312 of 329 people found the following review helpful
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"
72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 1999
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.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 1998
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.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
I read the celebrated "Moral Animal" some 10 years ago, then re-read and underlined it at least twice. Finally I had found a theory of human nature and psychology I could wholeheartedly believe in. I was looking for a great quote from that book last week but found I had loaned out both copies - so I bought a new one and ended up re-reading the whole thing.
The quote is: "...humans are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse."
Science journalist Robert Wright compiled these findings of evolutionary psychology (EP) for the lay reader in 1994 and "Moral Animal" is still a timely treatise. Matt Ridley introduced his excellent "Red Queen" about the same topic around the same year. Wright writes in an engaging manner, intertwining his pearls with biographical sketches of Charles Darwin. Disclaimer: For those who are offended by the very suggestion that our behavior evolved from apes - and that our behavior is an elaborate, sophisticated manifestation of language and socialization which evolved by natural selection along with a huge brain - you won't like this book.
I realize the following assessment of mine is anecdotal, but here goes: I have seen step-children treated differently than genetic children. I have seen how men and women preen, peacock-like, showing off their best (?) sides during courtships and how they pair off in society according to commonly accepted determinants of status, differing depending on sex. I have read about and subsequently observed how people (unconsciously?) score each other during their social interactions, rating relationship values for the future. I have observed how cheating (generic sense) is more rampant in very large groups where peer-pressure ceases to be such an important deterrent. Finally, game theory concepts utilized in EP are widely adapted and used in self-help books. I could go on with other examples, but, in short, I'm a sucker for EP.
Subsequently, I have read about resistance in university humanities departments to EP - humans being so special and all. We are - in the sense that our intelligence has given us free reign over our world - but humans are still very imperfect. We are poorly designed in many ways (backs, knees, tendency to war, self-delusion) - exactly what one would expect from evolution. Cockroaches or certain scorpions, which can live without food and water for almost a year, are also impressive. There is every reason to believe that our (at times) poor behavior evolved in just as Rube-Goldberg a fashion as did our very complicated and redundant blood clotting mechanism.
Anyway, this book is superb. I will close since I could end up nattering on for more pages than most would want to read. Consider moving "Moral Animal" to closer to the top of your TBR list. A Best Buy.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2000
Like so many books, this one is interesting and notable for itsflaws as well as its virtues. The overview of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology is superb and well-written, and the analysis of Charles Darwin from an evolutionary perspective was a brilliant idea. This discussion is fascinating, and really serves to tie the theoretical concepts together. The Frequently Asked Questions section at the end was also an excellent idea.
One of the best analogies in the book is that of a human being as a stereo: the genes direct the structure of the knobs, and the environment serves to tune the knobs. However, the author shows the danger of argument by analogy when he takes this one step further than it applies, arguing that a human is no more to blame for his behavioral patterns than a setero is to blame for its music. This argument may blend nature and nurture, but doesn't get out of the trap of determinism. Like many other authors writing about human nature, Wright forgets to add an element of human reason into the discussion.
A few other minor problems crop up when the author discusses the applications of his findings to social policy. The fact that the sense of justice is, in effect, an adaptive instinct with a slight skew toward the self does NOT negate objective "retributive" justice as a social concept. Just because our minds evolved to think in a certain way doesn't mean we can't get out of the habit, especially through meme-gene competition.
Basically, "The Moral Animal" is very good, but readers should remember that imputing social policy from scientific fact must be done with extreme caution. The book is worth reading for its interesting flaws as well as for its generally excellent presentaion of a fascinating new science...
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2004
"The theory of natural selection is so elegant and powerful as to inspire a kind of faith in it [...]; there is a point after which one no longer entertains the possibility of encountering some fact that would call the whole theory into question." I fully subscribe this quotation from the Appendix of The moral animal, and there resides the beauty of this theory and the study of evolution, animal behavior, evolutionary psychology, and so on. Things look rather easy under this prism.
