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am 21. Mai 2000
Although first published in 1994, a long time ago in the rapidly developing science of evolutionary psychology, Robert Wright's seminal book remains an excellent introduction to the subject. The text crackles with an incisive wit that says, yes we're animals, but we can live with that. The discussion is thorough, ranging from a rather intense focus on Charles Darwin and his life through the sexist and morality debate occasioned by the publication of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975, to the rise of the use of primate comparisons fueled by Jane Goodall's instant classic, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986). Wright has some rather serious fun with human sexual behavior as seen from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, but he spends even more time worrying (to no good effect, in my opinion) about altruism and the shaky concept of kin selection. The title is partly ironic, since much of the material suggests that we are something less than "moral." The "Everyday Life" in the title is an allusion to Freud (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1904) who makes a dual appearance in the text, first as a kind of not-yet-illuminated precursor to modern Darwinian thought, and second as the reigning champ of psychology that evolutionary psychology is out to dethrone. (See especially page 314.)
What's exciting about evolutionary psychology is that for the first time psychology has a firm scientific foundation upon which to build. But it's a tough subject for some people, I think, mainly because they confuse "is" with "ought." The discoveries of evolutionary psychology about the differing reproductive strategies of the sexes offend some people in the same way that Darwin's insight about our kinship with (other) animals offended the Victorians. Evolutionary psychology shows us that men lie, cheat and hustle relentlessly for sex, while women manipulate available males into caring for their offspring, and if possible for children fathered by other males. Insights like these are seen by some as immoral imperatives, when in fact they are amoral statements of factual observation. What "is" isn't necessarily the same thing as what ought to be. And really, we shouldn't blame the messenger.
Where Wright's book especially shows its age is in trying to explain altruism. He wasn't aware of the handicap principle developed by Amotz and Avishag in their exciting book, The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle (1997) which nicely explains "altruism" (it's an advertisement of fitness) and a number of other evolutionary conundrums, including Wright's question on page 390, "Why do soldiers die for their country?" Additionally on pages 68-70, where Wright attempts to account for female cuckoldry, he gives three reasons, but seems uncertain of the most important one, which is that a woman, once established in a secure pair-bond will sometimes seek to upgrade the genetic input by having a clandestine fling with what she sees as an alpha male. Also Wright's attempt to account for homosexuality (pages 384-386) stumbles over itself in trying to be politically correct while missing the major point that homosexuality facilitates male bonding and therefore is certainly adaptive since male coalitions increase each member of the coalition's chance of securing females. It fact, Wright misses the whole concept of male bonding. There's not even an index entry for it.
These observations are not to be taken as criticisms of the book since Wright was writing before knowledge of some of these ideas became widespread. The Moral Animal remains an outstanding opus and one that has helped introduce a large readership to the power and efficacy of evolutionary psychology, a scientific approach to psychology that will, I believe, replace the old paradigms currently holding sway in our universities. Of course this will only happen when the old behaviorists, and cognitive and psychoanalytic stalwarts...retire.
I would like to see Wright revise this book in light of the many discoveries made during the nineties and reissue it. His readable and engaging style would make the update fun to read.
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am 23. August 1998
This was the book that introduced me to Evolutionary Psychology several years ago. Since then, I have read The Anatomy of Love by Helen Fisher (which got the highest possible recommendation from the U of Chicago Feminist Majority Book Review - they called it "just plain wrong"), The Evolution of Desire by David Buss, Chimpanzee Politics, Peacemaking among Primates and Good Natured by Franz de Waal and The Adapted Mind, edited by Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and James Tooby. Of these, I would rate The Adapted Mind as a better (but much more technical) introduction to Evolutionary Psychology, The Evolution of Desire as the most interesting, and Good Natured as the least depressing. Unlike Wright, the other authors have done a lot of original research and their books are cited in Wright's book. Furthermore, Wright's and Fisher's books seem the least straightforward and worst organized of the lot. One more point, if you're looking to uplift your spirits and improve your self-esteem, stay away from these books in general and Wright's book in particular. De Waal said that a fundamental thesis of Wright's book was that we are "all hypocrites in constant denial of our thoroughly selfish nature," and both Wright and de Waal are probably correct. Then again, this level of inwardly directed cynicism is something that we all could stand to develop.
