Robert Wright: The Moral animal, why we are the way we are (Vintage Books, NY, 1994), 392 pages plus extensive chapter notes, bibliography and index.
Abbreviations used in review: EP - Evolutionary Psychology, NS - natural selection
All societies, animal or human, require rules to regulate and organize behavior. Modern industrial societies however appear extremely problematic: our overheated, psychopathological economic activity is fouling our planetary nest. It is evident: we leave our children a depleted world yet we can't seem to help ourselves. Our technologically augmented war machines threaten to plunge us into a dark age. The list of problems seems to grow monthly: ozone holes, peak oil, bats dying off from a mystery epidemic, extreme weather, the Grand Recession.. We appear to be living a planetary crisis, one of our own making. Our very strengths - intelligence, social organization, technology and science - have morphed into powerlessness or, worse, demoniac forces out to get us.
Can we socially engineer our way out of the fix we got ourselves in? Can we design a society that teaches us live within our means, in relative peace with one another and the rest of creation? Is social engineering compatible with democracy?
If social engineering turns out to be a viable option, I believe it must be informed by democratic principles and values and, in practice, be founded upon democratic procedures. There is a (seeming) paradox here: those who are controlled - "society", the citizenry - must, in turn, control their controllers. It's the old chicken or egg story: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Who controls, the controlled controllers or the controlling controlled?
In a sense, we need to apply the basic principles of tribal village democracy to large scale societies because, as a species, that is the type of environment we evolved in, for which we are fitted. Ignoring this background - and the innate needs and values derived from it - can only drive us collectively crazy, turn us into denatured, sick animals. But a simplistic "return to nature" won't do either. We must also learn to "leave behind" or de-activate some of the innate psychological programming inherited from that archaic hunter-gatherer world which was the native home for tens of thousand of generations of homonids. If we fail in this endeavor to bring forth the best evolution has brought us while de-activating the worst, if we fail to regulate our collective behaviors so that we live in ecological balance with the rest of creation, our technical civilization is doomed. And we have, at best, several decades in which to get things turned around.
Robert Wright refers to himself as an "evolutionary psychologist". The term "evolutionary psychology" (EP) replaced "sociobiology" which fell into disfavor because of unfortunate associations made with "Social Darwinism", sexism, eugenics and racist ideologies by Left wing opponents. EP is founded upon Charles Darwin's insight that behavior (and its subjective concommitant, emotion) is molded by natural selection (NS) just as the physical form of an organism is shaped by its interactions with its environment.
Behaviors - and concommitant emotions / attitudes / values - which enhance survival are "selected". Behaviors which do not enhance survival or the opportunity for passing on one's genes are, over time, eliminated from the gene pool and die out. It is assumed that behaviors / emotions / attitutes are, to some degree, genetically regulated (otherwise NS would have nothing to operate on!) Modified genetic regulation of behavior could take the form, for example, of a mutation in a regulator gene controlling the level of production of a cerebral neurotransmitter. If an increase - or decrease - in the neurotransmitter production conferred increased reproductive success, the gene should, according to classical Darwinian theory, propagate throughout the population. Alternative forms of the regulator gene - its "alleles" - might not be eliminated but achive a new level of "equilibrium frequency" with the new gene and with the current physical environment. Gene frequency will then vary as the environment changes and new equilibria between the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various alleles emerge.
Human nature has been forged in a "recursive" (self-referential) process analgous to the chicken or egg riddle mentioned above. Genes modify behavior which, in a social context, creates a new social environment in which further genetic selection occurs. Genes modify social behaviors which, in turn, modify the cultural or social context in which genetic selection occurs. Chicken or egg. Theoretically, the process could continue forever. The important point, I believe, - and which ties in with my earlier discussion of social engineering - is that it is now human culture, at least as much as the natural environment, which is selecting human genomes.
