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

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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 of Virtue re-examines the everyday assumptions upon which we base our actions towards others, whether in our roles as parents, siblings, or trade partners. With the wit and brilliance of The Red Queen , his acclaimed study of human and animal sexuality, Matt Ridley shows us how breakthroughs in computer programming, microbiology, and economics have given us a new perspective on how and why we relate to each other.

265 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1997

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About the author

Matt Ridley

29 books1,868 followers
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 correspondent from 1987 to 1989 and American editor from 1990 to 1992.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 158 reviews
397 reviews24 followers
May 28, 2011
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) generally don't go beyond the point in the history of computer simulations where the Tit-for-Tat strategy came to prominence: Ridley describes how, as simulations became more realistic, Tit-for-Tat turned out not to be the single most stable strategy after all. But then, a single simple solution is easier to present in a short article, whereas here he has thirty pages to develop the point that will be repeatedly made throughout the book: that a (temporarily) stable solution is a delicate balance of competing interests, adjusted by natural selection and highly dependent on ecological circumstances.

As the subtitle indicates, Ridley is constantly returning to the subject of "human instincts". People who doubt that instincts can be directly selected for reproductive strategizing, or who want methodological caution, will be dissatisfied here: Ridley pretty much takes evolutionary psychology for granted. He starts off the book by invoking nineteenth-century social theorists Peter Kropotkin and Adam Smith, but mostly he cites famous twentieth century work in economics and anthropology; psychological research is brought in to a much lesser extent. The references in the endnotes are a mixture of academic works and other semi-popular books.

At several points Ridley argues against a "noble savage" idea, pointing out that people aren't virtuous because virtue is directly built into them, but because they're (selected to be) able to recognize that living in a virtuous society where you can usually trust strangers is good for them (it seems that humans are the only species that can go that far, not only making fair deals, but using general virtue to promote a far larger cooperative society). Cheating is short-sighted, cooperation allows greater gains. There are discussions of what social circumstances promote and undermine this; it's always a balance. Ridley is somewhat pessimistic about the possibility of ecological virtue, which is not an inborn love of the land but rather a much more difficult problem in far-sightedness. However, it has not proved impossible to solve some problems of destructive self-interest, perhaps this one is not impossible either.

Ridley gets into politics somewhat, with a recurring theme being an argument against coercive institutions, whether they be monarchs or large bureaucratic governments. He is attempting to demonstrate that fluid agreements between individuals or small collectives are far more likely to work to everyone's advantage. This goes for property ownership too: he argues that people can't properly care for land or resources that are nobody's, or held by a very large collective ownership. These themes, like everything else in this short work, are not developed in much detail.

This book covers all the main aspects of its topic, and lays out the basis that beginners will need in order to go further in the field. Ridley writes well and explains his points very comprehensibly, though at the cost of simplification. His greatest flaw is that he takes an excessively confident tone, often presenting a disputed issue as if it was settled. Let me not be excessively negative. I hope that people who finish this good but incomplete book will go on, if not to read some primary sources, at least to seek out other popular works with different perspectives.
Profile Image for Ohr.
245 reviews10 followers
June 8, 2013
Solid in parts, sadly Ridley once again Allows his scientific reasoning and conclusions to be the servants of his a priori political beliefs
323 reviews13 followers
January 27, 2009
Read it awhile ago. I remember it being really good. Pretty simple to grasp. Fun. Interesting. All that.

Attempts to answer the question "Why are people nice?"


"Animals are designed to do things not for their species, or for themselves, but for their genes."

"There had come the realization that the genome wasn't the monolithic data bank plus executive team devoted to one project - keeping oneself alive, having babies - that I had hitherto imagined it to be. Instead, it was beginning to seem more a company boardroom, a theatre for a power struggle of egotists and factions . . . I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire."

"The deed is what counts."

"Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: 'My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death'. And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity."

"Social benefits derive from individual vices. The cooperation and progress inherent in human society are the result not of benevolence, but of the pursuit of self-interest. Selfish ambition leads to industry; resentment discourages aggression; vanity can be the cause of acts of kindness."

"To reduce the complexity of life to a silly game is the kind of thing that gets economists a bad name. But the point is not to try squeeze every real-life problem into a box called 'prisoner's dilemma', but to create an idealized version of what happens when collective and individual interests are in conflict. You can then experiment with the ideal until you discover something surprising and then return to the real world to see if it sheds light on what really happens."

"The Western Front was 'plagued' by unofficial truces between Allied and German units that had been facing each other for some time. Elaborate systems of communication developed to agree terms, apologize for accidental infractions and ensure relative peace - all without the knowledge of the high commands on each side."

"The bigger the society in which the individual lives, the bigger its neocortex relative to he rest of the brain. To thrive in a complex society, you need a big brain. To acquire a big brain, you need to live in a complex society."

