The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

Are men literally born to cheat? Does monogamy actually serve women’s interests? These are among the questions that have made The Moral Animal one of the most provocative science books in recent years. Wright unveils the genetic strategies behind everything from our sexual preferences to our office politics–as well as their implications for our moral codes and public policies. Illustrations.An accessible introduction to the science of evolutionary psychology and how it explains many aspects of human nature. Unlike many books on the topic,which focus on abstractions like kin selection, this book focuses on Darwinian explanations of why we are the way we are–emotionally and morally. Wright deals particularly well with explaining the reasons for the stereotypical dynamics of the three big “S’s:” sex, siblings, and society.

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  1. Dennis Littrell said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    285 of 301 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A classic worth a second look and an update, May 21, 2000
    By 
    Dennis Littrell (SoCal) –
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    Although first published in 1994, a long time ago in the rapidly developing science of evolutionary psychology, Robert Wright’s seminal book remains an excellent introduction to the subject. The text crackles with an incisive wit that says, yes we’re animals, but we can live with that. The discussion is thorough, ranging from a rather intense focus on Charles Darwin and his life through the sexist and morality debate occasioned by the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, to the rise of the use of primate comparisons fueled by Jane Goodall’s instant classic, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986). Wright has some rather serious fun with human sexual behavior as seen from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, but he spends even more time worrying (to no good effect, in my opinion) about altruism and the shaky concept of kin selection. The title is partly ironic, since much of the material suggests that we are something less than “moral.” The “Everyday Life” in the title is an allusion to Freud (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1904) who makes a dual appearance in the text, first as a kind of not-yet-illuminated precursor to modern Darwinian thought, and second as the reigning champ of psychology that evolutionary psychology is out to dethrone. (See especially page 314.)

    What’s exciting about evolutionary psychology is that for the first time psychology has a firm scientific foundation upon which to build. But it’s a tough subject for some people, I think, mainly because they confuse “is” with “ought.” The discoveries of evolutionary psychology about the differing reproductive strategies of the sexes offend some people in the same way that Darwin’s insight about our kinship with (other) animals offended the Victorians. Evolutionary psychology shows us that men lie, cheat and hustle relentlessly for sex, while women manipulate available males into caring for their offspring, and if possible for children fathered by other males. Insights like these are seen by some as immoral imperatives, when in fact they are amoral statements of factual observation. What “is” isn’t necessarily the same thing as what ought to be. And really, we shouldn’t blame the messenger.

    Where Wright’s book especially shows its age is in trying to explain altruism. He wasn’t aware of the handicap principle developed by Amotz and Avishag in their exciting book, The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle (1997) which nicely explains “altruism” (it’s an advertisement of fitness) and a number of other evolutionary conundrums, including Wright’s question on page 390, “Why do soldiers die for their country?” Additionally on pages 68-70, where Wright attempts to account for female cuckoldry, he gives three reasons, but seems uncertain of the most important one, which is that a woman, once established in a secure pair-bond will sometimes seek to upgrade the genetic input by having a clandestine fling with what she sees as an alpha male. Also Wright’s attempt to account for homosexuality (pages 384-386) stumbles over itself in trying to be politically correct while missing the major point that homosexuality facilitates male bonding and therefore is certainly adaptive since male coalitions increase each member of the coalition’s chance of securing females. It fact, Wright misses the whole concept of male bonding. There’s not even an index entry for it.

    These observations are not to be taken as criticisms of the book since Wright was writing before knowledge of some of these ideas became widespread. The Moral Animal remains an outstanding opus and one that has helped introduce a large readership to the power and efficacy of evolutionary psychology, a scientific approach to psychology that will, I believe, replace the old paradigms currently holding sway in our universities. Of course this will only happen when the old behaviorists, and cognitive and psychoanalytic stalwarts…retire.

    I would like to see Wright revise this book in light of the many discoveries made during the nineties and reissue it. His readable and engaging style would make the update fun to read.

    –Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”

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  2. Alan Koslowski said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    One of the best introductions to Evolutionary Psychology, November 30, 1999
    By 
    Alan Koslowski (Seattle, WA) –
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    Though a few other books related to Evolutionary Psychology have been written since this, it is still one of the best introductions to the field. It is intelligently written, but not pendantic. Wright discusses many aspects of evolutionary psych. using many examples from the life of Charles Darwin.

    Many have criticized this work as a justifying gender inequality, usually as related to male oppression and abuse of females. Wright openly states that he is attempting to explain human behavior from a Darwinian perspective. He argues that this perspective sheds much light on the subject, though he admits is isn’t perfect or all inclusive. Wright closes with several behaviors that Evolutionary Psychology can not adequetly explain (most glaringly, homosexuality).

    Though many women have been outraged by this work, this book has much to offer for both females and males who read it from a non-ideological perspective. I’ve read several interviews with Wright and other Evolutionary Psychologists who have stated that by understanding why we (all people) are naturally inclined to behave in certain ways are we better able to control behavioral tendencies that may be detrimental to ourselves and others. When read from this perspective, this book can only help men and women better undertand each other and improve relations between the sexes.

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  3. dana haggett said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    New analysis of the forces that shaped who we have become., January 6, 1998
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    This review is from: The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (Paperback)

    Wright’s analysis of evolutionary psychology offers fascinating insights into the shaping of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology takes as its formula – does a behaviour increase the chances of reproductive success? – and studies the relationships between people in this context. This new science has offered interesting theories on the old issues of monogamy and faithfulness, trust, and status. The science constantly reminds us that we were designed in a painstaking evolutionary laboratory over eons – and that modern civilation has dramatically changed our context without allowing our genes to catch up. Behaviours that made sense a million years ago don’t help out on the daily commute. The Moral Animal offers a summary of current thinking on this important new science. Wright presents as his case-study in intricate detail the life of Charles Darwin, and assesses his behavior in light of evolutionary psychology. The concept is interesting, and demonstrates how the science can be applied to specific, individual behavior, but the reader quickly is convinced that he would prefer it never be applied to himself. The downside of this book is the arrogant attitude of “hey, we finally figured everything out.” The author constantly points out why prior theories are “wrong” and evolutionary psychology is right. Wright is fascinated with the single issue of status, and spends the majority of the book discussing this one issue, often repeating the same analysis over and over. The study would be even better if presented with a smaller chip on the shoulder.

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