In the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of ‘wild children’ was discovered roaming the woodlands of Europe (and by wild I mean not Ibiza party wild, which would barely raise an eyebrow, but ‘savagely’ wild in the Tarzan sense). The discovery fuelled a debate already in progress about how people had evolved. At the heart of this debate was the ‘nature/nurture’ question: were we born with certain characteristics, which defined us as a species, or could we be conditioned by environment? The legend of Tarzan was lapped up by Victorians, providing us with one of the best-loved characters of popular fiction and a gut busting calling card. Were we innately wild or tame, savage or civilised, good or evil?
In answer to such questions, Charles Darwin gave the world his ‘Origin of Species’, but still, the debate did not end there. If anything, it set more tinder to the flame. Of course, the so-called ‘wild children’ did not constitute an undiscovered species, but even Darwin could not altogether explain how Homo Sapiens had evolved so spectacularly differently to other human species in the chain of evolution. There must have been a branching out, a separation at some point in our distant past, and this separation continued to define us. The Goodness Paradox explores these ideas. Its author, Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, delivers a series of myth-breaking conclusions, based on clearly expounded research and experimentation. The book is very comparable to Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, with its broad discussion of how we came to be as we are, and what the implications are for us as a species, and The Goodness Paradox is just as fascinating and just as revelatory as Sapiens. It is also extremely well written and immensely diverting to read.
One of the theories expounded in the book is the theory that we, as Homo Sapiens, are a domesticated species. This does not mean that we are herded through life like a flock of sheep by some sort of unseen shepherd who prods us if we err (although as a premise that does ring a bell), but rather the conclusion is that we have been self-domesticated. In other words, we have, as a species, successfully evolved into a (slightly) less aggressive creature than a chimpanzee because we have imposed constraints upon ourselves, and these constraints have given us the foundations of our morality — that infamous knowledge of right and wrong which religion has for so long micromanaged. But even if evolutionary theory represents our liberation from Original Sin, there’s still a catch.
We may have become less aggressive than chimps or Neanderthals over time, but the process of evolution through self-domestication has coloured us in very specific ways.
These ‘specific ways’ constitute the core of fascination of this book — the chapter on The Evolution of Right and Wrong being especially revealing. “Morality,” says Wrangham, “is all about self-protection”. And ironically, the evolution of our morality “laid the groundwork for the worst of our atrocities”. Inevitably, there is more to a good deed than the feel-good-factor, and there is more to human aggression than fighting for a piece of meat or a mate. As the history of Homo Sapiens has demonstrated, “proactive aggression” is the kind at which Sapiens particularly excels, and it has festered at the root of our societies for far too long; “it makes kings of wimps, underlies fidelity to groups, and gives us long term tyrannies. It has battered our species since the Pleistocene.”
So, where do we go from here, you may rightly ask? Again, evolution holds the key. If we can change our society in such a way that our specifically Sapiens aggression does not pay, we might stand a better of chance of peace. As Wrangham chillingly concludes, “The human species has yet to record a peace that lasts for millennia” — yes, well, as far as I can see, we have yet to record one at all.
Any Cop?: Easily as good as Sapiens; if you enjoyed that, you will certainly want to read this.