"Gift giving in a tribal society, where the object is to put somebody else under an obligation, is not gift giving at all; it is exploiting a reciprocal instinct."

"Moral sentiments are problem-solving devices designed to make highly social creatures effective at using social relations to their genes' long-term advantage. They are a way of settling the conflict between short-term expediency and long-term prudence in favour of the latter."

"The virtuous are virtuous for no other reason than that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, to mutual benefit."

"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."

"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."

"So let us examine the individualists' case: that government is the problem, not the solution. The collapse of community spirit in the last few decades, and the erosion of civic virtue, is caused in this analysis not by the spread and encouragement of greed but by the dead hand of Leviathan. The state makes no bargain with the citizen to take joint responsibility for civic order, engenders in him no obligation, duty or pride, and imposes obedience instead. Little wonder that, treated like a naughty child, he behaves like one."
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
February 21, 2014
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 well written: it's divided into both chapters and sections, which makes it easy to digest and keeps the argument focused.

On the other hand, it's a little old now (1996), and Ridley's ideology is very obvious to the attentive reader, although camouflaged by his scientific tone. At least the last chapter unveils his ethical principles: anti-government, anti-socialism (including such familiar institutions to Brits as the NHS), pro-small collectives and curated communal living. To be fair, he does analyse some of the ways this falls down, but he mostly focuses on why government-run things doesn't work.

I mean, I love the NHS unashamedly. I went from the diagnosis of gallstones to medication to having my gallbladder removed in the process of a couple of months, without paying for anything at the point of use, at a time when I couldn't support myself and was in agonising pain. Throughout my life I'll pay back into that system with my taxes, and I don't begrudge it at all, whatever Ridley's conclusions told him.
Profile Image for B.J. Richardson.
Author 2 books69 followers
December 19, 2019
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 Ridley is excellent. He pieces together the fields of biology, game theory, the animal kingdom, and some history and sociology to demonstrate why and how from a behavioral evolutionary standpoint, we act the way we do. I understand that such a large task there is no way to include all the facts, details and theories that are out there, but Ridley does tend to use a selective inclusion of facts that make his case seem much stronger than it really is. For example, he demonstrates how and why fashions and fads can come into being, but by his logic, there would be no reason for those fads to ever change. I wonder what Malcolm Gladwell would have to say to that. Things are a bit more complicated than Ridley would like.

Another example that jumped right out at me because theology is my strong point was when he was talking about how early Judaism was an exclusive religion. He states that "The Ten Commandments apply to the Israelites but not to heathen people." He then gives an example of Joshua winning a battle in Ai and celebrating by making a stone copy of the Ten Commandments that include "Thou shalt not kill." Matt Ridley should have read to the end of the chapter before trying to paint Judaism as an affair exclusively of adult Hebrew men. In Joshua 8:35 it specifically says that all the women, children, and foreigners were included in this celebratory reading of the Law.

A few different times, I caught subtle hints at racism or, at least, an air of Western superiority. One such example I noted was: "A South African crowd making a political demonstration and jogging in place is much closer to its evolutionary roots than a ballroom of Viennese waltzing the night away." No explanation or reason is given. It is simply assumed his readers will immediately, unquestioningly agree. The same idea also comes out when talking about cultures and people groups that have only recently come into contact with the West. It is assumed that they have not evolved or changed in any way for thousands, or tens of thousands of years and that we can understand from their 19th or 20th-century behavior how Homo Erectus must have acted.

Anyways, I am still giving this book four stars because there is a lot of great information here and this would be a good introductory book on behavioral evolution. I would just strongly recommend that you read it with both eyes open.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 20 books272 followers
December 11, 2009
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 species. He drew from that the conclusion that Huxley, who had described nature as "red in tooth and claw," was missing an important part of the evolution picture--the evolution of cooperation. And this leads to Ridley's thesis in this well written volume (page 5): "Society works not because we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature." He goes on to note that (page 5): "This is a book about human nature, and in particular the surprisingly social nature of the human animal."

The volume proceeds by reviewing theories and research on cooperation, evolution, and so on, a wide ranging review of the human condition and of our evolutionary impulses. He notes that our primate relatives set the stage for understanding the evolution of human cooperation. He notes the importance of a game, adopting game theory, developed by political scientist Robert Axelrod, in which humans will cooperate unless double crossed, at which point individuals will respond in negative kind. But, according to some theorists, as long as individuals are willing to cooperate with one another, they will get cooperation in return.

His conclusion is intriguing (page 264): "If we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power and scope of the state." He calls for (page 265) ". . .social and material exchange between equals for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the basis for virtue."

