Quaker Universalist Voice

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Who We (Humans) Are

A Book Review of Richard Wrangham, Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (2019)

The purpose of this book, R. Wrangham,The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (2019), is to show, and to explain, the current scientific evidence for the formation process and current reality of the human species’ self-domestication for communal harmony.  We humans have accomplished this rough social harmony by reducing and restricting communal violence through the mechanism of selective, inward, protective violence like capital punishment against bad actors. To influence our evolution of the human species toward violence management, humans are making violence and virtue into a kind of unreliable partnership in evolution.

This violence management in human development is in addition to other evolutionary selection mechanisms, including mate selection by women to provide steady, selective pressure toward lowered reactive aggression in their partners. 

The author is an anthropology professor at Harvard University.  This book provides a serious reformulation of the nature of humans with universal implications for our present and future.  Humans are nice and nasty.  We are selfless and selfish.  This relationship is explained by the author in a new way. 

The author may be mistaken or correct.  This book provides a helpful opportunity to Quakers for discernment, with space for continuing revelation.  The theological implications for the wider Christian tradition’s understanding of reality are huge.

The pervasive human violence condition is irrefutable (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot).  How can this violence be reconciled with human domestication of violence in ordinary human affairs (e.g. criminal law, legislation, democracy, religion, and parenting)?  

The author’s proposed answer is that social toleration and aggression are not opposites, but partners in all individual humans and human communities.  The key to this book’s thesis is that there are two kinds of violence in human experience:  reactive violence and proactive violence.  Humans have developed mechanisms for increasing the suppression of reactive violence.  Humans have also embraced proactive violence.  We have combined low reactive violence with high proactive violence.

There are, in traditional human cultures, two explanations for the combination of selfishness and selflessness evident to all in humans, individually and collectively.  Both explanations are based on our biology and cultural understanding of fundamental reality.

The first traditional explanation argues for the reality of fundamental human tolerance and affection as innate in humans.  This essential human goodness is subject to corruptibility due to the devil, original sin, or societal forces (e.g. patriarchy, imperialism, or inequality) depending on tradition and language preferences.  This is the general goodness view and expression in the Quaker experience over three centuries and is dominant among Quakers  today.

The second traditional explanation argues for the reality of fundamental human badness, selfishness, and competitiveness. This essential human badness is subject to self-improvement due to the civilizing forces in the community (e.g. religion, adult mentoring, philosophy, teachers, and historical experience).  This is the general view and expression in Augustine in the Roman Catholic tradition and Calvin in the Protestant tradition.

For this author, both of these traditional explanatory views have merit, supported by scientific evidence, but there is yet no evidence that one of these views is more biologically or evolutionarily meaningful than the other.  He argues that the potential for good or evil human behavior occurs in every individual.  These realities can be strengthened or reduced, and humans have done both. We have self-domesticated in our normal social interactions by suppressing reactive violence (e.g. domestic violence, terrorism, and weapon controls), while permitting aggressive violence in restricted areas of our lives (e.g. wars, sports, capital punishment, and media).

In particular, regarding capital punishment, this proactive killing practice is part of a human mechanism for managing inappropriate reactive violence and prohibiting its genetic transmission.  In this way there is an evolutionary justification for the practice to terminate the genetic transmission of reactive violence.

This book explains the thesis clearly and kindly.  The author provides interesting endnotes and a helpful index.  His clear style shows a writer’s eagerness to explore the developing findings in science. He has thought hard. We should do the same.

Quakers: There is no reference to Quakers in this book.  This new perspective on reality has consequences for Quakers in assessing our testimonies, public advocacy, and behavior.  Capital punishment comes readily to mind, but the implications are also fundamental for criminal law, incarceration services, parenting children, management of militaries, abortion, and weapons control. 

The initial Quaker response may be hostility to this thesis and this author, particularly regarding capital punishment and generally regarding his theological view about the nature of humans. Alternatively, this book is an aid for returning to deep silence, discernment, and seeking continuing revelation in this focused area.

If this author says this, in addition to the traditional voices, about the nature of human reality,  what can thou say?  This is no small task and one to be neglected at our cost.


  • What is the fundamental nature of humans?
  • What is a sound basis for a Quaker view of capital punishment?


  • R. Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (2019)
  • The Bible
  • The Qur’an
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