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The Goodness Paradox—A Review

A review of The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham (Pantheon, 2019) 400 pages.

To future historians, it may seem strange that science in the early twenty-first century once again fell afoul of dogma. This time it issued, not from the pulpit, but from the university lectern. Today, prevailing intellectual doctrines hold that reality is a social construct, and their adherents do not take kindly to biologists reminding us that nature is comprised of objective facts. Biologists have lately awoken to the news that their science makes them heretics in the postmodern imperium, and guilty of retailing the ideas most heretical to the progressive, constructivist, utopian-egalitarian worldview.

Progressives were the natural friends of science when it overturned the altars of biblical certainty, and they continue to invoke its authority in debates about global warming and environmental degradation. However, when it comes to understanding the human animal or, say, the heritability of character traits like intelligence, or the fact that nothing can be had for nothing and that choices carry hidden costs, they are considerably less sanguine. It is not a coincidence that it has been evolutionary scientists, rather than their humanist cousins, who have felt the ire of radical progressivism. The professors who have faced opprobrium for expressing the wrong views are nearly all scientists (Charles Murray, Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, among the more notorious), and not one is a postmodern theorist.

The threat of excommunication no doubt weighs heavily on evolutionary anthropologists such as Richard Wrangham, who—as a good evolutionary scientist must—relays facts that are inconsiderate of ideology. In his latest book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, he recalls being accused of “political bias” for postulating that murder among chimpanzees was a beneficial adaptation (as if it were hard to imagine that eliminating a group of hostile competitors might benefit one’s offspring). “Evolutionary analysis,” he writes, “is fraught with the potential for emotionally and politically sensitive response.”

Into a minefield of provocative ideas Wrangham certainly treads—ideas such as the genetic determination of temperament, behavior, and gender, and the natural selection for adaptive traits that include hierarchy, authority, warfare, the universal subordination of females, in-group bias (i.e., bigotry), and the pleasure in killing strangers (the Romans thought this pretty obvious). Nor, he reminds us, should morality be understood as altruism, empathy, and loving-kindness, but rather as an apparatus of right and wrong designed to enforce social cohesion. In other words, nature is a school of hard knocks that knows nothing of diversity, equity, and inclusion quotas, and the successful graduates are those species—our own among them—that ran the gauntlet. The meek, one fears, have not inherited the earth.

Or have they? The first three-quarters of Richard Wrangham’s book will be familiar terrain to readers of Steven Pinker, especially The Better Angels of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined. These pages certainly go a long way towards easing the suspicion of “political bias” (say, the unwitting prudential conservatism) of evolutionary science. Wrangham introduces the reader to two evolutionary actors: reactive and proactive aggression. Reactive aggression is the propensity to react violently to imminent threat and respond angrily to offense. It is general tit-for-tat testiness; a choleric disposition or quarrelsomeness that ranges from petulance to road rage and crimes of passion. Proactive aggression is of a different character: it is the cool-headed and, if we follow Wrangham, the more recently evolved strand of violent behavior that is premeditated, intentional, calculating, and for this reason more devastatingly effective than its huffy reactive cousin.

With these two protagonists on the stage, The Goodness Paradox relates a tale fit to charm the gentle males and females that compose its readership: that natural selection over the last few hundred thousand years has produced a considerably less querulous and more docile, collaborative, and feminized species. Over the long evolutionary timescale, males with gentler proclivities have gained the reproductive edge over the boors and the hoodlums, and we today aren’t primarily the heir of the mass-raping Genghis-Khans of the world, but of the milder, more eager-to-please and team-spirited bonobo-like males delivered from the toxin of chimpanzoid masculinity. Humans, Wrangham says, have been pacifying and domesticating themselves, in no small part thanks to the greater ability of females “to choose the less aggressive males as mates”—a fact that will seem obvious to readers of Jane Austen (but perhaps less so to those of Emily Brontë).

Along with a gentler temperament, evolution has been selecting in favor of males less inclined to compete for status than, say, the stouter and more broadly masculine Neanderthals. “Unpleasantly competitive” is the telling adverbial color the author brings to some of our ancestral behavior, against which we have reassuring evidence of our evolution into natural born communitarians. The good news, to summarize, is that we are a feminized species and that it is bonobo-like homo intellectus who over time gets the girl. But there is a short, shocking final act to Wrangham’s happy tale of self-domestication. Until then, Wrangham has been at pains to remind us repeatedly that self-domestication is the source of our current blessings, so the reader may be excused for suspecting that “The Progress of Docility” or “The Triumph of the Meek” would have been more suitable titles for his book than one announcing a mysterious “Goodness Paradox.” He postpones the most important and incendiary part of his argument until he has spent over 200 pages reassuring the reader of his left-wing convictions, conscious that a storm will break over his head when we at last grasp his dangerous idea.

