BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Wright, in the back of your book, you credit your brother Mike for fueling your fascination with this book and the subject in ways he doesn't even know about. What are you talking about there?
ROBERT WRIGHT, AUTHOR, "THE MORAL ANIMAL": Well, he was just an unusually moral guy -- I would say an unusually selfless person and kind of model member of our species, I guess. And a lot of the book is about how is it that animals that evolved through natural selection, this kind of ruthless process, as we apparently did -- how is it that they can be moral in the first place, that they can behave selflessly and be decent people?
LAMB: Where's your brother?
WRIGHT: He's in Albuquerque. He lives in Albuquerque now.
LAMB: What's the difference in age?
WRIGHT: He's five years older than I am, so he was a role model, as older siblings often are, and so he's responsible for, I guess, much of my character, for better or worse.
LAMB: Did you grow up in Albuquerque?
WRIGHT: No. My father was in the Army and both my parents are from west Texas -- rural west Texas -- but I grew up kind of all over the country.
LAMB: When you use the word “moral,” what do you mean?
WRIGHT: I guess I mean -- well, I would say the most moral behavior is behavior that is truly self-sacrificial, when people really do something for other people that does not accrue to their benefit in any way. A lot of the things that we do that we call moral are in roundabout ways self-interested, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you have a friend and you do favors for the friend and so on, that's great and, in fact, natural selection designed us to have the impulses of gratitude and affinity that govern these kinds of relationships and they're good for the species and they're fine. But I would say the most moral behavior is the kind that is not in your self-interest in any sense.
I, in the book, talk a little about Darwin because he was such a famously decent person, and I show some cases where he did that sort of thing. He crusaded on behalf of, for example, on behalf of the welfare of animals even in ways that didn't help him at all. He just had a very acute conscience. And I look at the question of why the conscience evolved in the first place and how it is a flexible mental mechanism and that we can use it in a way more morally than it was really designed to be used, to do truly selfless things.
LAMB: When did you come to The New Republic?
WRIGHT: In 1988 I came, and I was writing editorials at that point, and then I've done a variety of things since then. I took a leave of absence to write this book, so I was gone for two years.
LAMB: What was the purpose of the book?
WRIGHT: Well, it's about this field of evolutionary psychology, which is, I think, a genuinely major intellectual development and there are also parallel things happening in other social sciences, especially anthropology. It's grounded in kind of a new way of understanding the evolution of human nature. And I'm personally convinced that this is the wave of the future, that this worldview has so much scientific merit that it's here to stay. So I wanted to, first of all, lay it out for people and help them understand it because I think it's going to be a politically important, a philosophically important worldview.
LAMB: How will it be politically important?
WRIGHT: Well, first of all, Darwinism has long had political ramifications. The stereotype is that the ramifications are inherently conservative because around the turn of the century, what was called “social Darwinism” consisted of, for example, justifying the oppression of the downtrodden on grounds that this was in some way natural and part of some divine natural plan. So historically, Darwinism has been used -- I would say misused -- in the service pretty exclusively of right-wing causes. So first of all, I wanted to look at this modern Darwinian paradigm, evolutionary psychology, and see if that's really some kind of inherent tendency, if it has to help only the right wing. And I try to show that it doesn't. For example, it's not some kind of crude form of genetic determinism which says that the bad parts of society are irremediably bad. In fact, evolutionary psychology pays a lot of attention to the importance of early environment and of cultural forces and so on. So that's just a misconception I wanted to dispel about Darwinism.
LAMB: Where did you start getting interested in all this?
WRIGHT: I've been interested in psychology and human behavior all my life, and I actually think it has to do with having moved around a lot because my father was in the Army, because I noticed that people everywhere are basically the same, and I lived in a lot of quite varied environments. In San Francisco, I lived in schools that were predominantly Asian, for example -- I went to school in Texas, in Virginia.
LAMB: Where in Texas?
WRIGHT: Well, I lived in various Texas cities, but I went to school in El Paso and I went to school in San Antonio and a year of college in Ft. Worth. I went to, like, five different elementary schools or something like that. And I guess I did kind of unconsciously start to think about human nature. I mean, what is it that all of these people have in common? And it's a whole lot. People everywhere are basically the same, and that's really the premise of evolutionary psychology. And here we come
to another misconception about Darwinism: that all people who are interested in a Darwinian view of human behavior are arguing that differences in behavior between different groups, cultural groups or ethnic groups, are grounded in genetic differences between those groups, and that's not what evolutionary psychology is about. It's about the idea that there is a universal human nature and that people's minds everywhere on this planet are fundamentally the same.
LAMB: Before we go any farther, you are at The New Republic, and The New Republic was involved in the controversy over "The Bell Curve" and Charles
Murray, and he's done this program. Where do you stand on the Murray book?
WRIGHT: Well, I wrote a column about this -- a TRB about this to try to clear this up. The ...
LAMB: The TRB column?
