Introduction: Darwin And Us

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Introduction: Darwin And Us

The Origin of Species contains almost no mention of the human species. The threats the book posed — to the biblical account of our creation, to the comforting belief that we are more than mere animals — were clear enough; Charles Darwin had nothing to gain by amplifying them. Near the end of the final chapter he simply suggested that, through the study of evolution, "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." And, in the same paragraph, he ventured that "in the distant future" the study of psychology "will be based on a new foundation."

Distant was right. In 1960, 101 years after the Origin appeared, the historian John C. Greene observed, "With respect to the origin of man's distinctively human attributes, Darwin would be disappointed to find matters little advanced beyond his own speculations in The Descent of Man. He would be discouraged to hear J. S. Wciner of the Anthropology Laboratory at Oxford University describe this subject as 'one large baffling topic on which our evolutionary insight remains meagre.' ... In the current emphasis on man's uniqueness as a culture-transmitting animal Darwin might sense a tendency to return to the pre-evolutionary idea of an absolute distinction between man and other animals."

A few years after Greene spoke, a revolution started. Between 1963 and 1974, four biologists — William Hamilton, George Williams, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith — laid down a series of ideas that, taken together, refine and extend the theory of natural selection. These ideas have radically deepened the insight of evolutionary biologists into the social behavior of animals, including us.

At first, the relevance of the new ideas to our species was hazy. Biologists spoke confidently about the mathematics of self-sacrifice among ants, about the hidden logic of courtship among birds; but about human behavior they spoke conjecturally, if at all. Even the two epoch-marking books that synthesized and publicized the new ideas — E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (1976) — said relatively little about humans. Dawkins steered almost entirely clear of the subject, and Wilson confined his discussion of our species to a final, slender, admittedly speculative chapter — 28 pages out of 575.

Since the mid-1970s, the human angle has gotten much clearer. A small but growing group of scholars has taken what Wilson called "the new synthesis" and carried it into the social sciences with the aim of overhauling them. These scholars have applied the new, improved Darwinian theory to the human species, and then tested their applications with freshly gathered data. And along with their inevitable failures, they have had great success. Though they still consider themselves an embattled minority (an identity they seem sometimes to secretly enjoy), signs of their rising stature are clear. Venerable journals in anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry are publishing articles by authors who ten years ago were consigned to upstart journals of an expressly Darwinian bent. Slowly but unmistakably, a new worldview is emerging.

Here "worldview" is meant quite literally. The new Darwinian synthesis is, like quantum physics or molecular biology, a body of scientific theory and fact; but, unlike them, it is also a way of seeing everyday life. Once truly grasped (and it is much easier to grasp than either of them) it can entirely alter one's perception of social reality. The questions addressed by the new view range from the mundane to the spiritual and touch on just about everything that matters: romance, love, sex (Are men and/or women really built for monogamy? What circumstances can make them more so or less so?); friendship and enmity (What is the evolutionary logic behind office politics — or, for that matter, politics in general?); selfishness, self-sacrifice, guilt (Why did natural selection give us that vast guilt repository known as the conscience? Is it truly a guide to "moral" behavior?); social status and social climbing (Is hierarchy inherent in human society?); the differing inclinations of men and women in areas such as friendship and ambition (Are we prisoners of our gender?); racism, xenophobia, war (Why do we so easily exclude large groups of people from the reach of our sympathy?); deception, self-deception, and the unconscious mind (Is intellectual honesty possible?); various psychopathologies (Is getting depressed, neurotic, or paranoid "natural" — and, if so, does that make it any more acceptable?); the love-hate relationship between siblings (Why isn't it pure love?); the tremendous capacity of parents to inflict psychic damage on their children (Whose interests do they have at heart?); and so on.