All in all, an intriguing and interesting volume. Not all, of course, will be convinced of the thesis. But it is a well written effort to integrate many different bodies of work to make his point.
37 reviews14 followers
May 6, 2022
Very frustrating. Insightful and interesting at times, but also inefficient, ambiguous and lacking direction.

First of all, it's obviously CRITICAL to define a term like "virtue" if you're going to write a whole book about it. But Ridley seems to skip past this step. And in the process, he allows the term to maintain an amorphous and vague meaning for much of the book. Which in turn makes all his ideas vague or even meaningless.

There are sayings like, ask two people for a definition of "fair" and you'll get three answers. The same is true of many words, including "virtue". And especially political buzzwords like equality, greed, rights, exploitation, society, etc. Even the word "woman" seems to be up for grabs these days. Even a tiny bit a clarity goes a long way. Without it, these words can mean whatever people want them to mean in a given context, constantly morphing, appearing and disappearing. That's a huge problem in politics in general. And Ridley partially falls into it.

Initially, Ridley seems to treat virtue as basically meaning "selflessness". But I think that's incredibly stupid, to be frank. If you think it through, it becomes obvious how stupid it is. I mean, what could be more selfless than suicide? Offering yourself to a hungry predator? Completely forgoing any pleasure in life? Actively helping your worst enemies?

When the plane's going down, you put your oxygen mask on first, for a very good reason. You're useless dead. And you're probably stronger than your child. You're also useless miserable and confused. So, in life, help yourself first. You know yourself best and there's nothing wrong with seeking happiness for yourself - a noble and achievable goal. Making others happy is fraught with danger. You can waste your energy or get used. You can get sucked into misery, forget who you are. If you and they are both happy, and "selfish", you're in a much better position to help each-other both become more happy.

If words have meaning, selfless must mean putting others above yourself. Not caring about yourself. That's essentially the same as self-destruction. If you don't love yourself, how can you love others? If you aren't strong, how can you inspire others? Many of the most evil and dangerous people in history were selfless - they committed to an ideal greater than themselves, something extreme. They might barely have had emotions or even known who they were. They were seldom actually happy.

Meanwhile, people who commit to their self, finding out who they are, doing what they love, raising a family, etc. They're often the happiest and most stable people you can meet. In general.

Eventually, Ridley reaches the idea that helping others sometimes helps your self and vice-versa. This is essentially the concept of Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. Certainly a fundamental idea, though also a trivial and misunderstood one. It really just means that the interests of the individual and "society" (other people they interact with) can become aligned. Especially when there are laws preventing the violation of private property, otherwise murder, rape and theft are very tempting. Then the only way to get ahead is by helping others.

But this is hardly a question of virtue or self(ish/less)ness. In fact, it implies that we can no longer tell the two apart. It hardly matters. Are you baking cakes so people can eat delicious cakes? Or to make money? We can't know for sure. And we don't need to know! But those who are driven to work hard, either to please others or for personal gain, will do well.

In fact, that should be the key point. Free trade encourages people to work together. Everyone benefits. Not only that, but there is feedback. You can become a better baker (and businessman) by adjusting to what people want.

Ridley spends much time on the prisoner's dilemma. It is an interesting analogy for economics. However, he takes forever to get to the point, which seems trivial. In the real world, we do not interact with people once and then never again. So as a model, the prisoner's dilemma clearly needs refinement, which Ridley eventually does.

You need to repeat the game, keeping in mind that the players can acquire information about each-other, that not all the players have the same goals, skills, experience, etc, and many other factors. By that point, you're really just doing economics again - analysing incentives, supply-and-demand, efficiency, productivity, competition, etc.

Having said that, the simplicity of the prisoner's dilemma can offer some insights, although they're still pretty obvious. Being a jerk to everyone works against the weak, but not in general. Being weak might be okay with other weak people, but not with jerks. Tit-for-tat, which Ridley fawns over, makes more sense. Treat others as they treat you. An eye for an eye. It's pretty simple, and it works.

Technically though, you can go further. Too many philosophers are looking for the key. What's the main thing to do? Be aggressive? Be nice? Study? Work?

To me the answer is simple, in a sense. Life is about trade-offs. It's all a question of context. Looking for categorical answers will never work. Practically every rule has an exception. You should work, study, become strong, stand up for yourself - all of those things. But you have to adjust. Learn from mistakes. Emulate those who are successful. Don't waste time with jerks or losers. But also compromise. If a rude person is your best option in some situation, you may have to deal with it. To commit to any one strict philosophy is to limit your options in critical moments.

Information is itself a resource, a basic concept missed by many philosophers. Ridley seems to indirectly address this to some degree. As people, we can choose who to associate with. We can avoid those who would abuse us, seek out people who are useful or like-minded, etc. But we have limited information, of only partial certainty. Some brands are well-established and have a good reputation. They are reliable and high quality, but more expensive. We can take a risk on an unknown seller, probably at a lower price and lower but unknown quality.

