Darwin Gets Religion - Morals of The Story

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

Darwin Gets Religion
Morals of The Story

In my journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, "it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind." I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind... .

Autobiography (1876)

When the HMS Beagle left England, Darwin was an orthodox and earnest Christian. He would later recall "being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality." But he was beginning to harbor quiet doubts. He was troubled by the Old Testament's "manifestly false history of the world" and its depiction of God as "a revengeful tyrant." He wondered about the New Testament too; though he found the moral teachings of Jesus beautiful, he saw that their "perfection depends in part on the inter-pretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories."

Darwin longed to regain certainty. He daydreamed about the unearthing of ancient manuscripts that would corroborate the Gospels. It didn't help. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate." {364}

Having lost his Christian faith, Darwin held for many years to a vague theism. He believed in a "First Cause," a divine intelligence that had set natural selection in motion with some end in mind. But then he began to wonder: "[C]an the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?" Darwin finally settled into a more or less stable agnosticism, He might in upbeat moments entertain theistic scenarios; but for long periods of his life, upbeat moments weren't common.

In one sense, however, Darwin always remained a Christian. Like others of his time and place, he was steeped in the moral austerity of Evangelicism. He lived by the tenets that echoed in English churches and found secular expression in Samuel Smiles's Self-Help: that a man, by exercising his "powers of action and self-denial" could stay "armed against the temptation of low indulgences." This, as we've seen, was for Darwin the "highest stage in moral culture" — recognizing "that we ought to control our thoughts, and 'not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.' "

But if Darwin was in this sense an Evangelical Christian, he could, with almost equal accuracy, be called a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim. The theme of strict self-governance, the control of animal appetites, appears again and again in the world's great religions. Also wide-spread, if a bit less so, is the doctrine of brotherly love that Darwin found so beautiful. Six centuries before Jesus, Lao-tzu had said, "It is the way of the Tao ... to recompense injury with kindness."5 Buddhist scriptures call for "an all embracing love for all the universe ... unmarred by hate within, not rousing enmity. "6 Hinduism has the doctrine of "ahimsa," the absence of all harmful intent.

What does a Darwinian make of this striking recurrence of themes? That various men at various times have been privy to the divine revelation of several universal truths? Not exactly.

The Darwinian line on spiritual discourse is much like the Darwinian line on moral discourse. People tend to say and believe things that are in their evolutionary ingrained interests. This doesn't mean that harboring these ideas always gets their genes spread. Some religious doctrines — celibacy, for example — may dramatically fail to {365} do that. The expectation, rather, is simply that the doctrines people latch on to will have a kind of harmony with the mental organs natural selection has designed. "Harmony," admittedly, is a pretty broad term. These doctrines may, on the one hand, slake some deep psy chological thirst (belief in an afterlife gratifies the will to survive); or they may, on the other hand, suppress some thirst so unslakable as to be a burden (lust, for example). But in one sense or another, the beliefs people subscribe to should be explicable in terms of the evolved human mind. Thus when diverse sages manage to sell the same themes, the themes may say something about the contours of that mind, about human nature.

Does this mean common religious teachings have some sort of timeless value as rules to live by Donald T. Campbell, one of the first psychologists to get enthusiastic about modern Darwinism, has suggested as much. In an address to the American Psychological Association, he spoke of "the possible sources of validity in recipes for living that have been evolved, tested, and winnowed through hundreds of generations of human social history. On purely scientific grounds, these recipes for living might be regarded as better tested than the best of psychology's and psychiatry's speculations on how lives should be lived."7

Campbell said this in 1975, just after the publication of Wilson's Sociobiology and before Darwinian cynicism had fully crystallized. Today many Darwinians would be less sanguine. Some have noted that, while ideas must by definition have a kind of harmony with the brains they settle into, that doesn't mean they're good for those brains in the long run. Some ideas, indeed, seem to parasitize brains — they are "viruses," as Richard Dawkins puts it.8 The idea that injecting heroin is fun keeps infecting people by appealing to myopic cravings, rarely to the ultimate advantage of those people.

Besides, even if an idea does spread by serving people's long-term interests, the interests may be those of its sellers, not its buyers. Religious leaders tend to have high status, and it is not beyond the pale to see their preachings as a form of exploitation, a subtle bending of the listener's will to the speaker's goals. Certainly Jesus' teachings, and the Buddha's teachings, and Lao-tzu's teachings had the effect {366} of amplifying the power of Jesus and Buddha and Lao-tzu, raising their stature within a growing group of people.

Still, it's not as though religious doctrines were always forced on people. Granted, the Ten Commandments had a certain totalitarian authority, conveyed by the political leadership and carrying God's own signature. Jesus too, though lacking political office, regularly invoked God's endorsement. But the Buddha, for one, didn't stress supernatural authority. And, though born to a noble station, he is said to have abandoned the trappings of status to roam the world and teach; his movement started, apparently, from scratch.

The fact is that many people at various times have bought various religious doctrines under no great external coercion. Presumably, there was some psychological payoff. The great religions are at some level ideologies of self-help. It would indeed be wasteful, as Campbell suggests, to throw out eons of religious tradition without inspecting it first. The sages may have been self-serving, like the rest of us, but that doesn't mean they weren't sages.


One great theme of the great religions is demonic temptation. Time and again we see an evil being that tries, in the guise of innocence, to entice people into seemingly minor but ultimately momentous wrongdoing. In the Bible and the Koran there is Satan. In Buddhist scripture there is the arch-tempter Mara, who insidiously deploys his daughters, Rati (Desire) and Raga (Pleasure).