The new Darwinian social scientists are fighting a doctrine that has dominated their fields for much of this century: the idea that biology doesn't much matter — that the uniquely malleable human mind, together with the unique force of culture, has severed our behavior from its evolutionary roots; that there is no inherent human nature driving human events, but that, rather, our essential nature is to be driven. As Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, wrote at the turn of the century: human nature is "merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms." History shows, said Durkheim, that even such deeply felt emotions as sexual jealousy, a father's love of his child, or the child's love of the father, are "far from being inherent in human nature." The mind, in this view, is basically passive — it is a basin into which, as a person matures, the local culture is gradually poured; if the mind sets any limits at all on the content of culture, they are exceedingly broad. The anthropologist Robert Lowie wrote in 1917 that "the principles of psychology are as incapable of accounting for the phenomena of culture as is gravitation to account for architectural styles." Even psychologists — who might be expected to argue on behalf of the human mind — have often depicted it as little more than a blank slate. Behaviorism, which dominated psychology for a good part of this century, consists largely of the idea that people tend habitually to do what they are rewarded for doing and not do what they are punished for doing; thus is the formless mind given form. In B. F. Skinner's 1948 Utopian novel Walden II, envy, jealousy, and other antisocial impulses were being eliminated via a strict regime of positive and negative reinforcements.

This view of human nature — as something that barely exists and doesn't much matter — is known among modern Darwinian social scientists as "the standard social science model." Many of them learned it as undergraduates, and some of them spent years under its sway before beginning to question it. After a certain amount of questioning, they began to rebel.

In many ways, what is now happening fits Thomas Kuhn's description of a "paradigm shift" in his well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A group of mainly young scholars have challenged the settled worldview of their elders, met with bitter resistance, persevered, and begun to flourish. Yet however classic this generational conflict may seem, it features a couple of distinctive ironies.

To begin with, it is, as revolutions go, inconspicuous. The various revolutionaries stubbornly refuse to call themselves by a single, simple name, the sort of thing that would fit easily onto a fluttering banner. They once had such a name — "sociobiology," Wilson's apt and useful term. But Wilson's book drew so much fire, provoked so many charges of malign political intent, so much caricature of sociobiology's substance, that the word became tainted. Most practitioners of the field he defined now prefer to avoid his label. Though bound by allegiance to a compact and coherent set of doctrines, they go by different names: behavioral ecologists, Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, evolutionary psychiatrists. People sometimes ask: What ever happened to sociobiology? The answer is that it went underground, where it has been eating away at the foundations of academic orthodoxy.

The second irony of this revolution is tied to the first. Many features of the new view that the old guard most dislikes and fears are not, in fact, features of the new view. From the beginning, attacks on sociobiology were reflexive — reactions less to Wilson's book than to past books of a Darwinian cast. Evolutionary theory, after all, has a long and largely sordid history of application to human affairs. After being mingled with political philosophy around the turn of the century to form the vague ideology known as "social Darwinism," it played into the hands of racists, fascists, and the most heartless sort of capitalists. It also, around that time, spawned some simplistic ideas about the hereditary basis of behavior — ideas that, conveniently, fed these very political misuses of Darwinism. The resulting aura — of crudeness, both intellectual and ideological — continues to cling to Darwinism in the minds of many academics and laypersons. (Some people think the term Darwinism means social Darwinism.) Hence many misconceptions about the new Darwinian paradigm.


For example: the new Darwinism is often mistaken for an exercise in social division. Around the turn of the century, anthropologists spoke casually of the "lower races," of "savages" who were beyond moral improvement. To the uncritical observer, such attitudes seemed to fit easily enough into a Darwinian framework, as would later supremacist doctrines, including Hitler's. But today's Darwinian anthropologists, in scanning the world's peoples, focus less on surface differences among cultures than on deep unities. Beneath the global crazy quilt of rituals and customs, they see recurring patterns in the structure of family, friendship, politics, courtship, morality. They believe the evolutionary design of human beings explains these patterns: why people in all cultures worry about social status (often more than they realize); why people in all cultures not only gossip, but gossip about the same kinds of things; why in all cultures men and women seem different in a few basic ways; why people everywhere feel guilt, and feel it in broadly predictable circumstances; why people everywhere have a deep sense of justice, so that the axioms "One good turn deserves another" and "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" shape human life everywhere on this planet.

In a way, it's not surprising that the rediscovery of human nature has taken so long. Being everywhere we look, it tends to elude us. We take for granted such bedrock elements of life as gratitude, shame, remorse, pride, honor, retribution, empathy, love, and so on — just as we take for granted the air we breathe, the tendency of dropped objects to fall, and other standard features of living on this planet.6 But things didn't have to be this way. We could live on a planet where social life featured none of the above. We could live on a planet where some ethnic groups felt some of the above and others felt others. But we don't. The more closely Darwinian anthropologists look at the world's peoples, the more they are struck by the dense and intricate web of human nature by which all are bound. And the more they see how the web was woven.

