Welcome to Peace News, the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. We seek to oppose all forms of violence, and to create positive change based on cooperation and responsibility. See more

"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky

  • facebook
  • rss
  • twitter

Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox – How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent

Profile Books, 2019; 400pp; £10.99

ImageAre humans naturally violent or naturally peaceful? For Richard Wrangham, a distinguished primatologist, humans are genetically both.  Our hot ‘reactive aggression’ is surprisingly low; at least when sober, we tend not to brawl.  You can put 300-400 humans on a plane and fly them around for hours with very little problems.  This would be impossible with our chimpanzee cousins.  However, ‘proactive violence’ by humans, results in coldly calculated, premeditated, and carefully planned murder, capital punishment, war, and genocide. Hence for Wrangham, the ‘goodness paradox’ – we are both an extraordinary gentle and a massively violent species.

How did humans get this way?  It is not culture, it is not our environment, nor civilization.  It is our genes. Wrangham looks for evolutionary mechanisms to explain the nature of violence in human nature.  He begins with our nearest relatives, chimpanzees (who can be exceptionally violent, on occasions) and bonobos (who look like chimpanzees, but are a relatively peaceful and a matriarchal species).  He also explores our human ancestors, including Neanderthals. What are his conclusions?

As dogs are domesticated wolves, so humans are self-domesticated primates. You can trust a Labrador dog, but you cannot trust a wolf, even if reared from a pup, no matter how tame it has become.  Humans show lots of signs of being a domesticated species hence their low reactive violence which facilitates cooperation and enhances survival.  How did this come about? Violent males did not survive. If an alpha, bullying male got too much, the other males were able to use language to enter into an egalitarian conspiracy to attack and kill him. They did this when he was least expecting it, and at lowest risk to themselves.  

Humans have thus self-selected themselves evolutionarily for both low reactionary violence and high proactive calculating violence. Both kinds have been selected for over generations and generations. According to Wrangham, the rise of our non-violence was through brutal execution and elimination of the most aggressive males.

What do I make of this as a pacifist?  ‘Shocking and unnerving’ is my first gut response.  However, on reflection I want to take it seriously – I have a PhD in genetics and an openness to carefully researched evidence, the kind that Richard Wrangham so carefully and persuasively presents in his highly readable book. Thus, I want to explore this question, ‘How is Wrangham helpful?’

Firstly, given our evolutionary history, a just and nonviolent society is not easy.  To quote Wrangham, ‘The one guarantee that an evolutionary analysis can offer, however, is that it will not be easy for fairer and more peaceful societies to emerge.  They will take work and planning and cooperation.’ Thus, Wrangham can help those of us who are pacifists, to be realists. Historically, the evidence is abundantly clear that many humans follow their genetic hardwiring to coldly plan and kill and steal from others, when it is to their advantage, and when they can get away with it at low risk to themselves.  Indeed, humans can do this on a massive scale.

Secondly, Wrangham is at pains to tell us that our evolutionary past does not determine our future. Humans are more than their genetic story.  With language, humans are able to create culture and new stories, ideological or religious, that create new possibilities for humans.  Humans can imagine utopia or the kingdom of God on earth.  Wrangham is not an evolutionary determinist.  

Thirdly, Wrangham is alert to the terrible use that can be made of Social Darwinism or ‘Evolutionary Fundamentalism’, the misapplication of evolutionary theory in political ideologies like Nazism and other Far Right movements – movements that are, unfortunately, growing today. Wrangham argues forcefully that evolution is not ‘a political platform, or a justification for an ethical stance, or a recommendation that we return to some imagined delightful past.’ Thus whilst making the case for the role of capital punishment in human evolutionary history, he is strongly against the death penalty,  ‘I believe that judicial execution is an outmoded punishment that should no longer have a place in the world.’

‘Proactive violence’ is premeditated, calculated violence carried about by a group of humans to kill others with the lowest risk to themselves – in the dark, by surprise, with overwhelming numbers.  Wrangham argues that this is even pleasurable for the perpetrators (Others have claimed otherwise eg. in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Lt. Colonel David Grossman argues that killing is actually a traumatic event for soldiers.) How do we as pacifists challenge and reduce this kind of violence?

Accountability is the answer.  Judgement according to just laws, nationally and internationally.  Bringing perpetrators of murder, war crimes, and genocide to court.  These make committing proactive violence costly to the perpetrators. So, the rule of law, nationally and internationally, informed by human rights, is very important.  

The International Criminal Court at the Hague is therefore crucial and its work should be strengthened.  We have a responsibility to protect, to prevent genocide and mass murder, using police nationally, and the UN peacekeepers internationally.  Accountability can also be brought about through nonviolent actions such as lobbying, community organizing, and massive protests.  But how do we address the logic of deterrence of nuclear weapons?

I’ve already mentioned that Wrangham argues that humans are not confined to, nor determined by, their genetics and their evolutionary history.  Humans are story-creating and story-telling animals.  

Of course, there are religions and ideologies that reinforce proactive violence but there are also new stories, creating new possibilities. Buddhism has a profound analysis of the human condition in its four Noble Truths, and its Eight Fold Path is a way to enlightenment and nonviolence as a way of life.  Ahmadiyya Muslims have given up the jihad of the sword, and only practice jihad of the pen.  Their mission statement is Love for all, hatred for none.  Jains are the ultimate pacifists.  Gandhi’s nonviolence was nurtured by his Hinduism and the concept of ahimsa (harmlessness). Jesus taught his followers to deal with their anger, turn the other cheek, and love their enemies.  He was a victim of a calculating, merciless elite who under the cover of darkness arrested him and had him executed him. The Early Christians, followers of St Francis, the Anabaptists, and Quakers have shown new ways of Christian nonviolent living, down to our own time.  Indeed, the Quakers are the only religion to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Martin Luther King Jr took inspiration from both Jesus and Gandhi and transformed USA politics non-violently.  Conscientious objectors were the shock troops of resistance to the conspiracy of proactive violence in the nationalistic/tribal warfare of the twentieth century.

We do well to understand how we are hardwired for proactive violence, but we can choose other options. We need to be utterly realistic about the human condition, but we can deal creatively and effectively with our gentle/violent paradox.  Wrangham’s book helps us understand who we are, where we are, and what we might become as he throws new light on the human condition. His compassionate and wise humanism also helps us forward.

Andrew Bolton, a PhD in genetics, is a peace activist and involved in interfaith dialogue in Leicester. He will be interviewing Richard Wrangham on Zoom, 7 - 8.15pm on Wednesday 8 July. To register for free contact abolton2 [at] live.com