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By Greg Gauthier on 12-01-17
Fascinating, and Frustrating
Wright's book is essential reading on, and a monument to the aspirational leanings of early evolutionary psychology. He does an excellent job of benchmarking the scientific understanding of evolution and psychology in the waning years of the 20th century. But the book was much more a work of yearning, than one of sober scientific understanding. Wright intertwines the personal biography of Charles Darwin amidst a continuous stream of speculative theories about the purposive role of reciprocal altruism, relatedness, kin selection, and social 'fitness', in our genetic heritage, using Darwin as a kind of "patient zero" role model for these theories. The goal of all of it, as the title of the book exclaims, is to understand "why we are the way we are".
But Wright doesn't stop there. Despite numerous cautions against the urge to derive rules for living from natural purposes, even appealing directly to G. E. Moore late in the book, he still couldn't help himself but turn the book into an attempt to derive some sort of "moral of the story" from the various theories he'd sketched in the previous chapters. This, I think, was a mistake. It was as if Wright was confused about the purpose of his own book. Is it science, or philosophy?
After a long trek through the psychological and biological literature, suddenly we're thrust into a long discussion on Mill's Utilitarianism, and Darwin's particular flavor of it. And in the end, a meander into the religious tradition to ponder on questions of self-sacrifice, brotherly love, and self-denial. Ultimately, Wright ignores his own warnings, and seems to counsel for a kind of detente between the rational and the biological self, in which we seek self-awareness, but not *too much* self-awareness, and follow Darwin's role model of a psychology cynical of the self, but generous toward others.
As a founding document in the literature of evolutionary psychology, this work is definitely worth the read, but don't go into it expecting much in the way of answers. It's so early in the game, all it has to offer is a long string of questions. Maybe that's it's greatest strength, actually.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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By Liron on 25-10-10
The Moral Animal is THE book on evolutionary psychology. Robert Wright applies a straightforward game-theoretic analysis to theorize how natural selection shaped human psychology, and gets remarkably penetrating insights into human nature.
I feel like I am seeing human nature laid bare. I find myself shaking my head in awe, because after I hear Wright's characterization of some social dynamic, it seems so clear obvious in retrospect that I can't believe it's not common knowledge.
I also love the way Wright applies the principles of evolutionary psychology to analyze episodes in Darwin's life. Wright's Darwinian understanding of human nature enriches the book's view into Darwin's life.
This is one of the best books in the entire Audible collection. A must-listen.
37 of 40 people found this review helpful
By Darwin8u on 18-09-12
A Masterpiece of Science Writing
Robert Wright's 'The Moral Animal' is a phenomenal look at the science of evolutionary psychology, using Darwin's own life (and his published and unpublished writings) to organize and explain various ev. psych topics like: marriage, families, society and social status, and morality.
In a growing field of popular books on psychology, geology, economics, evolution, etc., Wright tends to stand apart (along with the likes of E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Leavitt, Michael Lewis, John McPhee, Oliver Sachs, Michael Shermer, etc).
It all tends to fit into Wright's 'big thesis' on non-zero sum relationships. If you haven't read Wright's 'NonZero', or 'Evolution of God', go pick those two up after you read/listen to this one. They are all fantastic.
Greg Thorton does a good job of narrating this masterpiece of science writing.
41 of 45 people found this review helpful