Even when the new Darwinians do focus on differences — whether among groups of people or among people within groups — they are not generally inclined to explain them in terms of genetic differences. Darwinian anthropologists see the world's undeniably diverse cultures as products of a single human nature responding to widely varying circumstances; evolutionary theory reveals previously invisible links between the circumstances and the cultures (explaining, for example, why some cultures have dowry and others don't). And evolutionary psychologists, contrary to common expectation, subscribe to a cardinal doctrine of twentieth-century psychology and psychiatry: the potency of early social environment in shaping the adult mind. Indeed, a few are preoccupied with this subject, determined to uncover basic laws of psychological development and convinced that they can do so only with Darwinian tools. If we want to know, say, how levels of ambition or of insecurity get adjusted by early experience, we must first ask why natural selection made them adjustable.

This isn't to say that human behavior is infinitely malleable. In tracing the channels of environmental influence, most evolutionary psychologists see some firm banks. The Utopian spirit of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, the sense that a human being can become any sort of animal at all with proper conditioning, is not faring well these days. Still, neither is the idea that the grimmest parts of the human experience are wholly immutable, grounded in "instincts" and "innate drives"; nor the idea that psychological differences among people boil down mainly to genetic differences. They boil down to the genes, of course (where else could rules for mental development ultimately reside?), but not necessarily to differences in genes. A guiding assumption of many evolutionary psychologists, for reasons we'll come to, is that the most radical differences among people are the ones most likely to be traceable to environment.

In a sense, evolutionary psychologists are trying to discern a second level of human nature, a deeper unity within the species. First the anthropologist notes recurring themes in culture after culture: a thirst for social approval, a capacity for guilt. You might call these, and many other such universals, "the knobs of human nature." Then the psychologist notes that the exact tunings of the knobs seem to differ from person to person. One person's "thirst for approval" knob is set in the comfort zone, down around (relatively) "self-assured," and another person's is up in the excruciating "massively insecure" zone; one person's guilt knob is set low and another person's is painfully high. So the psychologist asks: How do these knobs get set? Genetic differences among individuals surely play a role, but perhaps a larger role is played by genetic commonalities: by a generic, species-wide developmental program that absorbs information from the social environment and adjusts the maturing mind accordingly. Oddly, future progress in grasping the importance of environment will probably come from thinking about genes.

Thus, human nature comes in two forms, both of which have a natural tendency to get ignored. First, there's the kind that's so pervasively apparent as to be taken for granted (guilt, for example). Second, there's the kind whose very function is to generate differences among people as they grow up, and thus naturally conceals itself (a developmental program that calibrates guilt). Human nature consists of knobs and of mechanisms for tuning the knobs, and both are invisible in their own way.

There is another source of invisibility, another reason human nature has been slow to come to light: the basic evolutionary logic common to people everywhere is opaque to introspection. Natural selection appears to have hidden our true selves from our conscious selves. As Freud saw, we are oblivious to our deepest motivations — but in ways more chronic and complete (and even, in some cases, more grotesque) than he imagined.


Though this book will touch on many behavioral sciences — anthropology, psychiatry, sociology, political science — evolutionary psychology will be at its center. This young and still inchoate discipline, with its partly fulfilled promise of creating a whole new science of mind, lets us now ask a question that couldn't have been profitably asked in 1859, after the Origin appeared, nor in 1959: What does the theory of natural selection have to offer ordinary human beings?

For example: Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life? Indeed, can it help them choose their goals? Can it help distinguish between practical and impractical goals? More profoundly, can it help in deciding which goals are worthy? That is, does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic moral impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate?

The answers, in my opinion, are: yes, yes, yes, yes, and, finally, yes. The preceding sentence will annoy, if not outrage, many people in the field. (Believe me. I've shown it to some of them.) They have long had to labor under the burden of Darwinism's past moral and political misuses, and they would like to keep the realms of science and value separate. You can't derive basic moral values from natural selection, they say, or indeed from any of nature's workings. If you do, you're committing what philosophers call "the naturalistic fallacy" — the unwarranted inference of "ought" from "is."

