The Paradox of Being Good and Evil

Human beings are capable of such inspiring good and, paradoxically, of such terrible evil. The why and how of this contradiction has exercised religions and philosophies of all kinds over the centuries. It is sometimes conceived of as rooted in an ancient battle between good and evil spiritual forces, which eventually drew in lower-order physical human beings to do either right or wrong. According to this conception, humans seemed to have little choice in the matter.

With such an understanding, what to do to avoid the negative impact on human behavior has remained unsurprisingly elusive.

But now there’s an evolutionary biological explanation that has attracted favorable attention. Based on decades of study of chimpanzees and bonobos, Harvard professor Richard Wrangham believes he has solved the puzzle. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed humans are innately good, and Thomas Hobbes that human behavior is innately bad, Wrangham claims that we are innately good and bad.

How so? It all comes down to his parsing of aggression. In The Goodness Paradox: How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent (2019), he concludes that low tolerance for reactive aggression (hot anger) and a high tendency to proactive aggression (cold calculation) explains both peacefulness (good) and terrible violence (evil) on the human level. “In short,” he says, “a great oddity about humanity is our moral range, from unspeakable viciousness to heartbreaking generosity.” Rather than being contradictory, he suggests, these forms of aggression are two sides of the same coin.

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.”

Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox

This is not far from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s comment in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart. . . . Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

Wrangham arrived at his conclusion not by lengthy personal experience in the gulag but by 20 years of thinking about specific primates: Chimpanzees can be very aggressive, but their near relatives, bonobos, are relatively peaceful—one might even say domesticated. Wrangham theorizes that chimpanzees and bonobos diverged from a common ancestor 900,000 to 2.1 million years ago. Only bonobos became domesticated (smaller heads, less-protruding jaws, shorter teeth)—thus the difference between the two in respect of aggression. The question arises as to who the domesticator was, to which Wrangham proposes self-domestication as the best answer.

But how does this explain human good and evil?

According to this line of thinking, such self-domestication also happened to Homo sapiens, one of the two branches of Homo, beginning about 300,000 years ago. Thus we became less reactively aggressive, because apparently our ancestors agreed to execute troublemakers; and over thousands of years, this selected for tolerance and lowered hot aggression. Yet proactive aggression is also a feature of social control, selected for by planned capital punishment, and remains part of our makeup.

This evolutionary biological line of thinking is materialist; it does not admit of any outside supernatural force. Indeed, by definition it seems it cannot entertain a nonmaterialist explanation.

Does this mean that such an explanation is invalid?

Consider this from brain researcher Robert L. Kuhn, written more than 50 years ago: “Evolutionary theorists point to the similarity among human and ape brains to corroborate their views. It is ironic that, in reality, they have stumbled on to the most significant scientific observation in history, irrefutably attesting to the non-physical component which converts the output of the human brain into mind. Without this non-physical factor, man could be nothing more than a super-ape, more intelligent than the chimp to the same degree that the chimp is more intelligent than a less complex mammal.”

Kuhn expressed his conclusions in quite definitive terms: “The human brain cannot explain the human mind—there must be a non-physical ingredient, beyond our microscopes, test tubes, electrodes and computers. To the truly open-minded individual, it is fruitless to physically rationalize the uniqueness of mind. There must be a non-physical essence—a ‘spirit’—in man.”

If there is indeed a nonphysical aspect to human beings, then is it not possible that it could be influenced by another nonphysical force, another spirit—that what brings aggression and other negative tendencies to the fore is of a nonmaterial origin?

Many ancient societies developed their own often divergent philosophies about the nature of being human and the origin of evil. From an ancient Hebrew perspective, however, human beings began with the unique “spirit in man”—neutral regarding good and evil—and with the free will to choose pursuing only good. But by that same human spirit that largely defines our nature, humans opted to decide for themselves what is good and bad and opened themselves to external pressures to become corrupted and pursue evil. From a biblical perspective, this is the history of humanity’s first parents and their encounter with a wicked adversarial spirit.

Is this a better explanation for the puzzle of human good and human evil? It speaks to Wrangham’s proposal regarding the role of self in determining what is uniquely human, affirms that there is good and evil in all human behavior, yet provides a spirit-level answer to experiencing godly good and overcoming malignant evil.