For a book about human behaviour, a large proportion of The Goodness Paradox focuses on our closest non-human relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Though these two species share a common ancestor and occupy similar environments, on opposite banks of the River Congo, their behaviour is startlingly different. Where chimps are prone to frequent acts of violence, bonobos are relatively peaceful. For primatologist Richard Wrangham, the difference offers a vital window into the human condition. ‘Why are humans both highly tolerant, like bonobos and highly violent, like chimpanzees?’ he asks.
As he did for cooking in Catching Fire, Wrangham demonstrates that our ability for cold, calculated violence is a distinctly human trait. ‘War can vanish from a society for decades at a time, but when it starts up again, the numbers show that humans kill one another at rates higher than chimpanzees or any other primate.’
A key takeaway from this book, however, is that our ability for peace is exceptional. ‘Tolerance is a rare phenomenon in wild animals, at least in the extreme form that humans show,’ he explains. While domestic species have had violent traits bred out of them, something different must have happened for humans. By looking at the bonobo, which became a more tolerant species all on its own, he offers compelling argument that humans domesticated themselves in a similar way.
His comparisons to other primates can become uncomfortable. One of his main points is that human day-to-day physical aggression is exceptionally low compared to animal species: ‘They happen at less than one per cent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives.’ As low as that may be, rates of domestic, sexual and institutional violence are much higher than desirable. Wrangham continually addresses the notion that though we are the most peaceful ape, we must do better.
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