Are men literally born to cheat? Does monogamy actually serve women's interests? These are among the questions that have made The Moral Animal one of the most provocative science books in recent years. Wright unveils the genetic strategies behind everything from our sexual preferences to our office politics--as well as their implications for our moral codes and public policies. Illustrations.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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I just finished wading through this book. I like it better than the other assigned book - Lucy's Legacy by Alison Jolly - but like many books for my current classes I've had to read it in too much of a hurry to really get into it. It's one I'll likely reread after I get a breather from my current evolutionary psychology overload.more
Double colon in the title aside, this is actually a pretty good overview of evolutionary psychology, with some (less successful) attempts to use Darwin’s own personal life to illustrate particular strategies people use as a result of evolved traits. Wright generally does a good job of reminding readers that traits evolved to improve reproductive success in the environment of evolutionary adaptation may be useless or counterproductive outside that environment, and he strongly argues that there is no moral force to evolution. Indeed, properly understood, he contends, evolution can make us more moral: recognizing that many of our impulses (to punish, to cheat, to love our children, to favor ourselves and our relatives over other people) are directed by biology frees us to become more universally minded, since in fact we have no unique moral claims and should treat all humans as having equal interests in well-being.Still, Wright also demonstrates the temptation to equate “evolved” with “unchangeable,” for example by equivocating in his definition of equality. He argues that we have to choose between equality for men (that is, roughly equal access to women imposed by monogamy) and equality for women (that is, roughly equal access to resources held by men, which would be possible if multiple women could marry the same wealthy man). Obviously he’s defining equality differently for each condition, which is a problem, but the bigger problem is the acceptance of the constraint that wealth will be so unequally distributed that an individual woman (or her family) might prefer marriage as a subsequent wife to a very wealthy man over marriage to a very poor one. As he then touches on briefly, without recognizing that it avoids the “choice of inequalities” issue, the third way to solve the problem of potentially conflicting preferences is to avoid huge resource disparities (and, not for nothing, to allow women to accumulate wealth in ways other than by marrying men). Oddly, he is only willing to allow for “mildly” progressive taxation, for no evolutionarily grounded reason I can discern.There may be a more technical literature on this, but I was also unsatisfied with his discussion of Victorian morality (and hypocrisy, which he thinks is fine from an evolutionary perspective). He cogently explains why “high-quality” women might prefer a madonna/whore morality and condemn “lower-quality” women who were more promiscuous, who would be pursuing their own strategy of getting as much investment from multiple men as they could given their relative undesirability as long-term mates (this is a consequence of the idea that any fertile female can expect to reproduce, but not every fertile male can). However, he then skips to the idea that the beneficial effects of repressive sexuality for “high-quality” women grounded social morality, and I just don’t understand why (1) “low-quality” women wouldn’t fight back or (2) the overall effects on society would be positive, as he suggests. He might well say that multiple equilibria are possible since competing strategies co-exist, but I still don’t get from there to his apparent assumption that Victorian morality was either shared by all Victorians—even the poor people excluded from respectability and often sexually exploited by it—or a good idea on balance despite its excesses. I don’t get how you can say prudery for upper-class women combined with unspoken but widespread sexual access of upper-class men to prostitutes and servants is a stable and/or productive strategy without addressing the interests of, you know, all the other people on which this strategy relied. More generally, there just wasn’t enough about change over time. Obviously Victorian morality was not so stable that it couldn’t change; Wright suggests that sexual mores are likely to move in cycles, but to me this just highlights the gap between evolutionary psychology and real explanations. There are too many moving parts between what the science can tell you and actual social issues. His metaphor is that evolution has produced dials which environment can move around a lot. But I’m less interested in the dials than in the settings!more
A great book, very thought provoking, but it left me kind of pessimistic about humanity's ability to transcend it's primitive origins. Then again, if we acknowledge those origins they don't have to limit us, they just need to taken into account.more
One of the best and most interesting books I've ever read, Wright applies principles of Darwinian evolution analysis to human psychology.more
I imagine if there is a bible for Darwinians, this would be it. It's as much a biography of Darwin himself as it is an examination of human behavior through the lens of evolutionary biology. I think that this is a deeply important read, and thanks to Wright's masterful penmanship, it's also deeply engaging.more
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