Book Review: The Moral Animal
I am sorry to say but I simply cannot recommend this book. Perhaps this book is just too dated to be relevant anymore (it was written in 1990), but I suspect the author just has too many old hat ideas he can’t let go of. There is some good science in this book, but too often good science and flawed or outdated science get intermixed.
The example I will give is Wright’s apparent obsession with the Victorian era. While romantic, social science that if focused on a single culture cannot be used to draw conclusions about human beings. The only conclusions about human nature that can be drawn from a study of (upper class) Victorian England is how humans will act when put into the social norms of upper class Victorian England. Any meaningful study of human behavior must be studied across cultures in order to reduce cultural bias.
Wright focuses on the Madonna/Whore dichotomy quite a bit. The Madonna/Whore dichotomy states that a man desires an ethically irreproachable woman, most likely a virgin, as a life partner but prefers a tarty skank for a sex partner. The social morays and artificial constraints of Victorian England , in which this concept was constructed, would have had, of course, a substantial influence on the theory (at the time, women enjoying sex was often considered mental illness) and any modern science writer bringing it up as anything more than a part of the history of psychology can only hope to confuse the reader.
Incredibly, Wright also says very little about morality in this book. He does not mention compassion, sympathy, or behavioral modification as a means of achieving a peaceful social structure. He does not even ponder much on what morality even is, though he does talk of utilitarian ethics a bit.
His notes on homosexuality at the end serve as a further example of a bizarre mixture of science with antiquated social ideas when he states that various genetic or environmental circumstances is what “impels them toward a lifestyle” rather than determining their orientation. Is Wright “impelled” toward a heterosexual lifestyle?
I just don’t know about Robert Wright. The topics he chooses to wright about are very interesting topics that, unfortunately, have very few books written about them intended for a general audience. However, I still cannot recommend anything by him. His conclusions about his topics can only serve to muddy the waters, giving newcomers to the field a distorted view of science. No wonder there are so many people confused about evolution. Go read something by Jared Diamond instead.