WRIGHT: The TRB column, which, I guess, not everyone knows. It's a column that appears at the front of the magazine and I write it every other week and, well, first of all, I repeated this point: that evolutionary psychology, that all the things people may be hearing about new evolutionary views of behavior or the genetic basis of behavior do not at all imply Murray's view of the world, which is that different ethnic groups
are different for reasons of different genes. And then I also tried to show that one of the concepts central to his book -- it's technically called heritability -- is much misunderstood, and a high number for heritability doesn't mean what you probably think it means. I mean, he notes that IQ, for example, is, by most studies, around .5 or .4 or .6 heritable.
LAMB: What does that mean?
WRIGHT: Not at all what people think. I mean, it doesn't mean that you cannot massively change IQ through early educational influence. The heritability of a trait says nothing about how easy or hard it is to change.
LAMB: You're talking about heredity?
LAMB: Passing down through -- explain what heredity is.
WRIGHT: Well, heredity is the transmission of traits through the genes, and this is what Darwin's theory is very much about, of course, because the whole theory is that those genetically-based traits which, in a sense, are conducive to getting the underlying genes into the next generation are the traits that are with us today -- for example, hunger, OK? If you imagine two ancestors, one that had a gene inclining him to eat food, you know, he was hungry, another that didn't have that sensation, well, the one without the sensation, his genes are going nowhere because he'll die before he can reproduce, OK? So that's why the sensation of hunger is with us today. Genes for hunger got through the ...
LAMB: What's a gene?
WRIGHT: A gene is a unit of hereditary information and most of the traits you think about, including mental traits, involve a whole lot of genes. There are very few kind of single-gene traits. So anything that I talk about in the book, like the conscience or sensations of guilt or lust or romantic love or this phenomenon of varying self-esteem -- all these things are part of our evolutionary heritage. But none of them is based on only one gene. They're all very complex traits.
LAMB: You say you lived in Texas, you lived in San Francisco, you lived in Virginia?
WRIGHT: I lived in Ft. Monroe. I went to fifth grade in Ft. Monroe, Virginia, and ...
LAMB: That's located down near ...
WRIGHT: Near the Chesapeake.
LAMB: Virginia Beach.
WRIGHT: Right, on the other side of the bay from Virginia Beach.
LAMB: What service was your father in?
WRIGHT: He was in the Army.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
WRIGHT: No, he's not. He...
LAMB: How about your mother?
WRIGHT: She's alive, living in Northern California where two of my sisters live with all their kids.
LAMB: Total number of kids in the family?
WRIGHT: Five kids in my family, and I guess my mother now has somewhere around 14 or 15 grandkids. So I guess her genes are doing well.
LAMB: And you're married?
WRIGHT: I am. I have two very young daughters.
LAMB: Where are you with your siblings? How are older, younger -- I mean, where do you fit?
WRIGHT: I'm the fourth youngest. But there was a five-year gap between me and the next oldest, so I guess I got a little more pampered than a lot of younger offspring get probably.
LAMB: How much education do you have?
WRIGHT: I have a bachelor's degree from Princeton and that's it.
LAMB: Someplace in this book -- and this is jumping out of context -- I think
you write one of the theories is that the oldest son will not be a revolutionary or a radical.
WRIGHT: Yeah, that actually draws on the work of Frank Sulloway, who has a book coming out on that subject. He found that later-born children, as opposed to firstborn, are much more likely to support scientific revolutions, like the Darwinian revolution, or even political revolutions. And that's interesting because it shows -- it's one of the many, many cases where systematic differences in behavior exist not because of differences in genes. There's no systematic difference between the genes that a firstborn child gets and later-born children get. The genes are randomly passed out to these kids. But there is this pattern that later-born kids are much more radical, are much more open to radical ideas, and Frank thinks about this in a kind of evolutionary way, that the ...
LAMB: Who is he?
WRIGHT: Frank Sulloway -- he's at MIT now. He wrote a book called "Freud: Biologist of the Mind" some years back and he's something of a generalist really. He's a historian of science.
LAMB: For an academic watching this who has a PhD in psychology, what would
you say to them when they would say, “Well, he can't possibly know what he's talking about. He doesn't have a PhD in psychology”?
WRIGHT: They may be right. It's possible that I'm wrong about all this stuff, but all I would ask is that they read the book first because this is not something that you can -- this whole worldview, this whole evolutionary psychology, this kind of new Darwinian paradigm is not something you can prove to people by having them look through a microscope. It's not that kind of science. And, in fact, the human behavioral sciences have never been that kind of science. It's a science in which evidence comes from a variety of sources, and you have to kind of go through and weigh the evidence. But I submit that when you look at the evidence from anthropology -- in other words, things that are true in cultures around the world -- look at the evidence from other species, including those that are most closely related to us, look at Darwinian theory itself and really understand the theory of natural selection and what it predicts -- I think people will find the worldview really persuasive.
LAMB: How would the world be different if Charles Darwin never lived?
