Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: discussion points

Chapter 1: Darwin Comes of Age

Chapter 2: Male and Female

Chapter 3: Men and Women

Chapter 4: The Marriage Market

Chapter 5: Darwin's Marriage

Chapter 6: The Darwin Plan for Marital Bliss

Chapter 7: Families

Chapter 8: Darwin and the Savages

Chapter 9: Friends

Chapter 10: Darwin’s Conscience 210

Chapter 11: Darwin’s Delay 229

Chapter 12: Social Status 236

Chapter 13: Deception and Self-Deception 263

Chapter 14: Darwin’s Triumph 287


What do you think is the relevance of the Grahame Greene quote Wright adopts as his front page: “This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child…” Don

Consider the validity and limitations of Wright’s metaphor distinguishing “knobs” made available by genes, and mechanisms allowing culture to set or tune those knobs… How do we identify the common “knobs” across all cultures? Don

"Freud believed we were oblivious to our deepest motivation". Why did he believe this? We know what motivates us to do anything. We don't, out of the blue, get motivated to work for a college degree or ask someone on a date or even go to the gym. We always know why we are working for what we desire. –Lidia


If radical differences in the environment are responsible for so much of the variation among various groups, how do we view and treat criminal outliers in populations? Should we penalize people for possibly contributing to a "bad environment" in raising children? If so, how far should one go, and to what extent should one be held accountable? (ebook page 11) --Jairo



Wright Chapter 1: Darwin Comes of Age

 Recommendable Darwin Biopic: "Creation" based on a book by Darwin’s descendant Randal Keynes.


Double Standard, Madonna/Whore dichotomy

Naturalistic Fallacy (p10, 31,40)

John Stuart Mill explores an important question: "Are people inherently bad?" I'd like to find out what the class's view is on this. Do they subscribe to this idea, and stress self-control, self-denial, and abstinence? Or the flip side, let humans behave more liberally, since love and guilt are in human nature? (Page 12, last 2 passages)

 Social Darwinism:

Obama invoking this:

Gene/culture interaction

Chapters 1-2: "The basic ways we feel about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other and say to each other, are with us today by virtue of their past contribution to genetic fitness." (chapter 1)


Wright chapter 2: Eager males and choosy females. Main topics:

P33 Sexual selection

P35 Asymmetry of costs of reproduction (parental investment) as the cause of asymmetry in mating choice

Why are females finicky? Parental investment P33-35 Asymmetry of costs of reproduction (parental investment) as the cause of asymmetry in mating choice

An extreme case of reduced male parental investment: Sex is matter of life, then death for male marsupials

P36 Conscious control vs uncalculated attraction; can we be victims of our genes? Rational choice and its limits (p36, p53)

p37 "Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that - in many realms, not just sex - we're all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the pupeteer." (593 in my Kindle version of the book). Is this consistent with our feeling that we are fre agents rather than automata?

p38 The time lag of evolutionary change

"whatever the ancestral environment was like, it wasn't much like the environment we're in now...This disjunction between the contexts of our design and of our lives is probably responsible for much psychopathology, as well as much suffering of a less dramatic sort" (Wright 38-39).  What are some issues that humans battle today because our culture has transformed more rapidly than our species/ evolutionary lag?  Can we solve any of these issues? Should we solve these issues?


P39 Trivers’ elaboration of parental investment concept

What may have led females to have a loss of fertility partway through life, but allowed males to produce for basically their entire lives?

P48 Exceptional cases of male parental investment support the Darwinian theoretical framework

On P. 48, examples of animals that contradict Darwin's theories are given, detailing instances where the female competes for the male. Do you think that the rising number of both women in the workforce and men staying at home as stay-at-home dads will have consequence for the biological evolution of the human population?


P49 Parental investment asymmetry in humans vs. apes, e.g. gorillas

P53 How far does reason free us from genetic constraint?

If we want to pursue values that are at odds with natural selection’s, we need to know what we’re up against.” Is there a real psychological cost associated with resisting the inclinations that natural selection has given us? To the extent that we are free agents, shouldn’t we be able to do that?




It is often maintained that an evolutionary explanation for physical or psychological attributes should describe how the attribute works to "the benefit of the species", so why does Dawkins say “It is not differential species extinction itself which constitutes the process of natural selection. If you understand that, then you understand Darwinism in my view”?


Are there situations where it seems appropriate to yield to the naturalistic fallacy? (For instance, is it acceptable to promote tolerance of homosexuality by showing evidence that it is genetically influenced?) On what basis can such questions be decided?




Evolution now Compare Idiocracy: The Introduction…

Chapter 3: Men and Women


P57 Trivers: Male parental investment (MPI); Gender asymmetries in sexual eagerness and in parental investment

In terms of male investment, if they somehow know the chid is indeed his, of course he will invest more time in him. Things like the child looking like the father motivate the father to play a role. Whereas if the child does not look like the father and the father is not sure it is his child, it makes him feel less entitled to partake. -Noe

P58 The Naked Ape

P59 What women want: resources? Status? Kindness, Helpfulness? Incentives to male deceit, betrayal

> "After all, aren't males in a high-MPI (Male Paternal Investment) species designed to settle down, buy a house, and mow the lawn every weekend? .... Male in high MPI species are paradoxically capable of greater treachery that males in low MPI strategy ... seduction and abandonment can make genetic sense" (Page 61 paragraph 2) -Stephen

