- - Tuesday, January 22, 2019


By Richard Wrangham

Pantheon Books, $27.95, 400 pages

Many of us think that on the whole human beings are pretty nice: Usually friendly and helpful, even self-sacrificing. In contrast, others point to our frequent cruelty, violence and the horrendous wars that are never out of the news.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham characterizes the first view as Rousseauian, after the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularly credited with the idea that we are all born good but grow up corrupted by society. He characterizes the opposing idea as Hobbesian, after the English political philosopher, who described the lives of people without a government to keep them in line as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

The author untangles this paradox using the analogy of the chimera, a mythic beast having the body of a goat and the head of a lion. “It was neither one thing nor the other: it was both With respect to our tendency for aggression, a human being is both a goat and a lion. We have a low propensity for reactive aggression, and a high propensity for proactive aggression.”

By reactive aggression, he means the instant snarls and bites of lions, wolves and many other animals when they are approached — certainly by other species and often also by their own kind. Humans don’t behave like this, but one of our closest animal relatives the chimpanzee does.

Mr. Wrangham began his career studying chimpanzees under the direction of Jane Goodall. His descriptions of them are vivid and illuminating, so we understand when he notes that it is impossible to think of 300 chimpanzees sitting close together for several hours without the eruption of utter chaos — indeed carnage. Yet we humans manage this feat pretty much every time we travel by air.

On the other hand, we are superbly skilled at proactive aggression. This needs forethought and often collaboration. It’s what happens in bullying, in torture chambers, in murders and most obviously in war.

Animals such as chimpanzees, wolves and lions exhibit high levels of both sorts of aggression, and this is not terribly surprising. Why, then do humans differ in having very low levels of reactive aggression with a very high capacity for proactive aggression?

The thesis of “The Goodness Paradox” is that reactive aggression was suppressed “due to a process of self-domestication that started certainly 200,000 years ago. Language-based conspiracy was the key because it gave whispering beta males the power to join forces to kill alpha-male bullies. Language allowed under-dogs to agree on a plan, and therefore make predictably safe murders out of confrontations that would otherwise have been dangerous. Genetic selection against the propensity for reactive aggression was an unforeseen result of eliminating would-be despots.”

Mr. Wrangham calls this process self-domestication. Startlingly its effects include more than just switching off the instant-attack proclivity. Our skulls and canine teeth shrank; our faces became flatter and cuter; the physical differences between males and females diminished.

This occurred also in domesticated animals, which are more like the playful juveniles of their wild ancestors. Oddly, many also developed those white patches that we like so much: White blazes on horses’ foreheads and the pretty “socks” on some cats and dogs. Often, too, they acquired charmingly floppy ears. These and other side-effects of domestication are non-adaptive traits dragged into existence by the genetic change that dampened reactive aggression.

Mr. Wrangham’s argument and his discussion makes compelling reading. One reason is the wealth of research that he brings to the book, including both his own early work with chimpanzees and bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that of other researchers.

Among the most important was Dmitri Belyaev a Soviet-era Russian researcher who worked with silver foxes living on fur farms. By breeding those showing least reactive aggression, within a few generations he had prompted the cascade of other domestication traits, including one dear to the heart of fur farmers: Increased reproduction.

Richard Wrangham tells the history of Belyaev and other researchers with a sure sense of anecdotal pacing and vivid choice of detail. Indeed, the narrative of “The Goodness Paradox” is handled with great patience and attention to the needs of a non-specialist audience. This becomes especially useful in the final part of the book, which deals with proactive aggression.

In small-scale societies killing disruptive members is a way to preserve the group. Writ large this basic human habit becomes judicial killing, war and various forms of physical control, invariably asserted by males. But though it can be described as “natural” behavior, Mr. Wrangham carefully makes clear that exposing its biological roots does not condone its terrible effects.

Often “The Goodness Paradox” has the compulsive readability more typical of novels. Indeed, like detective fiction it deals with the clarification of mystery, and it’s even more exciting because it’s science — and illuminating science at that. It’s a must-read.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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