Demonic temptation may not sound like an especially scientific doctrine, but it captures nicely the dynamics by which habits are acquired: slowly but surely. For example, natural selection "wants" men to have sex with an endless series of women. And it realizes this goal with a subtle series of lures that can begin, say, with the mere contemplation of extramarital sex and then grow steadily more powerful and ultimately inexorable. Donald Symons has observed, "Jesus said, 'Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart' because he understood that the function of the mind is to cause behavior." {367}

It is no coincidence that demons and drug dealers often use the same opening line ("Just try a little; it will feel good"), or that religious people often see demons in drugs. For habituation to any goal — sex or power, say — is literally an addictive process, a growing dependence on the biological chemicals that make these things gratifying. The more power you have, the more you need. And any slippage will make you feel bad, even if it leaves you at a level that once brought ecstasy. (One habit that natural selection never "meant" to encourage was drug addiction itself. This miracle of technology is an unanticipated biochemical intervention, a subversion of the reward system. We were meant to get our thrills the old-fashioned way, from a hard day's work: eating, copulating, undermining rivals, and so on.)

Demonic temptation connects almost seamlessly with the more basic notion of evil. Both ideas — a malign being, and a malign force-lend emotional power to spiritual counsel. When the Buddha tells us to "dig up the root of thirst" so that "Mara, the tempter, may not crush you again and again," we are supposed to steel ourselves for the battle to come; those are fightin' words.10 Warnings that drugs or sex or a belligerent dictator are "evil" bring much the same effect.

The concept of "evil," though less metaphysically primitive than, say, "demons," doesn't fit easily into a modern scientific worldview. Still, people seem to find it useful, and the reason is that it is meta phorically apt. There is indeed a force devoted to enticing us into various pleasures that are (or once were) in our genetic interests bin do not bring long-term happiness to us and may bring great suffering to others. You could call that force the ghost of natural selection More concretely, you could call it our genes (some of our genes, at least). If it will help to actually use the word evil, there's no reason not to.

When the Buddha urges digging up the "root of thirst," he isn't necessarily counseling abstinence. Certainly there is talk in many religions of abstinence from various things, and certainly abstinence is one way to short-circuit the addictiveness of vice. But the Buddha put his emphasis not so much on a laundry list of proscriptions as on a generally austere attitude, a cultivated indifference to material {368} rewards and sensory pleasure: "Cut down the whole forest of desires, not .1 tree only!"11

This fundamental defiance of human nature is encouraged in some measure by other religions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth"; and "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on."12 The Hindu scriptures, like the Buddhist, dwell at more length, and more explicitly, on withdrawal from the realm of pleasure. The spiritually mature man is one who "abandons desires," who "has lost desire for joys," who "withdraws, as a tortoise his limbs from all sides, his senses from the objects of sense."13 Hence the ideal man as depicted in the Bhagavad Gita: a man of discipline, who acts without worrying about the fruits of his action, a man who is unmoved by acclaim and by criticism. this was the image that inspired Gandhi to persevere without "hope of success or fear of failure."

That Hinduism and Buddhism sound so much alike is not shocking. The Buddha was born a Hindu. But he carried the theme of sensory indifference further, boiling it down to a severe maxim — life is sillering — and placing it at the very center of his philosophy. If you accept the inherent misery of life, and follow the teachings of the liuddha, then you can, oddly enough, find happiness.

In all these assaults on the senses there is a great wisdom — not only about the addictiveness of pleasures but about their ephemerality. The essence of addiction, after all, is that pleasure tends to desperate and leave the mind agitated, hungry for more. The idea that just one more dollar, one more dalliance, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature — a misunderstanding, moreover, that is built into human nature; we are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there. Natural selection has a malicious sense of humor; it leads us along with a series of promises and then keeps saying "Just kidding." As the Bible puts it, "All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled."14 Remarkably, we go our whole lives without over really catching on. {369}

The advice of the sages — that we refuse to play this game — is nothing less than an incitement to mutiny, to rebel against our creator Sensual pleasures are the whip natural selection uses to control us to keep us in the thrall of its warped values system. To cultivate some indifference to them is one plausible route to liberation. While few of us can claim to have traveled far on this route, the proliferation of this scriptural advice suggests it has been followed some distance with some success.

There is also a more cynical explanation for that proliferation One way to reconcile poor people to their plight is to convince them that material pleasures aren't fun anyway. Exhortations to forswear indulgence could be simply an instrument of social control, of oppression. So too with Jesus' assurance that in the afterlife the "first shall be last and the last shall be first"15 — it sounds a bit like a way of recruiting low-status people to his growing army, a recruitment that may come at their own expense, as they cease to struggle for worldly success. Religion, in this view, has always been the opiate of the masses.

Maybe so. But it remains true that pleasure is ephemeral; that its constant pursuit is not a reliable source of happiness (as not only Samuel Smiles but also John Stuart Mill noted); that we are built not to easily grasp this fact; and that the reasons for all this are clearer in light of the new Darwinian paradigm.

There are scattered hints in the ancient scriptures of an understanding that human striving — after pleasure, after wealth, after status — is yoked to self-deception. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that men "devoted to enjoyment and power" are "robbed of insight." To pursue the fruits of action is to live in a "jungle of delusion."16 The Buddha said that "the best of virtues [is] passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see."17 In Ecclesiastes it is written: "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire."18

Some of these utterances are, in context, ambiguous, but there is no doubt about the clarity with which sages have seen one particular human delusion: the basic moral bias toward self. The idea recurs in Jesus' teaching — "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone"; "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of {370} thy brother's eye."19 The Buddha put it in plainer language: "The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of one's self is difficult to perceive."20

The Buddha saw, in particular, that much delusion grows out of the human penchant for one-upmanship. In warning his followers against dogmatic squabbling, he said:

The senses' evidence,

and works, inspire such scorn

for others, and such smug

conviction he is right,

that all his rivals rank

as "sorry, brainless fools."21

This grasp of our naturally skewed perspective is bound up with exhortations toward brotherly love. For a premise of these exhortations is that we are deeply inclined not to view everyone with the charity we extend to our kin and ourselves. Indeed, if we weren't so deeply inclined, if we didn't buttress this inclination with all the moral and intellectual conviction at our disposal, you wouldn't have to start a whole religion to correct the imbalance.

