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Right and Wrong

ROBERT WRIGHT attempts to explain man as a moral animal in terms of ``evolutionary psychology,'' a nascent academic discipline based on the principle that humans are programmed by evolution to secure the replication of their genes. They do this primarily by having and caring for children and by helping their kinsfolk and other members of their ethnic or racial group.

Evolutionary psychology is therefore nothing other than the more familiar sociobiology, but Mr. Wright says he prefers not to use that term because it has conservative connotations. I think this is a mistake. The connotations of a body of knowledge cannot be changed simply by giving it a new name.

His treatment has two merits and three weaknesses. The first of its merits is that Mr. Wright has correctly discerned that the sociobiological model of human behavior is a great advance on its predecessor, the cultural determinist theory, which held that our behavior is entirely determined by the cultural environment in which we are raised. The leading lights of this theory were such people as Margaret Mead and B. F. Skinner, who believed that humans are infinitely malleable.

The second merit of Mr. Wright's book is that he gives an accurate account of some of sociobiology's principal propositions. He is, for instance, sound on the differences between men and women. Contrary to the assertions of cultural determinists, sociobiology teaches that men and women are psychologically different. For one thing, men are by nature more promiscuous than women because this way they can increase the number of their offspring; the same is not possible for women, so having multiple partners does not secure them an evolutionary advantage.

However, Mr. Wright's book also has three weaknesses. The first of these is that the conclusions of sociobiology are presented through rose-tinted spectacles. Mr. Wright asserts that sociobiology teaches that humans are naturally good, because they are biologically programmed to help one another. How comforting!

This, however, is a profound misunderstanding of the message of sociobiology, which is rather that human beings are amoral or immoral animals. Sociobiology teaches that humans are programmed to promote the survival of their own genes and that they assist others only insofar as this is likely to serve the genetic objective. A much better title for the book would have been The Selfish Gene, but as this has already been used by Richard Dawkins, Mr. Wright might have called his book The Amoral Animal.

Because of his wish to promote the view that sociobiology teaches that humans are naturally moral animals, Mr. Wright omits or summarily dismisses those propositions of sociobiology which show that the human being is a rather nasty animal. The first of these is that human males are biologically programmed to stratify their societies into status hierarchies. Males compete to become top dog, or at least to become middle dogs. The top dogs allocate privileges primarily to themselves. They fight off challenges from underdogs, and maintain their status by cunning, the inculcation of fear, and brute force.

Sociobiologists have shown that these status hierarchies are present among all social animals and that male striving for status is programmed by the hormone testosterone. It is not particularly pretty to see powerful males grabbing and keeping the goodies largely for themselves, but sociobiology teaches that this is the way men are.

The second major respect in which we are hardly moral animals is our propensity for killing one another. As animals go, humans are particularly prone to kill one another, particularly in group conflicts and wars. Indeed, our only rivals in this regard in the entire animal kingdom are the ants.

Sociobiologists have concluded that the human propensity for warfare and even genocide is biologically programmed. The explanation is that if we can exterminate other groups, we can move into their territory. This means that there are going to be more of us and our genes and fewer of them and their genes. This is particularly the case when the rival group belongs to a different race from our own, because its members have few genes in common with us. This hardly befits ``the moral animal.'' Mr. Wright presents a sanitized version of sociobiology in which much has been suppressed.

The second weakness of Mr. Wright's book lies in his discussion of the implications of sociobiology for political theory. As sociobiology developed in the 1970s it was quickly realized that it confirmed the conservative view of human nature. If human males are biologically programmed to compete for rank in status hierarchies, the implication is that the egalitarian utopias cherished by the liberal Left, in which all men are equals, won't work. They are against human nature. Conservatives always suspected this, and sociobiology corroborates their insight.

Similarly, sociobiology teaches that the ideal of a multiracial society in which all races live in harmony is another liberal-Left pipe dream. Humans are biologically programmed for group conflict, particularly between races that are genetically differentiated. Sociobiology teaches that we can forget the ideal of racial harmony. The best we can do is try to mitigate racial conflict as much as possible.

Liberal-Left academics were among the first to realize that sociobiology has profoundly conservative implications for political theory. This is why they mounted such a vigorous campaign against it, proclaiming it a fascist pseudo-science. Curiously, Mr. Wright does not go along with this conclusion. Time and again he asserts that sociobiology does not confirm conservative political theory. But this is not an arguable position and he is unable to make a case for it. In fact he must be the only person who has made a fairly serious study of sociobiology and yet is unwilling to concede that it confirms the conservative view of human nature.

The intellectual problem for the liberal Left now is to take this on board and regroup. Its members are in the same position as the Church after the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin's book appeared to show that much of the Bible is plain wrong and therefore posed a serious threat to Christian belief. Some people reacted to this by attempting to suppress the implications of Darwinism -- the Robert Wright strategy. Others realized that the only hope was to accept the theory and jettison those beliefs that were obviously no longer tenable.

The liberal Left faces the same problem with sociobiology. Its task is to take seriously the conclusions of sociobiology regarding the dark side of human nature and think through what of its agenda can be salvaged. This book is a long way from meeting the case.

The book's third and perhaps most fundamental weakness is its failure to come to grips with the problem that, while sociobiology teaches that man has an inherent propensity to act selfishly, man is nevertheless a moral animal. Most human beings develop a conscience which dictates their behavior in countless directions. So the problem for someone writing a book called The Moral Animal is to explain how conscience is acquired.

Unfortunately for Mr. Wright, sociobiology does not attempt to explain things like this. To understand how humans develop a conscience one could shift to Pavlovian conditioning theory, which says that parents condition their children by approval and disapproval to behave in acceptable ways, or to modeling theory, which says that children adopt their parents as models for a wide range of behaviors and values. If Robert Wright wished to explain why man is a uniquely moral animal, he chose the wrong theory.


Right and wrong.


Mr. Lynn is a professor of psychology at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

Vol. 47, National Review, 03-20-1995, pp 70.


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