The dangerous idea is not that human beings are both angels and demons (which the unwary may imagine is the banal paradox floated by the book title)—but that we are demons because we have managed to pacify ourselves. Having grown into a docile, cooperative, and feminized species is just what makes us capable of large-scale evil. To understand this stunning and tragic theory, let us return to the pacified feminized male of the ancestral savanna. His greater sociability and docility allowed him to partner with other less aggressive males against the bullies in their midst. Beta males had a tool which the petulant, overbearing alpha male lacked: the ability to cooperate and coordinate their action. This action consisted mainly of capital punishment. Time and again the toxic male was executed out of the species, murdered by a conspiracy of individually weaker, but collectively stronger, males. In time, a more group-minded, egalitarian, and rational society emerged, which replaced strong-man dictatorship with collective rule.

There is a heretical idea lodged in there about the efficacy of capital punishment, for which the author evidently feels obliged to pen an apologetic afterword. Just the same, it is a well-attested anthropological fact that, up until very recently, the generality of mankind punished non-conformists, cheats, and violent individualists very harshly, most often by death. Over time this policy inhibited the violent from passing down their genes, and handed a numerical advantage to the cooperative. Three cheers, then, for the effective law enforcement and tough policing that created civilization. But this is not the idea that will expose Wrangham to the wrath of his peers. His heresy is much worse.

Among the cooperative and consultative ways of organizing life created by domesticated mankind is the invention of warfare: a deliberate, cool-headed, organized method of wielding aggression. Domestication gave man the ability to control his temper but also to channel it into long-term projects of conquest and subjugation. This means that the long slow decline of reactive aggression, which underpins the process of species feminization, is responsible for pushing up the prevalence, and also the deadliness, of proactive aggression in our species. As Wrangham elusively puts it, “both our ‘angelic’ and ‘demonic’ tendencies depended for their evolution on the sophisticated forms of shared intentionality.”

It is fitting that the author delivers this shocker in a final chapter entitled “Paradox Lost,” for it is not really a paradox at all but rather an instance of the law of unintended consequences. Our demonic tendencies are the product of our angelic domestication. We are lethally violent because we have grown quiet, deliberative, and cooperative, and thus able to visit organized, methodical, genocidal violence upon fellow human beings. In short, there is no contradiction between Hobbes and Rousseau: we are Hobbesian because we have evolved into little Émiles. We are wolves in sheepskin and the sheepskin is to blame.

In some respects, this will be no revelation to psychological readers of history. Truly devilish large-scale harm is not committed by the frothing bully; it is done by well-mannered, affable, intellectual, and comparatively feminized coalition builders like, say, Torquemada, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other such well-spoken technocratic tyrants, whose archetype is the urbane O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I am almost sorry for putting the central idea of The Goodness Paradox in a starker light than perhaps its author intended. To those who will be worried about its “problematic” hypothesis, it should be emphasized that Richard Wrangham does really embrace (and who doesn’t?) the idea of a house-trained defanged human species. But this is precisely why he deserves praise—he has courageously followed his scientific research where it led him. For this he deserves our support if and when a coalition of beta-bullies arrives to drive him out of the lecture hall.


Didier Maleuvre is professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author, most recently, of The Art of Civilization: A Bourgeois History (Palgrave, 2016) and the forthcoming The Legends of the Modern: A Reappraisal of Modernity from Shakespeare to the Age of Duchamp (Bloomsbury, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter @namelessinba


  1. Farris says

    So would Ghengis Khan be the hot headed reactionary or the cool calculated genicidal conquered?

    • Ray Andrews says


      That’s a good question. Perhaps a bit of both? Don’t they say that he was personally violent when it suited him but also capable of planning.

  2. Biologist says

    Read Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origins of Freedom by Paul Rubin, especially the chapters on the origin and function of Envy. Envy is the root moral intuition of the Left.

    “Time and again the toxic male was executed out of the species, murdered by a conspiracy of individually weaker, but collectively stronger, males. In time, a more group-minded, egalitarian, and rational society emerged, which replaced strong-man dictatorship with collective rule.”

    That passage from this essay would have fitted happily in Darwinian Politics.

    • Thylacine says

      Richard Alexander was proposing this line of argument in the 1970s and 1980s. He begins one book with a parable about how the “atom bomb” is a perfect testament to the cooperative nature of humans: it takes tens of thousands of people working in a coordinated and long-term manner to design, build, and launch an atomic weapon. Richard Alexander was streets ahead of his contemporary biologists when applying the theory to morality. He deserves to be wider known and read.