The first part of the book is dedicated to the man-woman relationship: to the nature of the reproductive, sexual and romantic relationships. Kin selection is at the core of the argument, which goes all around the differential parental investment between human males and females, and its consequences. Humans, as a slightly polygynous species (high MPI: male parental investment), show different strategies between sexes about how to maximize their contribution to the next generation. While reading it I was feeling that Wright's review of sexual strategies fits too well to a male's mind (at least mine) and I wondered what would happen if the book was written by Ms Roberta Wright, instead of the author, would she use the same tone? Maybe slight differences would arise. However, real or not, I like what he says (sorry, it is too long to explain here in detail, so you better read it). When you, male-reader, read these chapters you might feel a strong desire to increase your number of wives or sexual partners. Don't worry, it is a transitory side-effect. It passes. Sorry, I ignore how you, female-reader, feel about. Sometimes Wright's position seems to be too conservative, he seems to praise in excess the moral of English Victorian society. This is also transitory, since he is only playing.
Second part of the book is dedicated to social cement, this is: inclusive fitness, parental-offspring conflict and reciprocal altruism; family and friends; social bounding. Good revision.
Part three is also about the social bounding but from the strife perspective. Basically it courses on the importance that status hierarchy (in tandem with reciprocal altruism) has for the human animals, mainly among males, who are more likely to obtain reproductive benefit of the struggle. The role played by self-deception in order to convince others to believe what is in our interest is very well treated here: according to Wright "human brain is a machine to win arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is right-and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. [...] Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue." A good dose of cynicism, isn't it?
As a summary, five are the theories employed to explain human behavior: kin selection, parental investment, parental-offspring conflict, reciprocal altruism, and status hierarchy. These processes interact between them in a varied environment producing a variety of flexible strategies. "The whole point of the human brain is behavior flexibility."
These three parts are wonderful, completely worthy reading. When I say wonderful, I don't mean that you need to agree with all the exposed in order to enjoy it, but is a wide review of the Darwinian explanation of all the main arenas of human behavior and it is very well written. Is particularly successful the use he makes of Charles Darwin biography, as an example. Wright explains Darwin's life and behavior through these theories. At the beginning I regarded it as a bit megalomaniac in excess, but later I found it really brilliant. And what the hell! I am (all of us?) megalomaniac enough and Darwin is for me an admired figure. Good idea. Well performed.
After reading this, cynicism and moral relativism are inevitable. You have the necessity of reconsidering our moral codes, rewriting them from a more conscious knowledge of the nature of our acts and motivations. Then we reach the (inevitable) fourth part: the moral realm. I think that Robert Wright could not escape from this part of the book (and for sure he did not want to escape), but it is also inevitable it to be the weakest part of the book, and by far the least interesting. You will find cynicism (already present, and in a better way in previous chapters), utilitarism, nihilism, the naturalistic fallacy, brotherly love, free will, and of course religion. His main point is that we must be conscious of our nature, that using the evolutionary prism we can dissection the origin of our impulses, desires, feelings, and then better control it for the biggest well (utilitarism, brotherly love). It is ok, but you better take more time to think about the kind of moral codes that you consider the best for future (and also Mr Wright can continue thinking about).
I think that one of the most important points when working with the Darwinian perspective is the naturalistic fallacy. Wright, Dawkins, or Williams among others can argue that even we have been made by Natural Selection, we must rebel now against its law in the moral realm. They argue about the selfishness, even evilness, of such process, stressing our ability to break with it and decide from our own moral perspective. This implies understanding that for something being natural it doesn't mean to it be good. Ok, I agree, but the power of the naturalistic fallacy is inmense, and the lawyer residing in your mind will be waiting any occasion to use it for your own (selfish) benefit. The natural fallacy provides a perfect way to justify many of our undesired acts: "I am sorry, but I couldn't avoid it".
