The Moral Animal serves as a great introduction into the field of evolutionary psychology, masterfully told by Robert Wright. Everything from Charles Darwins’ On the Origin of Species to makings of the new Darwinian paradigm are included. It is part historical-account, part scientific-exploration of the field. He sums up his argument inicely when he says:
“This book is, first, a sales pitch for a new science; only secondarily is it a sales pitch for new basis of political and moral philosophy.”
I think this framing is important, otherwise, it is all too easy to be cynical about the ludicrousness of some of the ideas the old Darwinian paradigm had come up with. It can read as rather dehumanizing, which contrasts more modern branches of psychology like humanistic psychology.
Despite my reading of it 26 years after the publication date, I found it endlessly fascinating. Wright’s writing is intellectually rigorous, even-handed, and at times humorous. For me, it is the selling point of this book. Were it written by any other author, the delivery would have left you quitting before Part I is complete.
My interpretation of the tenets of evolutionary psychology (or the new Darwinian Paradigm) is firstly that radical differences among different people are most likely attributable to the environment. Given that it takes many hundreds, if not thousands, of generations in order to see visible changes in our make-up, Wright makes clear that humanity’s shared mental and physical traits were built for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Crucially, our psychology and physiology was moulded in and optimised for that ancestral environment. These are the foundations which inform Wright’s exploration into how they manifest in the different parts of our lives.
This includes relationships, family, friends, all of which are different threads he ties up in an argument about morality. The exploration of each of these aspects dovetails with Wright’s analysis of how they applied in the context of Charles’ Darwin’s life. This book is, therefore, part-biography.
Many disheartening claims about the motivations behind our behaviour are made throughout. Evolutionary Psychology reduces ideas like love for children and a partner, and friendship down to how it helps to raise our genes inclusive fitness. The updated arbiter of natural selection for the new Darwinian paradigm modern evolutionary psychology espouses. Wright is even-handed in his arguments, quick spotlight limitations in the research. This mix of potentially explosive content guided by Wright’s measured hand makes The Moral Animal a compelling read.
“No doctrine heightens one’s consciousness of hidden selfishness more acutely than the new Darwinian paradigm. If you understand the doctrine, you will spend your life in deep suspicion of your motives.”
Recommended. Anyone ready (and willing) to put human behaviour under a microscope will find The Moral Animal an illuminating read. If there were a 2020 update by Robert Wright, I’d be among the first to buy it.