  3. Blue Lobster says

    “…it should be emphasized that Richard Wrangham does really embrace (and who doesn’t?) the idea of a house-trained defanged human species.”

    The self-domestication of humans strikes me as rather analogous to the the domestication of animals whose domestication has not truly made them dependent on their human masters and creators just as we are not truly dependent upon a global communications network or the sophisticated electronics on which it is based or even modern medicine. There are certainly animals selectively bred by humans for the purpose of reliably emphasizing traits which either by themselves or, more commonly, in concert with other linked traits, that if released into the wild and thoroughly cut off from their human caregivers would meet quick and merciless extinction due to depredation or lack of ability to acquire appropriate refuge and nutrition.

    However, there are many animals considered “domesticated” which in the absence of human caregivers will survive and even thrive in the wild and, within a generation or two removed from human intervention, would appear nearly indistinguishable from their wild forebears.

    These pseudo-domesticated animals which easily revert to a feral/wild state in which their phenotypic, and with sufficient time, genotypic characteristics are largely distinct from their more docile, “engineered” progenitors seem to resemble the pseudo-domestication of humans whereby the relatively docile, cooperative, “feminized”, if you will, traits which have become prominent within the context of modern societal organization would rapidly disappear were the environmental impetus, namely a modern, technologically advanced civilization, to vanish.

    It has been my impression that humans have devised social schemes and technological advancements in the name of decreased infant mortality, longer lifespans and creature comforts which if stripped away would result in a reversion to traits and behaviors more in line with those generally ascribed by biologists to typical living organisms which must cope with an immense and overarching scarcity of resources: namely, aggression, violence, ruthlessness, cunning and cruelty.

    Humans are animals just like any other and whatever differences our excessive cognitive capacity would seem to illuminate that appear to differentiate us from the more “primitive” species are substantively nothing more than illusory constructs masking the savage creatures that exist deep within all of us and sleep, dormant but far from dead, awaiting the time when they will be called upon once again in order to ensure the continued survival of our species regardless of the cost in blood, sweat and tears. Our species would not and could not have become the dominant ecological force on Earth were it not for an especially destructive nature and capacity for savagery domination whether produced by our “angelic nature” or otherwise.

    For my sake in particular, I hope such a time can be postponed until I am postmortem.

  4. augustine says

    Either of the two types of aggression indicated here can be moral or immoral, or amoral. “…well-mannered, affable, intellectual, and comparatively feminized coalition builders” can apply equally to tyrants as to the “good guys”, e.g., the Allies in WWII. Maybe that is an example of reactive-defensive aggression, while the Axis took up proactive-offensive aggression?

  5. Jack B. Nimble says

    “………it has been evolutionary scientists, rather than their humanist cousins, who have felt the ire of radical progressivism. The professors who have faced opprobrium for expressing the wrong views are nearly all scientists (Charles Murray, Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, among the more notorious)…….”

    Of the above, only Weinstein counts as an evolutionary biologist. That is an important point, because Murray and Peterson, for example, often get the details wrong when they wander into evolutionary biology.

    “……….The first three-quarters of Richard Wrangham’s book …. certainly go a long way towards easing the suspicion of “political bias” (say, the unwitting prudential conservatism) of evolutionary science………”

    The simplistic idea that evolution=conservatism or that natural selection=free-market capitalism has a long intellectual history, beginning shortly after Darwin published the ‘Origin.’ Ironically [given the point that Maleuvre is making], this claim is made most often by Marxists such as biologist R. Lewontin and historian Robert Young. See T.C. Leonard [ ] for more on this topic. The reality is that Darwin’s writings are vast and he changed his mind on important topics several times, so one can find support for almost any idea somewhere in his output.

    “….Along with a gentler temperament, evolution has been selecting in favor of males less inclined to compete for status than, say, the stouter and more broadly masculine Neanderthals…..”

    I don’t know if the above is from Maleuvre or from Wrangham, but it’s not clear how we can infer ‘status competition’ from the skeletal anatomy of Neanderthal fossils. Trying to study the evolution of behavior in a clade with only 4 extant species [chimp, bonobo, gorilla and human] is virtually impossible–particularly since the ecological differences among these species are huge.

    Bottom Line: Wrangham’s suggestion that humans domesticated themselves is interesting, but other ideas are also plausible. For example, group selection–social groups with fewer status-seeking males out-reproduced groups with more status-seeking males. And what about the role of ritual violence [e.g., human sacrifice] in promoting social cohesion? It’s not all warfare and conquest.

