The Moral Animal - a Book on Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright

What is Evolutionary psychology

Reading Robert Wright’s book on evolutionary psychology is sobering. It is a readable, interesting, and provocative explanation of this new field of science and its implications. More than once I put the book down mid-page to let the significance of what he said sink in. One cannot read this book without looking at human nature, or the behavior we see on the news, in a different light.

The idea of evolutionary psychology is simple and complex. We know about Darwin, natural selection, and the origin of species.  There are the famous Darwin’s finches where natural selection rewards beaks suited to the seeds of the environment, even yielding measurable beak change year-to-year in response to varying weather patterns. Evolutionary psychology is the application of the same process – evolution through natural selection — to our minds and our natures.

The theory is that most of our nature is the product of evolution through natural selection. Everything in our nature – sexual desires, empathy, love, desire for status, sense of fairness, cooperation, etc. – was selected because individuals with those characteristics survived better than those without. It is a simple, brutal, random process where some inherited traits improved our ability to survive and formed, over millions of years, our minds and psychological characteristics. There is no directionality or intention behind the process. Evolution doesn’t care about our happiness or the greater good. All that matter is what genes survive to the next generation.

What is startling is the progress science had made in gathering evidence to support this theory. Many have thought that our nature is primarily the product of culture. Humans are a blank slate which culture creates our feelings for love, hate, cooperation, trust, and retribution. The right environment can mold humans into what we would like to be. The evidence Wright presents is compelling and demonstrates we are far from a blank slate. Much of what drives our behavior is innate – we are born with those tendencies. Environment is, of course a factor, but small compared to our inherited nature. Evolutionary psychology is a new field and there is much more research to do. The theory is sure to be refined over time. But there appears to be no competing theory that explains better why we are the way we are.

The implications

The implications of this theory are staggering. If our genes have so much influence over behavior, good and bad, what does that say about free will? How free are we really to act when neural pathways and hormones are constantly pushing us in one direction? What about the effectiveness of culture and public policy to change human nature and behavior? If culture cannot change our underlying nature, must culture forever battle the dysfunctional parts of human nature? Is that a battle culture can win? It causes us to question some basic moral assumptions. I grew up in a generation thinking what is “natural” is, by definition, good. I realize now it’s not good or bad. It’s simply what came out of the evolutionary process. Much of our moral code, religious and others, rests on our more positive sentiments such as empathy. But if empathy is simply a successful propagation strategy for genes, does that erode the foundation for our moral code? If it does, how do we build a replacement?

It is all fascinating and scary. It is also timely as we observe fundamental changes in our political systems that appear to be driven by our nature far more than our reason.