The Goodness Paradox
Richard Wrangham’s _The Goodness Paradox_ should make any peace and conflict student sit up and take notice. I don’t say that often, especially about a book written by a primate biologist. However, Wrangham builds on a career studying evolution as well as other primates to reach some mind-boggling conclusions about our propensity for violence and for what we far too loosely refer to as human nature.
Wrangham is the latest social scientist to refer to the paradox that gives the book its title. On the one hand, we are an amazingly violent species. On the other hand, we can be amazingly cooperative and tolerant, and the evidence suggests that we have become more so over the years—and he would add millennia.
Wrangham tries to take on the often thorny question of human nature, unsophisticated versions of which fill the literature on war and peace. Are we somehow basically good and would we act that way if we had the right institutions and frameworks as many who come from the Kantian/Rousseauian tradition might suggest? Or, as Hobbesians and others of that ilk proclaim, are we somehow inherently aggressive and, therefore, prone to the use of violence when we pursue our self interest in conditions of scarcity.
Wrangham suggests that we are, to some degree, both. There is ample evidence that humans are capable of what he calls reactive aggression which is certainly wired into our brains given the way they have evolved from our earliest mammalian ancestors.
But, as he says toward the end of chapter 1, “war is a different matter altogether.” It reflects what he later refers to as cooperative, proactive aggression. In other words, groups of humans collectively and consciously decide to use violence to achieve some desired goal.
It is at this point that Wrangham’s work gets interesting and goes beyond the debates inspired by other evolutionary scientists including Steven Pinker. In essence, he argues that this second human tendency that has taken us to war has also allowed us to develop political and other institutions that allow us to avoid war and settle our disputes in other, more cooperative ways.
The book is, in fact, fascinating because he traces this part of our evolution farther back than, say, Steven Pinker. What’s more, he puts in the context of an argument that humans are a domesticated species that in some ways resemble our household pets. He is careful to note that domestication does not mean tameness. Instead, as species become domesticated, certain genetic traits get “selected out,” including our propensity for reactive aggression and violence. In essence and unintentionally, we have increasingly bred the most uncontrollable and irrational aspects of our nature that lead to violence.
In its place comes collective proactive behavior comes into play. Unlike other species that display reactive aggression, we are conscious. We have learned to choose goals that meet group as well as individual goals. Sometimes, that has led us to choose war, capital punishment, and other ways of treating people we disagree with that I, for one, find appalling and unacceptable but which played vital historical roles. We have also found ways of working together to meet those same collective goals. And, as the history of warfare shows, that has increasingly led us toward cooperative problem solving.
Though we still have a long, long, long way to go.
I am by no means qualified to criticize Wrangham’s argument. Still, it is one that anyone interested in peace and conflict studies should be paying attention to.