Barbara J. King’s indispensable review of ‘The Goodness Paradox’ at the T.L.S. Political Observer comments

In the first two paragraphs, the reader of Ms. King’s review of The Goodness Paradox,  confronts the quite shocking theory presented by anthropologist Richard Wrangham:

What was the driving force that made us human, akin to but separate from other apes and our evolutionary cousins such as the Neanderthals? In The Goodness Paradox, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham approvingly quotes Frederick the Great in pointing to “the wild beast” within each man: our nature, he argues, is rooted in an animal violence that morphed over time to become uniquely human. When male human ancestors began to plot together to execute aggressive men in their communities, indeed to carry out such killings through what Wrangham calls “coalitionary proactive aggression”, they were launched towards full humanity.

Proactive aggression is premeditated, a feature that sets it apart from reactive aggression, which is impulsive, a response to some immediate threat. Hot emotion drives reactive aggression: someone insults you and you respond with a swing at their jaw. Proactive aggression, by contrast, is “coolly planned”: you are cuckolded, and for weeks you plan a revenge murder. When the plotting inherent in proactive aggression unfolds in a group context, it becomes coalitionary proactive aggression. This practice depends on language, and thus remains beyond the capacities of the chimpanzees Wrangham has studied for decades in Tanzania and Uganda. When chimpanzee males brutally kill males of other communities during tense patrols, they gang up as a band of friends, following a simple rule: “side with your friends against the enemy”. What they do not do (because they lack a way of doing so, in Wrangham’s view) is confer and decide to target a specific rival within their own community.


The difference between ‘proactive aggression’ and ‘reactive aggression’ is that the first is premeditated and the latter is impulsive. Ms. King presents Wrangham’s argument here:

At some point after the evolutionary split from the non-human ape lineage – probably around 300,000 years ago, Wrangham thinks – our male ancestors began to do what the chimpanzees could not: plot together to execute aggressive males in their own social groups. How do we know this? Because we see evidence of “the domestication syndrome” under way in our ancestors at this time, indicating that they were becoming less in thrall to reactive aggression. Wrangham unpacks the domestication syndrome by reviewing the famous experiments of the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev with silver foxes, intentionally bred for docility beginning in 1959. Over the generations, as these foxes evolved from snappish animals into puppy-like tail-waggers who approached and licked the researchers, they also developed a suite of characteristics that had no adaptive significance – such as floppy ears and certain coat-colour patterns. For Wrangham, this and other evidence from animal domestication points to a key conclusion: when a species has recently undergone a reduction in reactive aggression, embodied clues are left behind.

During human evolution, of course, no other more dominant species controlled the process: instead, we domesticated ourselves by eliminating the most aggressive males in our social groups. Our bodies did signal what was happening. Around 315,000 years ago, for example, “the first glimmerings of the smaller face and reduced brow ridge [compared to earlier human ancestors] that signal the evolution of Homo sapiens” began to show up. Sex differences in the skeleton soon began to diminish. Our species was set apart from all other human-like ones, including the Neanderthals, who did not self-domesticate. An animal analogy works, says Wrangham: if we turned out to be the more docile dogs, the Neanderthals remained the wilder wolves.

Mr. Wrangham resorts to a contemporary murder as an example of his hypothesis:

Wrangham admits that “it can be difficult to decide whether a physical attack is proactive or reactive”, a problem that is boosted by his own examples. The killing, in 2008, of Matthew Pyke by David Heiss was, Wrangham says, a classic example of proactive aggression. Heiss stalked Pyke’s girlfriend, and when she announced her intention to marry Pyke, Heiss travelled from Germany to England to the couple’s apartment. As Pyke answered the door, Heiss stabbed him eighty-six times. Premeditation was obviously involved in this long-distance mission. Yet was this act devoid of reactive aggression? If reactive aggression is “a response to provocation such as a perceived insult, embarrassment, physical danger, or mere frustration” with the goal of “getting rid of the provoking stimulus”, doesn’t Wrangham gesture in its direction when he writes that Heiss’s murderous act “removed his rival”?