WRIGHT: Well, it depends somewhat on your view of scientific history and whether you have a kind of great man or great thinker view of science history or whether you view the truth as something that's kind of out there that science is converging upon. And I take the latter view. And in fact, there was -- even before Darwin published, there was another naturalist who arrived at the same theory, the theory of natural selection. And for a while, it looked like he might get all the credit. And in fact, oddly enough, the person he chose to mail his theory to was Charles Darwin, who had not yet announced his theory of natural selection. Darwin's sitting there in his study and he's been working on this great book for years and years and hasn't told the world about his theory. And all of a sudden he gets this letter in the mail with this outline of his theory, and this was a great crisis in his life. And I -- and in the book --I mean, in general -- I use Darwin as kind of a narrative device and I go through how he handled this crisis. And the general perception has always been that he was just inordinately decent and generous in the way he handled this threat to his own status. I try to show that actually -- whether consciously or not -- he was very cunning and ultimately self-serving in this case.
A coalition of male primates -- you might say, they were his friends -- he kind of turned the matter over to them. He said, “How should I handle this?” They were very influential men of science. He suddenly steered them toward, you know, the way they ended up handling it, and they handled it in a way that basically preserved his social status, preserved his pre-eminence as evolutionary theorist without incurring any kind of reputation for having done anything unethical, which itself would have been a threat to his status, especially in Victorian society.
LAMB: When did Charles Darwin live?
WRIGHT: He was born in 1809. The great book the "Origin of Species" was published in 1859, although he had discovered the theory around 20 years earlier, and he went that long without telling people about it. And he was a very kind of intellectually insecure person in some respects. I mean, he was very worried about being proven wrong. And, of course, this was a thoroughly heretical idea -- evolution -- in those days.
LAMB: Where did he live?
WRIGHT: He lived in England. He was born to a kind of upper-middle-class family in rural England and a fairly prominent family. In fact, his grandfather Erasmus had actually had a theory of evolution, it was just the wrong theory. And Darwin had read that as a child, and I think actually its influence on him was greater than he ever admitted or probably consciously knew. I mean, one of the things I talk
about in the book is how we all are probably designed by natural selection to convince people often that we deserve more credit for things than we actually deserve, and that in the service of that goal we are inclined to even deceive ourselves about it. And you can go back and find in Erasmus' work at least one sentence that really anticipates the basic idea of natural selection, and Darwin never called attention to that passage. And, in fact, he contended his grandfather was totally on the wrong track and...
LAMB: How long did he live?
WRIGHT: He lived until, I guess, he was 73, died in 1882, I think.
LAMB: He was married for how long?
WRIGHT: He got married when he was around 30 and he was married the whole rest of his life, as men commonly were in Victorian England. And I look at his marriage in the book and I look at marriage in general in Victorian England in the book because the Victorians were so successful at preserving marriages, something we're not all that good at. And one thing evolutionary psychology tells you is that, indeed, it will be a challenge to preserve monogamous marriages because, in some ways, that goal runs against human nature. And, in fact, I think although I'm not advocating a wholesale return to Victorian morality, I do think that once you understand human nature through modern Darwinian lights, it's a lot harder to laugh at Victorian morality, to the various, you know, repressive aspects of it, because I think that sort of moral firepower or something like it may, in fact, be needed to preserve the institution of monogamy in a modern society.
LAMB: How many children did he have?
WRIGHT: He had 10 and seven survived to adulthood. He lost three children at various ages. And actually, one of the more kind of cynical Darwinian theories about human nature -- and there's really no shortage of them, and here are a few of them -- is that the amount of affection that parents feel for different children -- if you want to see how parents favor different children -- it depends heavily on the various characteristics that the children have -- ranging from sex to age to various other things and it has to do with which kinds of children during human evolution would have been the best reproductive assets. In other words, what kinds of children in what kinds of circumstances would have been most likely to have the most kids? And the idea is that parents are unconsciously motivated, without thinking about it to treat different children accordingly. And in the book I show that, you know, there's a Darwinian theory about why parents feel grief -- tend to feel different amounts of grief over the death of children of differing ages. And I show that at least Darwin's behavior certainly complies with the theory.
LAMB: Where was he educated?
WRIGHT: He was educated at Cambridge.
LAMB: Cambridge University?
WRIGHT: Cambridge University in England. He got a lot of his important education aboard the Beagle, the ship that he sailed on after he got out of Cambridge. It went around the world and he collected animals from all kinds of places, most famously the Galapagos Islands. And he didn't really understand their importance until he got back. I mean, he was not an evolutionist when he got back from the journey, but in a very short period of time, he put it all together.
LAMB: Let me ask you again: What does it mean to be an evolutionist?
WRIGHT: Strictly speaking, it just means that you believe in evolution, I guess. So there were evolutionists ...
LAMB: What's that mean then?