While the three first parts of the book are a brilliant review of scientific theories, the fourth one is clearly weaker.
However, the book is so superbly written that I felt a strong curiosity for the author (in the book I missed a better introduction of who he is, where does he research, and so on). I checked internet and found about his following book, which seems to have less acceptation among readers. I found that he is a strange character, not an evolutionary psychologist but a kind of freelance of writing books and opinion articles (maybe I am making a mistake). In any case I invite you to visit his website [...] where you will find interviews to remarkable scientist and philosophers, but where you mainly will learn about Mr Wright's personal inquietudes. You can also visit [...]
To finish with this long review, it seems that Natural Sciences are reaching quite far into the understanding and explanation of human nature and behavior. People involved in social sciences such as philosophy, psychology, cultural anthropology, or sociology should look at this perspective, the New Darwinian paradigm if they don't want to find themselves completely out of fashion, soon. The moral animal is a wild work that serves as a wonderful introduction (much more than a mere introduction indeed) to evolutionary psychology, or human sociobiology.
Read it, indispensable.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2000
Wright's work, which continues Dawkins' and Darwin's, makes evolutionary psychology clear and accessible. But like many overviews of branches of science, one needs to appreciate the subtle and counter-intuitive points the author makes to fully understand the author's thesis.
Wright clearly states his cultural bias in the final chapter of the book, and makes the case for traditional mores despite their insuitability to our ancestral environment. What we want to do, he points out, is not necessarily what we should do.
The bulk of the book explains what we want to do, and to a lesser extent how culture informs our sexual choices. He deliberately avoids in-depth discussion of culture's influence, preferring to explain how morality evolved in our ancestral environment, and how it suits that environment. As a student of evolution should know, suitability to the ancestral environment--i.e., small hunter-gatherer tribal groups--does not easily translate into the modern, urban environment. Wright makes that very clear.
Read in conjunction with Dawkins' _Selfish Gene_, this is a must-have part of a complete library.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2003
The Moral Animal was recommended to me for several years by an ex-roommate and I finally relented and picked it up. The book was worth the time, at least the first half of it or so. Wright has that pleasant and tone of a TNR writer/editor - the patient, polite moderate idealogue. Here we have what appears to be a pretty solid introduction to the thinking process of an evolutionary psychologist. Much of the 'insights' are intuitive, but of course it is the counterintuitive findings that are most interesting.
It is amusing that (as per usual) several reviewers misinterpreted (or underintepreted) Wright's personal leanings on the politics of his subject matter. This book, after all, was focused on how evolution has shaped the way we think and how we define right and wrong (and why). One of the central points is that derivation of a moral code from nature is fallacious. For some reason, several readers assumed that since Wright (in an attempt to humor the conservative readership of the book) makes interesting commentary concerning the logic of Victorian morality, that he is an adherent of that belief system. This is, of course, ludicrous.
If anything, Wright sometimes crosses the line of permissible subjectivity by over-promoting his fetish for utilitarianism (fyi, a Victorian moralist would hardly gush about a Peter Singer). It is perfectly fine to tie this perfectly reasonable system of thought into his discussion, but by the end of the book, Wright's text is bordering on preachy piousness. Furthermore, his decision to exploit Darwin's life as the ultimate experimental subject of his own science in the lab of history reveals much more about how Wright thinks than it does about Darwin. Appropriately, though, Wright employs tempting speculation in a speculative discipline.
Other than those lesser issues, The Moral Animal resonates with and engages the reader. This book is at once enlightening and dangerous - a lightning rod for cynicism. I would not recommend it to people who prefer to preserve their own ideas about human relationships and the virtues of social life. It is perfect, however, for those who love to have their ideas challenged, and will challenge the author in turn. Perhaps the most promising and optimistic notion one can leave the book with is that human beings are an experiment that is constantly being improved - nature works us over on the outside, but it is up to us to realize our limitless intrinsic potential.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 1999
I'm mostly amazed at the wide range of opinions displayed in the reader reviews here. This is a GOOD book, not a great one, and it clearly makes the reader think about some issues that are close to home. I claim that's its greatest attribute: it's approachable, understandable, and most readers seem to "get it." I don't mean they believe it, but they understand what's being discussed, and are aware of the deeper implications re: traditional (i.e. religious) explanations of human behavior.