The proof of his hypothesis about our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years in the past – his theory is not Science but pure speculation. The laboratory in which detached observation might have existed, is now reduced to various experiments conducted on animals in the present. And one murder executed by a jealous lover.

The properly skeptical Ms. King  offers some telling counter examples, I’ll quote just one here:

The Canadian primatologist Bernard Chapais, in the 1995 Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, recounted an elegant example of this brainy rather than brawny strategizing. A male named 415 lived in a group of a hundred free-ranging rhesus macaques as the son of the highest-ranking female; he had achieved alpha status, but then lost it when he became disabled as the result of a fight with another group.

From that time on, 415 initiated frequent grooming interactions with adult females, in marked contrast with his past behavior. At the same time and although he was physically severely impaired, 415 undertook to threaten systematically several high-ranking males that had come to outrank him since his disability, provoking them when they were passing by. In these situations he was systematically supported by his relatives (mother, sister, nieces, cousin and younger brother, who formed the most dominant matriline) and by other high-ranking females. These animals vigorously chased and could even bite 415’s targets. In a matter of weeks, 415 regained his position at the top of the male hierarchy.

Such methods of enlisting allies are widely observed in apes and monkeys. Something similar was demonstrated by the chimpanzee David in a recent episode of the BBC’s nature programme Dynasties, set among the chimpanzees in Fongoli, Senegal. David regained his alpha status after serious injury (inflicted by a male from within the group) by working hard to bolster alliances. He won several older males as supporters by attentively grooming them, choosing individuals still at fighting strength but no longer capable of challenging his alpha status. That Wrangham so emphasizes the physical and the bloody in males’ striving for dominance over the strategic is misleading. (After the BBC filming ended, David was killed by a second attack from within the group. This was indeed brutal and raises a question in my mind about whether male chimpanzees might after all communicate and conspire in targeting individual rivals.)

And just to satisfy my utter detestation of  Steven Pinker ( America’s Dr. Pangloss) I’ll quote from Ms. King’s revelatory essay: she demonstrates that her criticism is an indispensable starting point for the consideration of Wrangham’s speculations.

In making his points, Wrangham buys into the thesis developed by Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of our Nature that human violence has steadily declined from a brutal past. This claim has been criticized by anthropologists. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, Rahul Oka and his colleagues (including Kissel and Kim) acknowledge that modern state societies do in fact lose smaller percentages of their population to war compared to past societies. They go on, however, to look at “scaling relationships” between population and war group size, and between war group size and conflict casualties. The conclusion of their data analysis directly challenges Pinker’s: “When scaling is accounted for, we find no difference in conflict investment or lethality between small-scale and state societies”.

Kudos to Ms. King for her putting Wrangham’s view of ‘males’, as the only viable actors in his Neo-Social Darwinian Melodrama, into proper perspective:

It is also noticeable that females are mostly absent in this account of coalitionary proactive aggression. Historically, theorists of our evolutionary past often have put males in the driver’s seat – males as co-operative hunters, or as providers of food, prominent theories that reified the nuclear family – in ways that vastly simplified complex human dynamics and nearly erased any active contributions to the social group by women and children. Is Wrangham’s theory any different? When Wrangham writes sentences such as “Some three hundred thousand years ago, males discovered absolute power”, he blithely ignores the fact that the contribution of all people to human evolution deserves consideration. As Kissel, when asked, told me, “it is more relevant to think about how humans used social networks to affect peace. Why does it have to be capital punishment that made us human? Why not the angle that people formed interest groups to prevent violence from occurring?”

From my point of view, I can only imagine the political uses that Wrangham’s theory offers. It will be employed, as his theory gains popular intellectual currency, by the Imperialist Scribblers of the popular press, not to speak of Think Tank hacks looking to add intellectual weight to their propaganda: to rationalize their murderous political adventurism, using the construct of  ‘proactive aggression’ , as intellectual ballast.  E. g. a NATO attack on a revanchist Russia, or an American attack on an ‘expansionist’ China in the South China Sea?

Political Observer












About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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