The renunciation of sensory pleasure is also tied to brotherly love. Acting with generosity and consideration is tricky unless you somehow escape the human preoccupation with feeding the ego. Taken as a whole, some bodies of religious thought are a fairly coherent program for maximizing non-zero-sumness.


The question remains: How did these bodies get started? Why has the doctrine of brotherly love so thrived? Leave aside for the moment that it is honored mainly in the breach, that even those who most diligently pursue it may manage to dilute their self-love only slightly, that organized religions have often been vehicles for violating the doctorine on a spectacular scale. The mere fact that the idea lives on in this species is curious. In light of Darwinian theory, everything about the idea of brotherly love seems paradoxical except for the {371} rhetorical power of the term brotherly. And this alone, surely, hasn't been enough to sell the idea.

Proposed solutions to this mystery range from the highly cynical to the mildly inspiring. At the more inspiring end of the spectrum is a theory by the philosopher Peter Singer. His book The Expanding Circle asks how the range of human compassion grew beyond it primitive bounds — the family, or perhaps the band. Singer notes that human nature, and the structure of human social life, long ago got people in the habit of publicly justifying their actions in objective terms. When we urge respect for our interests, we talk as if we are asking for no more than we would give anyone else in our shoes Singer believes that once this habit is established (by the evolution of reciprocal altruism, among other things), the "autonomy of rea soning" takes over. "The idea of a disinterested defense of one's conduct" grew out of self-interest, "but in the thought of reasoning beings, it takes on a logic of its own which leads to its extension beyond the bounds of group."

This extension has grown impressively. Singer recounts how Plato urged his fellow Athenians to adopt what at the time was a major moral advance: "He argued that Greeks should not, in war, enslave other Greeks, lay waste their lands or raze their houses; they should do these things only to non-Greeks."22 The growth of moral concern to the bounds of the nation-state has long since become the norm. Eventually, Singer believes, it may reach global proportions: star vation in Africa will seem as scandalous to Americans as starvation in America. Pure logic will have brought us truly in touch with the great religious teachings of the ages — the fundamental moral equality of everyone. Our compassion will, as it should, spread evenly across humanity. Darwin shared this hope. He wrote in The Descent of Man: "As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individ ual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and

In a sense, Singer is saying that our genes have been too clever {372} by half. They long ago began cloaking raw selfishness in the lofty language of morality, using it to exploit the various moral impulses natural selection created. Now this language, as harnessed to pure logic, impels the brains they built to behave with selflessness. Natural selection designed two things for narrow self-interest — cold reason and warm moral impulses — and somehow, when combined, they take on a life of their own.

Enough inspiration. The most cynical explanation of why so many sages have urged an expanded moral compass is the one set out near the beginning of this chapter: a large compass expands the power of the sages doing the urging. The Ten Commandments, with their bans on lying, stealing, and murder, made Moses' flock more manageable. And the Buddha's warnings about dogmatic squabbling kept his power base from splintering.

Supporting this cynicism is the fact that the universal love espoused in many scriptures doesn't emerge from scrutiny looking truly universal. The odes to selflessness in the Bhagavad Gita come in a somewhat ironic context: Lord Krishna is spurring the warrior Arjuna toward self-discipline so that he will more effectively slaughter an enemy army — an army, no less, that contains some of his own kin.24 Ami in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, after singing the praises of love, peace, gentleness, and goodness, he says, "[L]et us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith. These are wise words indeed, coming from the head of the household. The case has been made that even Jesus didn't really preach universal love, that his injunctions to love your "enemies," when appraised carefully, are seen to apply only to Jewish enemies".26

In this light, Singer's "expanding circle" seems an extension less of moral logic than of political reach. As social organization goes beyond the level of the hunter-gatherer band — to the tribe, the city-state, the nation-state — religious organization on an ever larger scale is feasible. So sages take the opportunity to expand their power — which means preaching a commensurately broad tolerance. Thus, appeals for brotherly love are comparable to a politician's self-serving appeals to patriotism. In fact, appeals to patriotism are, in a way, appeals for brotherly love on a national scale.27

There is a third theory that stands near the middle of the cynicism {373} spectrum. Yes, it holds, the Ten Commandments may have made Moses' flock more manageable. But presumably many of the sheep benefited too, since mutual restraint and consideration bring non zero-sum benefits. In other words, religious leaders, however self-interested, haven't been simply foisting their interests on the masses. They've been finding overlap between their interests and the masses' interests, and the overlap has gotten larger; as the scope of social and economic organization has grown, and with it the zone of non-zero sumness, the, self-interest of people has lain in behaving with at least minimal decency toward larger and larger numbers of people. Religious leaders are more than happy to have their stature rise commensurately.

There has been a change not just in the scope of social organi zation, but in its nature. The moral sentiments were designed for a particular environment — or, more precisely, for a particular series of environments, including hunter-gatherer villages and other, earlier, societies that are lost in the mists of prehistory. It is safe to say that these societies didn't have an elaborate judicial system and a large police force. Indeed, the strength of the retributive impulse is tes tament to a time when, if you didn't stand up for your interests, no one else would.

At some point, things began to change, and the value of these impulses began to wane. Today, most of us waste great quantities ol time and energy indulging our indignation. We rail ineffectually at careless drivers; we spend a day working with police to find a purse snatcher, even though the purse contained what we earn in three hours' work and catching the thief won't change the odds of being victimized in the future; we smolder at the fortune of professional rivals, even though we are powerless to bring them misfortune and would profit from treating them with greater civility.

