Though animals, like chimpanzees or dogs, human beings are different from every other species in that they have been equipped with a moral compass and drive to go above and beyond mere survival and reproduction.
In his book The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Robert Wright places the Darwinian theory of evolution within the framework of Charles Darwin’s own life and uses the father of modern biology’s life and disposition to exemplify his points.
The book is a well-informed and intelligently written overview of evolutionary psychology and an account of how the evolutionary process rules our everyday lives, often without our knowledge or consent. Evolution guides and influences every area of life, from love, romance, and sex, to family and kinship relations, to social structure, to internal and external conflicts. Although the individual goal may be personal success – such self-awareness, procreation, or legacy – this drive towards certain behaviors is driven by subconscious and biological forces favoring an enhanced human species via increased reproductive success.
“…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.”
The first section of the book covers love, romance, and sex. Wright claims that the evolutionary goal of men is to produce as many viable offspring as possible; thus they seek young, healthy, and nurturing mothers to bear their children. Women, on the other hand, want to provide their children with all of the resources necessary for survival and success; thus women look for men with financial resources and prestige to father their children. In light of this dichotomy, Wright suggests that in evolutionary terms, the practice of polygamy would benefit women because a wealthy man could provide for several wives and multiple children. However, in this scenario men at the bottom of the ladder would be left without mates, which may lead to sexual tension and violence. Although biologically preferable, polygamy has been rejected in most societies due to the growing evolutionary importance of social relations.
The second portion of the book discusses sociality, kinship, reciprocal altruism, and emotions within social relations. Although in some respects the concept of “every man for himself” may seem a logical choice, evolution has steered us in the direction of helping others in need, in hopes that they will assist us later. Evolution favors the game theory strategy “tit-for-tat” in which those who perform positive behaviors are reciprocated, and those who perform negative behaviors are shunned. Darwinian evolution is not only maximizing the fitness of individuals, but also building a more supportive society through the development of emotions such as gratitude, obligation, guilt, and friendship.
The third section addresses status, hierarchy, and deception. Again, Wright argues that although humans want what’s best for themselves, the ultimate goal is advancing the race. Thus, those who are best suited for power take rule, while most everyone else voluntarily complies and trusts the higher ups. In order to promote their personal progress, some people may deceive others; self-deception is often implemented by the subconscious in order to make one’s arguments more believable.
The final portion of the book explores morality and utilitarianism. The topic of morality can be messy when looked at in relation to evolutionary psychology because it seems to go against what nature would intend – purely selfish behaviors. However this new perspective factors in our evolved instincts for survival as social beings, which entails helping others in order to help yourself.
The Moral Animal offers a fascinating glimpse into the growing field of evolutionary psychology, citing several studies and other researchers. If interested in the topic of evolutionary psychology and human behavior, I would highly recommend this book.