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The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  3,809 ratings  ·  136 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 265 pages
Published April 1st 1998 by Penguin Books (first published 1997)
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May 28, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Origins of Virtue is a non-technical discussion of the evolutionary aspects of cooperation and altruism. That being an extremely complex subject (and still very much an active area of research), a short book like this can only skim the surface. Although I've read other books, magazine articles, and blog posts, there were some things here that were new to me. For example, the pair of chapters introducing game theory are better than other introductory articles I've seen, which (surprisingly) g ...more
Jun 08, 2013 rated it did not like it
Solid in parts, sadly Ridley once again Allows his scientific reasoning and conclusions to be the servants of his a priori political beliefs
Apr 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, biology
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 21, 2014 rated it liked it
Hmmm, The Origins of Virtue is an interesting examination of the possible evolutionary causes of virtue, mostly defined here as altruism. It works quite well as a supplement that falls somewhere in between three of my current classes on Coursera: one with an anthropological bent, one largely genetic, and one about morality. It draws some of those themes together quite well, for me, and explains some of the studies -- and some of the pitfalls of the studies, and wishful thinking.

It's also pretty
Steven Peterson
Dec 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
The book opens with a daring jail break. The story notes that the person escaping the grim Russian prison is, in fact, a member of the nobility, one of the Czar's favorites when the escapee was much younger. The person breaking out, of course, is Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist prince. However, it is not his philosophy so much as his work in natural history that drew Matt Ridley's attention.

Kropotkin, on an exploration of Siberia, observed what he saw was cooperation among multitudinous animal s
Apr 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of human nature, and how it has evolved biologically and culturally. It’s mostly a happy story – as a species we are cooperative, social, sharing, trading and we divide the labor so that we all have more. There’s a darker side too: we are fiercely and often irrationally (and violently) tribal. And underlying it all is the unpleasant (to many) truth that self-interest drives the whole thing – probably at the level of our genes, but certainly at the level ...more
Sep 25, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science-sort-of
Bit tempted to put this one in science fiction.
May 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book convinced me to be an ethical being. Also is true. Great work
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Interesting, well written.
B.J. Richardson
Jun 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book sets out to demonstrate that "there was morality before the church, trade before the state, exchange before money, social contracts before Hobbes, welfare before the Rights of Man, culture before Babylon, society before Greece, self-interest before Adam Smith, and greed before capitalism." By the title, you would think this is a book about the origins of virtue, but really the primary focus is on only two virtues he focuses on are altruism and cooperation.

When he is doing so, Matt Rid
Apr 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
My overall impression of the book:

This book is by far the most comprehensive account on the evolution of human morality I have yet to read. Ridley consummately brings together knowledge and narratives from biology, zoology, history (e.g. ancient Rome), and contemporary society (e.g. extant hunter-gatherer societies) to bring depth and volume to the subject matter. His book is informative from a socio-historical perspective, evolutionary perspective, zoological perspective, and even genetic pers
Feb 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sci-tech
This book extends the arguments about the genetic basis of behavior from the rest of the animal kingdom (familiar to readers of Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene") into human behavior, the appearance of cooperation and altruistic actions, and the unique nature of human society. The author, Matt Ridley, is good at engaging the reader, with many examples drawn not only from biology, but from diverse fields, including opera (the "Prisoner's Dilemma" chapter begins with the plot story for Puccini's "Tosca" ...more
Mark Colenutt
Jul 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Matt Ridley was educated at Oxford and is a journalistic scientist, which means he is able to translate the more complicated scientific breakthroughs and understandings to the wider public in a clear and succinct manner.

Almost anything he has written, including his Guardian articles, are worthy of a reader's time. This particuar publication is a brave attempt to explain why we are nice to each other. Is it from some altruistic human capacity or is it more a genetic survival technique? We are tau
Aug 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, game-theory
It was hard for me to get through the first couple of chapters mainly because I don't agree with the basic premise of the book: that we have evolved from nothing into something. I actually underlined all the times Ridley used the language of intelligent design (accidentally, I assume) to describe some evolutionary process.

But starting with Chapter 3 -- The Prisoner's Dilemma -- the book gets much better. It's about game theory and how humans make decisions when placed under various cost/benefit
John Vibber
Jan 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book poses a puzzle: Is virtue an instinctual property built into our selfish genes? And if so, how do we reconcile our tribal tendencies with the trust we extend to others? You might think such thorny questions best explained by anthropologists, but Matt Ridley the biologist/economist wouldn't agree.