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am 30. Dezember 1999
I am a student of evolutionary psychology and evolution, and I found this book a poor representation of both. This book fails to provide anything more than carefully selected biological jargon to support the author's desire for a world based on Victorian principles of sexual restraint and life-long monogamy. Wright is under several delusions. First, that pretty women have more sexual restraint. Gee, Wright, I guess that means that all those women in pornography and Playboy are grotesque! The reality is that attractive women have the opportunity to play at high-stakes in the world of sexual economics. Being in high demand, they have two choices -- they can withhold supply to the highest bidder (marriage) or, they can supply sex to many lesser bidders in the form of dates, serial monogamy, prostitution, or other sex work. Which a woman chooses is PURELY CULTURAL. Today in the first world, thanks to the economic power and reproductive choices women now enjoy, most women choose serial monogamy. In Victorian times they choose marriage. In societies in which marriage is drudgery and prostitution is legal, the most independent woman will choose prostitution. Where prostitutes are killed, of course, only the very desperate will risk it. To say that NATURE dictates monogamous life-long marriage as the MORALLY superior choice is pure and utter fantasy.
The other delusion Wright holds is that men loathe women they sleep with unless they are married, and that women are best off withholding sex lest their willingness destroy any budding love he may have had for her. This is also backward logic. It is indeed true that men will have sex with women they dislike, and almost immediately after the act they will be reminded of his dislike and flee. The point here is that he disliked her to begin with, not because they had sex.
It is also true that men are not willing to invest a marriage commitment in women who are not sexually loyal, but at the same time have no trouble having sex with such women. This is evolutionary advantagous and should be expected. However, it is again PURELY CULTURAL for a man to feel hatred for the women he has sex with but does not marry, or to be offended by a woman's appetite or enjoyment of sex. Not proposing marriage is not the equivalent of hatred, though Wright seems to think so.
And yes, of course culture comes from the adapted mind, but cultures are vastly different. It is the intersection of biology and environment that creates culture, and it is within culture that morals are formed.
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am 24. März 2000
Evolutionary psychology is a fantastically exciting, expanding new area of interest, research and publication. Unfortunately, this book, while it does contain some interesting research (other people's), is often hijacked by a lack of focus (is it a serious science book or not?) and the author's annoying tendency to reinforce his own political agenda with somewhat shaky, self-serving logic. More than a few caveats are missing from his mis-application of some isolated ideas (which are not necessarily inherently flawed, just incomlete) to the whole of human society and gender relations. Fascinating for Pat Robertson clones who demand some rudimentary science, but the rest of us can do better. Try Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond, Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy, Natalie Angier, or even Stephen Pinker. This is not the only book out there on this subject, and it is certainly not the best one. While there are undeniably differences between the sexes, evolutionary theory does not automatically validate that old set of sexist premises. Most of human prehistory is still highly speculative at this point... it is important to keep in mind that in a science so young and speculative, a theorist's own sociocultural biases are bound to shape things. Don't trade in your schoolbooks for a copy of "The Rules" just yet. But don't give up on evolutionary theory either. Wright is just one of many- perverting science with his own odious set of prejudices and assumptions.
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am 1. Dezember 1999
Though a few other books related to Evolutionary Psychology have been written since this, it is still one of the best introductions to the field. It is intelligently written, but not pendantic. Wright discusses many aspects of evolutionary psych. using many examples from the life of Charles Darwin.
Many have criticized this work as a justifying gender inequality, usually as related to male oppression and abuse of females. Wright openly states that he is attempting to explain human behavior from a Darwinian perspective. He argues that this perspective sheds much light on the subject, though he admits is isn't perfect or all inclusive. Wright closes with several behaviors that Evolutionary Psychology can not adequetly explain (most glaringly, homosexuality).
Though many women have been outraged by this work, this book has much to offer for both females and males who read it from a non-ideological perspective. I've read several interviews with Wright and other Evolutionary Psychologists who have stated that by understanding why we (all people) are naturally inclined to behave in certain ways are we better able to control behavioral tendencies that may be detrimental to ourselves and others. When read from this perspective, this book can only help men and women better undertand each other and improve relations between the sexes.
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am 14. Januar 2000
Wright's work, which continues Dawkins' and Darwin's, makes evolutionary psychology clear and accessible. But like many overviews of branches of science, one needs to appreciate the subtle and counter-intuitive points the author makes to fully understand the author's thesis.
