“If we evolved to be so good, why are we also so vile?” Wrangham (Biological Anthropology/Harvard Univ.; Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, etc.) looks at the nobler—and ignobler—characteristics of our kind.
The fact that we have societies—and such things as schools, medicine, music, and the like—is evidence, by the author’s account, that humans have evolved a vast capacity to collaborate and cooperate, with attributes including “tolerance, trust, and understanding.” So it has been since the Pleistocene, he adds, though of course humans have also evolved in ways that allow us to band together to perform unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. Wrangham closely examines the social behavior of chimpanzees, who are far more disposed to violence than humans, as well as the ways of bonobos and other simians. “The human rate of physical aggression,” he writes, “within social communities is…strikingly low.” He also looks into the neurobiology of violence, implicating the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and other brain structures, and at the biological and cultural implications of “self-domestication,” a process by which humans school themselves out of their feral nature and into habits of being that moderate violence—though, as he adds, while other domesticated species such as dogs and guinea pigs are “delightfully tractable,” human adaptability and cultural learning add up to something more. Yet, he notes, both intelligence and adaptability contribute to our inclination toward “coalitionary proactive aggression,” which enables us to plan acts of violence against victims who cannot fight back. The resultant outbursts of war and other violence are expressions of the human penchant for “vying for power,” but that contest doesn’t preclude cooperative behavior: “To avert episodes of violence,” concludes the author, “we should constantly remind ourselves of how easily a complex social organization can decay, and how hard it is to construct."
Wrangham’s book adds materially to a conversation that includes Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism, and other recent texts on human behavior.