When exactly in human history some of the moral sentiments began to obsolesce is hard to say. But it is worth pondering Donald Campbell's insight that it is the religions of the ancient urban civilizations — "independently developed in China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mexico, and Peru" — that reliably produced the familiar ele ments of modern religions: the curbing of "many aspects of human {374} nature," including "selfishness, pride, greed, ... covetousness, ... lust, wrath."

Campbell believes this curbing was needed for "optimal social coordination."28 Whether he means optimal for the ruler or optimal for the ruled he doesn't say. But we can take heart in the fact that, though the two are sometimes at odds, they aren't mutually exclusive. What's more, the "social coordination" in question may extend beyond the scope of any single nation. It is by now trite to say that the peoples of the world are more interdependent than ever. Trite but true. Material progress has greatly deepened economic integration, and various technologies have brought threats that humanity can lorestall only in concert, such as environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation. There may have been a time when it was commonly in the interests of political leaders to stoke their people's intolerance and bigotry to the point of international strife. This time is passing.

The Hindu scriptures teach that a single universal soul resides in everyone; the wise man "sees himself in all and all in him."29 As a metaphor for a great philosophical truth — the equal sacredness (read: utilitarian worth) of every human sphere of consciousness — this leaching is profound. And as the basis for a practical rule of living — that the wise man refrains from harming others so that "he harms not himself"30 — this teaching is prescient. The ancient sages pointed — however ambiguously, however selfishly — to a truth that was not just valid, and not just valuable, but destined to grow in value as history advanced.


In illustrating the "puritan conscience" of Victorian England, Walter Houghton described a man who wrote down all his "sins and errors" and habitually detected "selfishness ... in every effort and resolve. The idea goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, who said a saint is someone who understands that everything he does is egotistical."

This definition of sainthood reflects favorably on Darwin. Here is a characteristic utterance: "But what a horridly egotistical letter, I {375} am writing; I am so tired, that nothing short of the pleasant stimulus of vanity & writing about one's own dear self would have sufficed." (Needless to say, this sentence followed a passage that would strike few people today as egotistical. He had been voicing anxiety, not confidence, about how his work aboard the Beagle would be received.)

Whether or not Darwin, by Luther's measure, fully qualifies as a saint, it is certainly true that Darwinism, by this measure, can help make a person saintly. No doctrine heightens one's consciousness of hidden selfishness more acutely than the new Darwinian paradigm. If you understand the doctrine, buy the doctrine, and apply the doctrine, you will spend your life in deep suspicion of your motives.

Congratulations! That is the first step toward correcting the moral biases built into us by natural selection. The second step is to keep this newly learned cynicism from poisoning your view of everyone else: to pair harshness toward self with leniency toward others; to somewhat relax the ruthless judgment that often renders us conve niently indifferent to, if not hostile to, their welfare; to apply liberally the sympathy that evolution has meted out so stingily. If this operation is inordinately successful, it might result in a person who takes the welfare of others markedly, but at least not massively, less seri ously than his own.

Darwin did a reasonable job of this. Though fairly attuned to, and disdainful of, other people's vanity, his general attitude toward others was one of great moral seriousness; he reserved most of his mockery for himself. Even when he couldn't help but hate people, he tried to keep his hate in perspective. Regarding archenemy Richard Owen, he wrote to his friend Hooker, "I am become quite demoniacal about Owen" and "I mean to try to get more angelic in my feelings." The point isn't whether he succeeded. (He didn't.) The point is that to half-jokingly apply the word "demoniacal" to one's hatreds is to show more moral self-doubt, and less self-importance, than most of us usually manage. (This is all the more impressive as Darwin's feelings were hardly eccentric; Owen, though a particular threat to Darwin's status by virtue of his disbelief in natural selection, was also a spiteful and widely disliked man.)34 Darwin came fairly close to the nearly impossible and highly commendable: a detached, thorough!) {376} modern (if not postmodern) cynicism toward self, paired with Victorian earnestness toward others.

Another thing Martin Luther said is that chronic moral torment is a sign of God's grace. If so, Darwin was a walking grace repository. Here was a man who could lie guiltily awake at night because he hadn't yet answered some bothersome piece of fan mail.35

We might ask what is so gracious about filling someone with anguish. One answer is that other people can benefit from it. Perhaps what Luther should have said is that a morally tormented person is a medium for God's grace. And this (metaphorically speaking, at least) Darwin sometimes was: he was a utilitarian magnifier. Through the magic of non-zero-sumness, he turned his minor sacrifices into other people's major gains. By spending a few minutes writing a letter, he could markedly brighten the day, and perhaps the week, of some unknown soul. This is not what the conscience was designed for, since these people were usually in no position to reciprocate, and were often too remote to help Darwin's moral reputation. As we've seen, a good conscience, in the most demanding, most moral sense of the term, is one that doesn't work only as natural selection "intended."

Some people worry that the new Darwinian paradigm will strip their lives of all nobility. If love of children is just defense of our DNA, if helping a friend is just payment for services rendered, if compassion for the downtrodden is just bargain-hunting — then what is there to be proud of? One answer is: Darwin-like behavior. Go above and beyond the call of a smoothly functioning conscience; help those who aren't likely to help you in return, and do so when nobody's watching. This is one way to be a truly moral animal. Now, in the light of the new paradigm, we can see how hard this is, how right Samuel Smiles was to say that the good life is a battle against "moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice"; these are indeed the enemies, and they are tenacious by design.

