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Matrix - The Reality!,
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This review is from: The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are (Paperback)
Down, down I was falling. Sucked into a set of cultural values I didn't understand or sign up to. I had learnt to cope with people vehemently defending the indefensible, but was still struggling with the sickening moral righteousness. Bump! Ow! A ledge? No, but as good as. A copy of Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.
It has let me glimpse how and why a few basic natural phenomena such as genetic mutation, sexual recombination, reproductive economics, game theory, memory, non-zero-sum exchanges, reciprocal altruism (an unfortunate misnomer for reciprocal selfishness), sexual selection and parental investment have combined together to produce morals, cultural values and even emotions that are just expedients to the success of particular genes.
Darwin himself expressed the stark reality best by suggesting that if our ecological system had happened to develop more like that of bees, human morals would have us convinced that the pre-natal murder of her fertile sisters by the first fertile daughter and the murder of all their brothers by her sterile sisters is how things should be. They would be seen as acts of fundamental natural justice. As ‘humane'.
I found that pretty shocking, but its probably right.
The book shows how our emotions come to be as they are; love jealousy, guilt, even fashion. The reason men and women think differently. The origins and the power of the Madonna/Whore complex (most females' genes gain from only exchanging sex for committed male parental investment - the Madonna - but some females' genes succeed through the use of other strategies).
This doesn't all mean to say that every one of our existing values should be ditched, just that we need to recognise them as the product of a purposeless and selfish process and treat them with a great deal of caution. The morally upright, the morally indignant, the retributionist, those who appeal to natural justice or emotional integrity, they are all just protecting their hidden masters, their own selfish genes (the astonishingly powerful survivers of the evolutionary battle to the death with other selfish genes). The moralists might happen to be right (if there is such a thing) in some circumstances but their motives are thoroughly suspect. And what's more evolution is so amazing a process that to date it has even hidden from us the power to understand our own motives. (Any Matrix tingles, yet?) Many of us are convinced that most of the time we are being rational and sensible and fair. In fact the only thing we have been shown to be are vehicles that unconsciously, but cleverly, protect our own genes at others' (and indeed sometimes our own) expense.
But to understand it all better you'll have to read the book. And please, please do.
The book isn't perfect, of course. Despite his name even Robert Wright doesn't manage to escape all the vestiges of 20th Century Social Science.
There's a particularly lamentable piece about the social conventions that have promulgated monogamy in western civilisation. The book makes the point that monogamy suits both high status women (mostly beautiful women who don't want to share their rich and powerful husbands) and poor and disadvantaged men (who wouldn't get much of a look in if society was polygamous as most of the powerful men would have more than one wife and there are about equal numbers of men and women). It then leaps to the conclusion that the monogamous culture has been developed and extended by, and is for the benefit of, the poor and disadvantaged men - completely ignoring the influence of high status women.
Well, I'm quite a fan of monogamy myself, but I'm not that gullible. We all know that the poor and disadvantaged have always had the ear of government and that the powerful never listen to their wives and her pals now don't we?
But overall this is a first rate book. Buy it, read it, and read it again and again.
Now, how do I climb out of this pit? What did you say? Is it worth it? What's at the top? You mean you don't know either? Oh shoot!