The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (1994)

moral a

Sympathy, empathy, compassion, conscience, guilt, remorse, even the very sense of justice, the sense that doers of good deserve reward and doers of bad deserve punishment—all of these can now be viewed as vestiges of organic history on a particular planet. p. 328

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Wright summarizes the primary thesis of evolutionary psychology: human minds are a collection of evolutionary adaptations, and the result of natural selection. Just as our bodies and organs evolved to solve specific problems in particular environments, so did our minds. Our cognition, emotions, and moral sensibilities—our mental architecture—evolved to be adaptive in the ancestral environments where evolution occurred.

The book lays out the arguments, evidence, and logic behind this conclusion. In a clever turn, Wright uses the life of Charles Darwin to demonstrate how various aspects of our evolved psychology—gratitude, self-deception, jealousy, love—can manifest themselves in a particular life. The book is biography of both an individual and of a scientific paradigm.

This is a superb book, clearly in my all-time top five. Evolution is the root of humanity, and evolutionary psychology is, for me, the most interesting level of analysis. Why do people behave in such seemingly bizarre ways? Where does selfishness and selflessness come from? Evolutionary psychology places these fascinating questions in a framework where they can be meaningfully addressed. Wright explains the origins and underlying logic of the ugliest and most beautiful facets of human nature without explaining them away.

The logic of Darwinism is, for its incredible explanatory power, relatively simple. Wright illustrates this logic, and its more complex manifestations, clearly and engagingly. Both Darwin’s life and evolutionary psychology are enriched by having been so gracefully interwoven. The evolutionary logic governing our behavior gains a human face, and Darwin’s behavior and emotions, his struggles and triumphs, become more meaningful when they are viewed as manifestations of a deep evolutionary history that is shared by all humans. Seeing the logic that underlies the best and worst of human nature makes it easier to step back and find empathy for the behavior of others.

Ideas per page1: 7/10 (relatively high)

Related books: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker; Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban

Recommend to others: Strongly recommended

Reread personally: Yes, in a few years


7 “They believe the evolutionary design of human beings explains these patterns: why people in all cultures worry about social status… gossip… feel guilt.” 7

9 “Human nature consists of nobs and of mechanisms for tuning the knobs, and both are invisible in their own way.”

12 “Altruism, compassion, empathy, love, conscience, the sense of justice—all of these things, the things that hold society together, the things that allow our species to think so highly of itself, can now confidently be said to have a firm genetic basis.”

24 Your entire body—much more complexly harmonious than any product of human design—was created by hundreds of thousands of incremental advances, and each increment was an accident; each tiny step between your ancestral bacterium and you just happened to help some intermediate ancestor more profusely get its genes into the next generation.

53 “…human brains evolved not to insulate us from the mandate to survive and reproduce, but to follow it more effectively, if more pliably; that as we evolve from a species whose males forcibly abduct females into a species whose males whisper sweet nothings, the whispering will be governed by the same logic as the abduction—it is a means of manipulating females to male ends, and its form serves this function.”

57 “[quoting Robert Trivers] “One can, in effect, treat the sexes as if they were different species, the opposite sex being a resource relevant to producing maximum surviving offspring.”

59 “…focus not on the emotion itself, but on the abstract evolutionary logic it embodies.”

63 “Not only have males evolved to compete for scarce female eggs; females have evolved to compete for scarce male investment.”

66 “Male jealousy should focus on sexual infidelity, and males should be quite unforgiving of it; a female, though she’ll hardly applaud a partner’s extracurricular activities, since they consume time and divert resources, should be more concerned with emotional infidelity—the sort of magnetic commitment to another woman that could eventually lead to a much larger diversion of resources.”

71 “The minds of men are an evolutionary record of the past behavior of women. And vice versa.”

89 “Once you start seeing everyday feelings and thoughts as genetic weapons, marital spats take on new meaning.”

90 “A huge majority—980 of the 1,154 past or present societies for which anthropologists have data—have permitted a man to have more than one wife.”