Another antidote to despair over the ultimate baseness of human motivation is, oddly enough, gratitude. If you don't feel thankful for the somewhat twisted moral infrastructure of our species, then consider the alternative. Given the way natural selection works, there were only two possibilities at the dawn of evolution: (a) that {377} eventually there would be a species with conscience and sympathy and even love, all grounded ultimately in genetic self-interest; (b) that no species possessing these things would ever exist. Well, a happened. We do have a foundation of decency to build on. An animal likr Darwin can spend lots of time worrying about other animals — not just his wife, children, and high-status friends, but distant slaves, unknown fans, even horses and sheep. Given that self-interest was the overriding criterion of our design, we are a reasonably considerate group of organisms. Indeed, if you ponder the utter ruthlessness of evolutionary logic long enough, you may start to find our morality such as it is, nearly miraculous.


Darwin himself would have been among the last to see God's grace in his anguish, or in anything else. He reported, near the end of his life, that his typical frame of mind was agnostic. When he declared, the day before he died, "I am not the least afraid of death," it was almost surely in anticipation of relief from his earthly suffering, not in hope of anything better to come.36

Darwin had pondered the meaning of life for "a man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward." He believed such a man would find "in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth." Still, "his reason may occa sionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide of conscience."37

Maybe this last sentence was a loophole, designed for a man who had spent his life building a theory that lacked the universal "appro bation of his fellow men," a theory that, though true, might not tend toward "the good of others." Certainly it is a theory with which our species has yet to make its peace. {378}

Having crafted a moral measuring stick, Darwin gave his life a passing grade. "I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science." Still, while feeling "no remorse from having committed any great sin," he had "often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures. My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole time to philanthropy, but not a portion of it; though this should have been a far better line of conduct."38

It's true that Darwin didn't live the optimally utilitarian life. No one ever has. Still, as he prepared to die, he could rightly have reflected on a life decently and compassionately lived, a string of duties faithfully discharged, a painful, if only partial, struggle against the currents of selfishness whose source he was the first man to see. It wasn't a perfect life; but human beings are capable of worse. {379}


A number of people were nice enough to read and comment on drafts of parts of this book: Leda Cosmides, Martin Daly, Marianne Eismann, William Hamilton, John Hartung, Philip Hefner, Ann Hulbert, Karen Lehrman, Peter Singer, Donald Symons, John Tooby, Frans de Waal, and Glenn Weisfeld. I know all of them had better things to do, and I'm grateful.

A few people actually summoned enough grim self-discipline to read a draft of the whole book: Laura Betzig, Jane Epstein, John Pearce, Mickey Kaus (who has also improved many of my other writings over the years), Mike Kinsley (who, while editor of The New Republic and since, has improved even more of them), and Frank Sulloway (who was also kind enough to lend various other aid, including the use of his photo archives). Gary Krist gave me trustworthy feedback on an even earlier, messier version of the whole book, and also provided sound advice and vital moral support later in the game. Each of these people deserves a medal.

Marty Peretz gave me an extended leave of absence from The New Republic, in keeping with his general, and rare, policy of letting people explore things that interest them. I am lucky to work for someone who genuinely respects ideas. During that leave, Henry and Eleanor O'Neill provided a winter's free lodging in Nantucket, allowing me to write a part of this book under some of the most beautiful conditions imaginable. {380} Edward O. Wilson, by writing Sociobiology and On Human Nature, got me interested in this stuff, and has been helpful since then. John Tyler Bonner, James Beniger, and Henry Horn, who cotaught a seminar on sociobiology while I was in college, sustained my interest. While an editor at The Sciences magazine in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of editing Mel Konner's column, "On Human Nature." I learned a lot from the column, and from my conversations with Mel, about this view of life.

Thanks to Bill Strobridge (for encouraging me to become a writer), Ric Aylor (for steering me toward B. F. Skinner's writings while I was still in high school), Bill Newlin (for early advice), Jon Weiner, Steve Lagerfeld, and Jay Tolson (for later advice), Sarah O'Neill (for timely babysitting and other acts of altruism), and my brother, Mike Wright (for fueling my fascination with this book's subject in ways he doesn't know, including being such a moral animal himself). Several colleagues at The New Republic whom I've already mentioned — Ann Hulbert, Mickey Kaus, and Mike Kinsley — deserve a curtain call for providing advice and commiseration on a day-to-day basis. I feel privileged to have known and worked with them over the past few years. John McPhee, who as my college tr.uher did much to shape the direction of my life, also gave me valued advice during this project. This isn't a very McPheeesque book, but it is guided by some of his values (e.g., it's all true, so far as I know, and I didn't choose the subject with income maximization in mind).

Various scholars (including many of those mentioned above, especially in the first paragraph) have let me interrogate them, formally or informally: Michael Bailey, Jack Beckstrom, David Buss, Mildred Dickemann, Bruce Ellis, William Irons, Elizabeth Lloyd, Kevin Mac Donald, Michael McGuire, Randolph Nesse, Craig Palmer, Matt Radley, Peter Strahlendorf, Lionel Tiger, Robert Trivers, PaulTurke, George Williams, David Sloan Wilson, and Margo Wilson. A number of people provided me with reprints of their papers, the answers to nagging questions, etcetera: Kim Buehlman, Elizabeth Cashdan, Sieve Gangestad, Mart Gross, Elizabeth Hill, Kim Hill, Gary Johnson, Debra Judge, Bobbi Low, Richard Marius, and Michael Raleigh. I'm sure I'm forgetting people, including a lot of members of the {381} Human Behavior and Evolution Society whom I've buttonholed at their meetings.

My editor, Dan Frank, is rare among contemporary editors in the amount and quality of attention he gives to manuscripts. A number of other people at Pantheon, including Marge Anderson, Altie Karper, Jeanne Morton, and Claudine O'Hearn, have also been helpful. My agent, Rafe Sagalyn, has been genetous with his time and sound in his advice.