    • dirk says

      Your (Jack N.) comment on the implications of the stouter and more masculine neanderthaler was also the first that struck me reading the review. That stouter physiology was necessary to hunt the large animals, the hunters lived in small groups widely apart (also due to the scarcety of these animals), recently they found a Neanderthal skeleton of a male severely suffering from rheuma , and certainly not able to hunt, but kept alive and taken care of by the group. So, I think, be more careful with associating stout ( violence?, warfare?) and macho with our present macho behaviour and ethics right now.

      BTW, the stoutness of the neanderthalers didn,t help them very much when the more feminine Cro Magnons appeared on the scene and decided that they could also hunt much smaller animals, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, dormice.

  6. Julia says

    Ironically, the coalition of beta-bullies proves his concept.

    • George G says

      Is this the meaning of the meek shall inherit the earth? I’ve never understood what that saying was getting at

      • David of Kirkland says

        A lot of meek individuals who band together in power tend to become vicious and aggressive. Perhaps most meekness is because a strong tyrant made it clear that obedience and acceptance of authority was preferred over thinking/acting for yourself.

  7. jimhaz says

    Was just reading this a few days ago. From Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

    “Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my child-hood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the
    Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats–the truth being that in modern England a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else.

    If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to unhealthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism”

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, violent societies may have gotten rid of such a trait entirely by accident (well, without planning, unintended consequence), by sending their most violent and brave off to war as young men who didn’t reproduce.

      • John Davis says

        High casualty rates among the winners in war is relatively recent. In Classical times, a society sent its most violent and bravest off to war, which they might win – coming back with social status and wealth, which is a competitive advantage. I would imagine boys growing up in such a society are pressured to be more like their ‘heroic’ warrior forefathers. Arguably, the Victorian era in Britain is a more recent example.

  8. Caleb McInerary says

    A brilliant amalgam of Adorno (Dialectic of Enlightenment), Nietzsche (Genealogy of Morals) , and, perhaps Freud (Totem and Taboo, Civilization and Its Discontents). Civilization and warfare, democracy and tyranny, Enlightenment and Auschwitz all depend upon cooperative human action and subordination of individual self-serving aggression to collective collaboration.

    What both the author and the review perhaps overlook, however is the mutual dependence, in tyranny, between the self-aggrandizing tyrant (Hitler) and the self-sacrificing cooperative cog in the machine (Eichmann). “Having grown into a docile, cooperative, and feminized species is just what makes us capable of large-scale evil,” is a brilliant insight. However, large-scale evil also requires, at least in most cases, an alpha male tyrant, often with unbelievable arrogance and stupendous sense of self-importance. Emperor Qin Shi Huang first used the loyalty of a cooperative army to unify China and then that of a cooperative army of workers to engage in the most useless, idiotic glorification of the emperor ego by making thousands of terracotta soldiers, officials, horses, working weapons. The result of the 700,000 workers to be wastefully buried under ground, including those thousands of weapons that could have been used in warfare. To think it is a worthwhile idea to have almost a million people slave away for almost forty years to painstakingly produce hundreds of thousands items that could only be useful to one person, you, and then only after you are dead, seems not to be emblematic of a “docile, cooperative” mentality.

    Which leads to a different potential paradox. Natural selection apparently selected for a hominid that could both cooperate and be docile and that could also possess self-aggrandizing egoism of untold proportions. I say potential paradox, for the relation between genetics and phenotype is so complex that the same exact genes lead both to the production of the caterpillar and the butterfly — each with distinct and “contradictory” (crawling v. flying) behavior as well as morphology. More to the point, the same exact genes produce both the docile worker bee and the dominant queen bee. Throw in the complexity of the human brain, and therefore human behavior, and the paradox disappears.

    I see no reason therefore why natural selection could not have selected for a creature that could both be a Hitler and an Eichmann. With any luck it also selected for creatures who could all live in peaceful, docile cooperation with liberty, equality, and fraternity for all, and tyranny/oppression for none.

  9. S. Cheung says

    Interesting commentary on what sounds like an interesting book.

    It does seem that the domesticated metrosexual male motif works in our evolutionarily-feminized society, whether you’re of the totalitarian dictator bent, or merely of the more pedestrian serial killer/ mass murderer vocation. Most of those folks don’t look like Neanderthals, cuz then their victims likely would’ve been wise enough to steer clear of them.

    And yet, evolution and Darwinism works because it is still the best way to ensure that your gene pool gets propagated. The proactive aggressor may have found a glitch in the matrix that is exploitable from time to time, and garner the odd victory in battle, but it is still a long-term loser in the evolution war.

    Take the NZ shooter idiot. He’s facing a lifetime as a guest of the penal system produced by a collaborative society…and I doubt he will be allowed conjugal visits.