> “For hundreds of thousands of years, and maybe longer, natural selection has been inclining males to love their children, thus giving them a feeling females had been enjoying for the previous several hundred million years of mammalian evolution.” Well, first of all, how can he know what other mammals, females or not, “felt” hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago? If we could look at it another way - the need for male investment could have been HIGHER in the past because life was harder and there were more perils than today. So male parental investment could have been GREATER in the past. Looking at it from a Darwinian perspective, males need their offspring to survive and reproduce, natural selection would favor investment. Besides testes size which he comes back to again, behavior of other mammals and of other females, ancestral or more modern would shed light. This is simply not giving the big picture.   And consider: How can a women deal with being “tricked” by a man who may falsely show he has good genes or resources? She wants a good offspring that can survive and reproduce, too. It behooves her to dump a less intelligent, capable, weaker man and keep trying for better genes! And think about the past, infant mortality was higher. Women can have more than one child. There is also incentive for females to keep seeking a better mate (of course balanced with her investment carrying the child and whether she has any already). I don't think he would consider the woman's imperatives biologically and that really limits things so I am tempering my reading with alternative scenarios and interpretations throughout. -Nichole

>  "Natural selection may favor males that are good at deceiving and females about their future devotion and favor females that are good at spotting deception; and the better one side gets, the better the other side gets. It's a vicious spiral of treachery and wariness-even if, in a sufficiently subtle species, it may assume the form of soft kisses, murmured endearments, and ingenuous demurrals" (Page 61) There's a lot of Wright's theory, and some may say it's even a little sad and harsh that relationships are a vicious spiral masked by sweet kisses. Do you think relationships are really like this? Can you provide evidence that goes for or against Wright's theory? -Kelly


Concealed (cryptic) ovulation

P63 Philandering in the modern environment: does contraception make this acceptable to women?

P64 What men want: age asymmetry; youth and beauty; male/female differences in jealousy.

P69 Reproductive incentives for women to cheat; significance of size of testes

P74 How two Samoan girls kidded Margaret Mead

P86 Reproductive costs and benefits of divorce

P89 Culture and polygyny

This question might be better suited for the later chapters in this book, but I'll ask it now. With the author's claim that humans have been mildly polygynous (90), should modern humans push towards monogamy with a hope to "reconfigure" our genes for future generations? Will monogamy benefit future humans by creating a stronger sense of family and community, or are they products of institutionalized religious practices (my assumption, I haven't read chapter 4 yet) that should be forgotten because they cause more stress by veering away from our "roots?" -Michael

Pair bonding

"Male jealousy should focus on sexual infidelity, and males should be quite unforgiving of it; a female, though she’ll hardly applaud a partner’s extracurricular activities, since they consume time and divert resources, should be more concerned with emotional infidelity—" (1116 in Kindle) Is this true for everyone or could this be an overgeneralization? Evidence? -Alyssa


Asymmetry in mate choice

P64 What men want: age asymmetry; youth and beauty; male/female differences in jealousy.

"Male jealousy should focus on sexual infidelity, and males should be quite unforgiving of it; a female, though she’ll hardly applaud a partner’s extracurricular activities, since they consume time and divert resources, should be more concerned with emotional infidelity—" (1116 in Kindle) Is this true for everyone or could this be an overgeneralization? Evidence? -Alyssa

In chapter 3, page 63, Wright claims that in a high MPI species such as humans, female "competition with other females is inevitable" since they want to monopolize a man's attention in order for their offspring (and themselves) to survive. Though the statement may seem superficial, I agree with it. From experience and observation, it is easy to see that oftentimes girls can be very nasty with each other, especially in their early and prime reproductive years. -Anon


When I was reading the part in chapter 4 about how monogamous societies are more peaceful because sexually frustrated men are more dangerous and prone to crime.  I was curious why that is and if the class knows anything about or has any opinions on that. -Katherine

P69 Reproductive incentives for women to cheat; significance of size of testes

Page 71 and page 90 describe evidence for the theory that early humans were polygamous (testes weight and sexual dimoprhism in size). Comments?

P72, 78 Madonna/Whore dichotomy

In some cases, is it possible that humans may be putting emphasis on finding certain traits in a partner that are actually less beneficial to survival? For example, can the behaviors leading to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy actually hinder one's ability to create a larger amount of offspring and are there other behaviors that may have a similar negative effect? Joshua



Compare current American practices on marrige with more stable traditional monogamous and polygynous societies, (Wright,90).  Why does Wright say we have the worst of both worlds (104)? 

How might concealed ovulation have aided reproductive fitness? (We’ll return to this I suspect).

What is Wright’s Madonna/Whore dichotomy? Is it just objectively valid, valid only as a stereotyped reaction by males, or just invalid?



Chapter 4,5: The marriage market


P93 Monogamy/Polygyny and economic stratification

"It is easy for well-educated, upper-class women to scoff at the idea that any self-respecting woman would willingly suffer the degradation of polygyny, or to deny that women place great emphasis on a husband's income. But upper-class women seldom even meet a man with a low income, much less face the prospect of marrying one. Their milieu is so economically homogenous that they don't have to worry about finding a minimally adequate provider." (p. 95) -Laura

"If women could anticipate a reduction in their own fertility, why would they still choose polygyny? Evidence suggests that they [polygymous Mormon women] chose it because the children of polygynous men had increased fertility, high enough to offset the low fertility of polygynous women themselves" (Josephson). I think this statement follows along the lines of Wright's claim that ancestral women would chose polygyny if it meant better support for their offspring. -Michael

"...inequality among males is more socially destructive— in ways that harm women and men— than inequality among women" (1733 Kindle). Agree or disagree? In what ways do you see women dealing with inequality? Passive aggression is the usual stereotype for women. Alyssa

Which gender does monogamy serve?