These concepts are not advanced. But they're easy to skip over when you're trying to boil life or economics down to one or two key principles. Such petty things as trade-offs can ruin your big theory. Who wants to realise that the best life path depends a lot on where you are and where you wanna go? If there's a neat theory, that's much more appealing to some people.

Again, the analysis of the prisoner's dilemma is interesting, but Ridley's treatment is frustrating. Game theory or automata can give rise to unexpected or clever insights. That's in part because of their simplicity. This is itself a trade-of. A very simply model can be easier to analyse with clear results. And those can give us hints about human behaviour, in a very broad sense. Like the dominance of tit-for-tat implying that you should give back what you receive - that reciprocity works. That's a major theme in life, for sure!

But of course it's not a full model for human behaviour. As you make the model more sophisticated, you may get something more realistic, but you also lose some of the simplicity, elegance or clear results. Your model may also start to become quite biased or subjective. Whatever features you add raise the question - why those features? Why those particular rules? For instance, I was thinking you could add factors like the prisoners having different odds of winning, or having different races/groups/locations which affects who they trade with, or some having better memories than others, etc. Ridley doesn't go as deep as he could.

That I've written so much does indicate that this book touches on interesting concepts. It was thought-provoking, but also frustrating. It's an area ripe for discussion, but I find Ridley's approach clumsy and meandering.

A couple of phrases stood out as very stupid:

"almost countless" - Almost makes sense.

"million billion" - Just a big number and a very strange way to describe it. I always use long form as it's much clearer.

Other pet peeves:

- Ridley loosely uses very subjective terms like altruism, nice, better, rational, beautifully, etc. He does this a lot, apparently oblivious to how unclear he's being. He also refers to "we", as if all humans must operate the same way, with the same feelings or thoughts.

- He says apes are social, as if each species is either 100% social or not social at all. It means nothing. Every animal can be social to some degree. I'm human, I sometimes like socialising, but often like time to myself, more than most people.

- Apple vs. PC "triablism". I prefer PC. I don't care what anyone else thinks. Enjoy your Apple. Just because many people like either A or B doesn't mean they're each unthinking tribes. Great minds think alike and so do mediocre ones.

- He implies that humans are not that special. I disagree. We're vastly more intelligent than any other animal. 5-year-olds can do things no animal has ever done, like form complex sentences, write their name, learn new words/ideas on the spot, etc. In some cases, they can learn chess, piano or maths, as I did.

- The "invention of cooperation". As if cooperation's something which needs to be invented. I suppose using a stick is cooperation with the stick. If something can help you, you use it. If you help them along the way, that's just the cost, not the purpose.

- Rich people favour sons? News to me. God knows what he's talking about.

Anyway, yeah, the book was a mixed experience. It has some virtues but plenty of vice getting in the way.
Profile Image for Lacivard Mammadova.
574 reviews56 followers
February 26, 2020
Fəlsəfə və psixologiya janrlarında qeyd olunan bu kitabı rahatlıqla iqtisadiyyat bölməsinə də göndərmək olar. Heç vaxt bu janrları sevməmişəm, amma necə maraqlı alınıb. "İnsan davranışlarının təhlili, tarixi izah, bazara təsiri" şəklində keçən izah şəkli çox gözəl cızılıb. Kitabda müxtəlif əzbər bildiyimiz teoriyaların təkzibi də yer alıb və əsərin 2013-cü il istehsallı olduğu nəzərə alsaq, son dövrlərin yeniliklərinə olan izahlara ac qaldım. Ümumilikdə çox bəyəndim, 5 verməməyimin səbəbi sonu nə qədər maraqlı idisə, əvvəlinin bir o qədər maraqsız və cansıxıcı olmasındandır. O ilk səhifələri necə aşıb, bu gözəl kitabı kəşf edə bildiyimə özüm də təəccüblənirəm. İstəsəz, ilk bir-neçə mövzunu ötürün.
Profile Image for Erman.
60 reviews6 followers
October 18, 2022
Tıpkı Kızıl Kraliçe gibi insanı düşünmeye, sorgulamaya iten; hoşuna gitmese dahi uzak durduğu fikir veya görüşlere kişinin daha sağduyulu yeni bir bakış getirmesini teşvik eden çok iyi bir kitap. Ekonomi teorileriyle sıkça verkaça giriyor: Oyun teorisi etrafında şekillenen 'Mahkumun İkilemi' bölümü müthiş olmakla birlikte; son çeyrekteki 'ticaret', 'ekoloji' ve 'mülkiyetin' irdelendiği bölümler kitabı biyoloji ekseninden iktisat ve sosyolojiye hafifçe kaydırarak harika bir dengeye çıkarıyor. Yaygınca kabul edilenin aksine; ahlakın dinden, ticaretin devletten, refahın insan haklarından, toplumsal sözleşmelerin Hobbes'ten, toplumun Antik Yunan'dan, kişisel çıkarların Adam Smith'ten, açgözlülüğün de kapitalizmden önce var olduğu ileri sürülüyor. Elbette tüm bunları daha önce ifade eden metinler yazıldı ve dahice bir 'yenilikten' bahsedemeyiz, ancak bütün olarak çok keyifliydi. Yazarın taraflı anlatımı haklı bir eleştiri sayılabilir, fakat bunun ne sakıncası var ki!
Profile Image for Diana.
46 reviews17 followers
August 2, 2014
I enjoyed this book a lot. It explained game theory very well and discussed in detail the computer run experiments that concluded that the nicer versions of game theory (generous, pavlov, tit-for-tat, firm-but-fair) tended to be more successful than the nastier ones like prisoner's dilemma and that prisoner's dilemma could be quite cooperative if the players all knew each other and could trust that there would be no defections.

