Killer Apes

Richard Wrangham – Daedalus

This is adapted from “Killer Species, published in the Fall 2004 issue of Daedalus. A chilling precis of this appears in the January issue of Harper’s, focusing mainly on the war-like behavior of chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives.
“For humans, chimpanzees, and wolves it makes sense to kill deliberately
and frequently. Their protean grouping patterns mean they can choose to
attack only when they have overwhelming power, which in turn means they
can kill safely and cheaply, thereby winning a likely increase in
resources over the succeeding months or years.
“Killing thus emerges as a consequence of having defined territories,
dispersed groups, and unpredictqable power relations. These conditions,
in turn, appear to result from ecological adaptations, whether to a
scattered fruit supply or to the challenges of hunting vertebrate prey.
The implication is that because of our particular evolutionary ecology,
natural selection has favored in the brains of humans, chimpanzees, and
wolves a tendency to take advantage of opportunities to kill their
“This doesn’t condemn us to be violent in general. Indeed, within our
communities humans are markedly less violent than most other primates,
and in some ways humans are especially peaceful. Nor does it mean that
intergroup aggression is inevitable; rather, it predicts little violence
when power is balanced between neighboring communities. What it does
imply, however, is that selection has favored a human tendency to
identify enemies, draw moral divides, and exploit weaknesses pitilessly
across boundaries….The spontaneous aggressiveness of humans is a harsh
product of natural selection, part of an evolutionary morality that
revels in sort-term victory for one’s own community without regard for
the greater good.”

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