Pg 98 "All told, institutionalized monogamy, though often viewed as a big victory for egalitarianism and for women, is emphatically not egalitarian in its effects on women. Polygny would more more evenly distribute the assets of males among them..." Your reactions? –Don

Wright points out that the Male brain is the greatest barrier of monogamy? Does the class agree or is it possible that the female brain is as much of a barrier? 

The idea that we can live a long happy marriage with someone that has all the qualities that we believe adequate in a mate is presented by wright, do the readers agree?

I found it fascinating how the author points out that monogamy is something that was decided by men to insure that they would all get a female partner to themselves. I wonder if the rest of the class finds this idea/theory reasonable? Would woman really not care to share there husbands as long as they could be with a wealthy man who could provide? –Brisa


"Indeed, in shearly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system and most women worse off." I think I might disagree with this, as I could see a situation where a group of several women marry one wealthy "good-gened" man. In turn not only do the wives receive good genes and good MPI for their offspring, the man also has a chance for a greater number of offspring. -Joshua

Wright suggests that monogamy is beneficial for men due to there being more women to go to the inferior men (for lack of a better term) and therefore they’ll be less likely to turn to a life of crime – drug addiction, homelessness, rape and murder. Is lack of a mate the underlying reason for these social problems? Or are those mens’ life of crime the reason they don’t have a mate? If a man has a mate, does that make him a better person? Something worth noting is that people often scrutinize political candidates’ (especially presidential candidates’) family life and whether they have a spouse to judge whether they are a good example of a human being or not. (p. 100) -Stephen

On page 100, Wright writes "This is perhaps the best argument for monogamous marriage, with its egalitarian effects on men: inequality among males is more socially destructive". Perhaps I am misunderstanding the argument's rationale, but it sounds to me as a group selection argument. I want to understand how this argument makes evolutionary sense at the level of the individual. –Anon


P101 Difficulties with step-parenting: Divorce, Adoption, Child Welfare

"Unfortunately, this is the sort of country we already live in. The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny." (p. 101) -Laura

Thinking about parenting and possible underlying genetic factors, I am wondering if there is a genetic basis for step-families not getting along. -Nichole


Genetic Determinism??

I love the point he makes: "But again: emotions are just evolution's executioners." But being one who has a strong belief in free will, I would be interested to hear the classes opinions on the subject. –Anon


Chapters 5, 6: Darwin’s plan for marital bliss

"the differing genetic interests of a man and a woman who have never had sex with one another. Pre-sex, a woman's genes often call for wary evaluation. Affection should not too quickly become overwhelming passion. The male's genetic interest, meanwhile, often lies in speeding things up, saying things that will melt the woman's reserve" (pg 120). Not sure I quite agree with Wright's statement. Just because that might be the case for Darwin does not mean it applies for all human race. Many times this is not the case. -Yannie

P130 Rational considerations for marriage

It is interesting to see the large imbalance in enthusiasm for the wedding between Darwin and Emma. Wright argues that this imbalance is solely the result of a genetic drive to reproduce on Darwin's part, but there are probably several other forces apart from genetics involved in this scenario. pg.120-121 -Oscar

There has been talk about females worrying if their man emotionally bonds with another woman - very preoccupied with the emotions. However, I’ve seen and heard many not-so-emotional sentiments from women in relationships where they blatantly focus on attaining his money and property and it seems perfectly acceptable for both parties. What’s up with that? -Nichole

P133 Divorce

The author claims that the reason men lose interest in their wives as they age is because the wives are less fertile. "More and more of the harvest has been reaped; the ground is less and less fertile; it may be time to move on" (Chapter 5 section 53). Do we know if ancient men would leave their aging wives for a younger ones, just to produce more offspring? Would they ever say enough children is enough? -Michael

Has the shape of our society (in which men and women can easily remarry after divorce (though more easily for men)) caused a shift back to a less monogamous lifestyle than enjoyed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors (now that monogamy is not necessarily crucial for the survival of the children)? (pgs. 134-135) -Anon

P135 The case for equal/different treatment of men, women: alimony, etc

Pg. 135 On respect and feminism, what about respect for men? Don’t both sexes take advantage of their roles? -Lizzy

Wright p146 Where do moral codes come from?


Families and friends: Wright, Chapters 7-9 (pages 155-209)


Kin selection and altruism

There seems to be a altruism gene that lets us know subconsciously who are relatives are and makes us more prone to help them out, even sacrifice ourselves for them. Could this be the reason why racism exists? Because when we see someone of a different race, they seem so much different from our own race, we do not feel any relevance to them and therefore less of a drive to help them out? Something worth noting is when we see on the news the report of an air disaster, one thing reporters focus on are "how many Americans were on board". (p.158) -Stephen

I find Hamilton's theory on kin selection (156), no matter how simplified, is essential to understanding the importance of family. I feel that genes not only proliferate with altruism and "brotherly love", but the family as a unit provides a sanctuary for emotional and material support. How, then, could we explain altruism on a larger scale, such as the level of a community?

