Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Reading List: "The Moral Animal"

Robert Wright
The Moral Animal

Here's the problem with evolutionary psychology: its style of reasoning is all what I believe the brainy types call ex post facto. That is, practitioners take a look at features or patterns of human behavior today, then ponder about why that kind of activity might have been advantageous in "the evolutionary environment," back when we were out there gathering and scavenging and occasionally trying to take down one of our fellow large mammals. Explanations tend to be extremely tidy, and awfully difficult to test.

For all that, many of the ideas of evolutionary psychology seem to have a startling degree of explanatory power. Probably the best-known example regards the widely cross-cultural sexual behavior of men and women. Men's brains, or bodies, or genes, "want" them to sleep with essentially any woman who moves, we are told, because this is in the best interest of pushing his genetic material forward. Women's brains, on the other hand, "want" them to snag and secure a mate who is likely to stick around and help gather food, run off predators, and do the dishes. Since these were successful reproductive strategies back in the day, the logic goes, more humans who embodied these characteristics survived to spawn the next generation.

Suspiciously neat and tidy? You bet! Able to explain a nearly universal observation about human behavior in a logical and intuitively attractive fashion? Absolutely! A tricky business, this evolutionary psychology.

The Human Condition

Robert Wright's 1994 synopsis of what was at the time still a relatively new academic discipline is beautifully written, balancing provocative arguments with careful reasoning and considerable erudition. He covers, for instance, the pros and cons of polygamy, and polygamy emerges seeming like a pretty reasonable option. The human drive to seek status, our frequent tendency to discount and reject strangers, and our peculiar habit of developing friendships are all traced to the possible genetic advantage that they would confer in the long eons of prehistory.

Some readers might be disconcerted by evolutionary psychology's apparent reduction of all human motivation and morality to pure biological self-interest. But this is hardly a new concept. Hobbes blew my mind all the way back in college, after all, with a vigorous argument that whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. Oh, and he wrote that in 1651. I bet he wasn't the first cynic to come down the path, either.

But Wright's look at the human condition is less of a bummer than it could be, anyway. What saves us -- or could save us -- is the mechanism of "love," a genetic tic that confers a reproductive advantage by aiding the survival of the offspring and close relatives of those who possess it. Because kin groups united by love in the evolutionary environment tended to succeed at the expense of every-primate-for-itself kin groups, we have inherited the capacity to feel fond and protective of each other. Now, living in (basically) the post-evolutionary environment, we can more or less choose to extend our capacity of love to people who don't share our genetic material -- friends, a community, a nation, even a stranger on the other side of the world. Ultimately, Wright's prescription for the human condition is much the same of that in Ozzie in his epic rock anthem Crazy Train: "Maybe it's not too late to learn how to love and forget how to hate."

There is also some business about whether we possess free will or are just the expressions of a mechanistic brain chemistry. The answer, if I read it right, is that we are probably mechanistic, but it's important not to act like you think so.

The Darwinian Condition

The Moral Animal applies each of its... findings? insights? speculations? the case study of a single human being. That human: Charles Darwin. So, a chapter about the evolutionary psychology of courtship will be followed by a chapter about Darwin's courtship, and how it did or didn't seem to embody evolutionary psychological principles. This structure is pretty weird, to say the least, but in practice it is not nearly as clunky as you might expect. The case-study aspect is actually kind of interesting, and Darwin left a massive-enough paper trail that there's plenty of documentary evidence of his thinking. Plus, the continuous weaving of the modern perspective with Darwin's own development of his ideas points out areas where he anticipated ideas that wouldn't be fully developed for more than a century, where he went off on tangents that have since been discredited, and where he seems to have been afraid to tread.

My only complaint about this book is that it is seventeen years old. It is written very much as a dispatch from a new and exciting area of science, and I am sure that much has happened in the interim. Are Wright's ideas now passé? Have they been bolstered and supplemented by lots of exciting new research? I dunno. Meanwhile, a few details he cites in support of his arguments, in particular relating to modern hunter-gather societies and to neurochemistry, are so out of date that even a casual reader dude like myself can flag them. I imagine that someone has written a newer synthesis of the field. I just hope that they wrote it half as gracefully and entertainingly as Wright wrote The Moral Animal.


Rebel said...

Well, when I read it back in ... 1996 maybe... it seemed pretty cutting edge to me. I have, of course, forgotten most of it, other than the new to me idea of blaming complex behaviors on evolution. And I've completely forgotten about the Darwin case study. I'm glad you found it interesting.

fingerstothebone said...

" environment..."?

Do you have it on good authority that that's what we've got here?

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: I'll believe it only when I hear it from you.