    • Barney Doran says

      Interesting that you should note Neanderthals, as they would appear to have been early victims of feminized, collaborative Home Sapien Sapiens.

  10. Andrew Worth says

    I attribute the decline in violence over recent centuries not to evolution or greater morality etc. but primarily to greater wealth, which is itself primarily a product of advancing technology. Once upon a time most humans lived in a world in which the resources were finite and fixed, so the human population was a zero sum game, you want more of your tribe to survive? Be ready to wipe out a competing tribe. that’s not how things are today, with advancing technology resources are not limited and human population is no longer limited to replacement population only. Not surprisingly the most violent societies today are also the poorest.

    This situation of limiting resources causing an increase in violence is easily reproduced experimentally with rats; feed your cage full of rats well, give them a big enough cage and they’ll all get along fine, restrict the menu and crowd them and they’ll start killing each other.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes, leaving zero sum economics behind, wealth was created to levels kings of old could only dream about. Wealth also provides for more education (time to study is a luxury the poor cannot afford), but also for paying others to fight your battles. Richer, better educated and freely trading leads to competition for dollars over land/natural resources.

  11. E. Olson says

    A feminized society has led to two world wars and Marxism/Communism that have used organized and premeditated planning and modern technology to kill hundreds of millions in the name of justice and fairness. The feminized society has also led to widespread availability of modern medicine and adequate food from modern agriculture, and the implementation of welfare safety nets and charitable NGOs that has resulted in the poor, intolerant, and stupid outbreeding the wealthy, tolerant, and smart, and as a result global median IQ is on the decline for the first time in modern history. Feminism has also brought historically unprecedented freedom and prosperity to women, while feminized society has broken down legal and cultural barriers to people of color and the misgendered, and yet women and other “victim” groups are by most accounts unhappier than ever despite their fantastic opportunities and progress, and continue to demand ever more “protection” and “reparations”.

    Feminist induced welfare safety nets and “fairness” based redistributionist public policies now account for the vast majority of government spending, and as a consequence governments around the world are under strain to bring in more revenues as deficits expand and pension systems falter. The 99% beta society is also increasingly blaming the 1% alpha innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors for not paying their “fair share” and not checking their mostly white male privilege. I wonder how this will all end?

    • David of Kirkland says

      End? No idea, but this strategy has, in fact, reduced violence and war, increased education, improved technology, improved trade, made people wealthier and longer living with fewer diseases. A path like that is bad?

  12. Aylwin says

    Fascinating and convincing.

    As an aside, the following extract speaks to a hypothesis for the selection of homosexuality …

    “pacifying and domesticating themselves, in no small part thanks to the greater ability of females “to choose the less aggressive males as mates””.

    That ability of females to choose is enhanced by a society that frowns upon violence and dominance. Such societal pressure can also include suppression of “deviant” behaviour (particularly by institutional and ideological dogma from e.g. religion). Evolution has to work on what is available. A genetic change that results in a brain that is more feminised, but still in a male body, results in a man with the personal qualities being sought, and the fact that the man might fancy other men rather than women still results in the man procreating because of the stigma (and existential risk) associated with coming out.

    • Aylwin, I read a book about genes in which it was stated that a male’s chances of being gay increase with every older brother. And that the environment in the womb causes this for some evolutionary reason.

      • David of Kirkland says

        That damned first born male privilege! Of course, families have tended over time and place to put most of their resources in the first born male. Even families know that if you spend a dollar on X, you won’t have the dollar for Y.

  13. “ . . . Today, prevailing intellectual doctrines hold that reality is a social construct, and their adherents do not take kindly to biologists reminding us that nature is comprised of objective facts.”

    So begins Didier Malrueve summary of Richard Wrangham’s “Just So” story of human evolution :

    “Once upon a time, there arose a whole civilization of “docile, collaborative, and feminized” human beings. This ungrateful and rebellious “species” refused to bow down before the God of “objective facts”. So armed with their “gentler temperament” this new species went on to commit, not unlike its more robust forebears, “large scale evil” . . . though in a manner different the old species . . .”

    What then, we might ask, are these “objective facts” of human genetic variation? Where’s the genetic evidence that these great historical changes are genetically based?

    Evolutionary biologists, with no understanding of culture, no understanding of the human imagination and no understanding of the adaptive (and maladaptive) power of human consciousness, inevitably resort to telling the only story they know: Human culturally history is human genetic history. If to a hammer the whole world looks like a nail, then to an evolutionary biologist the whole world looks like genes trying to reproduce themselves.

    The manifiest stupidity of “social constructivist” theories doesn’t make sociobiological theories convincing. Just So stories with “scientific” sounding words like “adaptation” or “genotypic variation” are still Just So stories.