Levels of Selection "It's not surprising that many slime-mold cells fail to reproduce, and devote themselves instead to buffering fertile fellow cells from the elements. Their neighbor's welfare, in evolutionary terms, is identical to their own. That's Altruism. So too with human being's--not groups of human being, but the group of cells that are human beings...It is fair, technically speaking, to consider even so coherent an organism as a human being a tight-knit community of single celled organisms"p.164 I thought this was a a very enlightening perspective on the human body and the human species. It basically views the cells of the human body(excluding the sperm or egg itself), much like the cells of slime-mold or worker ants and bees, as merely vehicles or as i like to call them "slave" cells of the cells that will actually transmit genetic material. -Anon

Kin Discrimination

"In other words: parents love their children and can be blinded by that love." (2866 Kindle) This phrase "blinded by love" is used also to describe romantic, intimate relationships. Do you think that love is blinding to the same degree in all contexts? Is it more blinding in a familial relationship or in a romantic one? -Alyssa

This chapter mentions that gorillas are not conscious of biological paternity.  This applies approximately to humans as well. Is there a selective advantage in NOT being able to identify kin? Don


 Valuing youth vs age p. 174-175...

Are you persuaded by the evolutionary account of how the sense of loss following death of offspring varies with their age? – Don

"Specifically, parental devotion should grow until around early adolescence, when reproductive potential peaks, and then begin to drop." (2988 Kindle). What is the evolutionary advantage of this if there is any?  -Alyssa

"As predicted, parents do grieve more over the death of an adolescent than of a three-month-old -- or, also in keeping with theory, of a forty-year-old." What are everyone's thoughts about this? It's definitely possible to find a husband or wife who mourning more for the death of their significant other than over a child. -Michael


Ch 8 Darwin and the Savages, pp180-189

 "'Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.' That last sentence, of course, is wrong. We now know that habits are passed from parent to child by instruction or example, not via the genes. In fact, no life experiences (except, say, exposure to radiation) affect the genes handed down to offspring." What does the author mean by habit? Something which varies with culture, then I agree; however, if habit includes addiction, then I disagree. –Michael

When elaborating on why there are so many different moral codes in different cultures Wright describes that “… adherence to any moral rule has an innate basis. It is only the specific contents of moral codes that are not innate.” It is not the content that matters for natural selection – it is the behavior it produces. I therefore maintain that the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant  is directly related to natural selection, not because of the contents of his ideas – but because the root of creating and following such rules has an innate basis, and that this produces behaviors that may or may not be favorable in terms of natural selection. -Anon

Chapter 9: Friends

Gossip In chapter 9, page 195 I thought it was an interesting point Wright brought up that "gossip...may be one of the main reasons friendship exists." I agree with his statement, especially when applied to small hunter-gatherer clans, because I think it makes sense that sharing important knowledge would create amicable bonds with non-genetically related people; helping explain why friendship developed. I also think it's interesting to examine why gossip tends to be mostly associated with females rather than males. -Anon

Reciprocal Altruism


>Wright argues in page 206 that the sense of guilt is "just a way of keeping everyone happy with your level of reciprocation". Do other animals, particularly those who engage in cooperative interactions (like chimpanzees; dogs?), showing manifestations of guilt? -Don ; Horowitz, MacLean

"But if guilt is, as Trivers says, just a way of keeping everyone happy with your level of reciprocation, its intensity should depend not on your misdeeds but on who knows or may soon know about them."  Compare the Watching Eyes Effect:

Darwin and Social Status: Wright, Chapters 10-12 (pages 210-262)

Wright sort of infers that natural selection is pragmatic and scientific, but it has also evolved to give us emotions and desires that might hold us back when we put too much value into them, which makes it a shameless ploy. (p211-212) Do you give into this idea that natural selection is a "shameless ploy"? -Kelly

"But therapists will be better equipped to make people happy once they understand what natural selection does “want,” and how, with humans, it “tries” to get it." (3619 Kindle) Ch. 10 Is the key to finding happiness understanding why things happen or accepting the fact that we don't have control over some things that happen in life? -Alyssa

>I was wondering what the class thought of Wright's idea that our own opinion of our social status is heavily influenced by our status in adolescence.  -Katherine

Humans higher up in a hierarchy demand respect from fellow peers. If respect is the same thing as admitting that someone is better than you, why is having respect considered such a honorable and noble value? It does not make hierarchical sense to have too much respect for any individual. If respected people have higher serotonin levels, do people that respect others have lower serotonin levels? -Stephen

Do you think it's possible that self-sacrifice evolved due the post-mortem positive reputation which follows the "self-sacrificer" and their families? -Michael

Social Status

Ch 12: Social Status

"As more and more societies are reevaluated in the unflattering light of Darwinian anthropology, it becomes doubtful that any truly egalitarian human society has ever existed." (pg. 238) I thought this point was interesting especially later when Wright talks about how children as young as 1 year old sort themselves into social hierarchies.  If it's so ingrained in our biology should we even try to change or just accept it as a fact of life? -Katherine

Evolutionary stable states, frequency-dependent selection:

I agree with the chapter and find the reiterated prisoners dilemma simulation by Robert Axelrod combined with the TIT FOR TAT-program by Anatol Rapoport to be a convincing explanation for how reciprocal altruism evolved. It is also suggested that for altruism to prosper it needs to have a “head-start”, which is described to have been possible through kin selection. This is further supported by findings in other mammal species, which ultimately gives the theory a broad range of support.

