The best books on how we became a moral animal

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was younger, I got into a lot of trouble. Many good-hearted people helped me. In part, this inspired me to become a clinical psychologist. When I was in graduate school at Harvard, I became disillusioned with clinical psychology and inspired to figure out why people are motivated to help others. During this process, a lecturer from the Biology Department, Robert Trivers, approached me and we exchanged drafts of papers we were writing. Trivers’ ideas caused me to see altruism and morality in an entirely different, and much more valid, way. In Survival of the Virtuous I demonstrate how psychological findings on altruism and morality can be gainfully interpreted from an evolutionary perspective.  


I wrote...

Survival of the Virtuous: How We Became a Moral Animal

By Dennis L. Krebs,

Book cover of Survival of the Virtuous: How We Became a Moral Animal

What is my book about?

Do good guys finish last? Did we evolve to look out for number one? Are we bad by nature? At first glance, the theory of evolution seems to imply that all organisms are evolved to be selfish. In this book, I explain how virtuous behaviors such as altruism, justice, honesty, loyalty, self-control, purity, and respect for authority, have evolved in humans and other species.

I argue that the key to solving puzzles of morality—such as what it is, how we acquire moral traits, why we sometimes behave badly, and how we make moral decisions—lies in figuring out what adaptive functions moral traits served in early human environments and how they are influenced by social learning, culture, and strategic social interactions in the modern world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Selfish Gene

Dennis L. Krebs Why did I love this book?

More than thirty years ago, when I was conducting research on the psychology of altruism and moral development, a biologist recommended that I read The Selfish Gene

Reading Dawkins’ book caused me to change my theoretical orientation completely.  It enabled me to see that if I wanted to understand altruism and morality, I needed to understand how the genes that guide the construction of the mental mechanisms that cause us to help others evolved. 

Although the title of the book implies that we are selfish by nature, the contents explain how selfish genes can guide the development of unselfish animals.  

By Richard Dawkins,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Selfish Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The million copy international bestseller, critically acclaimed and translated into over 25 languages.

As influential today as when it was first published, The Selfish Gene has become a classic exposition of evolutionary thought. Professor Dawkins articulates a gene's eye view of evolution - a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication. This imaginative, powerful, and stylistically brilliant work not only brought the insights of Neo-Darwinism to a wide audience, but galvanized the biology
community, generating much debate and stimulating whole new areas of research. Forty…


Book cover of The Biology of Moral Systems

Dennis L. Krebs Why did I love this book?

My introduction to Richard Alexander was a set of compelling words that he wrote in the margin of a draft of one of my early papers on the evolution of altruism: “no, no, no, no.” I had gotten it wrong. 

In The Biology of Moral Systems, Richard Alexander presents an account of how morality evolved in the human species that has proven almost exactly right. The key to understanding morality, he argues, is to view it as a system that evolved to enable individuals who can benefit from cooperating with one another to resolve their conflicts of interest in mutually beneficial ways. 

Alexander explains how the moral systems that have evolved in human societies are structured in ways that enable people to reap the benefits of increasingly indirect systems of reciprocity.  

By Richard Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Biology of Moral Systems as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite wide acceptance that the attributes of living creatures have appeared through a cumulative evolutionary process guided chiefly by natural selection, many human activities have seemed analytically inaccessible through such an approach. Prominent evolutionary biologists, for example, have described morality as contrary to the direction of biological evolution, and moral philosophers rarely regard evolution as relevant to their discussions.The Biology of Moral Systems adopts the position that moral questions arise out of conflicts of interest, and that moral systems are ways of using confluences of interest at lower levels of social organization to deal with conflicts of interest at higher…


Book cover of The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

Dennis L. Krebs Why did I love this book?

As an award-winning journalist and science writer, Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal, presents a lively, thought-provoking presentation of the theoretical framework of evolutionary psychology interwoven with tidbits about Charles Darwin’s life. 

I was impressed by his ability to provide compelling explanations for how moral sentiments and other important aspects of human psychology such as marriage, family, friendship, racism, deception, and self-deception evolved.  

By Robert Wright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Moral Animal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE MORAL ANIMAL examines the significance of this extraordinary shift in our perception of morality and what it means to be human.

Taking the life of Charles Darwin as his context, Robert Wright brilliantly demonstrates how Darwin's ideas have stood the test of time, drawing startling conclusions about the structure of some of our most basic preoccupations. Why do we commit adultery, express suicidal tendencies and have the capacity for self-deception? Wright not only provides the answers to such fundamental moral questions from the perspective of evolutionary psychology but challenges us to see ourselves anew through the clarifying lens of…


Book cover of The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts And the Evolution of Cooperation

Dennis L. Krebs Why did I love this book?

Matt Ridley is a science writer who has a rare knack for explaining complex ideas in ways that are witty and comprehensible to a lay audience. 

In Origins of Virtue, he weaves engaging anecdotes about academics who have argued that the function of traits we consider virtues is to uphold systems of cooperation into accounts of their ideas. I found his discussions of game theory especially interesting. 

Richard Dawkins may have provided the best review of Ridley’s book when he wrote, “If my Selfish Gene were to have a volume two devoted to humans, The Origins of Virtue is pretty much what I think it ought to look like.” 

By Matt Ridley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Origins of Virtue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

If, as Darwin suggests, evolution relentlessly encourages the survival of the fittest, why are humans compelled to live in cooperative, complex societies? In this fascinating examination of the roots of human trust and virtue, a zoologist and former American editor of the Economist reveals the results of recent studies that suggest that self-interest and mutual aid are not at all incompatible. In fact, he points out, our cooperative instincts may have evolved as part of mankind's natural selfish behavior-by exchanging favors we can benefit ourselves as well as others.Brilliantly orchestrating the newest findings of geneticists, psychologists, and anthropologists, The Origins…


Book cover of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

Dennis L. Krebs Why did I love this book?

As a psychologist, I marveled at the integration of ideas from psychology and evolutionary biology (with some philosophy thrown in) about the evolution of morality presented by the biologist D.S. Wilson and the philosopher Elliott Sober. 
Unto Others is a bold book that challenges the pervasive position in biology that moral traits cannot evolve through group selection. Using examples from several species, these authors explain how competitions in which altruistic groups defeat selfish groups can select for altruistic traits even though selfish individuals within these groups fare better than altruistic individuals. 

I admired the courage of these authors to go against the grain and withstand the vilification that their iconoclastic ideas evoked.   

By Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Unto Others as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No matter what we do, however kind or generous our deeds may seem, a hidden motive of selfishness lurks--or so science has claimed for years. This book, whose publication promises to be a major scientific event, tells us differently. In Unto Others philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson demonstrate once and for all that unselfish behavior is in fact an important feature of both biological and human nature. Their book provides a panoramic view of altruism throughout the animal kingdom--from self-sacrificing parasites to insects that subsume themselves in the superorganism of a colony to the human capacity for…


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By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

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Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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Interested in altruism, bioethics, and evolutionary psychology?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about altruism, bioethics, and evolutionary psychology.

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