The Moral Animal by Robert Wright- Book Cover in front of a book shelf

Book Review: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

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Evolutionary psychology can be harsh and uncomfortable. The logic of it might strike some as too Machiavellian to be a part of human nature. But to an evolutionary psychologist it’s cunning way adds credibility. Huxley has a great quote for this: “the indecency of the process is to a certain extent in favor of its probability.”

The calculated ways in which we choose a suitable  partner, child to prioritize in times of need, to whom we seek approval. It’s all to further our own interests. Well, our gene’s interest. And we are often so good at hiding our true intentions that we don’t even know about them ourselves.

The Moral Animal is a seminal book about social dynamic and human relationships. In the book Robert Wright focuses on Darwinian explanations of why we are the way we are–emotionally and morally. And he does this by examining Charles Darwin life and personal conduct in Victorian England –a society with strict social norms and moral values– and connect it back to our evolutionary past.

Video Review of The Moral Animal

Video Review of The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

Polygyny and women.

Male and female reproductive strategies

In the Moral animal Wright shines a light on the genetic strategies behind everything from our sexual preferences to our office politics. And the answers are often provocative. One of those questions is: Does monogamy actually serve women’s interests? 

The Darwinian view indicates that men, consciously of unconsciously, want as many sex providing and child making machines as they can comfortably afford,and women, unconsciously or consciously want to maximize the resources available to their children. Women prefer quality over quantity since they can only give birth to a very limited amount of children.

Polygyny and social hierarchy

Polygamy is better for women. This thesis is only a thesis, but reality loosely fits it. In preindustrial society’s Extreme polygamy goes often hand in hand with extreme hierarchy. In Zulu and Inca societies a man could have dozens of wife’s. And most societies, currently and in the recorded past, have been polygamous to some degree. So if polygamy is the default to some extent, at least for those who are high up in the hierarchy. Then is it more uncommon today?

One theory is that as political power became distributed more evenly the hoarding of women became impractical. “Few thing a more anxiety-inducing for an elite governing class than gobs of sex-starved and childless men with at least a modicum of political power.”

Half a rich man could be better than one poor man

“Obviously women who are married to a poor man and would rather have half of a rich aren’t well served by the institution of monogamy, and obviously the poor man they would gladly desert wouldn’t be well-served by polygamy.”

This is not true only for the button of the income scale: “In sheerly Darwinian terms most men are probably better off in a monogamous system and most women worse off.” Of course, this idea is slightly outdated, since women today have their own careers and thereby are more self-reliant. Still, I found these ideas fascinating.

Why learn about evolutionary psychology?

What’s the reason to learn about Evolutionary psychology? We have left the primitive world, updated our morals and rid ourselves of most threats to our daily survival. 

Actually, that’s exactly  why it is so important to understand evolutionary psychology. We are disconnected from our evolutionary past but the programming of the past still operates inside us.

It’s not correct to say that people’s minds are designed to maximize their fitness – fitness in this case meaning to continue our genetic legacy. “People’s minds were designed to maximize fitness in the environment where those minds evolved.” – and not our modern environment. 

Understanding evolutionary psychology will help notice when your primitive programming influences your behavior and decisions and gives you an opportunity to consciously override them when they are not in your favor.

⭐️ Takeaway:

One reason to read a lot is to figure out how to live in a world where our purpose of existence is to spread one’s genes as effectively as possible. Sending genes into the future in itself is not the problem. But the fact that evolution doesn’t care about our wellbeing while we ceaselessly seek to produce successful offspring is a hard pill to swallow. Our evolutionary programming is also not updated to support the needs of civilization, and especially not the Information Age we live in today.

That’s where books come in for me. They can provide guides for how to live a good life, avoid unnecessary suffering and be useful to society, despite the underlying motivation from our genes. Same goes for books about evolution. Knowing more about nature’s motives, helps us stop and recognize moments when our evolutionary psychology leads us to act in ways that might have been beneficial in a hunter gatherer society, but might not in an age of social media, when everything is hyper-connected, and everything is on-demand.

⚖️ Book Verdict – The Moral Animal

This might not only be one of the best books about evolutions motives for human behavior, but also the best biography of Darwin’s life. In this book both are combined. The Moral Animal uses Darwins insights about naturals selection and the motives of evolution to analyse Darwins own own life and behavior.

It a fairly accessible book and instead of talking about evolutionary psychology in the abstract only, Wright make an effort to turn the quirks of human nature into something that we can use in a practical and positive way in our lives.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of 5

Further reading!

Book like The Moral Animal

Stumbling on Happiness
Stumbling on Happiness focuses on how we fail to predict how the outcomes of our actions will make us feel in the future. We are not wired to predict the future accurately. 

The Righteous Mind:
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt shines a light on the miracle that humans actually can cooperate with each other—-and why we so often fail to do so. 

Why Buddhism Is True
Why Buddhism is True takes a scientific look the Buddha’s teachings through the lens of evolutionary psychology and answers questions like:

  • Why do we give in to delusions?
  • Why can’t enough, be enough?
  • Why do we let our feelings run the show?

Find more great book to read on my book reviews page and the Great Books List
Video Reviews every week on YouTube

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