WRIGHT: You believe that all animals evolved, that they -- including us. So you can be an evolutionist without believing in natural selection, which is Darwin's theory and the one that people accept today. So the evolutionists before -- there was Darwin, but there weren't Darwinians before there was Darwin. To be a Darwinian means that you believe in the theory of natural selection.
LAMB: And what does that mean?
WRIGHT: That theory says that the basic dynamic of evolution, the thing that produces evolution is that there are these things called genes, although Darwin himself didn't know about genes.
LAMB: Can you see genes?
WRIGHT: Well, in principle, yes. I mean it takes a very strong microscope to see even DNA -- even a long strand of DNA. But it's there, it's physical stuff. And although Darwin didn't put the theory in terms of genes, the idea is that those hereditary traits which are conducive, as he put it, to survival and reproduction are the traits that will, of course, get passed on through the generations, I mean, by definition. We've since found out that it's a little more complicated than survival and reproduction. For example, if you do something for a sibling, since siblings contain a lot more of your genes than the average person in the population, that may actually help your genes get into the next generation, and that explains why siblings, in fact, love one another.
LAMB: Let me interrupt to ask you about politics because, you know, basically this is a network that talks about politics, and you write for a political magazine and you do mention politics in here. How can you apply what's in this book to the future discussion of conservatives and liberals? In other words, who's going to like this book the most and who's going to dislike this book the most?
WRIGHT: I would like to think that no political group will feel unequivocally about it. I mean, there's probably some good news and some bad news for all sides of -- for various parts of the political spectrum. There are some parts that some will like and some parts that others will like.
LAMB: What's a conservative going to like?
WRIGHT: Well, a conservative may, at first, like to hear that humans are designed to live in social hierarchies. That is, we're a hierarchical species and we're all, to some extent, social climbers by nature in ways that we don't even understand. But, you know, on the other hand, on closer examination, it doesn't mean what some conservatives might think. It doesn't mean, for example, that some people are born to be downtrodden, to be, you know, at the lower part of the social hierarchy and selflessly serve the public good or anything like that. In fact, what the theory says is that we are all equipped with a fairly intense desire to be high-status people and circumstance may play a large role in who actually gets to be high-status people. And so a liberal may point out that by altering the circumstance, you can change things, like social stratification, for example.
LAMB: Are you a liberal or a conservative?
WRIGHT: I guess I've always said I was more liberal than conservative, although all -- in general, political labels are a lot less clear than I think they were at one point. I would call myself a neo-liberal, I guess.
LAMB: Why did either Marty Peretz or Andrew Sullivan hire you to be every other week in TRB?
WRIGHT: Yeah. That's a good question. I think partly when Mike Kinsley gave up the job, it may not have taken them long to realize that it would be hard to find any single person who could fill his shoes. That may be part of the answer. I alternate with Mickey Kaus. And I guess maybe they thought that I have a certain familiarity with scientific issues, technological issues and Mickey is probably better versed in sheer politics and public policy. So maybe they thought that would be an interesting package. I write about things without talking about science and technology, but I vary. My last column was about family values from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. So that's an example of something that probably the average Washington columnist would not have written. It was scientifically informed.
LAMB: When you sit down to write a book like this and you have things like “the new Darwinian paradigm,” that phrase, did it worry you that you might have people say, “Ah, I don't even know what he's talking about. What's a paradigm? And what's the new Darwinian paradigm?”
WRIGHT: Yeah. A chronic fear of authors is people putting the book down on page two and I guess that's why I tried to get fairly early in the book into Darwin's life and
use him throughout as a kind of vehicle. Here's a typical person -- in fact supposedly a much nicer than average person really. How do we understand his mind and his behavior through the lens of modern Darwinism? I mean, these are ideas that he himself didn't really have access to. They're extensions of his own theory, but a lot of the extensions have taken turns that he himself did not anticipate, although I'm sure he would embrace them.
LAMB: Let me, though, go to the name Darwin. I mean, almost anybody today would know that name. Why do you think that his name has survived all these years?
WRIGHT: Because he was so right and he -- it gets back to the fact that, as I was saying, he was very intellectually insecure and he spent all these years before he unveiled the theory making sure he had it basically right and gathering all of this evidence and looking at things that seemed to contradict the theory. For example, why would peacocks be so colorful? How does that help survival and reproduction?
I mean, these huge colorful tails just seem a daily encumbrance, if anything. And he answered that question correctly. The answer has stood up for a century.
Why if, indeed, traits conducive to getting themselves in the next generation are the traits that natural selection favors, why are there castes of ants that are sterile, that don't have offspring? And he answered that question in a way that has withstood the test of time. And, in fact, people didn't really understand the genius of his answer until the last 20 or 30 years when a biologist named William Hamilton came along and reformulated it in the modern language of genes in a much more clear way. So Darwin -- although Alfred Wallace had come up with a theory by the time Darwin published -- Darwin is truly the guy who deserves the credit by any reasonable reckoning.
