violence and warfare are natural, that would induce fatalism and remove any inclination to try and prevent or reduce it”. To me, that reeks of political correctness, and Wrangham’s defence is both spirited and logical. Most primatologists discovering the violent nature of primates did not become fatalistic (see e.g. Goodall’s Reason for Hope). He is, furthermore, careful to stress that evolution is not destiny, nor should an evolutionary explanation be hijacked for political purposes (this has happened too often already). And war is costly. As Wrangham writes, and as e.g. Steven Pinker has documented in The Better Angels of our Nature, it has a strong tendency to disappear when it does not pay. Being a US scientist, he is careful to reiterate in his afterword that just because he puts forward capital punishment as an evolutionary explanation, that does not mean he supports the death penalty.

    I found The Goodness Paradox a well-written and convincing book-length argument that is bristling with many other interesting ideas I have not been able to touch upon here. Especially the idea of two kinds of violence with their own biology and evolutionary history is revelatory. No doubt it will cause much discussion and disagreements. I think it is a model for thoughtful and respectful writing that shows how to dig into a controversial topic, survey its history, give the various schools of thought a fair hearing, and explain your argument.
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Richard Wrangham is Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University. He is the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, and Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (with Dale Peterson). Professor Wrangham is a leader in primate behavioral ecology. He is the recipient of the Rivers Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy.

Popular Science
By: Richard W Wrangham(Author)
381 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Thoughtful, bristling with interesting ideas, and sure to be controversial, The Goodness Paradox provides an evolutionary explanation for our docile yet violent nature.
Media reviews

"Highly original [...] complex and ambitious [...] A story about the origins of morality that begins hundreds of thousands of years before any creature had a sense of right and wrong, or even a sense of self [...] There is something impressive, even moving, about the book's sifting, weighing, and fitting together of evidence from a half-dozen continents, a dozen disciplines, several dozen species, and two million years into a large and intricate structure. There is also a lesson: evolution is much less relevant to our growth than moral imagination."
– George Scialabba, The New Yorker

"Wrangham probes the deep evolutionary history of human aggression [...] this book [is] essential reading as geneticists start to unwrap the package of genes that responded to domestication, which may give hints about our own evolutionary history."
The Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating [...] The Goodness Paradox pieces together findings from anthropology, history, and biology to reconstruct a vivid and comprehensive history of how humans evolved into domesticated creatures [...] presents a complex but convincing perspective on how good and evil may have come to co-exist in our unique species."
The Washington Post

"[Wrangham] deploys fascinating facts of natural history and genetics as he enters a debate staked out centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (among other philosophers), and still very much alive today: how to understand the conjunction of fierce aggression and cooperative behavior in humans [...] This latest version[of human evolution] is bound to provoke controversy, but that's what bold theorizing is supposed to do. And Wrangham is nothing if not bold as he puts the paradox in his title to use. In his telling, the dark side of protohuman nature was enlisted in the evolution of communal harmony [...] Wrangham has highlighted a puzzle at the core of human evolution, and delivered a reminder of the double-edged nature of our virtues and vices."
The Atlantic

"A work accessible to those outside the scientific field, offering a great deal of information."
Library Journal

"Based on Richard Wrangham's path-breaking work and on many riveting examples, this magnificent and profound book shows how our violent, even murderous, impulses actually shaped our species to be kind and cooperative, progressively shaping our evolutionary trajectory, our moral expectations, and our genes."
– Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University

"A fascinating new analysis of human violence, filled with fresh ideas and gripping evidence from our primate cousins, historical forebears, and contemporary neighbors"
– Steven Pinker

"A brilliant analysis of the role of aggression in our evolutionary history"
– Jane Goodall, author of In the Shadow of Man

"Magisterial [...] [an] extraordinarily detailed, cogently argued, hugely important book"
– Paul Levy, Spectator

"Richard Wrangham has written a brilliant and honest book about humanity's central contradiction: that we are capable of mass murder but live in societies with almost no violence. No other species straddles such a wide gap, and the reasons are staggeringly obvious once Wrangham lays them out in his calm, learned prose. This book is science writing at its best: lucid, rational and yet deeply concerned with humanity."
– Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe

"Wrangham has been the most original and influential interpreter of ecological and evolutionary factors in the origin of our species. In The Goodness Paradox he extends his evidence and reasoning into yet another fundamental human trait."
– Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

"Nobody knows more, thinks deeper, or writes better about the evolution of modern human beings than Richard Wrangham. Here he reveals a rich and satisfying story about the self-domestication of our species, drawing upon remarkable observations and experiments"
– Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything
"In this revolutionary, illuminating, and dazzling book, Wrangham provides the first compelling explanation for how and why humans can be so cooperative, kind, and compassionate, yet simultaneously so brutal, aggressive, and cruel. His brilliant self-domestication hypothesis will transform your views of what it means to be human"
– Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body

"This will prove to be one of the most important publications of our time. Fully supported scientific information from many directions leads us to a new and compelling analysis of our evolutionary history. Every page is fascinating, every revelation is unforgettable. It will change how we see ourselves, our past, and our future."
– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

"This is the most thought-provoking book I have read in years. In clear, elegant prose, drawing on riveting data and vivid scenes gathered from species all over the world, renowned anthropologist Richard Wrangham examines the issues most central to human morality. The Goodness Paradox is a breakthrough that deserves careful reading, thoughtful consideration, and lively debate among all those who care about our evolutionary history and the future of human morality."
– Sy Montgomery, author of How to Be a Good Creature

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