Why We Kill

Richard Wrangham is a professor of biology and anthropology at Harvard University who studies chimpanzees, and their behavior, in Uganda. His main interest is in the question of human evolution from a behavioral perspective. He is the author, with Dale Peterson, of "Demonic Males: Apes, and the Origins Of Human Violence," and "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human."
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Question: What are the two most fascinating things about human evolution yet to be explored? 

Richard Wrangham: How it is that a pre-human ape became a human. And it's a question that Darwin had no idea about really, and that we've had only some rather simple ideas about until recently, and I think we still have a long way to go. And until we have a sense of the continuity in an evolutionary sense and the biological factor responsible for something like a Chimpanzee standing upright, becoming what we are today, then we will always have this sense of anthropocentrism. We will always feel just a little bit divorced from the rest of the universe. And that's one big question. 

I think another huge question is about the evolution of human nature with respect to the biggest use of cooperation, processiality, altruism, and on the other hand, violence, aggression, a willingness to kill. We are an unusual species because we have such an extraordinary mix of these two aspects. We show them both to extremes. We're amazingly more cooperative than almost any other species and we're extraordinarily destructive compared to most species. And grappling with the extent to which that is a product of culture and biology and to the extent of why we should have biological position to go in both of those directions remains one of the huge questions. Which again, is something, of course, that is hard to reconcile with the rest of nature in many ways and for that reason, people resort to religion and they resort to all sorts of naturalistic point of views, strange belief systems to grapple with the question of good and evil. 

Question: Are humans predisposed to behave violently? 

Richard Wrangham: Well, to talk about inherent aggression in us sets off alarm bells for some people because it sounds biologically determinist, it sounds pessimistic. So, I wouldn't want to quite put it in that term. But, I do think that there's all sorts of evidence that humans have got a predisposition to behave with violence in certain contexts, that yes.  And it's a great thing to be aware of it and the more we're aware of it, then the more we can do about it. 

You know, it has nothing to do with whether or not one is optimistic, or pessimistic about the future. And I'm a firm believer in the fact that war is not a necessary feature of human life and that there has been a rather impressive decline in the amount of killing that humans as a species do over the last centuries and millennia, and that the future can be expected to be increasingly rosy. But none of that is to deny that within the human heart there is a dangerous side. 

Question: How can we overcome this? 

Richard Wrangham: We can carry on doing the kinds of things we are doing, which is to think deeply and carefully about anticipating violence. About setting up institutional systems that enable us to anticipate when there is a threat of genocide in the country, when there are threats of war between states and for other states to be prepared to intervene. I mean the great thing nowadays is that, whereas in recent decades and centuries, when two countries declared war on each other, the others just stood by and watched. Nowadays, everyone is very scared and alarmed about it. And doesn't want this to happen and there is intervention just flowing all over the place. You know, we try to get involved in Darfur, we try to get involved in the Congo, we try to get involved in Bosnia. And as a result, things change. 

Question: Where are we headed now in terms of aggression and war? 

Richard Wrangham: The size of the groups that are political units has just been growing, not exactly steadily with leaps and drops, but have been growing over the millennia. And surely the way in which the human species is ultimately heading is towards a single group.  And to me one of the great questions of the future is whether or not that group will be achieved by unanimous pooling of the decision to unite into conquering some of the great problems of the world, such as climate change, or food shortage, or the threat of aggression, or whether or not the gloomy view would be that the single united human group will be achieved by domination. And I think that's, on the whole, unlikely. 

I think that the great value of the technological advances that have been happening in the last decades is that people communicate enormously better than they used to so that when there is a problem in Fiji, then the whole of the rest of the world knows about it. When there is an earthquake in Haiti, then within a few hours, everybody in the world knows about it and is rushing to help. And one of the consequences of that sort of communication, or ability, is that the dispossessed get a little bit more power. 

So, in the general sense, I feel that the world is becoming increasingly democratic. There are more voices to those that traditionally had very little power, indeed. And that's the kind of dynamic that will help avert a hegemonic move towards a single world government, and instead something more like what's happened in Europe, with countries just saying, it makes sense for us to work together. 

Recorded on March 5, 2010

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