The Moral Animal Book Review
A review of Robert Wright's book, The Moral Animal, which exemplifies the modern psychological theories of evolutionary biology.
"To generalize is to be an idiot." -William Blake
This is an analysis of issues raised in the field of evolutionary biology by the psychologist Robert Wright's The Moral Animal in the continuing tradition of such works as The Selfish Gene.
Although I'm a bit skeptical of the nature and extent of the oft-cited scientific research done to corroborate the author's claims, I really do have to agree with him on most every point. Wright seems to be saying that what is common to one society is common to all. Being a big believe in similarity-humanism, I enjoyed reading his explanations, though not his deification of Mr. Darwin.
Much of what is going on in The Moral Animal is Wright bringing human motivational factor to a more deterministic approach. I suspect that he might be under-emphasizing the effect of the current environment (except when he calls people discontented), but only when dealing with specific events for specific people. The biases of different situations seem to cancel out, providing a fair claim of accuracy to his generalizations. I think that Wright is on to the most interesting aspect of psychology-the connection between human motivation and the subconscious similarities associated with being human. It is worth noting that the genetic difference between myself and any other human is maybe .1%, and the difference between myself and a gorilla (the most genetically distant of the great apes) only about 1%. Our bodies may show distinct differences, but they probably don't account for that entire difference.
Most people get caught up in issues of whether or not we should act as we seem destined; I doubt that's a very meaningful point of debate. If, for instance, we do act on a genetically predetermined path, how could it be possible to mediate our very nature by social imposition? That would be like trying to remove multiple sclerosis via philosophy. On the other hand, if we don't act due to such a process, why is it that humans are so alike? Moreover, why would we suffer from those conflicts which we seek to resolve. Everywhere I have gone, I have found the differences between people to be either illusory or societally imposed. Physically, intellectually, emotionally, people have the same issues to deal with (well, I've only traveled in "the West," but that's my experience therein and by reading religious texts from all over the world). One of the reasons that religions are so interchangeable is that the problems they seek to resolve are interchangeable.
I'm a big fan of evolution. Since it can be experientially deduced that things change as a result of stimulus, I'm willing to acknowledge that Darwin was definitely on to something. Similarly, I think that Wright is effectively compiling features of that system. It may not be useful, however, to think of the world in such a cut and dried fashion-as in, evolution rules the universe (which is no more effective than God rules the universe). Although Wright might simply be seeking to publish books via a polemical point of view, I'm always happy to read something which appears to give the world a peculiar sense of value-neutrality. Rather than a question of good or bad, right or wrong, the world becomes a question of there or not. If it's there, perhaps we can discover why.
Wright has a habit of presenting some rather "mean" concepts as human nature as if people somehow have shown in their history to merit something else. His fear of public censure is merely an example of how "mean" people are. I think that even if for no other reason, this book could be taken as enlightening, if solely for that purpose. For example:
"being a person's true friend means endorsing the untruths he holds dearest." (283)
This passage is surrounded by mellowing, rationalizing sentences and is infused with the knowledge that the public simply will not accept that there might be a grain of truth contained within the concept.
"gaining and holding this reputation will often entail actual generosity and decency. But sometimes it won't." (308)
Here comes Thrasymachus! If one accepts that humans seek reputations, I cannot understand how they would fail to accept this statement, and the inferred desirability of the latter option. What is unfortunate is how people seem to want their own reality to be a 'higher,' more 'meaningful' world. Uggh. With the exception of his tone (see below), I think it's rather useful that Wright portrays a world where things have lost their underlying meaning.
"Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth" (325)
Now Wright is actually saying something interesting. Rather than simply protesting against common misconceptions in human motivation, he's calling into question the assumptions which underlie both the "real" motivation and the presumed motive. The problem with this section is that while it raises another interesting idea (truth as solely a means to establishment of dominance-force others to accept your perception of reality), it fails to really describe the process, or the relevance of either concept. Instead, he relies upon the reader to fill in the gaps in his own writing, and falls back upon his previous claims about human behavior. As I avowedly "like" this theory, it disappoints me to see the proponent under-clarify what seems to be a relevant and interesting issue in his discourse.
"in the direction of Mill's and Darwin's and Jesus' values." (338)
I knew there was something special about Darwin!!! More than gifted human, but not quite God in human form. . .it's all so clear to me now.
"of course, you can argue with the proposition…You can insist that there's something…something more." (348)
I find this sentence curious because all through the book I got the feeling that perhaps his use of certain anthropomorphisms regarding evolution were an attempt at creating a meaning in his world. He seems to substitute 'evolution' for 'God.' Then, at the end, he wishes to castigate the people who use the term 'God.' However, that's probably just his evolutionarily accepted means of dealing with his own meaningless existence.
Though I thought the first ~200 pages to be more informative than the following 200, I really enjoyed this. My acceptance of this is more than just getting that warm and fuzzy feeling; or rather, I got that feeling for a reason. This system actually seems to make some sense-it draws parallels between humans and other primates (as well as other animals), and it shows how our actions can be taken as equivalent. I consider it the height of foolishness to see a clear corollary and then refuse to acknowledge the weight thereof. Although he implies otherwise, Wright doesn't really show that belief in a god is incompatible with his theory of human behavior; and I think that is one of the strengths of the theory…it does not make claims about other, currently non-falsifiable claims.