Two Types of Aggression in Human Evolution

Two major types of aggression, proactive and reactive, are associated with contrasting expression, eliciting factors, neural pathways, development, and function. The distinction is useful for understanding the nature and evolution of human aggression. Compared with many primates, humans have a high propensity for proactive aggression, a trait shared with chimpanzees but not bonobos. By contrast, humans have a low propensity for reactive aggression compared with chimpanzees, and in this respect humans are more bonobo-like. The bimodal classification of human aggression helps solve two important puzzles. First, a long-standing debate about the significance of aggression in human nature is misconceived, because both positions are partly correct. The Hobbes–Huxley position rightly recognizes the high potential for proactive violence, while the Rousseau–Kropotkin position correctly notes the low frequency of reactive aggression. Second, the occurrence of two major types of human aggression solves the execution paradox, concerned with the hypothesized effects of capital punishment on self-domestication in the Pleistocene. The puzzle is that the propensity for aggressive behavior was supposedly reduced as a result of being selected against by capital punishment, but capital punishment is itself an aggressive behavior. Since the aggression used by executioners is proactive, the execution paradox is solved to the extent that the aggressive behavior of which victims were accused was frequently reactive, as has been reported. Both types of killing are important in humans, although proactive killing appears to be typically more frequent in war. The biology of proactive aggression is less well known and merits increased attention.

Richard Wrangham

September 8, 2023