“What keeps societies together and what makes them fall apart?”

From a column, “How dogs and people ended up ruling the world,” by Cass R. Sunstein, who wrote this for Bloomberg News. He is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School.

Where do dogs come from? What is their relationship to wolves?

Where do Homo sapiens come from? What is our relationship to other human species, such as Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo erectus?

Why do dogs flourish as wolves struggle to survive? Why are we the only remaining humans?. . .

The most ambitious work on these issues has been done by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who . . .offers evidence that the human species that died out were, essentially, wilder versions of, well, us. “Their archaic looks were of a species that differed from Homo sapiens rather as a chimpanzee does from a bonobo, or a wolf from a dog,” he wrote in his 2019 book, “The Goodness Paradox.”. . .

Wrangham argues that, because of a comparative decrease in reactive aggression, Homo sapiens had a variety of significant advantages, including an ability to learn from and to cooperate with one another. As Wrangham puts it, “Docility should be considered as foundational of humankind, not just because it is unusual, but because it seems likely to be a vital precondition for advanced cooperation and social learning.”

You might find Wrangham’s thesis a bit jarring. After all, modern human beings are capable of nuclear and conventional war, genocide and immense cruelty. Wrangham also emphasizes that we are uniquely capable of “proactive aggression,” that is, aggression that involves a lot of advance planning.

What we share with our Best Friend is a major reduction in immediate, reflexive, violent responses to real or apparent threats and frustrations. And of course, people, like dogs, are diverse on this count. Some people are more like wolves; others are more like Labrador retrievers.

Belyaev, Hare and Wrangham are making claims about evolution, not about politics, and certainly not about contemporary political life. But they tell us something about what keeps societies together and what makes them fall apart — and also, I think, about what separates out the best of us.

Evolutionary anthropologists use the word “docility,” but a stronger term, suitable for both dogs and people, is grace. It is the opposite of savagery. It signals an ability to think charitably of others, which is crucial to an absence of reactive aggression. And in social interactions, grace generally breeds more of itself.

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