The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (3 page)

BOOK: The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
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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
, 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.

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."

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
) 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 —
— 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.")
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).
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."
Darwin was, to borrow a phrase from the title of
's last chapter, a "true gentleman."

Darwin read
. 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."

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.








As for an English lady, I have almost forgotten what she is. — something very angelic and good.

— Letter from the HMS Beagle (1835)


Boys growing up in nineteenth-century England weren't generally advised to seek sexual excitement. And they weren't advised to do things that might lead them to think about seeking it. The Victorian physician William Acton, in his book
The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs
, warned about exposing a boy to the "classical works" of literature. "He reads in them of the pleasures, nothing of the penalties, of sexual indulgences. He is not intuitively aware that, if the sexual desires are excited, it will require greater power of will to master them than falls to the lot of most lads; that if indulged in, the man will and must pay the penalty for the errors of the boy; that for one that escapes, ten will suffer; that an awful risk attends abnormal substitutes for sexual intercourse; and that self-indulgence, long pursued, tends ultimately, if carried far enough, to early death or self-destruction."

Acton's book was published in 1857, during the mid-Victorian
period whose moral tenor it exudes. But sexual repression had long been in the air — before Victoria's ascent to the throne in 1837, even before the date more loosely used to bracket the Victorian era, 1830. Indeed, at the turn of the century, the Evangelical movement that so nourished the new moral austerity was well under way.
As G. M. Young noted in
Portrait of an Age
, a boy born in England in 1810 — the year after Darwin's birth — "found himself at every turn controlled, and animated, by the imponderable pressure of the Evangelical discipline... ." This was not a matter only of sexual restraint, but of restraint generally — an all-out vigilance against indulgence. The boy would learn, as Young put it, that "the world is very evil. An unguarded look, a word, a gesture, a picture, or a novel, might plant a seed of corruption in the most innocent heart... ."
Another student of Victorianism has described "a life of constant struggle — both to resist temptation and to master the desires of the ego"; by "an elaborate practice of self-discipline, one had to lay the foundation of good habits and acquire the power of self-control."

It was this view that Samuel Smiles, born three years after Darwin, would package in
. As the book's wide success attests, the Evangelical outlook spread well beyond the walls of the Methodist churches that were its wellspring, into the homes of Anglicans, Unitarians, and even agnostics.
The Darwin household is a good example. It was Unitarian (and Darwin's father was a freethinker, if a quiet one), yet Darwin absorbed the puritanical strain of his time. It is visible in his burdensome conscience and in the astringent code of conduct he championed. Long after he had given up his faith, he wrote that "the highest stage in moral culture at which we can arrive, is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and [as Tennyson said] 'not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.' Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, 'Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.' "

BOOK: The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
12.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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