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Are We Moral Animals?



"Human beings are designed to assess their social environment, and, having figured out what impresses people, do it, or having found out what people disfavor, avoid it."

Where do you stand on the idea that morality itself is an evolutionary trait? How about the jealousy that you or I may feel being simply our genetics and how we can make out better in this infinite game we call life. My understanding of evolutionary psychology is limited to this book (Robert Wright's The Moral Animal) and perhaps a few more touchpoints, so apologies to any experts that are gripping their phones in anger right now.


When I think about morality or humans as moral creatures, it doesn't seem like that big of a stretch to believe that we may ultimately benefit by being charitable to others. That we've evolved to be kinder to one another to help our own gene pool. If you consider that most of us, whether we accept it or not, seek to impress others, kindness can be looked positively upon; it can be based on how we are perceived.


Let's consider the impact of social media (not even a thought when Robert Wright penned this book in 1995) today; an easy tool we can use to alter how we are perceived. As Chris Bail notes in Breaking the Social Media Prism: "The deep source of addiction to social media, I've concluded, is that it makes it so much easier for us to do what is all too human: perform different identities, observe how other people react, and update our presentation of self to make us feel like we belong."


In other words, social media is likely popular because it plays right into our evolutionary nature to be perceived by others positively while ultimately helping facilitate the success of our genetic future. What better way to make oneself look better than through social media?


Another idea I've been mulling has been that religion is baked into evolution. Perhaps something about religion's altruistic/moral nature has also been instilled in us to keep us alive longer in large groups and fighting less (yea, I know religions don't lead to violence, right?).


This book will take some time to get through as there is a lot of detail, which builds slowly. Darwin features heavily throughout as the book jumps back and forth between Darwin's history and his ideas. The book also spends a fair bit of time discussing the nature of our sexual activities as a species. Is human nature designed to be monogamous? It would seem men are created to be eager to reproduce with as many women as possible while women are less enthusiastic and more demanding. There is a can of worms on this one that I'd do no justice explaining when the book is right here.


It does raise interesting questions about beliefs that humanity has created over the ages, though. Why were Puritanistic views so heavily followed through the 16th and 17th Centuries, and even today, we see remnants of these heavy-handed cultural decisions on the individual? I think the challenge will be to bridge the ideas of cultural evolution with the actual biological evolution we seem to be mapping.


Another interesting question is the idea that our own genes have, for some reason, built us to not understand our own subconscious. We know it exists; we have glimpses of it, perhaps when we dream or else when we spend time in deep reflection or are hypnotized. Why is it so hard to actually access the underlying motivations that seem to drive us without knowing it? This is a rabbit hole for many areas. Consider a subconscious driving someone to commit a crime; what if we can prove that the person really wasn't in control?


Many good questions come from a book like this, and I'm confident that newer books add to this one; Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate comes to mind as another one to pick up.

For more details on Chris Bail's book, Breaking The Social Prism, check out my post here. If you like to dive into books that raise more questions I'd suggest this post on Sam Harris' Making Sense.

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