The Goodness Paradox

Richard W. Wrangham | Harvard Museums of Science & Culture…Lescarbot was only one of many who were impressed by the internal peacefulness of small-scale societies. By the end of the seventeenth century, according to Gilbert Chinard, “hundreds of voyagers had noted in passing the goodness of primitive peoples.” Their “goodness,” however, was applied only to people of the same society.  In 1929, the anthropologist Maurice Davie summarized a consensus understanding that remains true today: people were as good to members of their own society as they were harsh to others.

There are two codes of morals, two sets of mores, one for comrades inside and another for strangers outside, and both arise from the same interests. Against outsiders it is meritorious to kill, plunder, practise blood revenge, and steal women and slaves, but inside the group none of these things can be allowed because they would produce discord and weakness. The Sioux must kill a man before he can be a brave, and the Dyak before he can marry. Yet, as Tylor has said, “these Sioux among themselves hold manslaughter to be a crime unless in blood revenge; and the Dyaks punish murder….Not only is slaying an enemy in open war looked on as righteous but ancient law goes on the doctrine that slaying one’s own tribesmen and slaying a foreigner are crimes of quite different order.”

The distinction between how people behave in warfare compared with at home is all too familiar to soldiers in industrial nations. The Spanish Civil War in 1936 was typically brutal. George Orwell was a volunteer who spent his weekdays experiencing the horrors of the front lines, then returned to his wife at weekends. The change of atmosphere was “abrupt and startling.” In Barcelona, only a short train-ride away from the mayhem, “fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere.” In Taragona, “the ordinary life of a smart seaside town was continuing almost undisturbed.”

From the Ituri Forest and New Guinea highlands to everywhere else in the world, the same pattern emerges. Whether or not their lives are consumed by war beyond their settlements, people can be strikingly peaceful when at home. My experience in the Congo seems to be the norm for our species.

From a comparative perspective, the rate of physical aggression among humans “at home” may be low, although from a moral perspective, it is still higher than most of us would wish. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, among others, has documented a decline in the probability of dying from violence within many countries over the past millennium, a trend for which we should all be grateful. Undoubtedly, life for millions of people would be more pleasant if the rate continued to decline.

Nevertheless, from an evolutionary perspective, the human rate of physical aggression within social communities is already strikingly low. Because chimpanzees are one of humanity’s two closest relatives, they provide an illuminating comparison. Chimpanzees are not like people. A day spent with wild chimpanzees gives you a good chance of seeing chases, sometimes some hitting, while hearing fearful screams. Every month, you are likely to see bloody wounds. The primatologists Martin Muller, Michael Wilson, and I quantified the difference between an ordinary group of chimpanzees and a particularly disturbed population of Australian Aboriginals who had recently stopped hunting and gathering. Among the Australians, social disintegration and alcohol were considered responsible for raising the likelihood of physical aggression to especially toxic levels. However, even in this comparison with an unusually violent group of humans, the chimpanzees were several hundred to a thousand times more aggressive. The difference in the frequency of fighting between humans and chimpanzees is enormous.

Bonobos are the other species most closely related to humans, a similar-looking ape with a well-deserved reputation for being much more peaceful than chimpanzees. They are not unaggressive, however. A recent long-term field study found that wild male bonobos were aggressive at about half the rate of chimpanzees, while female bonobos were more frequently aggressive than female chimpanzees. So, although male bonobos are less violent than male chimpanzees, the rates of aggression in both these species of great ape are far higher than the rates among humans. Overall, physical aggression in humans happens at less than 1 percent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives. Compared to them, in this respect, we really are a dramatically peaceful species.

The idea that humans are in general exceptionally peaceful within their home communities is an important claim that should be examined carefully. The statistics about fighting overall seem indisputable. School shootings may often be in the news in the United States, but their frequency is low compared to violence among chimpanzees and bonobos. Still, what about domestic violence?

Even within a famously pacific group such as Botswana’s !Kung San hunter-gatherers (now more often called the Ju/’hoansi), domestic violence has been recorded often. Furthermore, this form of aggression may have been systematically underreported. Early voyagers and anthropologists tended to be men from patriarchal societies. Wife beating tends to happen in private and can therefore escape the attention of anthropologists. Does the frequency of men’s aggression toward women undermine the proposition that humans are exceptionally nonviolent in their home community lives? With regard to male violence against females, how do humans compare with other primates?