"When less cooperative strategies flourish, the amount of locally available cooperation declines, further devaluing cooperation, so that less cooperative strategies flourish all the more." (221).


'Cheating' is an adaptive response, triggered when people are shunted to the bottom of the heap and thus find it hard to get resources legitimately." (244)

pg 208 "reputation is the object of the game for this 'moral' animal."

Friends: "...a sense of moral outrage isn't necessary; sheer hostility will do just fine. Presumably it is because humans evolved amid bystanders--bystanders whose opinions mattered--that a moral dimension has emerged, that grievances crystallize." (pg. 208)  Could that be why men and women tend to have such moral outrage for women they think of as slutty? Regardless of whether or not we even know that person or logically think that men and women should be able to do what they want equally there tends to be  a gut reaction of condemnation. -Katherine


 p.216 Sexual restraint is an important part of the moral code promoted by parents. Why should parents urge sexual restraint? Should we assume that natural selection favors this parental attitude, since it seems initially disadvantageous to reproductive fitness? –Don

page 222 Wright says that "cultural influence can be just as unconscious as genetic influence". This may be true for early ‘mother’s knee’ socialization…but what about peer group acculturation during the teenage years? (On this, see Judith Rich Harris: The Nurture Assumption)

pg. 226 It's very interesting that natural selection could design a conscience that (with nurture) can grow large enough to stop being advantageous to the organism it is meant to help.  I wonder how many other designs of natural selection are made disadvantageous by humanity's ability to reason about them.

Darwin's Conscience: "Once you think of genes as programming behavioral development, and not just behavior, as molding the young mind to fit its context--then we all start to look like victims (or beneficiaries) of our environment, no less than of our genes." (pg. 233)  This is from the part when Wright talks about the development of the conscience and how that is molded by the environment and social status in early life. Couldn't this be used to justify some sort of socialized programs especially for children as long-term investments in reducing crime? -Katherine

P243 serotonin (the Prozac target) and dominance: -Don

"Female social coalitions - friendships - often last a lifetime, whereas male coalitions shift with strategic utility" (246). Do you agree or disagree with Wright's statement? –Don

Self-Deception: Wright, Chapters 13-14 (pages 263-310)

What exactly is meant by saying that we deceive ourselves? Does this idea require us to postulate a Freudian unconscious? P264 -Don

"In short: organisms may present themselves as whatever it is in their genetic interest to seem like." (Ch. 13) I guess this seems to be true, but then that brings up the question of if there is such a thing as being your "true self". Alyssa

"In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims." (Ch.13) Why then, would it be more beneficial to believe that we are in control/rationalize to ourselves that we have free will? Alyssa

Freud's theory about repression is usually used explain as a defense mechanism, something that we subconsciously utilize to protect ourselves from mental harm originating from traumatic experiences. In the chapter however, it seems like it's being described as something we consciously use in order to better carry out things like the male getting sex from female example -- holding back your true motives so it is easier to achieve. -Stephen


Ch. 13

I’m having a hard time reading Wright at this point. I don’t see his argument for why we evolved to aggrandize and I’m missing nuances left and right because they are not there. *One interesting thing I can think of that is not from Wright is about the Bonobos. Supposedly, females of a lower rank will try to engage in sexual behavior (as bonobos are known to do) with higher ranking females and do so in public view so that others will see that they are engaging with the higher ranking female. I guess the result is that others will then hold them in higher esteem after seeing this. -Nichole

 "Self-aggrandizement always comes at the expense of others. To say that you won lost a game through luck is to say that your opponent won through luck." (p.268)  

"It may be in their genetic interest not only to accept low status, but, in at least some circumstances, to convey their acceptance of it-- to behave submissively so that they aren't erroneously perceived as a threat and treated as such." (270) I never thought of low self esteem to be a protective trait. But I think evolution didn't account for self esteem to get so low as to become harmful and counter productive. -Anon

"We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones...the frequent absence of happiness is what keeps us pursuing it, and thus makes us productive" (Pg. 298). What aspects of human happiness suggest this evolutionary account of its origin? –Don

Are modern day psychotherapy approaches (that appear to work pretty well) naturally built upon this trait of self-deception? It seems so! Ellis and Beck. REBT and CBT come to mind. Various types of success coaching and NLP are also examples that produce a desirable result for people who use them. -Nichole


Evolutionary Ethics: Wright, Chapters 15-16 (pages 313-344)

Freud constantly talks about a id, ego, and super ego in Chapter 15. This is a great theory, but I want to know, is there any evidence that the mind is composed of these 3 parties constantly talking to each other? And why are there only 3 parties, one representing the raw urges, one representing how society expects you to act, and one mediating between the two? Is it possible for there to be a fourth voice? –Stephen


"...that pain is a symptom of something abnormal, unnatural— a sign that things have gone awry. As the evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has stressed, pain is part of natural selection’s design (which isn’t, of course, to say that it’s good)." (Ch.15) when is pain good and when is pain bad?  Alyssa

pg 315 If the Oedipus complex is understood as offputting a mothers continued reproduction wouldn't it become somewhat unproductive from a kin selection point of view? Also, can this view of the Oedipus complex account for the cross-gender pattern of affection between child and parent? And is there clear evidence for such a cross-gender pattern? –Don

On page 322, Wright says that we may repress friends' transgressions in order to protect our (or because of their) status. Does anyone find this idea too far fetched? A lot of wrights ideas to me are a bit extreme, but in this chapter I feel like his ideas are extremely contrived. Perhaps there are some things that we do that are perhaps for evolutionarily based reasons, but perhaps we forgive friends for the simple fact that they are our friends. –anon

Evolutionary vs anti-evolutionary (rationally grounded ) ethics: Peter Singer.

