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20190630 – The Goodness Paradox


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The main idea of this book is that humans evolutionary developed via self-domestication, which occurred by process of elimination of troublemakers, either tyrannical or just non-conforming. The group’s elimination of such people created evolutionary pressure against tendency to resort to reactive aggression. Such aggression usually unplanned and happens within group, which undermines its survivability. At the same time competition between groups supported genes for planned aggression that would be directed either externally against outsiders or internally against individuals who become too powerful and therefore subject to elimination via conspiracy of a group of weaker individuals. These theses supported by multiple data obtained from genetic analysis and observation of two species of human close relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos.


Introduction: Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

It starts with discussion of human paradox when individuals that clearly demonstrate nice and humane features and behavior at the same time can commit huge crimes against humanity. Author looks at ideas of inherently good human nature, spoiled by civilization and inherently evil human nature, constrained by civilization and finds both inadequate, albeit having some merit to them. Then author expresses his believe that one should look at evolutionary explanation of human behavior, which is defined by the fact that: “Human societies consist of families within groups that are part of larger communities, an arrangement that is characteristic of our species and distinctive from other species.”
At the end of introduction author describes plan of the book and objectives of each chapter.

Chapter 1: The Paradox

This chapter launches the investigation by documenting behavioral differences among humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Decades of research suggest how species differences in aggression can evolve. Aggressiveness was once thought of as a tendency running from low to high along one dimension. But we now recognize that aggression comes in not one but two major forms, each with its own biological underpinnings and its own evolutionary story.

Chapter 2: Two Types of Aggression

Here author is trying to demonstrate that “humans are positively dualistic with respect to aggression. We are low on the scale of one type (reactive aggression), and high on the other (proactive aggression). Reactive aggression is the “hot” type, such as losing one’s temper and lashing out. Proactive aggression is “cold,” planned and deliberate. So our core question becomes two: why are we so lacking in reactive aggressiveness, and yet so highly proficient at proactive aggressiveness? The answer to the first explains our virtue; the answer to the second accounts for our violence. Our low tendency for reactive aggression gives us our relative docility and tolerance. Tolerance is a rare phenomenon in wild animals, at least in the extreme form that humans show.

Chapter 3: Human Domestication

Here author discusses “the similarities between domesticated animals and humans, and show why an increasing number of scientists believe that humans should be regarded as a domesticated version of an earlier human ancestor. One of the exciting aspects of the biology of domesticated animals is that researchers are beginning to understand puzzling similarities that occur among many unrelated species. Why, for example, do cats, dogs, and horses frequently sport white patches of hair, unlike their wild ancestors?

Chapter 4: Breeding Peace

This chapter “explains new theories linking the evolution of physical features such as these to changes in behavior. Humans exhibit enough such features to justify calling us a domesticated species. That conclusion, which was first intimated more than two hundred years ago, creates a problem. If humans are like a domesticated species, how did we get that way? Who could have domesticated us?”

Chapter 5: Wild Domesticates

Author believes that some clues to human evolutionary development could be found in the behavior of bonobos. Author reviews “the evidence that bonobos, like humans, show many of the features of a domesticated species. Obviously, bonobos were not domesticated by humans. The process happened in nature, unaffected by human beings. Bonobos must have self-domesticated. That evolutionary transformation seems likely to be widespread among wild species. If so, there would be nothing exceptional in the self-domestication of human ancestors.”

Chapter 6: Belyaev’s Rule in Human Evolution

Here author traces “the evidence that Homo sapiens have had a domestication syndrome since their origin, about 300,000 years ago. Surprisingly few attempts have been made to explain why Homo sapiens arose, and as I describe, even the most recent paleoanthropological scenarios have not addressed the important problem of why selection should have favored a relatively tolerant, docile species with a low tendency for reactive aggression. How self-domestication happened is in general an open question, with different answers expected for different species. Clues come from the way that aggressive individuals are prevented from dominating others. Among bonobos, aggressive males are suppressed mainly by the joint action of cooperating females. Probably, therefore, bonobo self-domestication was initiated by females’ being able to punish bullying males. In small-scale societies of humans, females do not control males to the same extent as they do among bonobos. Instead, among humans, the ultimate solution to stopping male aggressors is execution by adult males.”

Chapter 7: The Tyrant Problem; Chapter 8: Capital Punishment

These two chapters are about the process of self-domestication, which author believes is based on “the use of execution in human society to force domineering men to conform to egalitarian norms, … through the selective force of execution was responsible for reducing humans’ reactive aggression from the beginnings of Homo sapiens. If genetic selection against reactive aggression indeed occurred through self-domestication, we should expect human behavior to share aspects of the behavior of domesticated animals beyond reduced aggression.”

Chapter 9: What Domestication Did

Here author “emphasize that the proper comparison is not between humans and apes, because too many evolutionary changes have occurred in the seven million years or so since we had a common ancestor. Instead, the proper comparison is between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals”

 Chapter 10: The Evolution of Right and Wrong

Here author looks at reasons “why our evolved moral sensibilities often make people afraid of being criticized.” He concludes that sensitivity to criticism “would have promoted evolutionary success thanks to the emergence of the same new social feature that was responsible for self-domestication: a coalition able to carry out executions at will. Our ancestors’ moral senses helped protect them from being killed for the crime of nonconformity. The ability of adults (and particularly men) to conspire in the act of capital punishment is part of a larger system of social control using proactive aggression that characterizes all human societies.”

Chapter 11: Overwhelming Power

Here author discusses impact of types of aggressions on evolutionary selection of humans. “Since proactive aggression is complementary to reactive aggression (rather than its opposite), proactive, planful aggression can be positively selected even while reactive, emotional aggression has been evolutionarily suppressed. Humans can therefore use overwhelming power to kill a selected opponent. This unique ability is transformative. It has led our societies to include hierarchical social relationships that are far more despotic than those found in other species.”

Chapter 12: War

Obviously war is the highest form of proactive aggression and author discusses its specificity in this chapter: “Although contemporary war is much more institutionalized than most prehistoric intergroup violence, our tendencies for proactive and reactive aggression both play important roles, sometimes promoting and sometimes interfering with military goals.

Chapter 13: Paradox Lost

The final chapter “assesses the paradox that virtue and violence are both so prominent in human life. The solution is not so simple or morally desirable as we might wish: humans are neither all good nor all bad. We have evolved in both directions simultaneously. Both our tolerance and our violence are adaptive tendencies that have played vital roles in bringing us to our present state. The idea that human nature is at the same time both virtuous and wicked is challenging, since presumably we would all wish for simplicity.


Here author expresses his pain that his theory of self-domestication via elimination of troublemakers is kind of linked to capital punishment and therefore could not be feely expressed by western academic with fear of massive attack from the left. So he feels that the strong denial of support of this measure is absolutely necessary, even if his research demonstrate that consequences of capital punishment are highly beneficial for human development.


This is another very interesting approach to evolutionary roots of human species. Its concentration on aggression makes a lot of sense because it is what needed for survival in the natural world with its wonderful choices between the necessities to eat and real possibility to be eaten. I think ideas and research results presented in this book support approach to human being as the entity of dual types of evolutionary pressure: individual survival and group survival. It is very interesting that group survival required not only ability successfully fight outsiders, but also maintain cohesiveness within group. Author’s idea that this was achieved via elimination of too powerful and non-conformists looks very plausible, especially in the view of provided data. I think that this newly achieved realistic understanding of human nature would help in the current process if reformatting it to the new methods of production when old need for human labor is going extinct and new construction of society needs to be developed.


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