I also liked how he launches from the concept of the selfish gene Dawkins so well illuminates in his book The Selfish Gene to show that humans act selfishly from the genes on up and when they act for the welfare of the group they are often either related (also shown in social insects like ants & bees) or really protecting themselves (the survival of the group means the survival of the individual).

I also appreciated the discussion of the human tendency toward groupishness and conformity.

However, at the very end of the book, it seems Ridley couldn't hold in his own personal political opinions about "big government" and the desire to get rid of government (which he thinks is too authoritarian) & relegate it to only defence to leave local groups to get on with the rest themselves. He is very much against the Leviathan. I might have given his ideas more of a chance if he had shown statistical proof that such a model works. Instead, he backs it up only with a notion of success being in the ability to trust one another and become invested in outcomes. I agree with this part, but I don't think he argued well enough that this necessarily translates into a great reduction in the reach and protection of the Leviathan.
24 reviews
April 19, 2020
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 perspective. It is a multi-disciplinary work that’s well synthesized. The amount of detail he includes and the fact that he approaches the subject from an innumerable number of angles is impressive and highly informative. You can tell Ridley is observant, cultivated, and insightful. His keen eye for detail finds connections where others cannot.

Ridley has a PhD in Zoology and it shows. He references many ethological reports to elucidate how the evolution of human morality is similar to or divergent from the evolution of similar traits in other animals. Chapter 1, bringing to light a molecular, “Russian doll,” biological view of cooperation, had me stunned. It remains my favourite chapter in the book.

Ridley also seems to have a talent for story telling. The book is lively and exciting to read, with analogies as well as interesting, albeit true, narratives around every corner. Lots of historical evidence and ancient anecdotes substantiate his claims while also bringing life to the book. His carefully crafted analogies serve their purpose well and elucidate the subject matter.

The historical quotes he uses from prominent figures at the beginning of every chapter and every so often in the text, often to demonstrate the thinking of a particular philosophical tradition or time, are astutely chosen and entertaining to read. They resonate with you and make you think.

Some cons:

A few of his ideas are outdated. This is understandable given the book was published in 1998. One should read this classical, seminal work knowing that this may be the case. Still, most of his ideas remain viable. The book must have been revolutionary at its time, even though the understanding of the subject matter has advanced a bit since then. Ridley was the pioneering theorist that brought forth the unorthodox paradigm of viewing morality as an evolved trait and he should be congratulated for this. I would argue this book remains the “gold standard” to read for an introductory, sweeping overview of the subject.

The book is clearly, elegantly, and conscientiously written, though at times the writing can get a bit superfluous, ambiguous, redundant, and could use some condensing. His english is a little old but definitely manageable to read.

There were a few of his rationalizations or viewpoints that I did not necessarily agree with. For example, he puts forth several claims about evolved differences between the sexes that have the potential to be overgeneralized or exaggerated by readers. I did not feel that he sufficiently cautioned the reader against overgeneralizing or stereotyping; he could have managed this with a little more poise. Still, this quote, one of my favourites in the book, may slightly acquit him:

“There is, incidentally, abundant material for those who like stereotypes here, but none of it says anything about the woman’s place being in the home. After all, the argument goes that men and women both went out to work in the Pleistocene, one to hunt, the other to gather. Neither activity was remotely like trooping off to an office and answering telephones all day. Both sexes are equally unsuited to that” (p. 95).