EP is a new science, and as one can tell from these reviews, some people refuse to catagorize it as science at all. I can understand their reluctance - there's very little if any empirical evidence for any of this stuff. The same can be said for traditional explanations, can't it?
Face it: we humans DO share behavioral patterns, both among ourselves and with other primates. Wright's book, and others like it, is a great introduction to a possible explanation for those patterns, one that doesn't rely on a divine design.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The Moral Animal (TMA) is a fine book. It mingles what were, back in 1994, the most recent findings in evolutionary psychology with the cultural atmosphere of Victorian England at the time when Charles Darwin was refining his famous theory about the origin of species by means of natural selection. This constant interweaving of modern and old, adding to the blend the writings of John Stuart Mill and Samuel Smiles, is what differentiates TMA from the bunch of human behaviour books.
TMA covers a lot of ground for a 400-page book (the juice of it). The downside, quite obviously, is that TMA is very superficial on some pivotal aspects. Game theory models, an important concept to understanding supposedly altruistic behaviour, are not sufficiently explained. For a better explanation on this topic read the chapter "Nice Guys Finish First" from Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Another example is haplo-diploidy, the quirk of nature that makes ants and other social insects siblings more related to each other than your everyday diploid animal siblings (humans included). For a better explanation here refer to Matt Ridley's The Red Queen. The fears brought about by the Darwinian revolution in psychology: the Fear of Inequality; the Fear of Imperfectability; the Fear of Determinism; and the Fear of Nihilism are briefly discussed in TMA's chapter Blaming the Victim. These same fears are wonderfully dissected and debunked in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.
What makes TMA somewhat less appealing to me is the fact that Robert Wright despite being a competent science writer is not a scientist in the traditional sense i.e. he does not conduct original research, just helps popularize science. Of course I do recognize the role of science writers and I realize that many scientists are poor writers. Albert Einstein fathered many staggering theories but is not known for having written a remarkable book. The proto-science of evolutionary psychology, however, along with its contributing sciences of genetics, zoology, biology, anthropology have all been blessed by researchers that are also very talented writers.
So if you are after a fine, although somewhat dated, review of the field of evolutionary psychology you will certainly enjoy TMA. But if you are a hard-core fanatic like I am, you need to go for the original and ground breaking books. Some of them are even more dated than TMA but were written by the famous guys themselves and are not one bit less readable than TMA. Here is my short list of must reads::
1 - Desmond Morris trilogy:: The Naked Ape; The Human Zoo and Intimate Behaviour - Morris takes a beating on TMA but he shaped my early notions of human behaviour and I am very indebted to him. Despite that, I think his books are terrific even though have been proved wrong in some aspects;
2 - Edward O. Wilson:: Sociobiology and On Human Nature - One of the founding fathers of the new science - the new synthesis as he calls it - and a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non Fiction (The Ants and On Human Nature);
3 - Richard Dawkins:: The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype - Another founding father;
4 - Stephen Jay Gould:: The Mismeasure of Man - Get a different opinion by someone just as brilliant;
5 - Steven Pinker:: The Blank Slate - A more recent (2003) review of similar issues on a gem of a book (a Pulitzer finalist);
6 - Carl Sagan:: The Dragons of Eden - Another Pulitzer winner, fascinating though dated. Another interesting book from Sagan is Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors even though it disturbingly advocates the notion of The Noble Savage.
7 - Matt Ridley:: The Red Queen - OK, Matt Ridley is not a scientist as well in a strict sense - but what a good book he managed to write...
Leonardo Alves - Brazil 2010