Robert Wright

The last book I read in 2016 was “This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works” where leading thinkers share their favourite deep and elegant theory. An overwhelming number of them cited Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and though I have not been asked, I’d say rightly so. As someone rightly pointed out, the beauty and elegance is when one theory explains a lot of diverse phenomena, and is almost a gift that keeps on giving.

Robert Wright uses Darwin’s theory to explain exactly what the book’s title says – why we are the way we are, using Darwin’s own life to illustrate several facets of classic human behaviour. I have thus far viewed the brain as a product of evolution, and feelings and emotions as a vague result of biochemistry triggered by the environment and the brain. My views have been shaped by some excellent and diverse books – Sapiens, Scarcity, Finite and Infinite Games – to name a significant few. This book, in many ways, is an amalgamation of the best insights that those have to offer. But the brilliance of the book is in how it goes beyond, and draws the connection between mental organs and behaviour in the modern world.
The book throws light on the various behaviours we exhibit in our day to day life, many of which have their origins in the hunter-gatherer stage of our species and before. In fact, we even share some traits with our nearest relatives- chimpanzees and bonobos. Almost all facets of our life are addressed – relationship with parents, siblings, spouse, and society in general, politics, sex, friendship, religion etc.

There are some fascinating insights. How (and why) males are concerned with sexual infidelity while females focus on emotional infidelity, how natural selection works behind the scenes by shaping feelings and not making us conscious of the logic, on how happiness is not really the topmost agenda in the gene’s scheme of things, (that explains the friction!) the nature and cause of our biases, how we balance the two forces – reciprocal altruism and status hierarchy – that seem like opposites, the self being an organ of impression management (quoting Jerome Barkow) and so on.
But of all this, my favourite is the nuanced and fantastically lucid discussion on free will and determinism. I have, for years, been absolutely convinced about the former, but this book has given me some excellent perspectives on how determinism need not have anything to do with divinity, but everything to do with biological aspects – a combination of genes and environment. That “delusion of free will” could be an adaptation hidden from us by design.
And finally, on how because of of all this, we aren’t really moral animals, but only potentially moral. Indeed, I now feel that the purpose of our species, and each of us individually, is to rise above evolution. And this book helps you do just that- it works like a mirror, and then some, by making us reflect on the real reason behind why behave the way we do. The answers are not always kind.
The Moral Animal