Ridley ends the book by listing several political implications of his findings. I felt that some of his political conclusions were rushed and misplaced (e.g. he concludes that socialist, welfare, or likened states cannot be viable, effective forms of government conducive to the growth and prosperity of society). He is definitely a capitalist, free-market enthusiast, and governmental minimalist. Still, he is not naive enough to think that government is all-together unnecessary, though some of his political ideas arguably reached the brink of anarchy. I believe a crucial point eluded him: Larger societies inherently require stricter governments because, at that scale, individuals cannot effectively police everyone’s actions, remember and recognize every individual, and remain in contact with one another on a consistent basis. Because of this increased anonymity in larger societies, defection is a lot easier. Hence, larger societies inherently require more a forceful central authority to police transactions, big and small.

This aside, I do like that he ended the book with political suggestions derived from his findings on the evolution of human morality and nature. At the same time, I felt that this was out of the book’s scope and beyond the author's experience to give political advice with such vehemence. Moreover, the evidence he cites in support of his political views were correlational though construed as causational.

Additional thoughts:

I found Chapter 11, “Ecology as Religion,” to be an especially interesting read given he presents us with such an unorthodox view of environmental conservatism and environmental ethics. He brings an air of realism to the subject that is fresh, captivating, and jaw-dropping at times. It would be interesting to have environmental conservatists read this chapter and gauge their thoughts/reactions.

Below are quotes that I believe summarize the book’s main conclusions, all taken from Chapter 13 (the final chapter). Do not read these if you want the book to surprise you:

“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.”

“We owe our success as a species to our social instincts; they have enabled us to reap undreamt benefits from the division of labour.”

“Human beings have [both] instincts that foster the greater good and others that foster self-interested and anti-social behaviour. We must design a society that encourages the former and discourages the latter.”

“I have argued that there was morality before 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. These things have been expression of human nature since deep in the hunter-gatherer Pleistocene.”

“Society works not because we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature.” (From the back cover)

Ridley’s conclusions may seem obvious after-the-fact, but he takes a very arduous, diligent path to get there (and he does so elegantly). Quite frankly, these conclusions are not so obvious. This is evidenced by the continuous philosophical debates on human nature that have gone on and on for decades, arguably even centuries (i.e. “are humans inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’?”). By brilliantly orchestrating the findings of geneticists, psychologists, biologists, sociologists, economists, philosophers, and anthropologists, Ridley finally supplies us with the well-researched account we have been awaiting.

Side note: If you plan on reading this book, I recommend that you simultaneously grab the Evolution of Cooperation by Axelrod, a perfect complement.
Profile Image for Paul.
55 reviews5 followers
October 1, 2013
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 of individual and family. The good news is that successful societies have evolved structures that channel the basic self-interest into cooperative, win-win outcomes, and generally without the direction of a sovereign or state. As Ridley shows, “…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.” Indeed, most of the conclusions are the same as Smith’s – from The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as Wealth of Nations – but with the benefit of an additional 250 years of history and science to support them. Ridley is a great pleasure to read. 
Profile Image for Scott.
263 reviews19 followers
July 23, 2010
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"). Ridley argues that human society is best when government and social structures tap into the genetic understanding of human behaviors to encourage the best from us. Perhaps not surprisingly from an author who wrote the science and technology column for the Economist, Ridley resolves that government is best when it is small - although I think this conclusion to be the weakest section of the book. There is much of interest to learn within these pages, and Ridley makes the experience enjoyable and worthwhile.
Profile Image for Mark Colenutt.
Author 17 books13 followers
July 6, 2013
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 taught not to look a gifted horse in the mouth and yet that is the first thing a tribal nomad will do, well aware that if he is being given something then his friend will expect something in return.

His hypotheses are tested against a plethora of animal studies from ants to dophins who all collaborate for different gains.

For those who fell asleep during all those afternoon wildlife documentaries then this publication is a masterclass in animal behavourism with an array of surprising facts that few documentaries would dare publish. A must then, for those interested in evolutionary biology.
Profile Image for John Vibber.
Author 2 books29 followers
February 20, 2013
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 distrustful savages constrained by government. In other words, are we the intellectual decedents of Rousseau or Hobbs? And if neither, what has modern science taught us about evolution and human goodness?

I found this a somewhat technical read, but worth the effort. I like how Ridley addresses difficult questions. In the end, his perspective increased my optimism about human nature.
Profile Image for Dennis Littrell.
1,079 reviews44 followers
August 27, 2019
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 mystery, etc.; that it wasn't clear whether the Pope believed in God or not; and that, barring mistakes, we always acted in our own self-interest. We further concluded that "altruism" was a word without real meaning, that the Pope was an amoral political animal, and that women were, regardless of their nature, very interesting. But we were sophomores. Matt Ridley is all grown up, and what interests him in this book is not so much the origin of virtue (although he does get heavily into that) but the restoration of the conservative agenda. Alas. He argues from biology (our nature) to what ought to be politically. This is doubly "alas" because Ridley preaches mightily against this very delusion, calling it a "reverse naturalistic fallacy" (p. 257).

