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The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Peace and Violence in Human Evolution Audio CD – Audiobook, February 19, 2019
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About the Author
Michael Page has been recording audiobooks since the mid-1980s and now has nearly 500 titles to his credit. He has won two Audie Awards and several AudioFile Earphones Awards. A PhD and a professional actor, Michael is also a retired professor of theater.
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Wrangham sees us as "self-domesticated." To me, as a specialist in ethnobiology (including domestication and the origins of agriculture), domestication refers to deliberate selection by humans, changing the genetics of the species in question from anything natural. By this standard, humans are somewhat domesticated, but not up there with dogs. Wrangham (in a particularly good discussion of domestication) notes that domestication routinely produces floppy ears, white spots, and other characteristic features we do not have; we do, however, have rather tame behavior, short jaws and crowded teeth, round smooth skulls, and other standard physical sequelae of domestication. And our behavior is more tranquil than a chimp's, but far less tranquil than a dog's or sheep's. So, we are a bit domestic, but not fully domesticated.
As someone with fair knowledge of such matters, I find this book both underestimates and overestimates human violence. Wrangham has not dealt with the full level of horror that hatred can bring about, in genocide and war, or with the constant low-level nastiness, spitefulness, and malignancy that feed into individual violence and murder. On the other hand, he has not dealt adequately with the levels of civility and peace that some societies maintain. The result of this is that he thinks in terms of average societies--especially the traditional ones, in which murder and local war are more common than in most modern states. This allows him to reduce the problem to one of violence handled by violent coalitions, and thus to a genetically guided, highly biological process. The reality is that humans swing dramatically from insane outbreaks of murder to total peace (my wife and I have studied this in Rwanda and Cambodia). Simple biology cannot explain this; we have to look at other factors, both innate and learned. In particular, we need to look much more at the cultural construction of the fight-flight-freeze response innate in all higher animals. Wrangham has made a good start, but psychology and cultural anthropology will have to weigh in to bring this start to fruition.
1) Why did it take Homo sapiens 250,000 years to be able to travel out of Africa, and to colonize the world while successfully competing against other human species (Neanderthals), who were larger, stronger, and better adapted to colder climates? Evolution must have provided modern humans (perhaps at several points in time) with important improved intellectual abilities involving language and cognitive skills. Do we know with any certainty how these biological advances affected human behavior, including cooperation and violence?
2) If we are inherently less aggressive within our own communities because of 300,000 years of "self-domestication," then why do most modern societies need a heavily armed police force, plus extensive laws & criminal justice systems? Capital punishment has been used frequently in human history until the last century to punish violent criminals, but we still have violent crime today. As a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if our police force went on strike for a month.
3) Even if we accept the premise that humans are less aggressive within their own communities, does this really matter if we continue killing each other in wars without end? The author's visit to Auschwitz is described at the end of the book, as he contemplates the horrors of WW2. Are we really confident that this scale of killing will not happen again?
Despite my questions about his theory, I think that the author does offer an important message that we do have free will, and choices about our behavior, and that we need to make conscious efforts as a society to reduce organized violence. I hope that this book will help in this cause.
In his new book Wrangham grapples with a fundamental questions about human nature; are we basically good or evil? He concludes that we both one of the most altruistic and the most evil species because of different selection pressures on aggression within one's group and between groups. Wrangham is an evocative story teller and this book is a page turner. This is a radical and well-supported view, that should change how we see ourselves and our societies.