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Moral Animal by Robert Wright

Moral Animal (original 1994; edition 1996)

by Robert Wright

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1,124117,306 (4.05)22
Title:Moral Animal
Authors:Robert Wright
Info:Abacus Little, Brown (1996), Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Moral Animal : Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright (1994)



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I was introduced to this book during a course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. Wright covers a lot of ground in this well organized and tightly written book.

Wright doesn't hand down laws, saying "This is how it is," but rather leads with questions and tries to work out the answers based on Darwinian Natural Selection. This is not an easy task; so much is not available when examining the world from a purely materialistic point of view. When one is not allowed to give credit to supernatural, or even non-biological mental events, it really demands a serious and deep interrogation of the biological, chemical, and other physical causes of why people do the things they do. Wright uses several events from Darwin's life as examples, and in doing so makes both evolutionary psychology and Darwinian Natural Selection accessible to his readers.

If you're interested in morality, Darwin, evolutionary psychology, or why people do what they do, this is an excellent read.

If you're not interested in those topics, it's STILL and excellent read! I highly recommend it. ( )
  homericgeek | Apr 19, 2014 |
A provocative book by a senior editor of The New Republic, author of Three Scientists and Their Gods (1988), examining the vibrant new science of evolutionary psychology. Even though, according to this science, natural selection has molded human nature into a deterministic pattern of selfish behavior, says Wright, there is still hope for developing a common moral outlook as long as we accept the ramifications of our evolutionary legacy. Natural selection insures that individuals are subconsciously preoccupied with the propagation of their genes. Although the cold, underlying logic of natural selection doesn't care about our happiness, it fools us into thinking that by pursuing goals that make us happy, we will maximize our genetic legacy. Lost in this pursuit is any genuine concern about community welfare. This volume covers much of the same ground as William Allman's superb overview The Stone Age Present (p. 893). Wright extends Allman's arguments in much richer detail and a more authoritative tone, although he explains the science in a more roundabout manner. He weaves a complex and fascinating treatise in explaining the paradox of how society can engender moral and responsible actions when a strict Darwinian interpretation implies that human behavior is deterministic. Wright resolves this paradox by arguing that once people understand the Darwinian paradigm, they will understand their own subconscious motives, which is the first step towards addressing the bias toward self that natural selection instills in our minds. Many readers will feel uneasy reading Wright's dark and cynical portrayal of human nature, but he does a superb job of anticipating questions and objections. He points to a growing body of evidence that says this is the way we are whether we like it or not, and he argues we're better off if we accept this fact. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. ( )
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  MarkBeronte | Jul 28, 2013 |
I just finished wading through this book. I like it better than the other assigned book - Lucy's Legacy by Alison Jolly - but like many books for my current classes I've had to read it in too much of a hurry to really get into it. It's one I'll likely reread after I get a breather from my current evolutionary psychology overload. ( )
  DK_Atkinson | Mar 31, 2013 |
Incredibly interesting book on Evolutionary Psychology. ( )
  jsummging | Dec 25, 2012 |
Double colon in the title aside, this is actually a pretty good overview of evolutionary psychology, with some (less successful) attempts to use Darwin’s own personal life to illustrate particular strategies people use as a result of evolved traits. Wright generally does a good job of reminding readers that traits evolved to improve reproductive success in the environment of evolutionary adaptation may be useless or counterproductive outside that environment, and he strongly argues that there is no moral force to evolution. Indeed, properly understood, he contends, evolution can make us more moral: recognizing that many of our impulses (to punish, to cheat, to love our children, to favor ourselves and our relatives over other people) are directed by biology frees us to become more universally minded, since in fact we have no unique moral claims and should treat all humans as having equal interests in well-being.

Still, Wright also demonstrates the temptation to equate “evolved” with “unchangeable,” for example by equivocating in his definition of equality. He argues that we have to choose between equality for men (that is, roughly equal access to women imposed by monogamy) and equality for women (that is, roughly equal access to resources held by men, which would be possible if multiple women could marry the same wealthy man). Obviously he’s defining equality differently for each condition, which is a problem, but the bigger problem is the acceptance of the constraint that wealth will be so unequally distributed that an individual woman (or her family) might prefer marriage as a subsequent wife to a very wealthy man over marriage to a very poor one. As he then touches on briefly, without recognizing that it avoids the “choice of inequalities” issue, the third way to solve the problem of potentially conflicting preferences is to avoid huge resource disparities (and, not for nothing, to allow women to accumulate wealth in ways other than by marrying men). Oddly, he is only willing to allow for “mildly” progressive taxation, for no evolutionarily grounded reason I can discern.

There may be a more technical literature on this, but I was also unsatisfied with his discussion of Victorian morality (and hypocrisy, which he thinks is fine from an evolutionary perspective). He cogently explains why “high-quality” women might prefer a madonna/whore morality and condemn “lower-quality” women who were more promiscuous, who would be pursuing their own strategy of getting as much investment from multiple men as they could given their relative undesirability as long-term mates (this is a consequence of the idea that any fertile female can expect to reproduce, but not every fertile male can). However, he then skips to the idea that the beneficial effects of repressive sexuality for “high-quality” women grounded social morality, and I just don’t understand why (1) “low-quality” women wouldn’t fight back or (2) the overall effects on society would be positive, as he suggests. He might well say that multiple equilibria are possible since competing strategies co-exist, but I still don’t get from there to his apparent assumption that Victorian morality was either shared by all Victorians—even the poor people excluded from respectability and often sexually exploited by it—or a good idea on balance despite its excesses. I don’t get how you can say prudery for upper-class women combined with unspoken but widespread sexual access of upper-class men to prostitutes and servants is a stable and/or productive strategy without addressing the interests of, you know, all the other people on which this strategy relied. More generally, there just wasn’t enough about change over time. Obviously Victorian morality was not so stable that it couldn’t change; Wright suggests that sexual mores are likely to move in cycles, but to me this just highlights the gap between evolutionary psychology and real explanations. There are too many moving parts between what the science can tell you and actual social issues. His metaphor is that evolution has produced dials which environment can move around a lot. But I’m less interested in the dials than in the settings! ( )
1 vote rivkat | Sep 26, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679763996, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:31 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Darwin comes of age -- Male and female -- Men and women -- The marriage market -- Darwin's marriage -- The Darwin plan for marital bliss - - Families -- Darwin and the savages -- Friends -- Darwin's conscience -- Darwin's delay -- Social status -- Deception and self-deception -- Darwin's triumph -- Darwinian (and Freudian) cynicism -- Evolution ethics -- Blaming the victim -- Darwin gets religion.… (more)

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