The Moral Animal

The Moral Animal by Robert Wright is a general audience psychology book meant to explain the foundations of evolutionary psychology as well as its’ applications to humans. The Moral Animal walks us through the logic and mechanisms of evolution, and then explains how those apply to the human mind. And after doing so, the book then explores various areas of human experience, such as friendship, sex, and marriage, and considers what insights can be gained on those topics by adopting an evolutionary perspective.

A glimpse into evolutionary psychology

The first chapters deal with the difficult past that evolutionary psychology comes from.  The modern view of evolution that we now have is far more scientific and less political than what had once existed. Early in the days of evolution, there were a few writers who advocated for social Darwinism, for conservative power hierarchies, and who conflated natural with right. The idea that natural selection was a means to ensure the best survived, that only those of superiority kept the species going, and that poverty was tolerable since it was a consequent of natural selection were all justified by appeals to evolution.

As a result of those sorts of world-views, genuine evolutionary psychologists have had to deal with knee-jerk reactions and inflammatory critiques, many of which are usually outright mischaracterizations of evolution in general. The idea that evolutionary psychologists are racists, sexists, elitists, and etc., is just not true. At best, there are some folks who called themselves evolutionists and applied evolution to politics to justify bad ideas, but evolutionary psychology is an entirely separate enterprise. And the early chapters of the book spend a lot of time pressing that issue. Modern day evolutionary psychology is vastly different from the evolutionists of the 1800s, and is likewise different from the sociobiology of the 70s and 80s.

Robert Wright then proceeds to help us understand just what exactly is evolutionary psychology. Historically, evolution was used as a means of division, but the author has clarified that modern evolutionary psychology is concerned more with unity. We go from the kinds of division we saw with Social Darwinism, where people justified categorizing and separating people based-off “species” labels and race labels, to unity and universality.

Modern evolutionary psychology believes there is a universal human nature, a nature that makes us deeply similar rather than distinct. We may speak different languages, but the neural structures responsible for language are universal. We may all have different family values, but we have fairly similar family structures.

In addition to that, we go from the idea that people are born to be pianists or athletes, to genes are flexible. For example, kindness towards our own children is universal trait we all have, but there is environmental variability that causes the kindness towards our own children trait to be exercised differently. In other words, modern evolutionary psychology attributes quite a lot to environmental influence, much unlike the Social Darwinists.

So, modern evolutionary psychology promotes a unity of humans, not a division; and is similar to humanist philosophy in the sense that we are capable of change since genes are flexible. The genetic determinist arguments attributed to evolutionary psychology is, as the author clarifies, just wrong.

Another intriguing chapter dealt with the mystery of altruism and the “benefit for the group type behaviors”. Since gene selection entails that genes only seek to benefit themselves, or copies of themselves, altruism can present as a puzzle. Why would self-interested genes produce a behavior that does not directly benefit them?

Some people argued that there was a type of “group selection” that would in turn benefit everyone, and so genes adopted traits that benefited others because those traits would eventually pay-out. However, what modern evolutionary psychology agues is much different.

If we look at the most pro-social and most altruistic societies, they are insect societies. There are types of insects that will hang from the ceiling, bloated with food, just to feed other members of the group. They are perfect citizens of their societies. But that is also because those insects are more related to one another than you are to your own brother or sister.  Insect societies have a much greater level of relatedness amongst one another. That is, ants can be 3/4 genetically related, whereas human siblings are only 1/2, and our cousins are only 1/4.

The idea here, altruism is not group selection but is instead genes adopting traits that benefit other copies of themselves. Suppose there are three ants, and one blows itself up to spill acid on an invader, there is a good chance the other two ants that escaped are 3/4 related to the ant that just died. Which means, the ant that died was actually protecting its’ own genes.

And that kind of thinking entails that, for example, ants have a way of identifying who they are related to, which they do!

So, evolutionary psychology takes the position that altruism is still self-interested genes taking care of themselves. But, importantly, evolutionary psychology is being descriptive on the topic of altruism, not prescriptive. The fact that altruism is higher amongst those who are more closely related is not a moral philosophy or a prescription, it is an observation about nature. And Robert Wright spends a considerable amount of time beating that point into our head, since it is so common for people to straw-man such findings.


In general, the book is a good overview of evolutionary psychology. If you want to understand how evolution shaped human psychology, then The Moral Animal is not a bad starting point.

There are some weaknesses with the book, however. Firstly, the author seems to spend little time teasing apart morality. I found the sub-header of the book “why we are the way we are,” to be a much more apt description of the book than, “the moral animal” title.  Secondly, the book takes one step forward and one step backward, routinely. By which I mean, we will finish a chapter on, let us say, marriage, and then go into the next chapter still talking about marriage. But those weaknesses are not at all that bad, and do not damage the overall quality of the book too much.

The Moral Animal is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in evolutionary psychology. Robert Wright does a terrific job of focusing on the mechanisms of our evolution rather than human behavior itself; which is where many people go astray on evolutionary psychology. Evolution does not provide us with behaviors, it provides us with neural and physiological mechanisms, of which can be used variedly in the environment. And Robert Wright also writes clearly. Nowhere in the book did I feel like I was lost, confused, or strained due to poor writing.

Overall, I recommend this book!

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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