Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Richard Wrangham works hard to explain the violence gap we don't care about
Urban Americans worry quite a bit about violence in their cities. Many of these places will rack up hundreds of homicides per year. Urban black men face a pretty decent chance of being murdered. So it was weird to read Richard Wrangham's new book The Goodness Paradox with its central claim that humans are very peaceful.
How could he have this view? Well, he has studied chimps for decades. Contrary to stories told by liberal primatologists in the 1960s, it turns out that chimps are mean bastards. If you stuffed 200 of them into Boeing 737, by the end of the flight many would be murdered. The human homicide rate is a tiny fraction of that seen among chimpanzees.
Wrangham then sets out to develop a theory to explain why we are so slow to lose our cool and attack others. He claims that when our ancestors developed the ability for fairly sophisticated language about 300-500k years ago, men in a group began to handle their antisocial members by plotting to murder them. Chimps will sometimes gang up on a cantankerous alpha and take him out, but it is spontaneous. No planning is involved.
Men gained great power over individuals by using premeditated, coalitionary aggression against not only bullies but eventually against all non-conformists. Over evolutionary time, this selected for humans who were motivated to get along with others and who were particularly interested in pleasing tribal elders--the men who had the power to kill them if they become sufficiently annoyed.
In developing his theory, Wrangham did exactly what I expected from a PC biologist: He avoids discussions of why human groups currently vary so much in their levels of homicide. Some educated person reading his book wants to know why his neighborhood is so much safer than the black neighborhood on the other side of town. The homicide rate in Colombia, for example, is scores of times higher than in Japan. Why? Wrangham is silent on this type of issue. He makes it sound like humanity has experienced the exact same selection pressures for hundreds of thousands of years, and that we all arrive at 2019 exactly the same in terms of genetic propensity for violence. He admits that the speed of selection probably increased in more recent millennia, but is silent about what that means.
Wrangham also fails to discuss the scholarship of Greg Cochran, Henry Harpending, and Peter Frost which suggests that pacification of some human groups has happened over the past few thousand years. I guess I would be silent on such topics, too, if I valued my lofty perch at the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
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