David Ricardo and Adam Smith are brought into the fray, Hobbes and Machiavelli. Ridley takes arguments from game theory and political science and the world of high finance to make his point that virtue as it is ordinarily understood does not exist. He goes on to call for less government and more local autonomy, a return to a dream state of "everything small and local" (p. 264). As he does, Ridley comes dangerously close to taking on all the trappings of a right wing radio talk show host, spouting the virtues of Newt Gingrich and Margaret Thatcher on his way to becoming something like a high-toned Rush Limbaugh.

Alas, how sharp was his rapier and how telling his prose when Ridley stuck to revealing our social and sexual hypocrisy as he did so delightfully in The Red Queen (1993); but how obvious are his prejudices when he steps into the political arena. He actually argues that tried old irrelevancy of the embarrassed right wing, that even though Hitler was bad, very bad, he was better than Stalin. Thus on page 258 we have (referring to the doctrine of acquired characteristics embraced by the Soviet state): "Unlike the genetic determinism of Hitler, Stalin's environmental variety went on to infect other peoples."

Ridley even argues that Hitler got his ideas from the communists. "Hitler was merely carrying out a genocidal policy against ‘inferior', incurable or reactionary tribes that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had advocated..." (p. 253). So caught up in his cause is Ridley that he begins to contradict himself and argue for the kind of idyllic fantasy world that he condemns in Rousseauians. Thus in his chapter entitled "The Power of Property" he waxes nostalgic for the "egalitarian" conservation systems of New Guinea fishermen and Maine lobster men before the interference of big government. On page 262 he talks about "The collapse of community spirit in the last few decades, and the erosion of civic virtue...caused" by "the dead hand of the Leviathan." But on the very next page he declares, "I hold to no foggy nostalgia that the past was any better. Most of the past was a time of authority, too..."

Yes, Matt, it was. The authority of the gang lords, of the feudal lord, of a system of social, political and economic imprisonment so oppressive that the average person never got further than a few miles from the place of his birth and had little to no chance of rising above the economic and social station of his birth. It was "small and local" with a vengeance. The tyranny of the feudal lords in Europe and, e.g., the war lords in China is conveniently ignored in Ridley's political fantasy. He claims that we have it better today only because of superior technology (p. 263) forgetting that our system of representative democracy in Republican form is also an improvement over the absolutism of the tribe. The sad lesson here is, that even a man as adroitly talented and as intelligent as Matt Ridley becomes just another propagandist when he ventures into an area in which he is emotionally involved.

Still there is a lot to enjoy in The Origins of Virtue. His discussion of the prisoner's dilemma is the best I've read, although his analysis of the "wolf's dilemma" (p. 55) is faulty. I won't go into it here, but "the tiny chance" that he refers to is overwhelmed by the fact that each player has only a five percent chance of "winning" by pushing his button since he has to beat 19 others to the punch. Consequently the best strategy is the obvious, don't push that button! (But check this out for yourself.) His discussion of how the division of labor has enriched our world is interesting; his analysis of how we detect cheaters and how that is an instinctive human talent is persuasive; and his delineation of the nature of gift giving and receiving and how it relates to our innate sense of reciprocity is valuable as it shines light on the nature of "virtue." In fact, his entire argument is eminently worth reading. His glorification of trade (with which I agree) and his put down of ecologists (with which I disagree) is tolerable. Most fun though--recalling the Matt Ridley of The Red Queen--is in all the sacred cows he slaughters along the way: the New World Indians (ouch!), Margaret Mead, the so-called "tragedy of the commons" theory, the Noble Savage, even poor Chief Seattle is revealed as a slave-owner whose public reputation is largely the product of a screenwriter's imagination (p. 214).

--Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”
30 reviews3 followers
May 27, 2013
Честно говоря, ожидал большего...

Во-первых, просто отвратите��ьный перевод на русский. Во-вторых автор явно не дружит с логикой: довольно часто он делает умозаключения, которые неоднозачно вытекают из фактов, которые он приводит заранее. А еще, этот спагетти-стиль: тривиальные и легкие в объяснении вещи написаны до безобразия запутанно.

