In the quarter-century since Wilson's book was published, the theory has generated some of the most heated, and most politicized, scientific debate of our time. Some mistook the theory as a scientific validation of the contention that some people are born with "weak" minds, have a proclivity for crime, and so on. Others viewed evolutionary psychology as a threat to religious and moral values. In a time when DNA is being sequenced and it is increasingly common to attribute behavior to genes, Wilson's idea demands another look: especially since it may be that faith and morals make sense even if sociobiology is right.
The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that the mind, like any other organ of the human body, has been shaped by natural selection during the course of evolution, creating biological roots to human nature. Just as our ability to, for instance, walk on two feet proved advantageous in the ancestral environment and was therefore favored by natural selection, our ancestors' fear of wild animals helped them to survive--explaining, sociobiology assumes, the animal phobias so many people have today.
But the theory doesn't stop there. The same kind of logic, say evolutionary psychologists, explains other facets of human psychology. On an evolutionary level, the theory says, the main thing human beings care about is passing on copies of their genes. We can better understand negative emotions like greed, lust, anger, guilt, and jealousy by considering how they might have helped our ancestors survive and pass on their genes. By the same token, the good things we do--charity, love and marriage, and altruism--can be explained as evolutionarily driven mechanisms in the service of our overarching goal of "reproductive success."
Thus the good and the bad of humanity is less a matter of individual choice than a matter of deeply programmed evolutionary drives. Does that invalidate our religious and charitable impulses? Consider what evolutionary psychology--which is now catching on as a theory of choice at many universities after years of resistance--has to say about some of our most cherished practices:
Charity. Evolutionary psychology says that insofar as people engage in charity, most do so to gain status and look good in front of others--at least on a subconscious level. Most philanthropic donations are not anonymous, for instance. Studies show that people are drastically less likely to give blood if not given a sticker from the Red Cross that says, "I gave blood."
The conclusion: People give so they can appear to be friendly and compassionate in front of other people, thus increasing their chances of appearing fit to potential mates.
Love and marriage. Men and women get married not for love of each other, or love of children, but as a deterministic means of propagating their genes to their offspring. In evolutionary terms, men use women for their eggs, which is why men prefer women who are young--the young are more fertile. On an instinctual level, men are driven to want to sleep around rather than stay faithful to wives. This is explained in terms of parental investment. For a man, fathering a child requires a negligible amount of effort, so the optimal strategy for spreading his genes is to have as much sex as possible.
For women, marriage is mainly a way to secure resources for children. That's why women tend to be attracted to men with status and wealth--the more money a man has, the better provided for her children are likely to be. Since the woman is the one who actually has to carry the child, for her being a parent requires a huge amount of time, energy, and resources. Therefore, she has to be choosy about who she picks as her mate, which is why women are less promiscuous than men.
This is evolutionary psychology's view of relations between the genders--men want lots of quick sex without responsibility, women want power and money. Not exactly a heartwarming picture.
Altruism. True and selfless altruism--doing something for someone without expecting to get anything in return--is rare. Instead, says sociobiology, we mostly practice "reciprocal altruism," doing something for somebody because we know that when the time comes the favor will be returned: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." We also practice "kin selection," helping people related to us. In evolutionary terms, doing a favor for a relative is actually a selfish act: By promoting the welfare of our relatives, we're promoting genes that are at least partly ours.
By explaining away our moral impulses as selfish attempts to maximize reproductive success, does evolutionary psychology undermine our religious and moral values? Not really, and here's why.
Heredity isn't destiny. Sex-crazed males and money-loving females probably does describe how we are naturally--emphasis on naturally. But being genetically predisposed to act a certain way doesn't mean we have to act that way. Unlike other animals, whose behavior is inflexible because it's driven mostly by instinct, human beings are blessed with reason and the ability to contemplate decisions before making them. We can establish social conventions or individual moral standards that cause us to love our partners solely for the sake of love, practice charity solely for the sake of virtue, and so on. Sorry, guys: Evolutionary psychology does not say it's OK for you to have lots of sex without commitment. It says men are born inclined to do this--but we can say they ought to rise above the inclination.
Religion elevates us above our instincts. As Robert Wright points out in his excellent 1994 book, "The Moral Animal," one of the functions of religion is to raise people above their evolutionary nature. Buddha, for instance, advised his followers to ignore physical urges and material gain and strive for the extinction of desire. Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita exhorts men to "abandon desires." Ecclesiastes says, "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire." And Jesus said, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on." It's a theme common to almost every religion: Of course we have animal desires, but we'll be better if we strive to rise above them.
Understanding our evolutionary selves can make us better. Having a grasp of human nature, and the hidden selfishness involved in many of the things we do, can help us be less selfish. If you realize that when giving blood, you may subconsciously be doing it for the wrong reasons--then do it for the right reasons. Be suspicious of your own motivations and try to work against your innate moral biases. Give blood and don't wear the sticker. Do something nice that won't be reciprocated. Help people who won't help you back--and keep it a secret as the Bible advises: "lend expecting nothing in return." Give to charity anonymously. By understanding the innate bases for many of our desires, we can work to be better than the sum of our instincts. Genes aren't destiny, and sociobiology does not rob us of our higher selves.