[I recommend the links below as a useful addition to the text material on evolutionary ethics….Don]  Can rational thought provide a basis for life choices that is not skewed by our Darwinian origins? Peter Singer and others believe it can. The resulting radical utilitarianism has several aspects. First it urges us to adopt “the point of view of the Universe” (Henry Sidgwick) in place of the selfish--or at best tribal--perspective that emerges naturally from individual selection and kin selection. Second, Singer condemns ‘speciesism’, suggesting instead that animals be treated on the same basis as humans of comparable emotional and cognitive capacities. Third, whereas Darwinian selection makes us fairly attentive to the consequences of our own actions as they arise naturally in our interactions with our immediate situation, rational reflection can do more: it can help us identify opportunities that we might ordinarily miss through inaction, and thereby suggest and motivate effective far reaching philanthropic action. Fourth, although we are not selected to care about the long-term future of humanity--or of life as we know it, or of the planet--thoughtful reflection might motivate us to care about those things.

All these moves are motivated by trust in rationality and deliberate reflection as opposed to reliance on empathy. Singer calls the resulting radical utilitarian program “effective altruism”, which you may want to take a look at: (warning: includes unpleasantly graphic footage)

Or, you could start with this critical review of Singer’s book by another philosopher, John Gray:   Gray maintains that empathy and a sense of what is right are a better moral guide than rational reflection. Perhaps you agree? But if so, can you then avoid ‘moral relativism’ (Wright p327, etc)?


Determinism and Responsibility:

Wright, Chapters 17-18 (pages 345-379; concludes Wright)

"True brotherly love is unconditional compassion; it harbors utter doubt about the validity of harming anyone, however repugnant their behavior. And in a society where no one gets punished for anything, repugnant behavior will grow." If everyone practices true brotherly love, with unconditional compassion, why would there be repugnant behavior in the first place? -Stephen

I found it interesting that Wright says there might be "something more" that leads the adjusting of the "knobs and tunings". Are there any thoughts on what this force may be if it did exist? (Pg. 348) -Joshua

"Give up on free will; no one really deserves blame or credit for anything; we are all slaves of biology." p. 353 -Don

“We should punish people only so long as that will raise overall happiness... It is warranted only when outweighed by the growth it brings in the welfare of others, through the prevention of future crime." (354). –Don

Retributive justice: "If on some desert you happen upon a ninety-five-year-old prison escapee who's very existence was long ago forgotten, you will serve the cause of justice by somehow making him suffer." (pg. 354)

 “Free will was, in an important sense, created by their belief in it” pg. 358

“And most of us would rather see compliance enforced by an internalized moral code than by a ubiquitous police force" (pg. 359).

Victimless crimes: "In those days, various statistically aberrant lifestyles, such as homosexuality, were considered grave crimes against humanity, even thought it was hard to find a human they hurt." P. 359

Capuchin monkey experiments on cooperation and fairness (Skip to 1:30)  Also

"Darwin shared this hope. He wrote in The Descent of Man: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him."" (p.372).

·        John Hartung on tribal morality:



pg. 377. "A good conscience, in the most demanding, most moral sense of the term, is one that doesn't work only as natural selection "intended"".








Workman and Reader Chapters 1,2: Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology

"The notion that some organisms are 'more evolved' than others and therefore more important in some moral way... (Pg 14). This is a little off-topic but this challenges the idea of animal testing. Would you be more or less for or against animal testing for a rat? Monkey? Does it make a difference for a monkey because it may be "more evolved?" -Noe

 Ch. 2 It says, “Indeed, selfish gene theory is considered by some to be one of the foundation stones which led to the development of evolutionary psychology.” Can we talk about this? 

(My thinking: I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this being the new gospel with regard to evolution in all cases… I get that genes are at the basis of all traits but not what comprises all that we see and try to explain - environmental, other genetic, and cultural influences play a role. And the mere complexity of how genes translate into traits should make it less simple?? Maybe it's the term “selfish” that attaches some sense of intention or emotion to the thing and it's distracting.)  -Nichole

I was wondering if you've ever seen this TED talk? I watched it the other day and thought you might find it interesting. If you have time to watch this I'd like to know what you think about it! -Katherine

revenge of the nerds??”


Chapter 4: Mate Choice

Reading about the mate preferences in chapter 4 of the textbook, it says that emotional stability and pleasing disposition are the highest rated after love and dependability. But I am thinking about the other traits of social status, financial resources for women, and about males liking more attractive females and I can think of examples where those traits outweigh the lovey dovey stuff for, let's call them “power people.” Think Donald Trump (not thought of as a sweetheart). Or some bitchy (excuse my language) super attractive female who is clearly out for material goods and knows her looks may demand it. These are not “loving” relationships but I think they are not so uncommon…Nichole

 The college kids study seems to be mentioned a lot (Clark and Hatfield, 1989). In the textbook: “Men see an invitation for casual sex with an attractive unknown woman both as a compliment and an opportunity. Women see it as a threat and an insult. David Buss and Donald Symons both consider that this difference in behaviour reflects differing psychological adaptations in men and women with respect to sex.”