    In my opinion, if a student of reality wants to pursue more empirical understandings of the shifting nature of human social violence (and in this the authors appear correct that its nature does shift), study the human record of shifting psychological states over time. This record is called “art”, “myth”, “literature” etc. And above all, pay attention to how you yourself experience reality. Acknowledge the gene gods when appropriate, but avoid blind faith and stick to the facts.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Perhaps, yet it’s fundamentally true that genes create humans, so any effect you say humans created must in fact have been created by genes. Learning is real, but it’s only because genes created a brain that does it.

    • Jim Gorman says

      CA –> Do you know what a theory is? This review points out that the author has made a succinct, logical case for his theory. You have not provided any “facts” that would falsify the theory other than you don’t believe it. A couple of your questions are pertinent but aren’t facts that disprove the theory because you provide no definitive answers to your own questions.

      • David of Kirkland, Jim Gorman

        Thanks for your responses. Apparently the author Richard Wrangham is attempting to explain how human beings who seem “docile, collaborative and feminized” have a capacity to perpetrate “large scale evil”. Jim, you are correct that Richard Wrangham is, in effect, proposing a “theory” of how this has all happened. But is it a good theory or a Just So theory?

        To support his theory Wrangham apparently claims certain “objective facts” as when the reviewer says “natural selection over the last few hundred thousand years has produced a considerably less querulous and more docile, collaborative, and feminized species. “ And more specifically, the claim is made that over time the policy of capital punishment “inhibited the violent from passing down their genes, and handed a numerical advantage to the cooperative.” This “genetic change” is apparently what qualifies as “a scientific fact” in support of the theory. But, as I questioned before, where is the scientific evidence that humans have indeed undergone such genetic changes?

        As far as me “not presenting any facts which would falsify the theory”, I’m mostly pointing out that the author does not present facts which support the theory. I do, however, actually point to “facts” which suggest an alternative theory– “[t]his record is called “art”, “myth”, “literature” etc”. This is “evidence” of a huge range of human consciousness which indicates a huge range of human behaviors. Wrangham’s theory does not seem to consider this evidence at all.

        So what I am suggesting is that the changes from aggressive brute to aggressive weenie can be explained by environmental, cultural and psychological changes without speculating about unknown and apparently unprovable genetic changes. Seems to me this is a more powerful and comprehensive “theory” which does not require a genetic deus ex machina. A specific alternative theory of the type I’m suggesting which also explains the shift in dominance from brute to weenie is found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals. In fact there’s all kinds of powerful literature which deals with this issue (see Ortega y Gasset,
        Hannah Arendt etc.)

        To repeat (and excuse my original grammatical error): Human cultural changes do not necessarily require genetic changes. Our brains are indeed the products of our genes, but our brains are capable of a huge range in ways of thinking which do not require underlying genetic change. Again, study history, read literature, look around you . . .

        It seems to me a theory is a kind of story which explains some aspects of experiential reality. I personally am most convinced by theories which have the greatest explanatory power and which are confirmed by experience. Any theory which is dependent upon unproven, speculative evidence may qualify, by my standards (following Rudyard Kipling), as a Just So story.

        • Turd Ferguson says

          There is no gene for aggression that we can definitively point to. It’s most likely a polygenic trait. We can study the heritability of aggression so we know there is a genetic basis for aggression. If females were selecting for less violent mates than by the law of natural selection the trait of violence, which once again we know is partly heritable, would change over time and of course this would be reflected in the genes which as you maybe are unaware are the unit of selection for Darwinian natural selection. Of course, if you are a die hard fanatical blank slater which it sounds like you are than any evolutionary theory will be categorically dismissed as a ‘just so’ theory. What is fascinating about your breed of blank slater is you readily acknowledge evolution has an impact on behavior in a broad vague sense yet deny it vociferously on any specific issue. Stephen Jay Gould was a master of this technique as much as he was of perpetuating the ‘just so’ theory smear against evolutionary theories of behavior. The blank slater is a peculiar mind set to say the least.

          • Turd Ferguson

            Thanks for your response.

            I agree there’s probably is a “genetic basis for aggression” and I think it is possible that there has been a shift in the human gene pool away from this kind of aggression – though the author apparently does not feel a need to actually document this. Instead he invokes the magical authority of “the Law of Natural Selection” – which, as many have pointed out, explains all possible outcomes which suggests that applied in this manner proves nothing.

            Perhaps on top of being a “blank slater” I must be some kind of Creationist Nut to question this in any way. There happens to be a world of people like me who find this hyper emphasis on genetic explanations for the complexities and variablities of human behaviors simplistic and unconvincing. And almost always, its proponents manifest little or no understanding of competing explanations and all too often they resort to name calling and caricature. Perhaps this divide also reflects some great genetic divide?