101 “It [the United States] is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny. Johnny Carson, like many wealthy, high-status males, spent his career monopolizing long stretches of the reproductive years of a series of young women. Somewhere out there is a man who wanted a family and a beautiful wife and, if it hadn’t been for Johnny Carson, would have married one of these women.”

103 “In America in in 1976, a child living with one or more substitute parents was about one hundred times more likely to be fatally abused than a child living with natural parents. In a Canadian city in the 1980s, a child two years of age or younger was seventy times more likely to be killed by a parent if living with a stepparent and natural parent than if living with two natural parents.”

111 “Darwin, responding to all this matrimonial news in a letter to his sister Caroline, made no pretense of happiness. “Well it may be all very delightful to those concerned, but as I like unmarried women better than those in the blessed state, I vote it a bore.”

130 “…lasting love is something a person has to decide to experience. Lifelong monogamous devotion is just not natural—not for women even, and emphatically not for men. It requires what, for lack of a better term, we can call an act of will. Hence the aptness of Darwin’s apparent separation of the marriage question from the marriage-partner question. That he made up his mind—firmly, in the end—to get married and to make the most of his marriage was as important as his choice of mate.”

146 “…people tend to pass the sorts of moral judgments that help move their genes into the next generation (or, at least, the kinds of judgments that would have furthered that cause in the environment of our evolution). Thus a moral code is an informal compromise among competing spheres of genetic self-interest, each acting to mold the code to its own ends, using any levers at its disposal.”

150 “…the way weak hypotheses get strong is by being proposed and then mercilessly scrutinized.”

158 “…the logic [of natural selection] could apply to genes inclining human being to sense early on who their siblings are and thereafter share food with them, give guidance to them, defend them, and so on—genes, in other words, leading to sympathy, empathy, compassion: genes for love.”

161 “Back before our species became high in male parental investment, there was no reason for males to be intensely altruistic toward offspring. That sort of affection was the exclusive province of females, in part because only they could be sure who their offspring were. But males could be pretty sure who their brother and sisters were, so love crept into their psyches via kin selection.

163 “The only thing natural selection ultimately “wants” to keep in good shape is the information in our genes, and it will countenance any suffering on our part that serves this purpose.

166 paraphrase: parents and offspring often diverge: parents want to treat their children equally, children want all the resources.

175 “As predicted, parents do grieve more over the death of an adolescent than of a three-month-old—or, also in keeping with theory, of a forty-year-old. It is tempting to dismiss such results: of course we regret a young man’s death more than an older man’s; it’s obviously tragic to die with so much of life unlived. To which Darwinians reply: Yes, but remember—the very “obviousness” of the pattern may be a product of the same genes that, we propose, created it. The way natural selection has worked its will is to make some things seem “obvious” and “right” and “desirable” and other “absurd” and “wrong” and “abhorrent” We should probe our commonsense reactions to evolutionary theories carefully before concluding that the common sense itself isn’t a cognitive distortion created by evolution.”

198 Paraphrase: sympathy, gratitude, obligation, anger, dislike, forgiveness, are human universals, and are ways to engage in effective tit-for-tat altruism.

202 “…natural selection crafted an ever-expanding web of affection, obligation, and trust our of ruthless genetic self-interest. The irony alone would make the process worth savoring, even if this web didn’t include so many of the experiences that make life worthwhile.”

204 “why are you lavishly thankful for a life-saving sandwich after three days in the wilderness and moderately thankful for a free dinner that evening? His [Trivers’] answer is simple, credible, and not too startling: gratitude, by reflecting the values of the benefit received, calibrates repayment that’s in order. Gratitude is an I.O.U, so naturally it records what’s owed.”

216 “In short: “moral guidance” is a euphemism. Parents are designed to steer kids toward “moral” behaviors only insofar as those behaviors are self-serving.”

217 “Thorough positive reinforcement (for undetected and fruitful lies) and negative reinforcement (for lies that peers uncover, or through the reprimand of kin) we learn what we can and can’t get away with, and what our kin do and don’t consider judicious deceit.”

