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  • The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham
  • Paul Seabright (bio)
Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (London: Profile, 2019), 400 pp.

The goodness paradox is that we are good because we are bad. Or, rather, we are less destructively, wantonly bad than we used to be because we are more coolly, strategically bad. Anthropologists have compared the violence of human societies with that of primate species, and the violence of modern societies with that of prehistoric ones. It turns out that modern humans are off the charts but in opposite directions, depending on the type of violence we are talking about. There is reactive violence, the type that breaks out between two guys in a bar, one of whom insults the other's girlfriend, first without meaning to (and then meaning to). And there is proactive violence, as when a group of resentful employees get together to work out how to murder their boss and make it look like a factory accident. Wrangham argues that humans are much less reactively violent than we used to be (and than chimps are), the reason being that, at some time in prehistory, we became good at being more proactively violent than any other species had ever had the brains to be. He dates the change to around a quarter of a million years ago and suggests that our ancestors, instead of being forever cowed and fearful at the bullying of the most violent members of their societies, decided to band together to kill them. Even more important, it was by that time in our evolutionary history that humans had developed enough strategic foresight and cooperative capacity to carry out such an intention. The immediate effect was liberating and sparked emulation. The cumulative effect, over hundreds of millennia, was "self-domestication," which gives modern humans a similar relationship to ancient humans that dogs have to wolves—except for the floppy ears.

Wrangham's prose is a delight, and his company as a writer is a pleasure. Indeed, it seems so good that it may be bad for you, in that you will be tempted to enjoy the read instead of treating his reasoning to the critical reflection and examination that it deserves. Be assured you have not heard the last of this ambitious, original, and mostly convincing argument. [End Page 110]

Paul Seabright

Paul Seabright, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a member of the Toulouse School of Economics research faculty, is the author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life and The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present.



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