There are, from my perspective, various questions which need answering. Is the general picture of human nature given by EP useful in socially engineering a viable technical society? it may be that simply knowing our origins and evolution does not give us any real power to change our collective behavior in practical, positive ways. We may be "hard wired" to be what we are and act the way we do and there may be nothing we can do about it. Even if we do have some limited control over our behavior and our collective destiny, we may end up making bad choices: we may allow religious - or other - ideologues to usurp control. They would then suppress any attempt to re-engineer social values in positive ways and socially engineer their own vicious agendas. Knowing may not, in these cases, empower..
Still smarting from the earlier sociobiology / Social Darwinism "debates", Wright goes to great lengths to emphasize that, as a science, EP is - or should - be policy neutral. It is neither politically Left or Right. Thus, argues Wright, sociological data suggest that the current easy divorce, marriage-go-round with its borken and reconstituted families are not good places to raise children from a mental health perspective - one hears the cries of "reactionary!", "sexist!" over the ether. On the other hand, data suggest that societies are generally healthier - in terms of crime, social solidarity, life expectancy - if the gap between rich and poor is not great and wealth is distributed equitably and fairly - now a chorus of "Commie!", "socialist!", "New World Order!" from the other side of the political spectrum.
I believe that Wright is right here. By nature, EP treads on social policy, morality and values. Thus, if it is being "scienfitific" and "objective", EP should tread on toes on BOTH sides of the political spectrum from time to time. Consider: all political persuasions are full of people with big ambitions whose ultimate goal is personal power and / or who serve vested class or group interests.. Thus, EP could, in theory, provide enlightened politicians with valuable guidelines "to what is humanly possible".
Otherwise, as Wright suggests, they risk being ruled by short term interest or troublesome - "tribal" - values and attitudes inherited from religion or secular ideologies.
Since EP's subject matter is the "human condition", it offers its flank to philosophical critiques. These are numerous and some quite profound. There is the general critique often leveled against the human sciences by "hard" scientists (physics, chemistry): if biology is soft science, then the human sciences are squishy soft - to the point we can ask "are they really sciences?"
Following in the footsteps of older traditional sciences, EP generates hypotheses from observations, makes testable predictions based on questions raised by the hypotheses and then tests the predictions in the field or lab. Thus, remaining primitives societies are studied to discover the effects of cultural differences or to understand the origin of those differences. Differences are evaluated in light of a putative evolutionary processes to paint a portrait of Universal Human Nature. Wright argues that this portrait, this scientific vision of human nature, is necessary if we are to learn to live together in peace. Without such knowledge, he implies, we will not be able to master the potentially destructive technologies our human nature has unleashed on earth's biosphere. Since EP is less than 50 years old, only time will tell if we are seeing the birth of a new science or the passing of an intellectual fad: one thinks of the fate of astrology, marxism, industrial agronomy, psychoanalysis, eugenics, Hitler's race theories,..
Three of the primary "entities" (or processes) which EP attempts to study are kin selection, reciprocal altruism and social status. From these three much of human behavior, individual and collective, can be understood. Since we are social animals (higher primates) we depend upon others yet are in rivality with them. We natrally seek to aggrandize ourselves - and the groups we identify with - while diminishing rivals the groups our rivals belong to. This, along with sex, is raw human nature. This is what nature evolved us to be. This is who we are. (On the surface, at least,) it is not an edifying picture. But if the name of the game is Survival, we may have to learn to swallow some unpleasant truths about ourselves..
Since humans are also (partially, at least) rational animals, we also naturally - instinctively -seek to engage in mutually benefical relations with allies, genetically related or not. Evolution assured that we would mutually aid those we recognize as related to ourselves (our kin or extended family). Such mutual aid among related individuals would raise the probability of their "gene pool" being passed on to future generations. Families who were less likely to aid one another had less probability of survival in the long run. The only requirement here is that some, at least, of the determination of the likelihood to aid a relative is genetic in nature.
Reciprocal altruism is an extension of mutual aid to non-relations: you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Here mutual aid is extended to a large network of interacting individual, some of whom are related to us, others unrelated. Much investigation by psychologists has shown how spontaneously and naturally we all keep tabs on who owes whom what in our social networks. We will eventually eliminate "freeloaders" from our network, those who take but contribute little or nothing in return.
