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A classic worth a second look and an update
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.