Плюс ко всему: в корне не согласен с автором на счет того, что всякий человек - эгоист, и даже, если он и делает добрые дела, то либо из соображений репутации, либо же из-за родственных связей. Это - практически вся мысль книги. И это неправда ( может и правда в отношении большинства людей, но в общем - неправда. )

Из приятных моментов: много интересных фактов и историй, которые есть пища для ума.
Profile Image for Anthony.
9 reviews10 followers
April 22, 2009
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 again.
Profile Image for Johnny.
Author 10 books113 followers
July 14, 2020
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 others) to express his point. But even more than retreating to the “selfish gene” idea, Ridley’s point is discovering where cooperation originates. Expressing an anti-Thomas Hobbes’ idea of Leviathan, Ridley asserts, “Covenants without swords work; swords without covenants don’t.” (p. 240) Indeed, though Ridley cites certain medieval and rustic covenants which governments messed up, he does seem to favor a social contract more like Thomas Scanlon’s What We Owe Each Other (though he doesn’t quote Scanlon directly).

Now, of course, there is that genetic imperative of DNA survival, so it is not surprising that organisms cooperate in matters regarding the future of the organism. For example, Ridley notes that there is a slime mold comprised of circa 100 K different amoebic organisms. Generally, they function as separate entities until circumstances become too unpromising for the individual organism. That’s when they join together and form the slime mold. They come together in a growing and growing mound that eventually falls over of its own instability. When it falls over, it releases a section of the mass which functions as a slug and seeks more hospitable territory. Failing to find that, the slug increases density in the middle, creating a rising mound that eventually erupts into a ball of cells, rising on a slender strand that seems almost analogous to the concept of a space elevator. Eventually, the ball releases into about 80 K different spores in the immediate atmosphere so that they can be inadvertently picked up by insects and carried to more hospitable environs (p. 16). Certainly, that is “cooperation,” but it is not intentional cooperation.

Moving slightly up the food chain, the value of reciprocity—even in less conscious beings can be illustrated in the way sticklebacks approach feeding grounds near their natural predators, pike. To gauge whether the pike is hungry or sated, the stickleback move forward in pairs in small segments. One of the pair takes the risk of venturing forward first. If the pike doesn’t move, they are safe to feed. If the pike does move, both sticklebacks retreat swiftly. Of course, the bolder fish is more likely to be devoured by the pike. But here’s the interesting thing, if one of the pair is gauging the pike with another who has switched off the role of scout with the other, both sticklebacks will be bolder. If the partner hasn’t demonstrated reciprocity in the past, the bolder fish doesn’t engage in nearly as much risk (p. 79). Even though we cannot assign conscious reciprocity to these fish, there seems to be an innate process of such that goes on.

Another curious example from nature is the idea from the late Glyn Isaac that the cultural importance of food-sharing among humans is likely evolved from the tolerance of opportunistic food thieves in nature. After all, lions help themselves at a lion “feast,” even if they haven’t killed the prey. Chimpanzees share food, but there is a social pecking order where some must beg for it before it is given. For humans, especially in primitive tribes sharing, say, a giraffe carcass, there is a sense that the food must be offered to them after the successful hunter has enjoyed of it what the hunter and family want (p. 111).

Ridley has a way of pointing out the hereditary selfishness of humanity in a number of clever ways.
For example, he covers the selfishness of ambitious office politics and self-preservation with an account from the famous C. Northcote Parkinson (of “Parkinson’s Law” fame). Parkinson observed that a bureaucrat wants subordinates, not rivals. So, to accommodate that desire, bureaucracy keeps making new work requiring new bureaucrats such that the bureaucracy itself keeps expanding. Illustrative of this was that: “With delicious irony, Parkinson described the quintupling of the number of civil servants in Britain’s Colonial Office between 1935 and 1954, during which time the number and size of colonies to be administered shrank dramatically.” (p. 27)

I found it refreshing that even though Ridley approaches such issues from a scientific view, he has little patience for non-scientific dogma found so often in academia today. He rants against anthropologists being so politically correct that they ignore evidence for universal sexual division of labor (pp. 92, 93) He has little patience with the efforts of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Jeremy Bentham, and most modern anthropologists to ignore the significance of trade among primitive peoples (pp. 109-202). It is also refreshing that even Ridley recognizes that a broad, simplistic application of the thesis of his book would likely be counterproductive. He fears that if we give in to those economists such as Hayek, Malthus, Smith, and Friedman who say self-interest (rather than reciprocity) is good, we may inadvertently promote greed. “In other words, the reason we must not say that people are nasty is because it is true.” (p. 260)
Profile Image for Evan Dossey.
135 reviews1 follower
February 19, 2012
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.
18 reviews4 followers
August 3, 2010
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!
Profile Image for Artem.
210 reviews
May 12, 2016
Очень интересная книга со множеством фактов и примеров, собранных из разных источников. Есть над чем подумать, примерить на себя, свою жизнь и опыт. Многим придётся не по вкусу. Стоит законспнктировать и периодически возвращаться к ней.
Profile Image for Lisa.
314 reviews5 followers
May 5, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Abhishek.
71 reviews16 followers
October 20, 2015
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.
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