Wright clearly states his cultural bias in the final chapter of the book, and makes the case for traditional mores despite their insuitability to our ancestral environment. What we want to do, he points out, is not necessarily what we should do.
The bulk of the book explains what we want to do, and to a lesser extent how culture informs our sexual choices. He deliberately avoids in-depth discussion of culture's influence, preferring to explain how morality evolved in our ancestral environment, and how it suits that environment. As a student of evolution should know, suitability to the ancestral environment--i.e., small hunter-gatherer tribal groups--does not easily translate into the modern, urban environment. Wright makes that very clear.
Read in conjunction with Dawkins' _Selfish Gene_, this is a must-have part of a complete library.
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am 18. Mai 2000
Many reviewers seem to miss the point. A book like this introduces us to the idea that genetics has an operational purpose, and each side of the species (male and female) may have separate strategies to maximize advantage (but of course we also co-operate). Children raised in tough times do better with both parents being good parents. Genetics do not have politically correct agenda, they either motivate successful behaviors (meaning being passed into the future), or they do not go forward. If such dynamics favor Victorian methodologies, so be it (or not). This fascinating attempt to explore why we are the way we are is worth reading because it is thought provoking; Evolutionary Psychologists might just help us better manage our mutually shared existence (even if we have to stand up to our genetics, which is really his point regarding why the Victorians had some good ideas).
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am 17. Dezember 1999
... but eventually the evidence that our brains are simply more complex versions of the brains of our animal cousins will be overwhelming. At that point, denials that EP can explain 'why we are the way we are' will sound just like denials that evolution exists at all.
Many people have a good reason to reject the ideas that Wright presents so clearly.
First, it renders much of sociology and traditional psychology obsolete. Ouch. Second, it posits that humans have inherent behavioral tendencies, which can differ (often substantially) between men and women. Ouch again.
A scientist should always be asking 'why'. Wright's book summarizes the answers that a new science is offering.
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am 5. Dezember 1999
I reccommend this book to everyone with an open mind, and with a bit of curiosity about the human animal and the way it behaves. If you don't like the message, it is up to you to provide some real evidence against it, not just say "I don't like it". Isn't that what people said when Copernicus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun? It's better to find out what people are really like (as described in this book), and adjust your behavior accordingly.
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am 5. Januar 1998
Enjoying a little intellectual mayhem has always made me vulnerable to broad interdisciplinary sweeps that leave all conventional thinking whimpering in the dust (see John Ralston Saul and Camille Paglia). Robert Wright's The Moral Animal lacks the frenzied joy of those authors' best work, but makes up for most of it in dogged earnestness. In this book, Wright is General Grant, relentlessly pounding away with the best arguments of evolutionary psychology. Of course, the problem for many with these forget-everything-you-used-to-know books is that we just don't know as much as the author. Still. I will risk a few opinions. Beginning with sex and the monogamy question is both clever and enlightening and just before Wright bogs down by squeezing too much juice from primate studies, he switches to Darwin's life to stake his arguments in the solid ground of a man's life. This rhetorical device continues throughout the book to great effect; I never felt overwhelmed by the complexites of evolutionary psychology. The argument itself is solid and substantial. There is a bit of circularity in its logic which Wright attempts to dissapate but yet still remains. Not so simply put, if all behaviors are governed by the logic of their usefulness in passing our genes on, then one must work backwards to discover that logic. Like religious faith, the central tenent of that logic, natural selection of traits that lead to behaviours that help get our genes into the next generation, is never questioned. Unlike faith, there is room for disproof, however grudgingly given, and always with the proviso that the mysteries of the evolutionary advantages involved have not yet been revealed. Very little escapes the cold fish eye of evolutionary logic, not even the grief over a dead child. Convincing? Yes, and Wright should be congratulated for facing up to the philosophical and ethical implications involved to the best of his abilities. Still, I hesitate to join the previous reviewer in warning some from eating from the tree of evolutionary psychology. If I accept that my actions and emotions are evolutionarily conditioned, are they somehow cheapened? Are my loves and friendships devalued? I don't think so, nor does Wright seem to. Take for example this whopping lie: all people are created equal. How absolutely ludicrous a statement knowing that some have many more opportunities to live well and pass their genes on successfully to the next generation. Yet the lie is beautiful and within its beauty and not its truthfulness lies its value. Nothing, not even the knowledge of evolutionary psychology, can cheapen beauty and selflessness.
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