The Moral Animal

Robert Wright

The Moral Animal is an ambitious book, as evidenced by its multiple subtitles. Inside, on the title page, we have Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life. More effusive is the cover of the paperback edition, which adds Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology to The Moral Animal.

Calling evolutionary psychology “the New Science” is an indicator of the book’s age, and a reader could be forgiven for thinking that an almost 20-year old work in a field as fast-moving as evolutionary psychology wouldn’t have much to say to us today.

That reader would be wrong.

The Moral Animal does have its contemporary quirks, including a then-necessary defensiveness whenever Wright mentions sociobiology and a rather pat dismissal of group selection, to which he describes Darwin as having “succumbed.” Nonetheless, much of the book’s discussion of the evolutionary origins of human morality is fresh and enlightening, even at this distance.

Working back and forth from Darwin’s theories to the example of Darwin’s life gives Wright’s book a bit of a split personality. Yet I found the biographical interstices entertaining for the most part, despite their containing much familiar material. Wright discusses the evolutionary insights of a Darwinian view of morality in the context of related events in Darwin’s own life. The most interesting conjunction by far is Wright’s analysis of Darwin’s public struggle to “do the right thing” when he receives Wallace’s version of natural selection, an analysis that puts Darwin’s legendary nobility of spirit into a baser, instinctual frame. The “moral animal,” indeed.

Much of the specific scientific content of the book, new then, is familiar now. Kin and reciprocal selection, TIT FOR TAT game theory, and various indicators of our capacity for self-deception are well-known today, and if any part of the book can be skimmed profitably, it’s the sections devoted to explaining these.

What shouldn’t be lightly perused are Wright’s discussions of the implications for morality of revelations about the instinctive, animal nature of human thought and action. Many people today, including many scientists, remain suspicious of anything that seems to tie human morality to our animal nature. Various forms of rearguard dualism and lingering radical relativism take most of their energy from the need to defend “free will” and “rational thought.”

The real achievement of Wright’s book is the clarity and ease with which he sweeps away most of the “principled” objections to a Darwinian explanation of morality. He does this primarily by showing that understanding the biological basis of morality doesn’t require us to accept either the “values” of our evolutionary past or our own “helplessness” in the face of their existence.

Consider Wright’s comments on the natural origin of war and social inequality:

The fact that our species evolved amid both reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy may underlie not just personal grudges and reprisals, but race riots and world wars.

That way may in this sense be “natural” doesn’t mean it’s good, of course; or even that it’s inevitable. And much the same can be said of social hierarchy. That natural selection has opted for social inequality in our species certainly doesn’t make inequality right; and it makes it inevitable in only a limited sense.

Wright recounts the social infrastructure of the Zuni, who “confer status on those who don’t seek status too fiercely, and deny status to those who do.” By “reinforcing the natural link between niceness and status,” the Zuni use their “mental organs” (the evolved and instinctive ways in which we typical behave) to, in a sense, “participate in a virtual rebellion against the Darwinian logic behind them.” With status so thoroughly dependent on reputation, on the way that others assess our behaviours, for the Zuni, status is achieved by being known as someone who doesn’t seek status. It’s a nice trick, and an effective one.

Wright stirs the greatest controversy — and makes his greatest contributions to the moral discussion — when he questions our “commonsense” ideas about the “self” and “free will.”

Wright argues that “the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward.” He writes that “we tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and the behaving accordingly.”

But if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out. We believe the things — about morality, personal worth, even objective truth — that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation. (or at least we believe the kinds of things that, in the environment of our evolution, would have been likely to get our genes into the next generation.) It is the behavioral goals — status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on — that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommodate this constancy. What is in our genes’ interest is what seems “right” — morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.

How does morality,as we usually consider it, fare in this entirely selfish world? If Wright is correct that there are “zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘My hereditary material is the most important material on earth'”?

Wright believes that this “new paradigm” of evolutionary clarity “strips self-absorption of its noble raiment.” In other words, it should be harder to be selfish in the clear understanding that your behaviours are not noble, or just, or virtuous, or sacred.

We are designed to think of ourselves as good and our behavior as defensible, even when these propositions are objectively dubious. The new paradigm, by exposing the biological machinery behind this illusion, makes the illusion harder to buy.

The core of Wright’s argument is presented most clearly in the following paragraph, which for that reason justifies unedited inclusion despite its length.

Thus the service performed by the new paradigm isn’t, strictly speaking, to reveal the baseness of our moral sentiments; that baseness, per se, counts neither for nor against them; the ultimate genetic selfishness underlying an impulse is morally neutral — grounds neither for embracing the impulse nor for condemning it. Rather, the paradigm is useful because it helps us see that the aura of rightness surrounding so many of our actions may be delusional; even when the feel right, they may do harm. And surely hatred, more often than love, does harm while feeling right. That is why I contend that the new paradigm will tend to lead the thinking person toward love and away from hate. It helps us judge each feeling on its merits; and on grounds of merit, love usually wins.

And there you have it: a science-based justification of the Golden Rule. Can we live this way, which as Wright has shown is decidedly “unnatural”? It depends on whether or not we can move from the illusion of morality to a true morality.

Chronically subjecting ourselves to a true and bracing moral scrutiny, and adjusting our behavior accordingly, is not something we are designed for. We are potentially moral animals — which is more than any other animal can say — but we aren’t naturally moral animals. To be moral animals, we must realize how thoroughly we aren’t.

So the final blow is dealt to social Darwinism — again. There is much in common between the anti-natural bent of Wright’s argument and the much earlier contention of Thomas Henry Huxley, who urged in Evolution and Ethics (reviewed by me on an earlier webpage, here) that the human moral imperative is to struggle incessantly against “the cosmic process” of non-moral evolution.

It was a great insight then, and it’s a great insight now.






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