The moral animal by

Boys growing up in ninteenth-century England weren't generally advised to seek sexual excitement.
Robert Wright - The Moral Animal - c.1994 - pg.19

What does the theory of evolution have to do with morals? Can it explain why we feel guilt or love? Or why men cheat?

Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to use evolution to explain why people are the way they are. The theory posits that the many many cultures have many items in common, these commanalities cannot be explained by conicidence alone, there must be some reason that humankind has developed these cultural norms. Wright, and other evolutionary psychologists would argue that as human beings evolved certain psychological traits were more conducive to an increase in descendents and therefore became the norm.

moral animal

Wright uses the life of Charles Darwin as his example of a human being, and examines how Darwin’s life and decisions were influenced by his, and our, genetic history.

It is a fascinating read, although at times I found myself disagreeing with it just because I didn’t like what I was reading. But Wright makes the point repeatedly, that just because something is natural or makes “evolutionary” sense, doesn’t mean that it is “right” or a good thing to do.

At the same time however I’m not sure that all of his speculations are anything more than that, speculation. At one point in the book he mentions date rape as a negative of today’s culture, and yet earlier in the book he talks about how women were often married against their will in earlier cultures, and, for many their marriages seemed like an endless round of unwanted sex. That is rape, yet he never seems to consider that.

Would I recommend this book? I think so. It makes for a really good read. But at the same time I don’t know if its theories can be proven. After all, what comes first, the cultural indoctrination or the genetic traits. After all neuroscience has proven that the way we think about something can actually affect our brains and behaviour. And on one or two occasions, when using examples from the animal world, I noticed a couple of things that I would quiblle with. He notes, for example, that among bonobo chimps females can sometimes band together and defeat the “lowliest” of the males. However I’m pretty certain that bonobos are matriarchal, the females bond together in order to keep power over all the males, not just the lowliest.

I guess that yes, I would recommend this book. And remember what Wright says, just beause our genes “want” something doesn’t mean that we should give it to them. Instead we should recognise were some impulses and desires come from in order to be able to prevent the more negative and destructive of humanity coming to the fore.

If you’ve read and reviewed this let me know and I’ll add a link.

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1 Response

  1. Kailana says:

    This sounds interesting. Thanks for the review!