And like our primate ancestors we engage in a constant game of primate politics. We seek to buy the suport of the powerful by offering them something in return for their support. Through mutual exchanges of aid we seek to build social networks we can fall back on in hard times. One of the fascinating and most enjoyable parts of Wright's book was the clever use made of annecdotes from Darwin's life or entries from his journals to exemplify the subtleties of primate politics as expressed in the human.
Kin selection has turned out to be perhaps the most contentious principle of EP. Studies have attempted to understand how we came to be the social animals we are and how these emerging traits were passed on as changes in the DNA code.
Since the basic unit selected by NS is the gene, one is forced to answer the question: how are genes encouraging altruistic behaviors since altruistic behavior often ends up reducing the oportunity of passing on one's genes (the altruist risks his life for other and dies..) Kin selection explains this apparent paradox by arguing that the altruist raises the chances of survival of the group to which he belongs. And since humans originally lived in small hunter gatherer clans, the group would share many of his genes. Thus the altruist, in reducing his personal chance of survival, increases the chances of survival of his genetic type. In the long run, altruistic genes came to dominate much of human behavior and social organization, producing a "chimeric" creature possessing both powerful drives toward autonomy and self-expression (sex, status seeking) AND group solidarity, sociality. The paradox - and tragedy - as Wright notes, is that our love of neighbor and kin is payed for by the price of tribal hatred of those who are different and the eternal curse of war. The most social animals - exactly BECAUSE they are social and benefit from the power it confers - are the most aggressive. This applies even to the invertebrate world of insects: the ants are the most social insects and the most aggressive insects.
Contrary to what some of its critics claim, EP does not really claim that we are "biological robots". Wright likes to use the analogy of a device like a radio. Evolution built the radio, including its adjustable knobs. It is US - living human cultures - that determine the setting the knobs are adjusted to, whether we are listening to baroque or death metal, to a devotional program on God's love or to the ravings of an enflamed hate-monger.
Wright correctly, I believe, sees human nature as a dynamic phenomenon of evolving and emergent complexity - a work in progress. We are not what our ancestors were in the "ancestral environment" our species evolved in. Our descendants will be different than us in some ways (let's hope so!!)
".. If Nature and man are both the work of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intented Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by man" - British utilitarian philosopher, J. S. Mill
Wright goes so far as to reject the "naturalistic fallacy" which holds that "Nature should be our only guide". This does make sense: since early homonid societies practiced canabalism, should we? In this view, the moral sphere is granted a certain amount of emergent autonomy.
Given all this, given our origins in animal evolution, how, then, are we humans, living today, to live our lives? What should our values be? To what should we aspire? What is the good life?
In the closing chapters, Wright makes a compelling argument for "greater compassion and concern" for our fellow humans - and greater self-criticism, practiced as a daily art form, a way of life..
On a "higher" philosophical plane, Wright adopts the utilitarian philosophy of his heros, Charles Darwin and the intellectual circle around him (who, generally, considered themselves utilitarians). Acting for the greatest common good (or to minimize the common evil) is the sanest philoophy, Wright argues. Given the destructiveness of modern technology, its hard not agree. One thinks of Lady MacBeth or Hitler in possession of the atomic bomb..
Wright is cunningly attempting to counteract our natural perceptual bias in the moral sphere: we tend to inflate our virtues (or those of our group) and down play our weak points. Conversely, we tend to inflate the vices of rivals and downplay their virtues. This leads to the dehumanization of others we see in conflictual situations with ourselves. I think Wright is saying we need to counter these tendencies and find, for example, more rational means of conflict resolution than ethnic strife and war.
In short, as a (fundamentally) optimistic utilitarian, Wright cites a victorian moralist Samuel Smiles with enthusiasm: "the greatest slave is not he who is ruled by a despot, great though that evil be, but he who is in the thrall of his own moral ignorance, selfishness and vice".
Knowledge shall set you free!
This is a decent text to start for those wishing to inform themselves on modern science's take on the human condition. When discussing incidents from Darwin's life and times, the text is as lively as any novel. The principles of EP are well set out and illustrated for the unitiated. Despite some stylistic heaviness in places, I give it a good 8 / 10.