• Victor C. Bolles

Sublimation of the Evolutionary Trap

Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist who got his start as a researcher for Jane Goodall in Africa, has written a thought provoking book that describes how the relationship between good and evil in human beings evolved from our primitive ancestors. He puts forth a theory that animals in general, and humans in particular, exhibit two types of aggression and that in Homo sapiens one type of aggression has been muted by evolution but that the evolutionary forces that caused this reduction in one form of aggression has enhanced the other type of aggression. Given the world we are living in, much of what Dr. Wrangham states seems on target.

The first form of aggression he calls reactive aggression. Reactive aggression is common in the animal world. Reactive aggression erupts from chemicals generated by the amygdala (and also the hypothalamus) that create a flight or fight response to external stimuli. Much of the aggression seen in wild animals is reactive aggression. Our close relative the chimpanzee can erupt into terribly violent behavior if provoked, even if the provocation seems benign or inconsequential. And while humans can also exhibit reactive aggression, it appears to be much less than that exhibited by our wild relative.

The other form of aggression is proactive aggression. Proactive aggression does not react immediately to a provocation or threat and is more closely associated with purposeful action. Many animals lack the capability of proactive aggression. It is more often associated with carnivores (it is sometimes called predatory aggression) and with social animals such as primates.

It is the contention of Dr. Wrangham’s book, the Goodness Paradox, that evolutionary forces have reduced the human propensity toward reactive aggression while those same forces have increased our propensity toward proactive aggression. He further states that these two trends are derived from the evolutionary domestication of homo sapiens. We normally think of domestication as a process that humans apply to wild animals such as converting wolves into dogs. Ignoring the ancient aliens promoted by the History Channel as well as divine or other forms of intervention, Dr. Wrangham contends that humans were self-domesticated.

Charles Darwin noted that domesticated animals exhibit similar characteristics and traits in addition to docility, including smaller brains, lighter bones, blazes (white hair on forehead) and floppy ears. They also have shorter faces and reduced sexual dimorphism. This condition is also known as paedomorphism as many of these traits are present in the juveniles of the original wild species of domesticated animals. Domesticated animals are bred to be docile and unafraid of humans. Puppies, kittens and other young animals like to play and are not afraid of humans, so animals that are selected based on docility exhibit many juvenile characteristics. Wild animals grow out of these characteristics and learn to fear humans (wolves do not have floppy ears).

The Russian researcher Dmitri Belyaev set out to domesticate silver foxes by selecting foxes that were more docile compared to a control group. Within a few generations the foxes began to show characteristics similar to domesticated animals. After ten generations the foxes wagged their tails like dogs and whimpered for human attention. They also exhibited shorter faces, mottled hair colors and floppy ears.

Dr. Wrangham contends that human beings (Homo sapiens) also exhibit many juvenile characteristics. There are no fossil remains of the wild ancestor of Homo sapiens but comparing Homo sapiens to Homo neanderthalensis it is apparent that the modern humans exhibit many of the characteristics of the domestication syndrome. Neanderthals had bigger faces, bigger bodies and bigger brains than modern humans.

But what caused the domestication of genus Homo? Dr. Wrangham theorizes that the other form of aggression (proactive or purposeful aggression) is the cause. In this case a special form of proactive aggression he calls coalitionary proactive aggression.

For most of the time that Homo sapiens have been on this planet, they were hunter/gatherers as they foraged the earth for their livelihood. Hunter/gatherer societies are very egalitarian because there is no accumulation of goods (you can only keep what you can carry) and no specialization of functions other than those between men and women. Dr. Wrangham theorizes that there was little hierarchy in these wandering bands and points to the few remaining hunter/gatherer societies left on the planet (such as the !Kung and the Yanomamo) for corroboration.

But people being people there is always some sort of A-type aggressor that wants to be in charge. This is the case for hierarchical societies such as exhibited by chimpanzees and baboons. But our hunter/gatherer ancestors roaming the earth did not have big chiefs and powerful leaders, and Dr. Wrangham believes that is because the lower status males in the band worked together to eliminate the offensive A-type. He points out that not only do the few hunter/gatherer societies remaining in the remote reaches of the planet have very egalitarian societies they also have traditions that discourage self-aggrandizement and braggadocio. They are also very violent societies where far more people are killed by purposeful aggression than in civilized countries. Dr. Wrangham also believes that these lower status males (collectively the “Elders” and sometimes the “cousins”) not only punish the arrogant with death but also mete out punishment for any sort of deviancy which they define as witchcraft or sorcery and also punishable by death. By killing outright A-types and cowing any potential leader as well as any deviants, human beings effectively self-domesticated themselves.

Coalitionary proactive aggression is only possible with communication as the plotters need to know that the others will go along with the plan (much as the assassins of Julius Caesar did). So the ability to speak is essential to the self-domestication process. And it is the ability to speak and communicate that has allowed Homo sapiens to become the dominant life form on the planet. But in the process, while we have muted our proclivity to reactive aggression, we have enhanced the tendency of our species toward proactive aggression.


But like many government programs, the development of coalitionary proactive aggression in Homo sapiens had a couple of maladaptive unintended consequences that plague human society to this day.

One is war. Bands of male chimpanzees are known to infiltrate the territory of other groups of chimpanzees and to attack and kill stragglers when the opportunity arises. A series of such predations can result in an expansion of the territory of the predatory group resulting in an increase in the available food supply.

Our hunter/gatherer ancestors also participated in raids on other tribal groups for much the same reasons as the chimps. Otzi, the prehistoric mummy found high in the Alps, bore numerous wounds and appears to have been returning to his home village from such a raid when he was killed. Harvard professor Steven Pinker estimates that up to fifteen percent of prehistoric deaths were due to violence. Violent deaths among the remaining hunter/gatherer societies are similar.

And while primitive hunter/gatherer societies were egalitarian, it was the men that were equal. The women were subordinate to the men and had to live by different and usually more restrictive rules than the men. The Elders of the hunter/gatherer societies were also the patriarchy.

The other maladaptive unintended consequence of the coalitionary proactive violence was the elimination of deviants and any person that seemed would disrupt the group. The egalitarian conformity imposed by the Elders and backed by the possibility of violent death either eliminated the deviants or cowed them into tribal conformity. In order to ensure the egalitarian position of tribal members change, innovation and any form of progress was quashed. As a result, hunter/gatherer living conditions changed very little over hundreds of thousands of years.

Alas for the progressives, egalitarian hunter/gatherer societies were rendered obsolete as agriculture and farming replaced the old ways as a means to feed hungry people. Farming was a much more efficient way to produce food and allowed for the accumulation of surplus, the specialization of job functions and eventually the creation of hierarchy.

But hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have ingrained egalitarianism into the brains Homo sapiens even though egalitarianism is inimical to progress and economic development and relies on force to assure conformity.

So here we are in the 21st century. A bunch of maladapted primates with a proclivity toward proactive aggression that bred ourselves to be drones in a world of egalitarian conformity. But we are more than our DNA and have the ability to use our intelligence to escape from the evolutionary trap that we ourselves created over the millennia.

We have tempered our egalitarian proclivities into a form of democracy that recognizes (and protects) the individual while broadly reflecting the will of the people as a whole. And we have sublimated our proactive aggression into trade and business in replacement of war. The push by the progressive left as represented by Bernie Sanders toward egalitarian socialism is not a step forward. It is a step back into our violent prehistoric past.

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