Finally, to my wife, Lisa, I owe the largest debt. I still remember when she first read the first draft of the first part of this book and explained to me — yet without using this word — that it was bad. She has read the manuscript in various forms since then and often presented similarly penetrating judgments in similarly diplomatic fashion. Often, when I was faced with conflicting advice, or otherwise befuddled, her reaction served as my guiding light. In addition, she has done all kinds of other things that allowed me to write this book without going totally crazy. I could not have asked for more (although, as I recall, I did on a few occasions).

Lisa disagrees with parts of this book. I'm sure that everyone else I've mentioned does too. That's the way things are in a young science that is morally and politically charged. {382}

Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions

In 1859, after Darwin sent his brother Erasmus a copy of The Origin of Species, Erasmus replied with a letter of praise. The theory of natural selection was so logically compelling, he said, that the fossil record's failure to document incremental evolutionary change didn't much bother him. "In fact the a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won't fit in, why so much the worse for the facts is my feeling."

This sentiment is more widely shared by evolutionists than some of them would admit. The theory of natural selection is so elegant and powerful as to inspire a kind of faith in it — not blind faith, really, since the faith rests on the theory's demonstrated ability to explain so much about life. But faith nonetheless; there is a point after which one no longer entertains the possibility of encountering some fact that would call the whole theory into question.

I must admit to having reached this point. Natural selection has now been shown to plausibly account for so much about life in general and the human mind in particular that I have little doubt that it can account for the rest. Still, "the rest" is no trivial chunk of terrain. There is much about human thought, feeling, and behavior that still puzzles and challenges a Darwinian — and much else that may not strike a confirmed Darwinian as so puzzling but does strike the layperson that way. It would be quite un-Darwinesque of me not to mention a few prominent examples. Darwin was nearly preoccupied {383} with his theory's real and apparent shortcomings, and his insistence on confronting them is one thing that makes the Origin so persuasive. The shortcoming that Erasmus alluded to came from the chapter Darwin called "Difficulties on Theory." In later editions, Darwin added another chapter called "Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection."

What follows is hardly an exhaustive list of the puzzles and apparent puzzles that surround the new Darwinian paradigm as applied to the human mind. But it conveys their nature and suggests some prospects for solving them. It also addresses some of the most commonly asked questions about evolutionary psychology and, I hope, helps dispel some common misconceptions.

1. What about homosexuals? One wouldn't expect natural selection to create people who are disinclined to do the things (for example, heterosexual intercourse) that get their genes transported into the next generation. At the dawn of sociobiology, some evolutionists thought that the theory of kin selection might solve this paradox. Homosexuals, perhaps, were like sterile ants: rather than spend their energy trying to get their genes sent directly to the next generation, they use oblique conduits; rather than invest in children of their own, they invest in siblings, nieces, nephews.

In principle this explanation could work, but reality doesn't seem to favor it. First of all, how many homosexuals spend an inordinate amount of time helping siblings, nephews, and nieces? Second, look at what many of them do spend their time doing: pursuing homosexual union about as ardently as heterosexuals seek heterosexual union. What's the evolutionary logic in that? Sterile ants don't spend lots of time caressing other sterile ants, and if they did it would constitute a puzzle.

It is notable that bonobos, our near kin, exhibit bisexuality (though apparently not exclusive homosexuality). They engage in genital rubbing, for example, as a sign of friendliness, a way to defuse tension. This points to a general principle: once natural selection has created a form of gratification — genital stimulation, in this case — that form can come to serve other functions; it can either be adapted to these other functions via genetic evolution or can come to serve {384} them via sheerly cultural change. Thus, ancient Greece developed a cultural tradition whereby boys sometimes pleased men with sexual stimulation. (And, in sheerly Darwinian terms, it's quite debatable who was exploiting whom; boys who used this technique to cultivate mentors were at least getting their status raised in the process; the men — again, in sheerly Darwinian terms — seem to have been wasting their time.)

In this view, the fact that some people's sexual impulses get diverted from typical channels is just another tribute to the malleability of the human mind. Given a particular set of environmental influences, it may do any number of things. (Prison is an extreme example of such an environmental influence; when heterosexual gratification is impossible, the sexual urge — especially the relatively strong and indiscriminate male sexual urge — may seek the closest substitute.)

Is there a "gene" for homosexuality? There is evidence suggesting that some genes are more likely to lead to homosexuality than others. But that doesn't mean there's a "gay gene" — a gene that drives one inexorably to homosexuality, regardless of environment; and it certainly doesn't mean that the genes in question were selected by natural selection by virtue of their contribution to homosexuality. (Some genes no doubt make a person more likely to enter, say, banking, or professional football, than other genes; but there's no "banker gene" or "pro football gene" — no gene that was selected by virtue of its contribution to one's banking or football playing. Just genes conducive to, say, facility with numbers, or to physical strength.) Indeed, once you rule out the kin-selection theory of homosexual inclination, it is very hard to imagine a gene being selected by virtue of its leading to exclusive homosexuality. If there is a "gay gene" that has spread to a sizable part of the population, it probably was having some effect other than homosexual inclination in the environment in which it spread.

One reason some people are so concerned about the "gay gene" question is that they want to know if homosexuality is "natural," a question that — to them, at least — seems to have moral consequence. They think it matters greatly whether (a) there is a gene (or combination of {385} genes) conducive to homosexuality that indeed was selected by virtue of that effect; or (b) there is a gene (or combination of genes) conducive to homosexuality that was selected for some other reason but, in some environments, has the effect of encouraging homosexuality; or (c) there is a gene (or combination of genes) con ducive to homosexuality that is a fairly recent arrival on the human scene and hasn't yet gotten a strong endorsement from natural selection for any particular property; or (d) there is no "gay gene."

