Wrangham’s skills at “thinking big” make him a compelling writer. The Goodness Paradox will be a boon to discussion of our own prehistory and the role of violence in it. Its readers would do well to think hard about the “layer model” that Wrangham uses, in which biology determines, and culture modifies, human behaviour. Anthropology today largely insists on an understanding that biology and culture are inextricably intertwined, such that everything in the human world is (and from the very beginning has been) subject to their dynamic interaction. The human niche is culture. We construct ourselves not free of biology, but certainly not determined by it. In writing for a wide non-specialist public about the power of biology, the hard-to-shift, ingrained nature of violence, and the role of males in executing other males and thus driving our evolutionary trajectory, Richard Wrangham invites counter-arguments that I hope will be aired widely.
...we have steadily reduced our levels of everyday, inter-personal violence, not least, Wrangham startlingly suggests, via centuries of capital punishment: a simple and effective way of removing the most violent individuals from the gene pool... Wrangham is a conservative here... The Goodness Paradox covers a vast amount of ground, and there are certainly things to disagree with. Nevertheless it offers some useful, science-based reminders about the human animal, our propensity to kill for “good causes”, and plenty of food for thought on this dark aspect of our nature.
Wrangham writes in the penultimate paragraph of this extraordinarily detailed, cogently argued, hugely important book:
I hope that, very soon, every country will abolish capital punishment, just as most countries have abolished other ancestral behaviours such as cannibalism, slavery and marital rape. Whether something is natural says nothing about whether we should give it a place in our lives today.
One finding is relevant to Brexit. ‘At the end of the Pleistocene, just before the beginning of agriculture,’ Wrangham writes, there might have been as many as ‘36,000 different societies, each with sovereignty over its home area’.
In the Code of Hammurabi, capital punishment was recommend for malpractice in selling beer. In the early Roman republic you could be killed for stealing the keys to your husband’s wine cellar. In New Haven, in the 17th century, you would be executed for masturbation. And the low reactive aggression that enabled us to co-operate so well as a species on the plains of Africa also enabled co-operation in history’s ultimate act of proactive aggression.
On a sunny day in July 2017 Wrangham went to a place where, he said, “co-operation and prosocial feeling filled the air”, where a group of humans came together peacefully — among themselves — with one goal. “We saw where a camp orchestra had played . . . We saw the nicely treed garden surrounding the house,” he writes. Here, in Auschwitz, he also saw the “cramped chamber where up to 2,000 naked victims at a time were gassed with Zyklon B”.