Partial Book Report

I’m struggling, I’m “reading”

“The Goodness Paradox,” by Richard Wrangham.

Reading in quotes, I’m stalled at the halfway point. But I’m writing as I read, a sort of Live Tweeting, because this really is the crux of all human matters for me, the puzzle I am sort of spending my life on.

I expect, I plan, to change my mind by the end, and hopefully write an entirely new report when I’m done – but It has me stalled, in the doldrums and I’m not thinking as much as I’d like, or writing – so here’s my first take of the first part. Frankly, I’m suspicious, it’s a bit dramatic – and truth to tell, further reading has dampened my excitement.


From a month or so ago.



Ah, five pages in and we’re pushing one of my favourite buttons, “peace at home” and “war abroad.” I’ve objected to this before. It may be the obvious thing, but it’s not the instructive thing, this supposed inverse relationship. Were it that simple, wouldn’t the other end of it also be true, and peace at the border might be expected to indicate a melee at home? I understand there is a disparity – but that’s all it is, don’t go talking about opposing forces, trade-offs.

There is reactive peace at home, perhaps – and well, it’s not all reactive at the border either, is it. Wait – or is it? The border is exactly where some other is getting into your space and skirmishes are exactly what are supposed to stop it . . . it’s just that reactive thing, but at group level. Interesting. I fear the two sorts of aggression are intertwined and interactive with each other, sharing causal streams. They’re right, it’s complicated. Border violence sounds like the very definition of reactive violence, but we plan for it, make budgets and whatnot . . . I suppose in the real world, everything will be some combination of the two?

Peace at home/war at the border, or prosocial at home/antisocial at the border – have anthropologists not seen the news, never heard of a madman killing his own people? What warring nation is all loving “at home?” I know we’re not talking about nations here, but small groups of hominids – but no, not small groups either, humans, individual ones. You are not antisocial “out there” and loving at home, or your dad wasn’t. If you are warlike, you have little interest in producing loving, affiliative children, and if you are a peacemaker in the world, you probably don’t abuse your own kids, that’s how it is in the real world, professors.

There’s an inverse relationship, I’ll allow that, but not between in and out of doors  – the more a person or a society have of one, the less they have of the other, everywhere. Violence breeds violence and love breeds love – they do not, repeat not create each other. Again, this is real life, not . . . mythology.

Oh, a brief history of the rise of the Noble Savage idea! Thank you. He offers it as support for the peace at home/war abroad meme and gives examples in New Guinea and elsewhere and again in North America in the early 1600s, where the idea began, Noble Savage. I, however, see something else. Let’s just back up, I’ll paraphrase, “Europeans saw the peace the aboriginals had among themselves” and stop right there.

This impressed the Europeans by itself because Europeans do not enjoy this peace among themselves. Life at home for nations of empire is training for the war at the “frontier.” Having said that, I do not imagine that the aboriginals are not rough enough on one another in their uncontacted state to toughen them up and aid in the border battles – but clearly it was not obvious to the Europeans, perhaps they were not as constant about it as white people seem to be.

Hey – he quotes Davies, I read his book too, the somewhat misleadingly titled “Evolution of War!” Davies made examples of some African nations, but did not make the distinction Wrangham has here, between contacted and uncontacted tribes. I came away with a terrible view of Africa and only learned later that all of those nightmares were observed after the Europeans disturbed the existing systems and armed some of the peoples. That book is nearly a hundred years old now, 1929.

Wrangham talks about the scourge of domestic violence and gives some awful statistics about violence against women, but still says, bad as it is, the apes are far, far worse. He says war, however, is another matter. During war, we kill far more than any ape. What is missing from this synopsis of the disparity, war abroad and peace at home of course, is children. Do we not count as domestic violence until puberty?

I wonder, I’m sure he’ll get to communication and such.

I’ve just been invaded by the thought that a single instance of proactive violence at home may have as much power to inform a whole troop of humans as well as many more instances would inform a company of chimpanzees, chimps aren’t as keen as we are on messaging. That the chimpanzees require more frequent reminders about who is in charge, and . . . this has perhaps always been the challenge, trying to express something like this, that if the violence is less frequent but carries more power, is it really a reduction? Social power? Informative power? Emotional? Some kind, all of them together, maybe.

Far easier to terrorize and control humans than chimpanzees.

I suppose I think that we have simply shifted the injuries from the skull to the mind? It wasn’t from exactly this direction, but I have had thoughts before that seem to lead me to us having a genetic sensitivity to abuse, that abuse really means more to us somehow than it does to the apes. Environmentally controlled gene expression, specifically abusive, threatening environments . . . it’s my theory that we have discovered these genes and are nurturing them, growing them, almost consciously. All we would have to do is abuse one another, if they exist . . . and haven’t we already identified some, so they do? This book is focusing me somehow, I’ve never been able to say that quite so clearly before.

Seriously. “Sensitivity to abuse” seems like the last piece of the puzzle right now, solves the problem of the world’s apparent self-healing, of Pinker’s professionally researched optimism, which seemed to cut of all dissent. Splendid. Seriously. Such genes would evolve as a natural aversion, all right and proper, but then if you keep selecting for it but don’t give them a way out perhaps it becomes something else . . . ? Last piece of the puzzle to the paradox, I think.

I know! I don’t really believe it either, but I keep hammering at it, and well . . . that’s why I am begging so hard for someone to check me.

As a personal aside, I hate it when I feel this brilliant, all cannot be right with me. But if that’s true, still, perhaps there will be something, some small thing to salvage from this. I’ve spent four years trying to audit away a previous epiphany that arrived during something of an episode back then, and it’s holding up, through ups and downs. Well, it’s the same one really, it’s just unfolded a little more, is all. There is a part of me that thinks I stole some fire, and that worries that I’m not making it back.



July 5th., 2020

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