I agree: nature isn't a moral authority, and we needn't adopt any "values" that seem implicit in its workings — such as "might makes right." Still, a true understanding of human nature will inevitably affect moral thought deeply and, as I will try to show, legitimately.

This book, with its relevance to questions of everyday life, will have some features of a self-help book. But it will lack many. The next several hundred pages aren't loaded with pithy advice and warm reassurance. A Darwinian viewpoint won't hugely simplify your life, and in some ways will complicate it, by shining harsh light on morally dubious behaviors to which we are prone and whose dubiousness evolution has conveniently hidden from us. The few crisp and upbeat prescriptions I can glean from the new Darwinian paradigm are more than matched by the stubborn and weighty trade-offs, dilemmas, and conundrums it illuminates.

But you can't deny the intensity of the illumination — at least you won't, I hope, be denying it by the end of the book. Although one of my aims is to find practical applications of evolutionary psychology, the prior and central aim is to cover the basic principles of evolutionary psychology — to show how elegantly the theory of natural selection, as understood today, reveals the contours of the human mind. This book is, first, a sales pitch for a new science; only secondarily is it a sales pitch for a new basis of political and moral philosophy.

I've taken pains to keep these two issues separate, to distinguish between the new Darwinism's claims about the human mind and my own claims about the practical emanations of the new Darwinism. Many people who buy the first set of claims, the scientific set, will no doubt reject much of the second set, the philosophical set. But I think few people who buy the first set will deny its relevance to the second set. It is hard, on the one hand, to agree that the new paradigm is by far the most powerful lens through which to look at the human species and then to set the lens aside when examining the human predicament. The human species is the human predicament.


The Origin of Species wasn't the only seminal book published in England in 1859. There was also the best-selling and genre-christening Self-Help, written by the journalist Samuel Smiles. And then there was On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. As it happens, these two books nicely frame the question of what Darwin's book will ultimately come to mean.

Self-Help didn't stress getting in touch with your feelings, extricating yourself from sour relationships, tapping into harmonic cosmic forces, or the various other things that have since given self-help books an air of self-absorption and facile comfort. It preached essential Victorian virtues: civility, integrity, industry, perseverance, and, undergirding them all, iron self-control. A man, Smiles believed, can achieve almost anything "by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial." But he must be ever "armed against the temptation of low indulgences," and must not "defile his body by sensuality, nor his mind by servile thoughts."

On Liberty, by contrast, was a strong polemic against the stifling Victorian insistence on self-restraint and moral conformity. Mill indicted Christianity, with its "horror of sensuality," and complained that " 'thou shalt not' predominates unduly over 'thou shalt.' " He found especially deadening the Calvinist branch, with its belief that, "human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him." Mill took a sunnier view of human nature, and suggested that Christianity do the same. "[I]f it be any part of religion to believe that man was made by a good Being, it is more consistent with that faith to believe, that this Being gave all human faculties that they might be cultivated and unfolded, not rooted out and consumed, and that he takes delight in every nearer approach made by his creatures to the ideal conception embodied in them, every increase in any of their capabilities of comprehension, of action, or of enjoyment."8

Characteristically, Mill had hit on an important question: Are people inherently bad? Those who believe so have tended, like Samuel Smiles, to be morally conservative — to stress self-denial, abstinence, taming the beast within. Those who believe not have tended, like Mill, to be morally liberal, fairly relaxed about how people choose to behave. Evolutionary psychology, young though it is, has already shed much light on this debate. Its findings are at once comforting and unsettling.

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. That's the good news. The bad news is that, although these things are in some ways blessings for humanity as a whole, they didn't evolve for the "good of the species" and aren't reliably employed to that end. Quite the contrary: it is now clearer than ever how (and precisely why) the moral sentiments are used with brutal flexibility, switched on and off in keeping with self-interest; and how naturally oblivious we often are to this switching. In the new view, human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse. The title of this book is not wholly without irony.

Thus, for all the emphasis in popular treatments of sociobiology on the "biological basis of altruism," and for all its genuine importance, the idea that John Stuart Mill ridiculed — of a corrupt human nature, of "original sin" — doesn't deserve such summary dismissal. And for that reason, I believe, neither does moral conservatism. Indeed, I believe some — some — of the conservative norms that prevailed in Victorian England reflect, if obliquely, a surer grasp of human nature than has prevailed in the social sciences for most of this century; and that some of the resurgent moral conservatism of the past decade, especially in the realm of sex, rests on an implicit rediscovery of truths about human nature that have long been denied.

