Book review: Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal"
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Beginning in the 1960's with the work of George Williams, there has been a revolution within evolutionary biology with the development of theories that employ what can be intuitively understood as the "selfish gene" or the "gene's-eye" view. If Richard Dawkins' 1976 best seller "Selfish gene" was a wonderful introduction to the public at large of this revolution, then "The Moral Animal" is a worthy sequel where the full implications of applying the gene's eye view to human evolution are hammered out. Many aspects of human behaviour - how we select our mates, how men and women are promiscuous in their different ways, the love-hate relationship between siblings in a family, the importance we (men in particular) attach to social status, self-deception, altruistic behaviour - can only be understood by keeping in mind that our behaviours are the product of natural selection, and in particular by employing the gene's eye view of natural selection. Robert Wright has a lucid, albeit simplifying, writing style, and he uses a clever strategy to keep readers' interest from flagging - for each significant idea or theory he introduces, he illustrates it in the next chapter using incidents from Charles Darwin's life. (Is there a more apt subject for a case study in evolutionary psychology?)
Robert Wright's content and approach are on the whole, I think, different from later popularizers of evolutionary psychology such as, say, Steven Pinker. Whereas for Pinker (and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides before him), attacking the "blank slate" concept of human mind is all important in every discussion of evolutionary psychology, this issue hardly surfaces in "The Moral Animal". Personally, I was quite sick of reading about this topic, so its absence was a welcome relief.