His thesis is based on several lines of research which weigh traditional and emerging beliefs about human nature. Traditionally he asks if we are noble savages constrained by society or distr
Dennis Littrell
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Lively, biased, and a whole lot of fun

Matt Ridley nicely demonstrates here that there is no such thing as virtue and that altruism is an oxymoron. Instead it is all reciprocity and enlightened self-interest. This reminds me of when I was a sophomore in college. We used to argue passionately about three things: the nature of women, whether the Pope believed in God, and whether it was possible to act otherwise than in one's own self-interest. We concluded that women were an enigma wrapped in a mys
Apr 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book should definitely be on your short list of books to read if you are at all interested in what makes us humans behave as we do. It is one among many recently published books on evolutionary psychology -- and it's one of the very best. What distinguishes Ridley's book from the pack is his explicit grappling with the question: What does the fact that human moral sentiments are crafted by natural selection imply about the appropriate political order?

I definitely want and need to read it a
Jul 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ethics, economics, science
Nature or nurture? It’s a question as old as philosophy, and it is an ongoing discussion in our current world. Matt Ridley tackles this question from the perspective of evolutionary biology (a subject on which he has authored several books) in The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. In answering the question, he doesn’t vary far from the “selfish gene” concept, but he uses illustrations from anthropology, biology, economics, history, and horticulture (among other ...more
Evan Dossey
May 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
Matt Ridley, a former journalist, continues to provide evolutionary-psychology and zoology grounded insights into human behavior. An old book, but good groundwork for more recently published material.
Donna G
Aug 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Ridley explores the concepts laid out by Charles Darwin regarding the spirit of cooperation amongst the human race with clarity and purpose. He is a compelling author with well-defined views.

Great read!
Oct 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, 2008, non-fiction
Fascinating subject, somewhat shallow treatment. Great place to start if you are interested in evolutionary psychology or ethics.
May 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Information overload. Got bits and pieces out of it and found the human examples more interesting but in the end I'm still not sure what I got out of it.
Oct 19, 2015 rated it liked it
Seems like Ridley has some political beliefs to peddle. Short book on such an interesting subject. Now I need to get myself other books that go deeper.
Country Aplomb
Sep 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting science, simplistic politics
Grace Cao
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oleg Kitov
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is about a well-established argument in evolutionary psychology that individual self-interest is the source for intra- and inter-group cooperation and reciprocal altruism among non-kin. As a consequence it is subject to the commonly cited drawbacks of evolutionary psychology in general (e.g. "if the evolutionary story fits the observed behaviour, it's gotta be right..."). Read this book together with Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal", Yuval Harrari's "Sapiens", Robert Sapolski's "Beha ...more
Meha Jadhav
Aug 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
After being enthralled by ‘Genome’ written by the same author, I eagerly picked up this book, whose description seemed equally promising. Written on a completely different subject, this books is about human nature; in particular, the social side of it.
The book however starts with the gene- or to be precise, the selfish gene concept. Many animals do live in large groups, showing division of labour and hierarchy comparable to human societies. However, their cooperation may be driven by the selfi
Jun 06, 2017 rated it liked it
Exploring the idea of altruism as evolutionarily advantageous. The author is very brief and I wouldn't consider this a very "scientific" book in the sense of him actually applying the scientific method to his researching and compilation of the book (there are only a few examples stated to support a bold and sweeping claim about humanity - that kind of thing). It is an enjoyable read about this person's particular opinion and viewpoint. He is an intelligent and thoughtful person, so it is interes ...more
Rowan Sully Sully
Thought this would be a philosophical book but turned out to be more anthropological. Draws a lot on Dawkins' selfish gene theory at first but analyses it differently. Whilst the genes appear selfish, is doesn't mean that we are only trying to protect our genes, but also are relatives, connections, and society as a whole.

Gets a bit more interesting when Ridley talks about government. He comes to the conclusion that both Hobbes and Rousseau are wrong. That humans are not naturally good or bad. Bu
Paul Bard
May 11, 2018 rated it did not like it
This is a ridiculous book, that should not have reached publication and does not need to exist. Aristotle established that man is a social animal that is (at least potentially) capable of reason twenty six centuries ago. Then this dope comes along and tries to say it all again in 300 pages with multiple easily-avoidable distortions and misinterpretations of the tradition he is writing in. Ridley screws up Aristotle by acting as if ALL social behavior can be reduced to mere biology, as if even re ...more
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Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley DL FRSL FMedSci (born 7 February 1958, in Northumberland) is an English science writer, businessman and aristocrat. Ridley was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he received a doctorate in zoology before commencing a career in journalism. Ridley worked as the science editor of The Economist from 1984 to 1987 and was then its Washington cor ...more

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“Montagues and Capulets, French and English, Whig and Tory, Airbus and Boeing, Pepsi and Coke, Serb and Muslim, Christian and Saracen – we are irredeemably tribal creatures. The neighbouring or rival group, however defined, is automatically an enemy. Argentinians and Chileans hate each other because there is nobody else nearby to hate.” 3 likes
“Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative. That is the paradox this book has tried to explain. Human beings have social instincts. They come into the world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour.” 0 likes
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