First of all, the study was of 48 men and 48 women TOTAL. Also - the pick up lines that they used - take a look at that. The environment, etc, etc. Wow, this is really overarchingly deriving a lot of evolutionary significance from something that could be very simply culturally based. What is the demographic and upbringing and economic status and conditioning of these college kids vs another population? If people of any gender are in an environment that is conducive to stimulating their sexual urges I think they will be equally stimulated. Try surveying a trailer park (not trying to be over the top, just saying, in contrast…) or other groups that may have different energetic investments and disciplines in life (a community of artists in New Orleans, for example - there are many examples). And it does say “Western.” This one study is not “proof” of an evolutionary difference.  -Nichole

Page 59 of Workman and Reader states that Darwin outlines intrasexual selection as generally males competing with other males for access to opposite sex, and intersexual selection as generally "female choice". Is this really true? If so, is it still true today? Due to progress in gender equality, and hearing stories about females competing with other females (verbal weapons instead of physical) you'd think intrasexual selection is done by females just as much, and plenty of females today flaunt their physique, put on make up and attractive clothing to lure males. –Stephen

"Intrasexual selection is generally regarded as being responsible for males developing weapons to compete with each other such as large teet and horns, greater musculature and a lower threshold for aggression when compared to their female counterparts." Is that to say that there isn't female intrasexual competition? This view seems heteronormative. Pg. 65 –Noe

Regarding parental investment (p.62), it's widely known that males are only required to contribute their genes in mating when compared to females, who nature dictates have to give (at least) a minimal contribution of holding the baby during pregnancy. My question is, once the baby is born, what dictates who will have higher parental investment, since once the baby is out, the female is also free to mate with others. What's preventing the female from abandoning the offspring? (like the male who also may abandon the offspring?) -Stephen

Looking at the chart on page 103, why are humans monogamous? Or how did that come to be? Wouldn't it make more evolutionary sense to be polygamous? -Noe


Chapter 5: development and innateness

Given Mendel's findings regarding phenotypes & genotypes, do you think that by evolution perhaps one day the dominant gene will have less of an influence? Do we see that in race? Pg. 39

Much of chapter 5 focuses on innate knowledge, but what about innate skills? Is there some sort of advantage in having to learn & grow how to do things like walk---whereas a giraffe can fall six feet and start walking right away. -Noe


Chapter 6: Social Development

"Such individuals (children whose families involve either parent-absence or insecure-avoidant attachment) might therefore engage in opportunistic relationships, not fully committing to their partners and perhaps even exploiting them. Furthermore, such individuals might have a series of sexual partners and might begin mating at a comparatively young age." p. 156

(p.159) States that "babies that love their parents are also going to be at an advantage over those that do not, as this will tend to keep them physically closer to their parents and hence safer". This is very interesting to me as I have never thought of filial piety as a trait selected for in human evolution. I've always thought that being filial and respectful was something conservative parents of certain cultures (e.g. Asian) imposed on their kids. While it seems like a no-brainer and a given that parents should take care of their kids, should kids also give them good reasons to -- not just take it for granted? Would this make them less likely to be abandoned by, say, their father? -Stephen


"Children who grew up with unresponsive or abusive mothers, or if the mothers were absent, would have working models that led them to view relationships and other people with suspicion." -part of Bowlby's theory, page 165.

Chapter 6, page 180, "Children want to be successful in the eyes of their peers and behaving like an adult probably won't help them achieve this."

If children learned everything they knew from their parents their skills and ideas would be very similar. Having children learn from their peers increase the variation of knowledge that is in their culture; variation is useful if the environment suddenly changes. (pg.180)





Chapter 7: kin and conflict

"conflict between mother and daughter is likely to be higher in families where both are of reproductive age"

Chapter 7 page 219, "such a finding [no girl of reproductive age in the Trinidad society became pregnant while living with her mother until the mothers last-born child was at least 4] suggests that there may be a reproductive suppression mechanism."


Chapter 8: Reciprocity


Chapter 9: Cognition

Brain Size Timeline:

Ch 9 Pg 263

Schacter's seven sins of memory...What about mindlessness? Example: When you're driving home & accidentally made a wrong turn. Or maybe this is an example of blocking but memory is overrun by subconscious. -Noe


I'm not sure I can concur with Chomsky's notion of Universal Grammar.

"Language learning is supported by a language organ which contains knowledge of the UG which is the abstract specification that underlies all human languages. Most languages use SOV, SVO, OVS, or OSV. In english I'd say "red car" whereas Spanish I'm supposed to say "car red" but I don't always say it that way. Ch 10 Pg 299  -Noe


Why are we able to be fooled by illusions? What evolutionary purpose does being fooled serve?

How can evolutionary psychology account for cognitive mistakes like base-rate neglect and gambler's fallacy? What cognitive equivalent was there (if any) in our ancestors' environment that would select for these fallacies?


Ch. 10: Language

"Miller's argument is that language may have originated as a means of enabling the process of competing for a mate; it was only later that it was used for all its other purposes." p. 295 Miller's theory of the importance of evolution in reproductive fitness seems too narrow-that it strictly helped individuals mate. Rather, it seems that communication would apply in almost every situation of an ancestor's daily life, and each situation would be improved (at least in survivability). It seems like it would have improved survivability first, and reproductive fitness second (being able to whisper sweet-nothings into a mate's ear).