But who cares? Why should the "naturalness" of homosexuality in any way affect our moral judgment of it? It is "natural," in the sense of being "approved" by natural selection, for a man to kill someone he finds sleeping with his wife. Rape may, in the same sense, be "natural." And seeing that your children are fed and clothed is surely "natural." But most people rightly judge these things by their consequences, not their origins. What is plainly true about homo sexuality is the following: (1) some people are born with a combi nation of genetic and environmental circumstance that impels them strongly toward a homosexual lifestyle; (2) there is no inherent con tradiction between homosexuality among consenting adults and the welfare of other people. For moral purposes (I believe) that should be the end of the discussion.

2. Why are siblings so different from one another? If genes are so important, why do people who have so many genes in common so often turn out so unlike one another? In a certain sense, this question isn't a logical one to ask an evolutionary psychologist. After all, mainstream evolutionary psychology doesn't study how different genes lead to different behaviors, but how the genes common to tin-human species can lead to various behaviors — sometimes different, sometimes similar. In other words, evolutionary psychologists typically analyze behavior without regard to an individual's peculiar genetic constitution. Still, the answer to this question about siblings sheds much light on a puzzle that is central to evolutionary psychology: If the main genetic influences on human behavior come from genes that all people share, why do people in general behave so differently from one another? We've addressed this question from various angles in this book, but the matter of siblings sheds a new kind of light on it. {386}

Consider Darwin. He was the second youngest of six children. As such, he conforms to a striking pattern that has only recently come to light: people who initiate or support scientific revolutions are exceedingly unlikely to be firstborn children. Frank Sulloway (see Sulloway [in press]), who has documented this pattern with voluminous data, has also found that people who lead or support political revolutions are very unlikely to be firstborn children.

How to explain this pattern? Presumably, Sulloway notes, it has something to do with the fact that younger children often find themselves in competition with older siblings — authority figures — for resources. Indeed, they may find themselves in conflict not just with these particular authorities, but with a whole establishment. After all, firstborn children, having higher reproductive value than their younger siblings (see chapter seven), should, in theory, tend to be favored by parents, all other things being equal. So there may often be a natural commonality of interest, an alliance, between parents and older siblings that younger siblings find themselves combatting. the establishment lays down the law, the younger sibling challenges it. It could be adaptive for children who find themselves thus situated to become good at questioning received rules. That is: a species-typical developmental program may tend to steer children with older siblings toward radical thought.

The larger point here is about "nonshared environment," whose importance geneticists have grasped only over the last decade (see Plomin in and Daniels [1987]). People who doubt environmental determinism like to point to two brothers, raised side-by-side, and ask why one of them became, say, a criminal and the other a district attorney. If environment is so important, they ask, why did these people turn out so differently? Such questions misconstrue the meaning of "environment." Though two brothers do share some aspects of their environment (the same parents, same school) a large part of their environment is "nonshared" (who their first-grade teacher was, who their friends are, and so on).

Paradoxically, as Sulloway (see Sulloway [in preparation]) points out, siblings may, by virtue of being siblings, have particularly disparate "nonshared" environments. For example, while you and your {387} next-door neighbor may both be firstborn children — and thus "share" this environmental influence — the same can't possibly be true of both you and your sibling. What's more: Sulloway believes that one sibling, by virtue of occupying a certain strategic "niche" within the family ecology, may push other siblings toward other niches in their struggle to compete for resources. Thus, a younger sibling may find that another sibling has already won great favor through, say, conscientious sacrifice for the parents; in response, he or she may seek another "niche" — excellence in school, say — rather than try to compete in the already crowded sacrifice market.

3. Why do people choose to have few or no kids? This is sometimes cited as a great evolutionary "mystery." Academics have puzzled over the "demographic transition" that lowered birthrates in indus trialized societies, trying to explain it in Darwinian terms. Some theorize, for example, that in a modern environment, having what was once considered an average-sized family can be bad for your genetic legacy. Maybe you will wind up with more grandchildren if you have two children, both of whom you can afford to educate at expensive private schools, than if you have five children who get educated at cheaper schools and find themselves unable to support children themselves. Thus, in having fewer children, people are be having adaptively.

There is a simpler solution: natural selection's primary means of getting us to reproduce hasn't been to instill in us an overwhelming, conscious desire to have children. We are designed to love sex and then to love the consequences that materialize nine months later — not necessarily to anticipate loving the consequences. (Witness the Trobriand Islanders, who according to Malinowski hadn't grasped the connection between sex and childbirth but, nonetheless, had man aged to keep reproducing.) Only in the wake of contraceptive tech nology has this design faltered.

The choice of family size is one of many cases where we have outsmarted natural selection; through conscious reflection — seeing, for example, that children, however lovable, can be quite burdensome in certain quantities — we can choose to short-circuit the ultimate goals that natural selection "intended" us to pursue. {388}

4. Why do people commit suicide? Again, one can try to construct scenarios in which this sort of behavior might be adaptive. Maybe a person in the ancestral environment who had become a burden on his family would actually maximize inclusive fitness by taking himself out of the picture. Maybe, for example, food is so scarce that by continuing to eat he would deprive more reproductively valuable relatives of nutrients to the point of endangering their lives.

This explanation is not entirely implausible, but there are some problems with it. One is that, in the modern environment at least, people who commit suicide seldom belong to families near starvation.

And, really, being near starvation is just about the only circumstance in which suicide could make much Darwinian sense. Given fairly abundant available food, almost anyone — except the seriously handicapped, or the extremely old and infirm — could, by staying alive, contribute substantially to their reproductively valuable relatives: gather berries, tend children, teach children, etcetera. (And, anyway, even if you have become an unjustifiable burden on your family, would out-and-out suicide be the genetically optimal path? Wouldn't it be better for, say, a depressed man's genes if he just wandered away from the village, hoping to find better luck elsewhere — hoping, perhaps, to encounter some strange woman he can try to seduce, if not rape?)