LAMB: Let me read this paragraph, and this is just in the middle of the book. It says: “We can now roughly sketch a Charles Darwin plan for marital bliss, have a chaste courtship, marry an angel, move to the country not long after the wedding, have tons of kids and sink into a deeply debilitating illness. A heartfelt commitment to your work probably helps, too, especially when the work doesn't entail business trips.” What is that all about?
WRIGHT: Well, it is about -- the backdrop of it is that lifelong monogamy is not an easy goal to reach for a society.
LAMB: But is that him, by the way?
WRIGHT: That is him. I mean, for example, certainly the fact that he was sick his whole life deprived him of the energy he might have otherwise used to philander. I don't know. So that's -- you know, it's true...
LAMB: What was his illness?
WRIGHT: It's never really been satisfactorily diagnosed and it wasn't at the time, but it was a real thing with real physical symptoms. But it kept him confined to his home and he lived in rural England and that further cut down the chances of falling in love with someone else. But as for the part about having a chaste courtship, you know, I'm not necessarily recommending that for everyone, but I do argue in the book that there are various parts of Victorian morality that, in retrospect, were conducive to successful monogamous marriage in ways that are hard to understand without evolutionary psychology. And a chaste courtship is an example of that. I don't expect to see the return of the chaste courtship as the in America, but I do argue, for example, that in many ways an atmosphere of sexual looseness has hurt women in our society in ways that they'll understand better if they understand the way the mind evolved and the way the male and the female minds evolved. I mean, these two minds are in some ways different, according to modern Darwinism.
LAMB: If Charles Darwin was alive today, what would be his politics?
WRIGHT: Well, he was certainly a liberal by the standards of his day. Of course the 19th century liberals who were at the left -- toward the left end of their political spectrum, some of the beliefs they held may seem, you know, centrist or even to the right by our standards. But he was definitely at the left end of his political spectrum
and his politics were very humane, I would say. He was an ardent opponent of slavery. As I've said, he was something of an animal welfare crusader. He was very concerned about the plight of the downtrodden in society.
LAMB: How did you go to learn about him?
WRIGHT: I didn't initially plan to because when I started the book four years ago, I didn't have this idea that he would be such a central part of it. In fact, I remember going to a bookstore right when I started writing the book and seeing -- a used bookstore -- and seeing his autobiography on the shelf and thinking, “Will I need that?” And, you know, I decided no and I walked off. And now it's kind of hard to imagine that I ever thought that. But I read his autobiography, I read a number of biographies. And then, fortunately, his correspondence up through around 1860 -- up through the publication of the "Origin" -- is now very nicely collected by Cambridge University Press, so I've got all of those things to refer to.
LAMB: You started the book four years ago. What was the hardest part of writing it -- gathering it and writing it?
WRIGHT: That's a good question. The -- just doing it. I mean, just every day actually setting about to write it. It was easy to explore the ideas. Learning about Darwin was a lot of fun and about the field was a lot of fun, but finally forcing myself to sit down and write -- because it's hard to feel you really have mastered this kind of stuff well enough to write, and you have to kind of start writing and then find out that you're right, you had not mastered it, but at least once you've tried to write it, you understand exactly what you're lacking. You go back and learn more.
LAMB: Let me take a big leap. Having read your book or having the background knowledge you have, does it help you at all understand Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich? Is there anything in here that would -- you know, all the discussion we have now about family values and about morals and all the scandals and ...
WRIGHT: Well, it helps me a lot. I mean, Newt Gingrich is a man who's divorced. He divorced his wife and married a younger woman. Bill Clinton is a person who's been accused of fooling around on the side a certain amount. If you look at the evolutionary origin of politics, you know, one vivid way to do that is to go look at a chimpanzee society, as crude as this may sound. They're our nearest primate relatives and they're a political species. Males form coalitions that seek power and status, and upon attaining power and status, the males try to translate that into sexual access to females and they often succeed. And I'm afraid, for better or worse, that that is a parallel that says a lot about our species. In fact, if you look at the whole history of politics going back into prehistory, there's a lot of evidence that men throughout history have ardently sought power or status and tried to convert it into access to women. In most societies -- most societies have really been polygamous and so -- and the powerful or high-status men had more than one wife. In a monogamous society, a powerful man has to kind of get rid of the first wife to acquire the second one. That's what Newt Gingrich did.
Now I'm not saying any of this is good. Once you look a human nature from a modern evolutionary point of view, it's very clear that not everything that's natural is good, and I'm not saying that this is unchangeable. But as I recently pointed out in a column if Newt Gingrich is really serious about family values, he might want to think about the fact that it's an uphill struggle against human nature to sustain monogamous marriage, and those societies that have succeeded, like Victorian England, have typically done it by stigmatizing men who left their families. So if he wants a society with family values, it's a society in which someone like him would not be able to hold elective office, and I mean that pretty seriously. If you look back at Victorian England, which was very successful at sustained monogamy, that's the kind of price men paid if they wanted to leave their families.
