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An anthropologist looks at evolution and co-operation

Rousseau: a supporter of the death penalty

Thelma Lovell on the dark side of our co-operative behaviour

“Science is a magnificent force but it is not a teacher of morals.” So observed William Jennings Bryan in Tennessee at the conclusion of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Or, to misquote palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould: what does the age of rocks have to do with the Rock of Ages?

Against the background noise of so many tendentious speculations on evolutionary psychology, The Goodness Paradox stands out as a weighty contribution to our understanding of what makes us both saints and sinners.

As a biological anthropologist, Harvard professor Richard Wrangham rests his arguments on fieldwork in human and primate societies. He is also able to explain the mechanisms through which evolutionary changes relate to embryonic development.

The picture is complex: compared with those of our nearest primate relatives, human communities are extraordinarily peaceful (while we are rightly troubled about violent crime, we don’t on the whole spend much time biting and fighting). Yet, historically, we have little compunction in annihilating millions who are perceived as alien.

In exploring this contradiction, Wrangham presents a concept of modern humans as a domesticated version of our distant ancestors. We are tame creatures, much as dogs have, over time, been selectively bred from wolves. The physical signs in humans include smaller teeth and jaws, shorter faces and a more slender frame. These features correlate with greater docility and less reactive aggression – the kind that generates instant, nervous violence.

In the Stalinist 1930s, a courageous Soviet geneticist by the name of Dmitri Belyaev began a long-term experiment to show how relatively few generations are needed to produce a tame version of the silver fox. But who or what was the mastermind behind the taming of homo sapiens? Here, Wrangham looks at the contrasted natures of two closely related apes.

Bonobos, the more delicate version of chimpanzees, spend their lives making love, not war (the females are better at confronting the males, too); it looks as if some form of self-domestication paid survival dividends. In other words, eliminating aggressive disturbers of the peace presumably gave the group an evolutionary advantage. The result was selective pressure for co-operative behaviour.

A controversial aspect of the human version is that it implies capital punishment. Wrangham regretfully points out that every society so far, including otherwise peaceful hunter-gatherers, has given short shrift to those it perceives as out of order; Julius Caesar was not the only alpha male to be more trouble than he was worth.

Communal stability comes at a cost: as cultural norms create the social framework, to what extent does the patrolling of these norms become a tyrannical force that detracts from our collective wellbeing?

Can it be legitimate or desirable to eliminate those who do not fit in to the prevailing narrative? It’s an old question (while Rousseau, for one, theorised humans as innately good, he had no hesitation in proposing death for the refuseniks of his ideal polity). The difficulty is compounded by the need to integrate moral principles with biological imperatives. As a species, we are remarkably nice to our neighbours, but can we really love them all?

Our co-operative disposition can also lead to something darker: episodes of coalitionary proactive aggression, in which bands of humans set out to raid, plunder and kill those to whom they feel no ties of loyalty. This type of behaviour is where we must look for the origin of warfare.

But it is found in other contexts, too – it provides the henchmen who keep dictators afloat, and leads to the mob that gathers to persecute unpopular or vulnerable individuals.

Thus danger can lurk in the collaborative side of our nature, for it produces harm as well as good. Its destructive potential is held in check (as with all bullies) by the prospect of effective resistance, yet the concentrations of power in the global political landscape lead Wrangham to conclude that “in a nuclear world, the frequency of violence might be less important than its intensity”.

If there is, as it seems, no primeval innocence, does it make sense to call our evolutionary inheritance original sin?

The human and biological sciences give us valuable insights into the many-stranded nature of what we think of as goodness. How we collectively choose to apply that knowledge tells us everything about what humanity is and might be.