The Goodness Paradox

by Richard Wrangham

Part 1 of the 1-part series called "The Goodness Paradox"

I wasn’t able to finish this book before it was due, and I couldn’t renew it because someone else wanted to read it. So here’s my thoughts on the first four chapters.

The central question of The Goodness Paradox is this: why are humans so peaceful in small groups, but so deadly when looked at globally? How are we a species that, while we perpetuate atrocities like genocide and world war, also show great propensity for caring and love toward our neighbors? Wrangham exemplifies most notorious mass murderers of the 20th century: Hitler loved animals, and was a lifelong vegetarian; Stalin was incredibly calm and never shouted or swore in prison; Pol Pot was known to his acquaintances as a soft-spoken and kindly teacher of French history. Wrangham’s book is a hypothesis resolving this apparent paradox. While I haven’t finished the book yet, I think it has something to do with how we domesticated ourselves out of reactive, or hot, aggression, while leaving proactive, or cold, aggression intact.

The book begins with a discussion on aggression and its two types: reactive aggression is the emotional, hot kind that lashes out after being hurt, and proactive aggression is the cool, calculating kind that is necessitated by a first strike. He then goes on to talk about the history of the idea that humans are domesticated animals, and follows it up with a discussion of domestication in general and domestication syndrome, which is a series of mutations that occur when animals are mutated. They include smaller heads and jaws, white patches of fur on the head, tail, and paws, and increased breeding frequency. It was unclear for some time whether those mutations were connected, until a study was done in Russia with silver foxes that proved that selecting only for docility toward humans caused all the given mutations. I think what’s coming next is a discussion on how we domesticated ourselves.

Wrangham’s prose is incredibly well-researched (he has been working in the field for over twenty years), and even though the subject matter is dense he keeps it accessible to the layperson reader. From what I’ve read about this book, his final hypothesis is a little shaky theoretically, but I’m interested to see where his thesis goes after I’m able to pick the book up to read again.