A likely resolution of the suicide paradox lies in remembering that the behavioral "adaptations" designed by natural selection aren't the behaviors per se but the underlying mental organs. And mental organs that were adaptive enough, in one environment, to become part of human nature may, in another environment, lead to behaviors that are maladaptive. We've seen, for example, why feeling bad about yourself may sometimes be adaptive (chapter thirteen). But, alas, the mental organ designed to make you feel bad about yourself can misfire; feeling bad about yourself for too long, without relief, may lead to suicide.

Modern environments seem more likely than some previous environments to lead to this sort of malfunctioning. They permit, for example, a degree of social isolation that was unknown to our ancestors. {389}

5. Why do people kill their own children? Infanticide is no mere product of a modern environment. It has happened abundantly in hunter-gatherer cultures and agrarian cultures. Is it, then, the result of an adaptation — a mental organ that implicitly calculates when killing a newborn will maximize genetic fitness? Quite possibly. Not only are unhealthy and handicapped babies more likely to be killed; so are babies born under various other kinds of inauspicious circumstances — when, say, the mother already has young children and has no husband.

Of course, in the modern environment, it is harder to explain thr killing of offspring as a sound genetic stratagem. But as we've seen (chapter four), many cases of supposed offspring murder are in fact the murder of a stepoffspring. Many of the rest, I suspect, are committed by husbands who may in fact be the natural father but have begun to doubt — consciously or unconsciously — that they are. And in those relatively few cases where a mother kills her own newborn baby, it is often amid the sort of environmental cues that, in the ancestral environment, might have meant that infanticide would be genetically profitable: relative poverty, no reliable source of male parental investment, etcetera.

6. Why do soldiers die for their country? Jumping on a hand grenade — or, in the ancestral environment, suicidally leading a defense against club-wielding invaders — may make Darwinian sense if you're in the presence of close relatives. But why die for a bunch of people who are just friends? That's one favor you'll never have the pleasure of seeing repaid.

First, it is worth remembering that in the ancestral environment, in a small hunter-gatherer village, the average degree of kinship to a comrade in arms was not negligibly low — and, indeed, depending on patterns of marriage, could be fairly high (see Chagnon [1988]). In discussing the theory of kin selection in chapter seven, we focused on mental organs that identify close kin and treat them with special generosity; and, we suggested, genes conducive to such discrimination will tend to flourish at the expense of genes that bestow altruism more diffusely. But there may be a few circumstances that don't {390} permit such fine discernment. One such circumstance is a collective threat. If, say, a whole hunter-gatherer band, including your immediate family and many near relatives, is under dire attack, inordinate bravery could make straightforward genetic sense by virtue of kin selection. Men in modern war may sometimes act under the influence of a tendency to bestow just such indiscriminate altruism in warlike situations. A nother difference between modern war and ancestral war is that the genetic payoff of victory is now lower. It is reasonable to suspect — based on observation of preliterate societies — that the rape or abduction of women was once a common feature of war. Thus the rewards were large enough, in Darwinian terms, to justify substantial risk (though not plainly suicidal behavior). And it is likely that the men who demonstrated the most valor during war were rewarded most richly. In sum, the best guess about valor in wartime is that it is the product of mental organs that once served to maximize inclusive fitness and may no longer do so. But the organs persist, ready to be exploited by, among others, political leaders who profit from war (see Johnson [1987]).

Human behavior poses many other Darwinian mysteries. What are the unctions of humor and laughter? Why do people make deathbed confessions? Why do people take vows of poverty and chastity — and even, occasionally, keep them? What is the exact function of grief? (Surely it signifies, as we assumed in chapter seven, the degree of emotional investment in the deceased, and surely the emotional investment itself made genetic sense while the person was alive. But now that the person is gone, how does grieving serve the genes?)

The solution to such mysteries is one of the great challenges in contemporary science. 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 {391} in the environment of their design (since that's the only reason natural selection ever designs a mental organ), they may no longer do so; (4) remembering that the human mind is incredibly complex, that it 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 circunv stance in the modern social environment.

* Actually, Darwin divided the "survival" and "reproductive" aspects of the process. Traits leading to successful mating he attributed to "sexual selection," as distinct from natural selection. But these days, natural selection is often denned broadly, to encompass both aspects: the preservation of traits that are in any way conducive to getting an organism's genes into the next generation.

* In this book I will sometimes talk about what natural selection "wants" or "intends," or about what "values" are implicit in its workings. I'll always use quotation marks, since these are just metaphors. But the metaphors are worth using, I believe, because they help us come to moral terms with Darwinism.

* Actually, a ground squirrel (or a person) shares much more than half of his genes with a sibling — and, indeed, with other members of his species. But fairly novel genes, genes that have just appeared within a population, will, on average, reside in half of an organism's full siblings. And novel genes are the ones that matter when we're talking about the evolution of new traits.

* The argument here is crucially different from other arguments about morality that have been made in this book. Here the contention is not just that the new Darwinian paradigm can help us realize whichever moral values we happen to choose. The claim is that the new paradigm can actually influence — legitimately — our choice of basis values in the first place. Some Darwinians insist that such influence can never be legitimate. What they have in mind is the naturalistic fallacy, whose past violation has so tainted their line of work. 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 norm, we are less likely to obey this aura, and thus less likely to commit the fallacy.

* Actually, one premise of the new Darwinian paradigm is that natural selection's guiding light is a bit more complex than "survival and reproduction." But that nuance won't matter until chapter seven.