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The Moral Animal

by Rob Friesel

The Moral Animal by Robert Wright at Amazon.comFirst and foremost: an uncritical read of this book will leave you feeling cynical and a bit cheated. It ranks up there with E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene1. It would be very easy to find yourself getting defensive about the material presented in here; especially if you believe humans to be some special exception among animals. 

Meanwhile, with a more critical approach, you will find that you cannot get Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal out of your head: it is insightful, intellectually rigorous, even-handed, and at times palpably funny. Plus, you will find that it informs a great many (all?) of the human discourse (verbal or otherwise) that you encounter daily — how certain traits and behaviors came to be and the functions they serve. 

Don’t ask about their intentions though; we need to remember that evolution is goal-less, after all. Put most succinctly: 

We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.

Portrait of Charles Darwin, © Auckland Museum.What Robert Wright sets out to do with The Moral Animal is to take Darwin’s life and oeuvre (primarily The Origin of Species), frame them with two other important contemporary writings (John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help), and use that lens to execute a thorough analysis and discussion of Darwinism and evolution, how human civilizations evolved as a consequence of “reciprocal altruism”, and capsulize all of this as the basis for what Wright calls evolutionary psychology. Wright’s choice of style is an interesting one and reminds me vaguely of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach; its meticulous and technical scientific discussions of biology, genetics, and evolution are interspersed with nearly whimsical narratives that detail the life and times of Charles Darwin. For every page that cites Robert Trivers or Richard Dawkins, there is another that quotes Darwin’s personal correspondence or illustrates the backdrop of Victorian society. Wright’s is an interesting and compelling approach that makes that text very engaging and approachable. Which is not to suggest that the material is easy to follow; Wright does not shy away from getting denser and heavier as the work progresses — there were many instances were I found that I needed to double-back over certain passages to “get it”. 

Again, for as dense and technical as much of Wright’s writing is, he throws himself whole-heartedly into the text and makes the material come to life. There is something strangely erotic about his in-depth scientific analysis of mate competition, cuckoldry, and evolutionary strategizing. There is something perversely amusing about his apples-to-oranges comparisons of Darwin and Freud. There is something appropriately voyeuristic about reading letters from Darwin to friends and seeing how they reflect elements of his own theories. 

In many ways, Wright’s eloquent prose is currency for getting us through some very challenging material. As I have already discussed, there is the implicit challenge of reading technical literature2. More so however, is the explicit challenge that Wright lays out early in the text: that we all carry a great deal of cultural baggage that sets us up to reject the logical conclusions posited by Darwinism and evolutionary psychology. Wright spends the first half of the text building up to the discussions that give the book its title. By the time we get to “Part Three: Social Strife”, it is no small wonder why Wright keeps circling back on the example of bluegill sunfish and the equilibrium between “nest builders” and “mate poachers”. The animal kingdom seems to contain not a more succinct microcosm of industry versus opportunism, of cost/benefit economies and stability through constant adjustments in strategy. 

The cornerstone of the second half of The Moral Animal is reciprocal altruism3, a theory introduced in the early 1970s by Robert Trivers. Wright gives reciprocal altruism the thorough treatment: he describes how it may (must?) have evolved, the benefits it bestows on an organism4, how reciprocal altruism gave rise to human societies and civilizations, and the feedback loop between society and biology (i.e., meme and gene) as mediated through the extremely complex manifestation of reciprocal altruism in human beings. At first glance, Wright’s exposition may appear cynical and determinist: even “on our best behavior”, we are just a product of our genes — even agape presumes a pay-off in the form of a more “loving” and stable society for our offspring. Swing such a cynical evaluation around to the other end and you are using these postulates for justification of extramarital affairs, for rape and for genocide, or for whatever other Twinkie Defense you might conjecture. Wright is very conscious of this and tries to be very delicate and deliberate in his treatment of all this; he even goes so far as to label it “postmodern morality” and he summarily eviscerates these conclusions as damaging and naïve5. Wright suggests that if anything “separates” humans from animals, it is self-reflection, the capacity that we have to evaluate our actions (and the actions of others) and consequently judge those actions. Wright asserts that even if the content of our judgments (and our abilities to make those judgments) are evolved tendencies, that we can on some level make choices about the “rightness” of a given action; that our memes6 and genes interact and we express agency in our evolution. 

Of course, he also appears to caution us that there is a great deal of cultural transmission going on in human evolution right now and that meme transmission is fragile and tenuous even under the best conditions. Hyperbolic though it may sound, Wright appears to suggest that we are one catastrophic event away from being free agents in the game of evolution. 

Underlying all of this is the assertion that reciprocal altruism is a non-zero-sum game where each player (i.e., the genes that are making efforts through the organism to reproduce) functions as a kind of accountant of favors. Each organism is playing life and evolution as a game where sometimes the best move is to take a short-term loss, where sometimes the best move is to take a little more than what you’re owed but not as much as you could exploit. In a way, this is a hopelessly romantic view of evolution — that even despite the ubiquitously short half-life of any pleasure, that an organism might still “choose” a small short-term sacrifice for a greater long-term gain. In reading the entirety of Wright’s argument however, it is certainly reasonable to assume that this is a pragmatic trait, that it’s a complexly evolved response system for economies of scarcity — that there is in fact nothing romantic about charity or sacrifice or romance or the outlaw exploiter. Mechanistically, we are all cogs in the perpetual motion machine of evolution’s equilibrium. And as such, our morals (or lack thereof) are the motions of that machine balancing itself. 

I could see how some, perhaps many might find this thought is unsettling. With his re-telling of Darwin’s tale, Wright illustrates a Copernicanian re-centering of humankind, its origins, and even its humanity. As mentioned above, it can be easy to carve out portions of this hypothesis and serve them in cynical isolation. Taken as a whole, it is a strong composite view of humankind’s genetic and cultural make-up, the forces that drove us to where we are, and the agency we may express over our destiny.

Review originally published on

  1. Though I will readily admit that I know these two texts primarily by reputation, having only read excerpts and not their entireties. []
  2. Especially as a layperson; I know that I found some passages frustrating simply because of how dense the statements were. []
  3. Does anyone else find the term “reciprocal altruism” a bit of an oxymoron?  I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask that but I feel that the questions begs to be asked. []
  4. Or (more accurately) the benefits bestowed on those genes.  It’s all about the genes, remember? []
  5. Perhaps he is so explicit about this because he wishes to avoid being damned in the same way as E.O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology. []
  6. I was a little surprised that Robert Wright chose to eschew that word as much as he did.  “Meme” appears in the text but it certainly does not appear frequently.  I have not been able to find any specific references (perhaps I missed something in the notes sections?) as to why Wright would not put memes side-by-side with genes.  Certainly the focus of the text is on evolution and (by extension) is therefore (artificially?) restricted to discussions of biology, genes, and genetics.  By the time we get to the bits on morality, human society, and cultural transmission however, I would think that memes would enter quite heavily into the discussion.  Thus lacking a more explicit explanation, we are forced to examine the exclusion of “memes” through Wright’s own lens.  And when we do that, we can think of him as a contemporary to Richard Dawkins.  Thinking about it that way: does Wright avoid using the term “meme” as a way of distancing himself from Dawkins?  Is Wright trying to avoid playing Wallace to Dawkins’ Darwin? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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