Atlantic article: virtue and violence in human evolution


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #1

Interesting discussion in The Atlantic today, posted here in case anyone is interested (paging @Jay313, among others!). Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males (about ape violence), has come out with a third book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.

His bold and controversial thesis is that humans domesticated themselves, thereby curbing their chimplike violent heritage, through capital punishment. The author of The Atlantic article suggests that sexual selection may have played a greater role than capital punishment in winnowing out the most violent Homo sapiens.

I present it here for discussion without my own evaluation of the arguments. I would be interested to hear what others think.

[Edited to add italicization of book titles that I couldn’t figure out how to do from my dumbphone :slight_smile: ]


(Jay Johnson) #2

A quote from Wrangham in the article: “Reduced reactive aggression must feature alongside intelligence, cooperation, and social learning as a key contributor to the emergence and success of our species.”

While his statement is certainly true, I find other theories more persuasive. (Of course, I haven’t read the book, so this is just my off-the-cuff analysis.) Since we’re talking about the origins of human prosociality, this process had to start long before H. sapiens arrived on the scene, but it seems to me that Wrangham’s theory presupposes already advanced (modern?) levels of cooperation, intelligence, and morality in order to work. As the article puts it:

Central to his argument is the idea that cooperative (my emphasis) killing of incurably violent individuals played a central role in our self-domestication. Much as the Russian scientists eliminated the fierce fox pups from the breeding pool, our ancestors killed men who were guilty of repeated acts of violence. Certainly all-male raiding parties have operated in some groups of humans, seeking out and killing victims in neighboring villages (which recalls the patrolling chimps that Wrangham reported on earlier in his career). The twist in his current theory is that such ambushes are turned inward, to protect the group from one of its own: They serve as a form of capital punishment (my emphasis). Wrangham cites a number of examples of anthropologists witnessing a group of men collaborating to kill a violent man in their midst.

I don’t doubt that such killings have happened throughout human history, but how widespread were they? For Wrangham’s proposal to have a measurable effect on the entire ancestral gene pool, “capital punishment” would necessarily have been a common, widespread occurrence. (As the Russian scientists eliminated every fierce fox from the breeding pool.) Hmmm. Personally, I find the author’s suggestion of sexual selection more likely, and certainly more likely to occur across the spectrum of human societies. Beyond that, Sarah Hrdy’s theory about cooperative parenting (Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding) provides an alternative explanation that doesn’t suffer from the drawbacks that I see in Wrangham.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #3

Thanks for the analysis!

One question I have, reading it, is, How is he so sure that we’ve weeded out the most violent humans? Humanity sure seems plenty violent to me! How does he avoid selection bias in making the case for how we’re not violent today?


(Jay Johnson) #4

Peace and love is all I see, bro. What world do you live in? haha


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #5

Bahahaha
[Cues vinyl, “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius…”]


(Randy) #6

Very interesting! Do you think that there is a shift in consciousness and social norms even now? My grandfather said that even in his little town, as a teenager (in the 20s and 30s) you had to stick with your gang, or you’d get beaten up going to the theater or walking around. It seems that bullying was much more accepted, even in the '80s and '90s, than now.

Here’s an article on the decrease on homicide over time (it’s much less than the 1300s, for example). Interestingly, it’s higher in the US than England and Canada. I wonder how all this might boil down in terms of evolution affecting social consciousness.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #7

Oh, I wouldn’t pretend to know. I can get into a lot of trouble with armchair theorizing.

I’m sure Wrangham had to have some empirical data to back up this part of his thesis. I mean, I will at least give him the benefit of the doubt to assume that he does, until such time as I might get around to reading the book (which will most likely be never! :slight_smile: ). I would just be very interested to know what that empirical data might be!

Oh, and it’s still quite accepted in places like Chad, today!

Overall, I must say I’m not even sure I buy the sexual selection argument. I mean, yes, eventually, many women often settle down with a stable “nice guy,” and perhaps their offspring have more stable food provision and survive better to reproductive age because of the stable home environment. But don’t violent men often procreate by force? Don’t they sometimes become alpha-male leaders and sire dozens of children through polygamy?

Anyway, thanks for engaging in the discussion, Randy & @Jay313.


(Randy) #8

I like your article. There’s an interesting BBC article on evil.: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160401-how-did-evil-evolve-and-why-did-it-persist
It’s interesting (and a bit unsettling to me) that the author writes,

“Arguably the real mystery lies not in the origin of “evil” behaviours but in the fact that humans now generally view these behaviours as distasteful – even though deception, selfishness and other “evil” traits appear to be widespread in nature, and generally beneficial for the survival of genes, animals and species.”

I kind of prefer the idea that identifying things as evil is an adaptive finding, too–but I’m not sure of the balance. Thanks.


(Jay Johnson) #9

Me, too! I also wonder at the conclusion of the book. In his book on apes and the origins of violence, he ends by suggesting that humans should adopt some of the bonobos’ “free love” strategies to lessen the violence in our culture. After reading this article, I wondered whether Wrangham is now an advocate for capital punishment. Maybe it should be extended, not pulled back? Ugh.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10

This “theory” demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of “the survival of the fittest” w3hich still seems to be past of the standard theory of evolution.

  1. Survival of the fittest must be either conflict or cooperation, one way or the other. You really cannot have the same result from radically different solutions.

  2. After saying that natural selection was based on conflict between individuals, they are suggesting that cooperation between humans was the basis for their evolutionary advantage.

Evil is not adaptive. Cooperation is. No one has proven that the Selfish Gene is more than a myth. E. O. Wilson has pointed out that social plants and animals dominate the earth. “Deception” as practiced in ecology is protection against other species, lying as deceiving other people the take unfair advantage of them. Murder is killing other people for no legitimate reason, which killing other species such as chickens and cattle is not defined as evil.

  1. They blame violence on genes,

If humans developed some sort of program which weeded out violent genes out of the genome, how did it work? It seems to me that the only way it could work is based on the mind.

Humans would need a sense of Morality to decide who was a danger to society and law to make these decisions and carry them out. It is the Mind and the Spirit which give humans their unique place in the universe and could make this possible, but there is little evidence that this type of universal process existed.

On the other hand we believe that humans were religious beings from the beginning. It could well be, certainly more likely than the other, that re34ligion taught people not to harm their close relatives and their neighbors.

Humans gained power over other species because they had the ability to communicate and work together in order to hunt and defend themselves. If they instead fought each other, they squandered this advantage.

This is the way evolution really works. A species has an advantage that helps everyone, not just a few. When they use it to help others, they benefit also and the species moves forward.

  1. Evolution is about much more than genes. It is about the Mind and the Spirit. The universe is not just composed of the physical. It also is made up of the rational and spiritual. Science that ignores these factors is bad science.
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