As long as we're on the subject of hypocrisy, I would say that's a very human trait and none of us are exempt from it. And one of the ideas that emerges from evolutionary psychology is that we're all designed to, first of all, convince the world that we're moral and decent people, and in the process, that sometimes means convincing ourselves, so really deceiving ourselves about our own moral record. And I think that's, in a way, what Newt Gingrich has done. I don't think he's the only one. He is certainly, I think, one of the most vivid and dramatic examples of that, by my lights, but it's a tendency that's in all of us.
LAMB: What about Bill Clinton? What do you see there?
WRIGHT: Well, the idea that a male, upon attaining power, would try to convert it into sexual access to young women of fertile age even though in the modern world you use contraception and so this doesn't get translated into offspring. Still, if you ask why does the impulse of lust exist in a man? And why does it seem to be heightened by his attainment of social status or power? The answer lies in evolution. It's because during our evolutionary past, before there was contraception, status was translated into actual offspring, into the transmission of genes.
So it's a lot of ... I mean, all of Washington kind of comes into sharper focus from this point of view, I think. I mean, there's a little section of the book on chimpanzee politics, which is a reference to a very good book called "Chimpanzee Politics" which studied this at length. But you really, even if you don't get immersed into evolutionary theory and just look at a description of how a chimpanzee society is structured, the parallels are striking and eerie in the way males behave in the two species.
LAMB: Give us some other parallels.
LAMB: In this town you're talking about now?
WRIGHT: Yeah. A certain ideological flexibility in the service of pursuing power or status, one thing they notice about male and female chimps is that males are much more opportunistic in their allegiances. A female chimp's friends often stay very stable from year to year throughout a whole life and their allegiance is more enduring. A male, a male chimp, in the interest of elevating his own social status, will easily shift coalitions -- in other words, stab a former coalition member in the back. Now it's been noted in our species by people, including some people who call themselves “difference feminists” are talking about differences between men or women -- men and women.
It's been noted that males of our species seem to be particularly flexible strategically in much the same way in terms of shifting alliances with different males, but also in terms of ideology. I mean, if you go through and you're seeing this happen right now in Washington because the perception, whether it's valid or not, is that people on the left are going to have to move to the center to hang onto power. And as you know, Bill Clinton is making some noises about being quite willing to that, and this is behavior that both men and women are capable of. I would say it's more characteristically male, though. And, in fact, I predict that you'll see Hillary having more trouble doing this than Bill.
LAMB: What about yourself? After studying all this and writing this book, do
you find yourself completely comprehending every move you make in your own
relationship with your own wife and the kids and ...
WRIGHT: It’s a hard worldview to get away from once you really absorb it. It can definitely change your view of life, of your own behavior, your own motivation and of the motivation of other people. And since one of the themes of evolutionary psychology is that a lot of our motivation is unconscious and we don't understand its nature, once you start thinking this way, you become kind of suspicious of your own behavior, probably appropriately so. So it can in some ways be an enlightening view, but I think it can in some ways be an uncomfortable worldview to carry, to live with. And, you know, one thing I say in the book is that I think that may be good in some ways. I mean, I guess Martin Luther said that a saint is a person who understands that everything he does is egotistical. Well, that would be an overly cynical view even by modern Darwinian lights. We sometimes behave with true altruism, but I do think it's true that his worldview leads you to be more suspicious of yourself in somewhat this way. And I think that's a healthy thing. I mean, for people, it’s a healthy thing for society if people have very active consciences and I think this worldview can make your conscience more active.
LAMB: Page 219, you write this: “The culture of personality does have a shallow feel and it's easy to get nostalgic for the days when sheer glibness got a person less far in life, but that doesn't mean the reign of character was an error of pure integrity unsullied by self-interest.” What are you getting at?
WRIGHT: I'm talking there about Victorian morality and, again, Charles Darwin's own conscience and how well-suited it was to his culture. It was an acute conscience. He felt a strong sense of obligation to other people.
LAMB: You say he would wake up in the middle of the night and worry about whether he owed somebody a letter.
WRIGHT: Yeah, or -- someone he didn't even know, or whether he had offended some friend with some casual remark that day. That's the kind of person he was. And more people were like that probably then than now because it was a culture that encouraged having an acute conscience.
LAMB: Let me stop you about the Victorian era. What was it? Can you explain what life would have been like if we would have been living in the Victorian era? And when was it?
WRIGHT: There would be -- it's generally considered to be kind of from around 1830 till 1870, 1880. Different people mark the era differently. But it's, among other things, an age of extreme conscientiousness.
LAMB: Was it worldwide?
WRIGHT: No, but it had a strong influence on American culture, I'd say. And, in fact, a lot of -- you could say that early 20th century America, even up through the '50s, in some ways had strong traces of Victorianism in it.
LAMB: Name three or four differences then and now.
WRIGHT: Well, divorce was a scandal. In you know, certainly in the early eight --1950s for almost all strata of American society, you didn't just hear, “Well, they're getting a divorce.” “Oh, what else is new?”