            So am I to conclude that you lack the gene for engaging in reasoned discussion. Categorizing me as a “die hard fanatical blank slater” is clearly an effective defense mechanism which apparently allows for rapid escape from a competitor.. Perhaps your “instinct” for ad hominiem attack and simplistic categorization increases your reproductive fitness . . .

  14. Lightning Rose says

    It always seemed to me that War, whether between two neighboring tribes or on the continental scale, was most likely Nature’s way of thinning the herd, to check our overpopulation as peak predators. I find it interesting that organized aggression seems at an all-time low worldwide today, thankfully; its culling function increasingly replaced by the Pill, homosexuality, abortion, radical feminism, and all-time low birth rates. Perhaps even popular apocalyptic delusions figure in; otherwise why the current proliferation of “dystopias,” “zombies,” Armageddon, CAGW, UFO’s, and any other stand-in for the Book of Revelation people can use as an excuse not to procreate at a time when life on earth has never been more secure, comfortable, and advantageous? Beats me!

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yet the human population has been growing nonstop. When live if secure, the need to produce lots of offspring is reduced. We used to breed to make a bigger, richer, more powerful family, one more likely to survive all the violence and disease and accidents that await all life. That need to breed for wealth is gone, and child rearing now consumes huge resources from the family rather than adds hands to help the family.

      • dirk says

        Population of the planet is still growing, yes David, at an intrepid pace even, but not so in Europe, Japan, Australia, Usa, China and Canada. Is there any genetic or biological brake system to have the populations of the poorest halted, in harmony with the environment or the means? Or is it merely a cultural or political thing? The solution we learned in school: the richer the societies, the less children, so, no panic or special sorrows/measures needed.

  15. Daniel V says

    I’ve often argued with new atheists about their belief that people can be good without religion on the basis of what’s explored in this book. We do not have some inherent goodness that is then corrupted by religion, society, patriarchy, ideology, or whatever you want to call it. In fact the real irony in hearing this line of thinking from people claiming to be atheists is that for humans to exist like this would require some type of divine creation. Or at the very least something super natural that freed us completely from evolution.

    They will of course cite themselves as examples of people without religion that don’t go around raping and killing however they want as if simply stating “I have no religion” is enough to wipe out all the social conditioning and narratives that inform their worldview. They are not consciously aware of how much is working under the hood to direct their behaviour in a way that senseless rape and murder is seen as abhorrent. They are very much like a domestic dog commenting that wolves behave badly because of bad training whereas they sit on command because they are realizing their true canine nature.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, but it’s not clear that religion figured anything special out, just standardized behavior like all societies do in some fashion or another (it’s called culture). Religions figured nothing out morally speaking that others of completely different religions (even some that have no god or have many gods — Buddhists and Hindus for example) figured out without their god(s).
      I doubt senseless rape and murder was ever thought a good idea by anybody other than the perpetrator.
      Nature and humans are real. God(s) stories are just that, stories. And they often are immoral by today’s standards.
      Marriage to a 15 year was moral just 100 years ago. Owning a slave was fine 150 years ago (and supported by biblical rules on how to treat your slaves). Capital punishment in the most painful ways was just.

  16. The notion that the weak collectivized to defeat the strong is as old as the hills. But history doesn’t always bear this out.

    In many cases, and probably most cases, the weak follow after and seek the protection of the strong, essentially empowering them to spread their strength around and to thus do good with it.

    At least good as their "protected" followers would define it.

    In politics it is often the more aggressive sounding candidate that wins (Trump over Hillary; Reagan over Carter)

    In democracies, candidates play to majorities with some telling us that if we elect them they will provide for us (Left) while other tell us that if we elect them we will be better protected (Right).

    And the masses shift around and meander to one side or the other… depending on whose fears (and promises to address those fears) play best at the moment.

    If the candidate on the right loses the election, we will all be entertained by a chorus of groans by his followers of how the military is being underfunded, foreigners are waiting at every turn to attack us, that we are coddling the lazy while looking like weaklings to our adversaries.

    When the candidate from the left loses we are subject to a never ending stream of tears from his supporters that now the rich will be getting richer while the poor must be getting poorer … and how one-in-three kids go to bed hungry.

    It is a predictable and sometimes boring repetition. But it is who we are.

