The Paula Gordon Show Logo The Paula Gordon Show
Demons Among Us?
Richard Wrangham's photo

Richard Wrangham

      . . . is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. His book Demonic Males popularized ideas he has developed in scholarly research focused on the influence of ecology on the evolution of primate social behavior. He has studied chimpanzees in Gombe (with Jane Goodall) and Kibale, vervet monkeys and gelada baboons. With a Ph.D. in Zoology from Cambridge University, England, he makes his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Out of almost 5,000 mammal species in the world, there are only two in which males live with their relatives in social groups and occasionally make trips into neighboring territories to stalk, hunt and kill members of neighboring groups. Chimpanzees are one. Humans are the other. And we are so closely related that a blood transfusion from one species to the other will save a life, if the blood types match.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is a Harvard biological anthropologist who has spent almost 30 years studying chimpanzee cultures in the wild and comparing chimp cultures to human ones. He elaborates on what he's found in Demonic Males, his general audience book, as well as Chimpanzee Cultures, which he edited with a group of internationally distinguished primatologists.

Our violent primate nature, shared with chimpanzees, is bad news, especially when you add that both chimps and humans are extremely sensitive to imbalances of power. Gangs of males -- either kind -- know perfectly well how vulnerable a stranded individual neighbor is. And regularly take advantage of the situation in murderous ways, as has now been repeatedly observed among chimps in the wild. It does not require an anthropologist to observe similar behavior in humans.

But there's good news, too, Dr. Wrangham is quick to point out. Both humans and chimpanzees are strategically very sensible species. We both can - and do - adapt our environments. We can avoid contexts in which violent behavior is likely. And evolution also offers us another model for how primates can behave: bonobos. These are apes who "make love not war."

Professor Wrangham describes both humans and chimps as sexist, but the bonobos are not. Why? For starters, there is increased social pressure from other bonobos in the wild -- they live in much larger groups than do chimpanzees. And bonobo females form strong alliances with the result that females are at least co-dominant with males. Then there's the "copulatory behavior" which is a release for the inevitable pressures of living in groups. Chimpanzees fight, bonobos ... well, you know.

As we begin to pry open the mysteries of what is uniquely human, what we share with our primate relatives, we face a profoundly sad irony. All apes, worldwide, face extinction in the wild. Bonobos are particularly threatened, because their range is limited to the troubled nation of the Congo. But across Africa and Asia, apes are now hunted as "bush meat." People are eating bonobos, chimps and gorillas. At the same time, irresponsible logging companies are clear cutting forests, destroying habitat, at an alarming rate.

We're only beginning to learn from chimpanzee (and bonobo) cultures -- which vary dramatically from one location to the next. But the exploration may be tragically short. We are in the process of eliminating our closest living relatives. Once they're gone, it's forever.


[This Program was recorded January 15, 1999, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Richard Wrangham describes for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how xenophobic all primates are. Professor Wrangham suggests that may affect humans' tendency to think in terms of friend or enemy, and compares our behavior to chimpanzees. He offers two ways to think about humans in relation to other animals. He sums up important findings to which he contributed: in only two mammal species in the world do males live in social groups with their relatives and occasionally make journeys into neighboring territories to stalk, hunt and kill members of neighboring groups. Those two species are chimpanzees and humans.


Conversation 2

Other mammals hunt and kill across boundaries, Dr. Wrangham assures us, and uses wolves as an example, but in the rest of the four or five thousand species of mammals, both females and males do the killing. He describes the ancestor around 6 million years ago who was common to chimpanzees and humans, siting the three major sources of compelling scientific evidence for that common ancestors: DNA (which shows humans more closely related to chimps than gorillas are); DNA gene analysis; and morphological evidence from fossils. However difficult people find it to accept, Dr. Wrangham reminds us that we've known that we have an ape ancestry since 1924.


Conversation 3

Dr. Wrangham worked with Jane Goodall, whose work he cites along with what others have learned studying chimps in Africa and New Guinea. He describes the uniqueness of chimpanzee cultures. He explains how imperative ape conservation is for science, yet that apes world wide face extinction. Dr. Wrangham shares Jane Goodall's fear that humans will hunt chimps to extinction and eat them.  Exploitative timber companies are equally destructive. In 10 to 20 years, the majority of apes -- intelligent species capable of great empathy -- may well be extinct. Dr. Wrangham urges a special ethic for apes, noting how important it is to know how we are similar as well as how we are different from other primates. He considers the dual character of violent and gentle which we share with chimpanzees, comparing the behavior of today's street gangs to early human behavior.


Conversation 4

The introduction of peacetime armies dramatically reduced the violent acts of young men. Dr. Wrangham shows how young male humans and chimpanzees both assess and take advantage of imbalances of power. He offers good news -- both species are strategically sensible and can avoid contexts which allow violence. Circumstance, not evolutionary inevitability, determines whether or not killings take place. Dr. Wrangham describes a third, very similar, species of primate -- bonobos -- who seem to have gotten rid of the violent primate streak. Over the course of the last two and a half million years, selection has changed bonobos brains to more appropriate behavior to their larger, more stable social groups. Dr. Wrangham describes humans and chimpanzees -- but not other non-human primates -- as sexist.


Conversation 5

Dr. Wrangham shows how evolution gives us hints about ways our species' behavior has evolved. He addresses both the empathetic and the violent behavior of our closely related primate relatives. He compares chimpanzee and bonobo male-female relationships. He shows how powerfully supportive bonds between female bonobos allow females to be dominant over or co-dominant with males. He describes forces against female-female cooperation among chimpanzees in the wild, forces which have been shown to be mitigated in captivity. He describes female humans' relationships and current conflict resolution work being done around how women communicate. He suggests a new role for the Internet. Describing his field research on chimpanzee cultures, Dr. Wrangham notes appealing and less attractive characteristics human social relationships share with bonobos and chimpanzees.


Conversation 6

The traditional anthropologist's view of how men and women relate is predicated on pair-bonding in a cooperative economy based on male hunting. Dr. Wrangham offers an newer, startling alternative: 2 million years ago, we changed almost overnight from australopithicine apes into an early version of humans because a group of australopithicines learned how to cook! He offers substantial evidence supporting this hypothesis, and shows how it would lead to more complex thinking about human sexual conflict and relationships.



Under the leadership of Dr. Frans de Waal, the Living Links Center at Emory University hosted the "Origins" Symposium in January, 1999, which brought Dr. Wrangham to Atlanta, Georgia. We are enormously grateful to Dr. de Waal for his leadership in assembling a world class group of scientists. We also thank Kate Egan and Darren Long, who work with Professor de Waal and who coordinated the Symposium. Together, they made it possible for us to produce a series of extraordinary programs with participants in the Symposium while also learning directly from this extraordinary event. We thank each and all.

Related Links:

A number of conservation efforts have been undertaken to protect bonobos and other primates. Contact us if you would like to be put in touch with them:

The Living Links Center and their 1999 "Origins" Symposium at Emory University.

Dr. Wrangham says of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' book, The Old Way, "Her guidebook to a vanished lifestyle is the last and most clear-sighted of its kind: a personal tale of living in the land and lifesthyle where we came to be."

Frans de Waal's work with chimpanzees shows the probable origins of human ethics and morality in our predecessor social animals.

Quick buttons

© 1997-2009 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are
copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may
not be used in any way without the express,
written consent of Paula Gordon.