LAMB: Today you say half the people ... half marriages end in divorce.
LAMB: Is that worldwide or is that just the United States?
WRIGHT: It's not worldwide, but it’s not unlike other Western societies, not unlike England's rate.
LAMB: What were the other differences?
WRIGHT: Being caught, for example, lying was a more serious thing then. I mean, it was the reign of the concept of character as the basic way to judge a person as opposed to personality. There's whole separate literature on this about how personality came to replace character as the judge of a person, but in Victorian days it was character, it was, you know, “Are you honest? Are you a person of your word? Can you be trusted?” and, do men treat women in ways that are considered, you know, decent and respectful?
LAMB: Were there mistresses?
WRIGHT: There were mistresses. There was a lot of prostitution in London as well. And in some ways, the deal kind of struck in Victorian England was, well, OK, high-status men may be allowed to fool around, but first of all, they better not get
caught, they better not talk about it. It wasn’t an unseemly thing, but above all, they better not leave their families. That was the unforgivable sin.
LAMB: Go back to what you say here: “The culture of personality does have a shallow feel.” Is this a culture of personality in this town?
WRIGHT: In this town and I would say in this country, certainly much more
than was the case earlier this century. Yeah, I think that's it's much remarked upon and I think it's absolutely true that, you know, just all kinds of scandals people
recover from in ways that they would not have earlier, whether, plagiarism or some sort of ...
LAMB: Let me go back to your -- in this context, go back to your new Darwinian paradigm. State what it is again.
WRIGHT: It is a...
LAMB: And how new is it?
WRIGHT: What's that?
LAMB: How new is it?
WRIGHT: The ideas go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the whole theory of natural selection got kind of refined and amended in important ways. The early applications were to non-human animals, and early attempts to apply this view to humans to understand human behavior, the human mind were, first of all, not all that sophisticated and, secondly, were kind of drowned in a barrage of politically
motivated criticism. So and that kind of subsided and it kind of went
underground, at least as far as the application to humans goes. And then over
the last 10 or 15 years, a lot of work was done in the social sciences -- in
psychology and other social sciences -- and this new kind of version emerged
called evolutionary psychology. But its origins go back ... 1964 is a threshold when it became clear that the theory of evolution explained why siblings love one another. That involved a kind of theoretical refinement, really clarified people's views of how evolution works.
And then in the next 10 years or so, people started explaining just a whole
lot about human nature by direct, if subtle, extensions of the theory of natural selection -- why people everywhere feel gratitude, why people in all cultures have friends, why men and women are different in a few basic ways. And the worldview is just now, I would say, crystallizing and it finally has what I consider to be an overwhelming amount of evidence on its side, but...
LAMB: Let me apply a very basic view to this -- a simple view. Somebody reads this book, "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright, and they buy off on your theory, -- how will this help them better understand where we're going?
WRIGHT: I think it’ll help them understand just how fundamental some of the problems we face are. It will help them -- for example, war: It will help them see how fundamental the impulse is to identify with your group of people and convince yourself that you're morally superior, you're in the right, and it's the other side that has the unjust grievance and you have the just one. And I hope that when people understand that, they'll be a little suspicious of their sense of self-certainty in all kinds of moral matters, including the kinds that lead to wars. As I said, I think this worldview helps people understand the family values problem in a way that they wouldn't have before.
WRIGHT: I think, first of all, it helps them understand it is a genuine problem. When a lot of kids growing up without their biological fathers, that's a major, major loss to society because it's unlikely that a stepfather is going to love them with nearly the sort of devotion that a natural father has, and evolution explains why. At the same time, it tells us that there's no simple way out this family values mess. I mean, we will not solve the problem without sacrifice, without costs, and we may, in some ways, have to return to a somewhat harsher morality to do it.
LAMB: Who's Lisa?
WRIGHT: Lisa's my wife, who gets top billing in the acknowledgements and to whom the book is devoted. She helped me a lot with the book.
LAMB: What's her background?
WRIGHT: She was an English teacher before she met me. She -- and actually, when I met her, she was working on educational software, and she's kind of an editor for me, although she had not done that professionally previously.
LAMB: Do you two agree on this theory?
WRIGHT: She basically subscribes to the overall worldview. I don’t think she'll sign off on everything in the book and, in fact, she noted that during the writing of the book. And there are some things that would be in it that aren’t because of her, and I think it's good that they aren't. I mean, she enlightened me in some ways, especially, you know, with some of the moralizing I do and some of the discussion, some of the extension of this to modern morality and the implications for men as opposed to women. You know, she helped me understand how women are aggrieved in ways I might not have understood it and how some of these things might rub women the wrong way as I had phrased them, although it does seem to have rubbed at least a couple of feminists the wrong way in spite of that, but ...
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
WRIGHT: In New York, when I -- shortly before I came to The New Republic.
LAMB: You left Princeton in what year?
WRIGHT: 1979 I graduated.
LAMB: So 16 years ago.
WRIGHT: Yeah, afraid so.