If modern Darwinism indeed has some morally conservative emanations, does that mean it has politically conservative emanations? This is a tricky and important question. It's easy enough, and correct, to dismiss social Darwinism as a spasm of malicious confusion. But the question of innate human goodness casts a political shadow that can't be so casually disregarded, for linkage between ideology and views on human nature has a long and distinguished history. Over the past two centuries, as the meanings of political "liberalism" and "conservatism" have changed almost beyond recognition, one distinction between the two has endured: political liberals (such as Mill, in his day) tend to take a rosier view of human nature than conservatives, and to favor a looser moral climate.

Still, it isn't clear that this connection between morals and politics is truly necessary, especially in a modern context. To the extent that the new Darwinian paradigm has reasonably distinct political implications — and as a general rule it just doesn't — they are about as often to the left as to the right. In some ways they are radically to the left.

(Though Karl Marx would find much to dislike in the new paradigm, he would find parts of it very appealing.) What's more, the new paradigm suggests reasons a modern political liberal might subscribe to some morally conservative doctrines as a matter of ideological consistency. At the same time, it suggests that a conservative moral agenda may at times profit from liberal social policies.


In making the case for a Darwinian outlook, I will use, as Exhibit A, Charles Darwin. His thoughts, emotions, and behavior will illustrate the principles of evolutionary psychology. In 1876, in the first paragraph of his autobiography, Darwin wrote, "I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life." (He added, with characteristic grim detachment, "Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.")9 I like to think that if Darwin were looking back today, with the penetrating hindsight afforded by the new Darwinism, he would see his life somewhat as I'll be depicting it.

Darwin's life will serve as more than illustration. It will be a miniature test of the explanatory power of the modern, refined version of his theory of natural selection. Advocates of evolutionary theory — including him, including me — have long claimed that it is so powerful as to explain the nature of all living things. If we're right, the life of any human being, selected at random, should assume new clarity when looked at from this viewpoint. Well, Darwin hasn't exactly been selected at random, but he'll do as a guinea pig. My claim is that his life — and his social environment, Victorian England — make more sense when looked at from a Darwinian vantage point than from any competing perspective. In this respect, he and his milieu are like all other organic phenomena.

Darwin doesn't seem like other organic phenomena. The things that come to mind when we think of natural selection — the ruthless pursuit of genetic self-interest, survival of the fiercest — don't come to mind when we think of Darwin. By all accounts, he was enormously civil and humane (except, perhaps, when circumstance made it hard to be both; he could grow agitated while denouncing slavery,and he might lose his temper if he saw a coachman abusing a horse).10 His gentleness of manner and his utter lack of pretense, well marked from his youth, were uncorrupted by fame. "[O]f all eminent men that I have ever seen he is beyond comparison the most attractive to me," observed the literary critic Leslie Stephen. "There is something almost pathetic in his simplicity and friendliness."11 Darwin was, to borrow a phrase from the title of Self-Help's last chapter, a "true gentleman."

Darwin read Self-Help. But he needn't have. By then (age fifty-one) he was already a walking embodiment of Smiles's dictum that life is a battle against "moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice." Indeed, one common view is that Darwin was decent to a fault — that, if he needed a self-help book, it was a self-help book of the late-twentieth-century variety, something about how to feel good about yourself, how to look out for number one. The late John Bowlby, one of Darwin's most perceptive biographers, believed that Darwin suffered from "nagging self-contempt" and an "overactive conscience." Bowlby wrote: "While there is so much to admire in the absence of pretension and in the strong moral principles that were an integral part of Darwin's character and that, with much else, endeared him to relatives, friends and colleagues, these qualities were unfortunately developed prematurely and to excessive degree."12

Darwin's "excessive" humility and morality, his extreme lack of brutishness, are what make him so valuable as a test case. I will try to show that natural selection, however seemingly alien to his character, can account for it. It is true that Darwin was as gentle, humane, and decent a man as you can reasonably hope to find on this planet. But it is also true that he was fundamentally no different from the rest of us. Even Charles Darwin was an animal. {15}