Book Review: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

[Originally posted in March 2004 at; re-posted on September 24, 2007 as the first entry at]

What is “human nature”? How much of what we do is really “free will,” and how much of it is driven by deep genetic programming laid down even before there was such a thing as a human being?

For centuries religion (and to a lesser extent, philosophy) were the only players at the table when it came to answering questions about human nature. Then an unassuming naturalist named Charles Darwin came along, and suddenly science was pulling up a chair and demanding to be dealt-in. Nearly a hundred years passed, however, between the publication of The Origin of Species and the emergence of a branch of scientific inquiry that dealt explicitly with the relationship between genetics and the human psyche. Ironically, while the sexual revolution of the Sixties and Seventies was at its peak, the new science of evolutionary psychology began to confirm some of the older beliefs! The counter-culture advocated new behaviors that flew in the face of traditional conservative views. The new paradigm held that men and women are essentially the same; that “free love” can be had without consequences, etc. But how accurate was this new, politically correct model?

Evolutionary psychology’s contribution to this debate remained largely on the popular back-burner until just a few years ago, when Robert Wright published The Moral Animal, a book that explains this new field of study in a way that’s easily accessible to any reasonably literate reader. Human sexuality, family, friendship, society—even ethics—are all examined with a view to our genetic legacy. Wright brings additional layers to the material not only by comparing humans to the other higher primates (chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest cousins), but by examining the life and habits of none other than the Father of Evolution himself—Charles Darwin! Wright examines how Darwin’s Victorian veneer can be interpreted as developing via the almost unbelievably complex interaction of our various (and sometimes conflicting) genetic imperatives. How is it that Darwin balanced his notorious self-effacement with his ambition to find a wife and to transform himself into a household name? The answers are surprising.

As might be expected, Wright cannot make any direct connections between human behavior and our DNA. There is no gene for ambition, for example, that one can simply identify and snip out. Our minds are the result of multitudinous genetic interactions which are available, as Wright puts it, as “knobs” that can be tuned by our environment—and perhaps by our own awareness.

One subtlety that Wright drives home and bears repeating here: our “genes” don’t want us to do anything; rather, our behavior is the result of a natural process that has no intention. Mutations in higher primates that happen to be advantageous for the purpose of seeing young through to independence have resulted in what we call homo sapiens. DNA doesn’t care if the individual lives or dies, or bears young. Brute statistics determine, basically, that what works, works. What survives, survives.

In the end, Wright concludes that, although the specific mechanisms are not sharply understood, a great deal of what we do as human beings is determined by our DNA; we cannot deny the existence of our primal urges, but we can harness them. The same evolutionary crapshoot that gave us the sex drive gave us a mind capable of rational discourse. It would be easy to slip into a deep deterministic cynicism if we believed that our consciousness (and indeed, our free will) is nothing more than a thin veneer that serves mostly to justify what evolution drives us to do. But Wright offers a surprisingly optimistic way forward. We don’t have to do what our DNA wants us to do! There are plenty of logical, common-sense reasons to behave in certain ways, regardless of what genes that were coded millions of years ago are whispering in our ears. And maybe, just maybe, if evolutionary psychology turns out to be the way to understand human nature, it may provide solutions that religion, traditional ethics and previous scientific theories have been only partly successful in providing.

In the end, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal belongs in the same club as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, or even Darwin’s own The Voyage of the Beagle, as one of the classics of popular science. It’s an eminently readable and indispensable resource for any armchair philosopher or science buff. Wright doesn’t pretend he has all the answers (indeed, much of what he offers is couched in tentative terms, with caveats ad nauseum). Still, he offers food for thought and plants a good-natured stake in the ground to challenge everything we thought we knew about being human. If nothing else, The Moral Animal will make you want to pick up The Origin of Species (or pick it up again) and see what the fuss is all about.

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