Certainly, wife beating—or, more generally, intimate-partner violence—is a common human phenomenon. In 2005, the World Health Organization’s Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence produced detailed data from twenty-four thousand women in ten countries. Physical violence by partners included slapping, shoving, punching, kicking, dragging, beating, choking, burning, and using or threatening the use of a weapon. In cities, the proportion of women who said that they had experienced physical violence by their partners averaged 31 percent, from 13 percent in Japan to 49 percent in Peru. In rural areas, the rates were higher, averaging 41 percent. Between 50 and 80 percent of the intimate-partner violence was considered “severe.” These rates appear to be slightly above those in the United States, where, in more than nine thousand detailed interviews, 24 percent of women reported severe physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. 19 With such high reported rates, the conclusion of WHO researchers Christina Pallitto and Claudia García-Moreno is not surprising: “There is a clear need to scale up efforts across a range of sectors, both to prevent violence from happening in the first place and to provide necessary services for women experiencing violence.” 20 Adding sexual violence to physical violence worsens the picture. A 2013 WHO study found that the proportion of women who had experienced either physical or sexual violence averaged 41 percent in cities and 51 percent in rural areas of their ten focal countries. The equivalent figure in the United States was 36 percent.

So it is undeniable that, as deplorable as it is, violence against women is widespread the world over. Some 41 to 71 percent of women have been beaten by a man at some time during their lives. Yet this range is low compared with the incidence among our closest animal relatives. One hundred percent of wild adult female chimpanzees experience regular serious beatings from males. Even among bonobos, whose females are routinely higher-ranking than males, males attack females rather often. In subgroups averaging nine individuals, the primatologist Martin Surbeck saw a male bonobo physically attacking females every six days on average. If that rate had applied to the Efe foragers and Lese farmers of the Ituri Forest in the Congo, Elizabeth and I would have expected to see (or at least hear about) wife beatings several hundred times during our nine months there. But we saw none, and there were only occasional stories of beatings.

Aggressive behaviors of men toward women seem likely to be particularly prevalent in small-scale societies that celebrate the importance of men at war. Certainly, there are dramatic accounts of males being domineering and bullying toward females in societies such as the Sambia of New Guinea or the Yanomamö of Venezuela, both of which groups were studied in a time and place where violence between villages was a significant reality. Yet, once again, even though the rate and intensity of male violence toward females were probably as high in those contexts as in any human society, it paled in comparison to the rates among our primate kin. It is understandable why Elizabeth Marshall Thomas titled her book about the !Kung The Harmless People, Jean Briggs called hers about the Inuit Never in Anger, and Paul Malone called his book about the Penan people of Borneo The Peaceful People.

Domestic violence is abhorrent and should always be taken seriously. It is a fact, however, that humans are less aggressive than our close relatives, even when we include the perpetual threat that men hold for women.

War is an altogether different matter. Events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrate the contrast between home tranquillity within communities and violence with outsiders. Following the 1994 genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi and the arrival of Hutu militias in the Congo, the Ituri Forest became a killing ground. The Ituri peoples suffered through the First and Second Congo Wars, from 1996 to 2008. Forest life was a nightmare. Roaming military groups used their power to kill and rape ordinary villagers. In the Ituri and surrounding areas of eastern Congo, at least five million are thought to have died, and many hundreds of thousands were raped. 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. Among small scale societies such as hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, Lawrence Keeley found that the kill rate from violence between groups was not only higher than in primate populations. It was also higher than the rates recorded in Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, and Japan from 1900 to 1990, despite those countries’ immense losses from two woarld wars. cholars debate how accurately Keeley’s data represent a long-term average, but the numbers certainly show that the rate of killing people in other groups among small-scale human societies has often been unpleasantly high. 29 High rates of killing or other forms of violence are not inevitable, and there is much variation among societies and over time. But overall tendencies are clear: compared with other primates, we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day lives, yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death from violence in our wars.

That discrepancy is the goodness paradox.


The Goodness Paradox by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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