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The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology Paperback – August 29, 1995

4.3 out of 5 stars 220 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

From Publishers Weekly

New Republic senior editor Wright's account of the latest trends in Darwinian theory unravels the evolutionary logic behind subjects ranging from friendship and romance to xenophobia and sibling rivalry.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 29, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679763996
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679763994
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (220 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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...
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