  17. Farris says

    Having read only the review and not the book, I am a bit hesitant to comment. The author’s argument seems a little too black and white or perhaps it is the presentation in the article. If a troupe of chimpanzees is dominated by an alpha male but if that male fosters cooperation among the betas to attack and dispossess a rival troupe into which category (aggressive or gentle) would the alpha belong? Furthermore betas may conspire to depose an alpha but shortly thereafter an alpha will emerge from the conspiring betas. I think what the author is really documenting is the superiority of the intellectual alpha over the brute force alpha, which I fail to find particularly controversial or surprising.

  18. BrainFireBob says

    Yeah, put me in the “we’re not selecting against alphas” camp. We’re selecting against alphas with poor control.

    If the alpha rallies the beta, then war or symbolic war, occurs: sports, business competition, politics

  19. Has anyone else noticed the juxtaposition of these two essays? The less powerful individual males bond together (“The Goodness Paradox”) to bring violence against others (“The Scars of Rwanda”).

  20. Etiamsi omnes says

    “What do fifteen men stranded on a desert island talk about? — Sex, sports and cars.

    What do fifteen women stranded on a desert island talk about? — They send one off for a swim in the ocean and then talk behind her back.”

    Sounds like a regular day at the office, hey?

  21. John says

    see: INCONVENIENT FACTS BY WRIGHTSTONE, for science and cultish denial

  22. Ljaycox says

    I am not going to get into any disputes on this website. But, I do offer the point that I think that this reviewer has misunderstood and is not faithfully reproducing Wrangham’s argument. Folks should read the book themselves before committing to an interpretation.

  23. Donnerhauser says

    I haven’t read the book but from the review I would say some commenters are misunderstanding the argument – they argue “alpha males” haven’t disappeared. However Wrangham’s argument seems to define alpha males as testosterone filled meatheads – large, muscle-bound, individualistic and incredibly domineering, whereas commenters are using it to refer to successful individuals in life – businessmen, politicians, scientists etc. Correct me if I am wrong but few of the well known individuals from these categories strike me as the kind of alpha male Wrangham talks of. Genghis Khan would thus be feminine, relatively speaking (indeed he’s a bad example by the reviewer).

  24. das monde says

    The flip side of domination is submission, or anticipation that someone else will lead. As ever, females are selecting against that:

    Strongly selecting:

    Any cooperation, social construction to oppose the most basic instincts has leadership: perhaps of higher level than stout, macho coercion, but leadership nevertheless. Gentler leadership is still more comfortably delegated to rather dominant males. Is this not why Hillary did not trump Donald? Monogamy in traditional, patriarchal systems is to the benefit of lesser males – thanks to alphas or females?

  25. Fred says

    There is a profound difference between science and Scientism. Science is a powerful method for investigating the workings of the physical world. Scientism is an ideology that makes a metaphysics of that method, maintaing that only scientific knowledge is true knowledge and assuming, consciously or unconsciously, a problematic materialism. It is also self-undermining since it cannot be verified scientifically. I have not read Wrangham’s book, but from the description of it in this article, I would say it is Scientism as oposed to, or at least along with, science. And as I have pointed out before, outside of biology, evolutionary explanations (e.g. of morality or psychology) tend to be a series of unfalsifiable ‘just so stories.” I have no more use for postmodernism or political correctness than do Wrangham or the author of this article. But I have no more use for Scientism than I do for postmodernism. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”

  26. Fred

    “Science is a powerful method for investigating the workings of the physical world. Scientism is an ideology that makes a metaphysics of that method”

    Thanks for you intelligent comments. The use of scientific sounding terms (as are found in this article) apparently stupefy many readers into blindly accepting an arguement which merely consists of unproved and possibly unprovable assertions.

  27. Fickle Pickle says

    Can we really even begin to understand human nature and its possible evolutionary development by studying animals?
    Of course not.
    Such a project is dismally reductive, and barbaric too. It reduces human beings to little more than unconscious molecular robots.
    In my opinion probably the best model(s) of human development has been provided by Ken Wilber beginning with his first book The Spectrum of Consciousness Development.
    Followed by Up From Eden A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, and The Atman Project A Transpersonal View of Human Development.

  28. Bruceter of Wembley says

    Perhaps it is not all about genetics. Perhaps the human mind is so adaptable, so able to develop different cultures and customs, that purely social changes can mimic genetic changes in less mentally flexible, instinctively operating, species.

    When the murderous male apes were killed by other males or spurned by females, they were no longer available as role models to their sons or daughters, or nephews or nieces. Their intelligent peers and upcoming cohorts would have taken a lesson from such executions, further influencing the example set to those younger still.

    • Bruceter of Wembley says

      Or to be clearer, when they killed they were not available as continuing role models to existing sons or daughters or nephews or nieces. When unable to mate, they would not be available as primary role models to further sons or daughters.

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