222 “the contours of their conscience get adjusted for them—by kin (who themselves may not grasp what’s going on) and by other sources of environmental feedback.

225 “…human beings aren’t “fitness maximizer” but rather “adaptation executers.” The adaptation in question—the conscience—was designed to maximize fitness, to exploit the local environment in the name of genetic self-interest…”

232 “I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” Darwin letter to Joseph Hooker, 1884

240 [why do people bow to others? Self interest]: “Each hen is deferring to hens that will probably win anyway, saving itself the costs of battle.”

266 “…many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionarily ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

268 “…status is a relative thing. Your gain is someone else’s loss.”

269 “The keen sensitivity with which people detect the flaws of their rivals is one of nature’s wonders. … Honesty of evaluation is simply beyond the reach of most mortals.”

270 “In fact, you could say that low self-esteem evolved as a way to reconcile people to subordinate stature when reconciliation is in their genetic interest.”

272 “And even when “truth” can be clearly defined, it is a concept to which natural selection is indifferent. To be sure, if an accurate portrayal of reality, to oneself or to others can help spread one’s genes, then accuracy of perception or communication may evolve. And often this will be the case (when, say, you remember where food is stored, and share the data with offspring or siblings). But when accurate reporting and genetic interest do thus intersect, that’s just a happy coincidence. Truth and honesty are never favored by natural selection in and of themselves. Natural selection neither “prefers” honesty nor “prefers” dishonesty. It just doesn’t care.”

275 “From the gene’s point of view, monitoring the two sides of the record with equal diligence would be foolish. If you end up getting slightly more than you give, so much the better.”

275 “…not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims.”

280 [Charles] Darwin wrote in his autobiography of a habit he called a “golden rule”: to immediately write down any observation that seemed inconsistent with his theories–“for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.”

283 “Being a person’s true friend means endorsing the untruths he holds dearest.”

284 “…the best way to convincingly say such things is to believe them—believe that the person is incompetent or stupid, or, best of all, bad, morally deficient, a menace to society.”

340 “But what we’re doing here doesn’t violate the naturalistic fallacy. Quite the opposite. By studying nature—by seeing the origins of the retributive impulse—we see how we have been conned into committing the naturalistic fallacy without knowing it; we discover that the aura of divine truth surrounding retribution is nothing more than a tool with which nature—natural selection—gets us to uncritically accept its “values.” Once this revelation hits home, we are less likely to obey this aura, and thus less likely to commit the fallacy.”

341 “Rather, the paradigm is useful because it helps us see that the aura of rightness surrounding so many of our actions may be delusional; even when they feel right, they may do harm. And surely hatred, more often than love, does harm while feeling right. That is why I contend that the new paradigm will tend to lead the thinking person toward love and away from hate. It helps us judge each feeling on its merits; and on grounds of merit, love usually wins.”

350 “In other words: So long as this knowledge is confined to a few English gentlemen, and doesn’t infect the masses, everything will be all right.”

353 “…if biochemistry negated free will, than none of us would have free will! And we know that’s not the case. Right. (Pause.) Right?

353 “We must view a wicked man, Darwin wrote in his notes, “like a sickly one.” It would “be more proper to pity than to hate & be disgusted.””

353 “…blame and punishment are as practically necessary as they are intellectually vacuous.”

363 “Animals do attach the weak & sickly as we do the wicked.” –Darwin Quote

391 “Often the route to solution will involve these themes: (1) distinguishing between the behavior and the mental organ governing it; (2) remembering that the mental organ, not the behavior, is what was actually designed by natural selection; (3) remembering further that, though these organs must have led to adaptive behavior in the environment of their design (since that’s the only reason natural selection ever designs an organ), they may no longer do so; (4) remembering that the human mind is incredibly complex, that is was designed to yield a large array of behavior, depending on all kinds of subtleties of circumstance, and that the array of behaviors it yields is tremendously expanded by the unprecedented diversity of circumstances in the modern social environment.”


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


5 thoughts on “The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (1994)

  1. one of my favorites as well, i see you also read inside jokes. Did a research essay on humor and found that book fascinating.


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