"Symbolic language thus permitted the formation of social contracts, which enabled groups to stay together, which enabled the specialisation of male and female roles in terms of the provisioning of food (men hunt, women gather - see chapter 4) and permitted the moderately high male parental investment." p.323 He argues that the shift from non-symbolic to symbolic communication is explained by sexual selection. This is fine, but his argument is that it was through the social contract to stay faithful, which I simply do not believe is sufficient to be evolutionarily advantageous enough to warrant its formation.

"This is a classic example of the learnability argument; the information needed to turn statements into questions is not something that is given to children in the linguistic environment, nor do parents explicitly teach children about verb and noun phrases. But this information must come from somewhere and Chomsky argues that it is innate."


Ch 11: Emotion

"James (1842-1910) specifically developed Darwin's ideas arguing that, rather than the physical signs of an emotion following an internal state, the reverse is the case. So we feel fear because we tremble, rather than the other way round (James, 1884). In this way humans were seen to have evolved to react to our inward and outward bodily signs of emotions. In particular, James argued that the brain monitors the state of the viscera (that is 'gut feelings') and then we react to these signs with the appropriate internal state." p.333

The compromise argument: "...selection pressures act on inclusive fitness, not on perfecting psychological (and physical) devices" (335).

Ch 11 Pg 340. The amygdala is associated with fear recognition. Just a thought, if someone had damage to their amygdala, could they be taught to recognize fear? -Noe

"Jamison uses an evolutionary argument to suggest that the energy, creativity and focus that accompany a manic state may have been of sufficient advantage that the individuals with the genes for such states were kept in a population because of the advantages they conferred on their ancestors." p. 346

Ch 12 Pg 378. There's a positive correlation between depression and creativity. Perhaps that suggests we have an innate ability to cope with depression. I have a have time understanding this correlation though.

Perhaps these artists were creative all along and just happened to become depressed? -Noe

"Since the wild pig state is unknown in other cultures, Averill uses this example to support his view that most emotional reactions are socially constructed"

"People with serious emotional problems are frequently unable to look after themselves, let alone form stable attachments and rear offspring. Such findings suggest epiphenomenon explanation is less likely than the adaptation one. "  

"In fact, although we are often told to be more open about our feelings, social life would grind to a standstill if everybody continually reported their moment-by-moment internal state to the world."

Ch 12: Psychopathology

Anxiety and OCD + Depression Pleiotropy argument = "many genes have more than one phenotypic effect, so the negative effects of a gene may be maintained in a gene pool because the positive ones outweigh them." (heterozygous advantage also similar?) Time Lag argument = "humans have developed a lifestyle that did not exist in our ancestral past too rapidly for selective pressures to have led to appropriate changes (also known as the mismatch hypothesis)."Compromise argument = "Some psychiatric disorders may be due to design compromises rather than genetic flaws."

Chapter 13 “...variation arises simply as a result of the impossibility in specifying an entire organism..." (380).  Twin studies (strikingly similar, but not identical: Bouchard); raising clones, in controlled/uncontrolled environments

Schizophrenia: p385 "charismatic leaders from Adolf Hitler to David Koresh may well have schizophrenia." Individual Differences

Here's the other article I was talking about: -Katherine [orbital prefrontal cortex, social network size, and “intentionality score’]. The Dunbar number

Page 440: "Once culture had been identified as a force that can shape human behavior...some argued that culture was superorganic; that it existed as an autonomous force free from human influence." Counterexamples: rapid cultural change?

Page 411: "the successfulness of a 'personality type' will, up to a point, be dependent on the strategies adopted by other members of the population."


Chapter 14: Culture


In the article, "Culture, evolution and the puzzle of human cooperation," there is a statement about how building up one's reputation can lead one to cooperate with someone even if the beneficiary won't reciprocate. The idea is if there are a lot of people watching you, then it is in your best interest to show that your are a cooperating individual so that in the future you will be recognized as a cooperator and reap the benefits as such a person (pg. 238). The article brought up an example of why people argue over who pays the bill at a restaurant when they are in a group. The idea above provides an evolutionary reason to why people want to do such a thing. This made me wonder, can the idea of gaining a good reputation explain most (not all) of human behavior within a group? I would argue that it can; especially in the cases where it is a peer group. Would anyone disagree with my position?



In The Human Adaptation for Culture, Tomasello says that children, removed from society, would not develop a culture as complex as the least complex culture in existence. However, there is evidence of culture created by children in the absence of society, namely the phenomenon of idioglossia (languages developed between twins). Does Tomasello's assertion require revision?



When thinking of cooperation and sociality there are many levels ranging from the interactions between two people up to the structure of the entire society. There have been studies looking at the levels of individualism of different countries. The US prides itself on its "rugged individualism" where countries like Japan are known for its cooperative group thinking at what is believed to be a "loss of personality." What would account for these different attitudes, is there an  evolutionary perspective on this?





******Some concluding thoughts



What a piece of work is man

How noble in reason

How infinite in faculties

In form and moving how express and admirable

In action how like an angel

In apprehension how like a god

Shakespeare, Hamlet; intended ironically)





Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:

The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

(Alexander Pope, 1733, Epistle II, pp. 125-26)


[Darwinism] seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

—George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (1921)


A Free Man's Worship

A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life….

Just realize where you come from:
This is the essence of wisdom.

Tao Te Ching, #14