LAMB: And where did you go?
WRIGHT: I first of all, I declared myself a writer.
LAMB: What was your degree in?
WRIGHT: The degree was in public and international affairs, the Woodrow Wilson School. It's interdisciplinary. And my first impulse was to say, “Well, OK. I'm a writer now,” and just kind of wait for people to discover me or something, I guess. I was going to be a free-lance writer. And no one -- the world failed to discover me, surprisingly enough. So I finally got a job at a small newspaper in New Jersey that no longer exists, a small daily. And then I went to work at The Wilson Quarterly briefly, a magazine here in Washington, and went to a magazine called The Sciences in New York that's put out by the New York Academy of Sciences, kind of wrote a book during that period and then right after that, you know, came to The New Republic.
LAMB: Is this your first book?
WRIGHT: No, there was this book called "Three Scientists & Their Gods," which I wrote while I was at The Sciences, which had elements of this worldview in it. One of the profiles in that book is of E.O. Wilson, who wrote the book "Sociobiology," which was one of the earliest attempts to apply this to human beings, was much criticized, sometimes for good reasons. It wasn’t a very mature field at that point, but often for sheerly political reasons.
LAMB: You spend a lot of time in the book writing about John Stuart Mill. Who was he? And what was his book "On Liberty?”
WRIGHT: Mill was a liberal, at least by the standards of 19th century politics, and a reformer.
LAMB: Where did he live?
WRIGHT: He lived in England and he -- "On Liberty" is often taken as, in some ways, it was an argument that we should let people do more or less whatever they want, unless it hurts other people in some fairly clear way. I think in truth, Mill was somewhat more morally conservative than that in truth. In fact, you will find him saying that divorce is OK if you don't have kids. You won't find him saying divorce is OK if you do have kids. But a lot of aspects of his thought -- I mean, he lived when Darwin lived. Darwin was a fan of his. They were politically and ideologically allied. And just a lot of things in Mill's philosophy are good vehicles for looking at the issues that evolutionary psychology poses. For example, the question of: If something's natural, is it good? If we have a natural impulse, is it necessarily a good impulse? And there are certainly parts of Mill's thought that -- not in "On Liberty" but in other things -- that I think are powerful arguments for saying no.
LAMB: And another man you wrote about is Samuel Smiles and he has a book called "Self-Help." Who is he?
WRIGHT: Right. It was kind of the first -- well, it was the first self-help book, and it -- that was a classically Victorian, morally conservative book. And he’s, in that sense, you might take as kind of a polar opposite from Mill because he was bigger on self-discipline and self-restraint, which the Victorians in general were big on.
LAMB: He from Great Britain?
WRIGHT: He was. He was. In fact, his book came out the same year that Darwin's book the "Origin of Species" came out and that's the year that Mill's "On Liberty" came out, which is another reason that I used the three books I used as reference points. They make convenient reference points. But I try to show that there was a certain amount of wisdom given of the modern view of human nature in Samuel Smiles' emphasis on self-restraint and self-discipline because we are not, you know, naturally good creatures. I mean, we’re lucky to be blessed with a lot of kind of moral equipment, you know. Compassion is a product of evolution and the conscience is and and so on. And we have the capacity for tremendous sympathy toward the downtrodden and everything else. But in some ways, we deploy these sentiments more selectively than would be ideal morally, probably.
LAMB: After writing this book and thinking about all this, have you changed your life in any way?
WRIGHT: Well, I guess I am more conscious, for example, of trying to treat my kids equally. First of all, in trying to make the object of the game to make them happy as opposed to kind of converting them into optimal reproductive vehicles, which is probably, in some sense, what parents are designed to try to turn their kids into. I mean, Darwin's father, for example, was very hard on him and he said, “You'll be a disgrace to the family. You're worthless.” And that led Darwin to work very hard not to be a disgrace. It made him very ambitious in subtle ways. And it may well be the reason he became famous as he did. But it caused him a huge amount of psychic pain, and he might have been happier if his father had been, you know, kind of less bent on turning him into a high-status male. And so I guess I'd like to think that if I'm ever forced with choices like this -- between a child's happiness and a child's social status, whatever, I'd like to think I'll opt for happiness.
LAMB: Let me show the audience what the cover of the book looks like. And by the way, what's this graphic right here on this?
WRIGHT: That's an object of art that the cover designer at Pantheon, Marge Anderson, came up with. And it's actually very ambiguous. It's kind of a Rorschach test. People see different things in it. I see in it somebody who is trying to, kind of trying to define himself, come to terms with himself. He's kind of groping to actually feel his own his own head, I mean, as if he were trying to figure out what his mental essence is. And he doesn't appear to be entirely happy with the answers he's getting. And I'd say that's true of evolutionary psychology. I mean, there's some good news and there's some bad news.
LAMB: Robert Wright is with The New Republic. You can see his name on the TRB column and he's the author of this book, "The Moral Animal." Thank you very much.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
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