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The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation [Paperback]

Matt Ridley
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 April 1998
If evolution by natural selection relentlessly favors self-interest, why do human beings live in complex societies and show so much cooperative spirit? In The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley, a zoologist and former American editor of the Economist, shows that recent research in a number of fields has suggested a resolution of the apparent contradiction between self-interest and mutual aid. Brilliantly orchestrating the new findings of geneticists, psychologists, and anthropologists, The Origins of Virtue re-examines the everyday assumptions upon which we base our actions towards others, whether we are nurturing parents, siblings, or trade partners. The Origins of Virtue searches for the roots of that capacity for trust, contrasts it with the social instincts of ants, baboons, and naked mole rats, and draws provocative conclusions for our understanding of politics. Ridley not only traces the evolution of society but shows us how breakthroughs in computer programming, microbiology, and economics have all played their role in providing us with a unique perspective on how and why we relate to each other.

Product details

  • Paperback: 295 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; 1 edition (30 April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140264450
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140264456
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 12.9 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,361,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matt Ridley received his BA and D. Phil at Oxford researching the evolution of behaviour. He has been science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor of The Economist. He is the author of bestselling titles The Red Queen (1993), The Origins of Virtue (1996), Genome (1999) and Nature via Nurture (2003). His books have sold over half a million copies, been translated into 25 languages and been shortlisted for six literary prizes. In 2004 he won the National Academies Book Award from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine for Nature via Nurture. In 2007 Matt won the Davis Prize from the US History of Science Society for Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. He is married to the neuroscientist Professor Anya Hurlbert.

Product Description

About the Author

Matt Ridley has worked as a science editor, Washington correspondent, and American editor for the "Economist." A research fellow of the Institute for Economic Affairs and a Trustee of the International Centre for Life, he lives in Northumberland, England.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
'The ants and termites,' wrote Prince Kropotkin, 'have renounced the "Hobbesian war", and they are the better for it.' Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Does true morality exist? Does altruism exist? Does true co-operative spirit exist? Or are all of these mere examples of subtle selfishness? In other words: are moral, altruistic and co-operative looking people just acting these behaviors to manipulate others? Are they in fact being opportunistic and selfish? Many economists claim altruism does not exist. They would say that, even when a person would do a nice thing to another, it would be, in the end, for his own benefit, and thus be an act of subtle selfishness. He would do it to gain the trust of the other person, to make a good impression and build a reputation of friendliness and trustworthiness or perhaps to create a dependency. Most of economic theory is still based upon the idea that people are in the end selfish and opportunistic. These economist call this 'rational'.
Matt Ridley does not deny that individuals can act out of selfishness bu he argues that harmony generally prevails over selfishness. This book explains the paradox that our minds have been build by selfish genes to be social, trustworthy and co-operative. He says we owe our success as a species to these social instincts. He explains that morality is the stuff society is made of. In short his argument goes like this:
1. Society is important because is allows for divison of labor. It allows for people to specialize. And the sums of all our specialized efforts are greater than they would be if we all had been generalists. In other words: society is synergy between specialists.
2. In order to have a harmonious society, we have to be well-connected to each other. This requires us to be co-operative, social and trustworthy.
3. Being social, co-operative and trustworthy is a way to thrive and thereby an evolutionairy advantage.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why be nice? 13 Oct 2006
I really enjoyed this book. Ridley's aim is to answer an old question - "how is society possible?" - largely from the context of evolutionary biology.

For much of the book, his quest is to explain altruism - if our instincts have evolved to maximise the chances of our genes reproducing, then why should we care about strangers?

He starts with the genes themselves - each genome a cooperative society of individual genes, each individually 'selfish' but equally reliant on their neighbours for their survival. This introduces a theme that runs throughout the book - the division of labour - and gives some idea of why the book spends as much time discussing economics as biology.

There's plenty here on game theory and its use to derive theories of altruism (reciprocity and others). I was surprised at how far beyond biology Ridley treads, with chapters on tribalism, war, trade and property, for example.

The book begins by looking at Kropotkin's (flawed) theory of Mutual Aid, which sought to use animal behaviour to demonstrate that we are naturally altruistic, attempting to employ science to make a political point. By the end, this theory has been long dismissed, but Ridley bravely returns to similar territory. Having shown (and speculated) how biology and evolution can in fact lead to altruistic (or at least cooperative) behaviour, he draws the lessons for real-world politics.

I found this a great way to end - in an era where politicians seem as keen as ever to meddle in science, it's good to see that science can hold lessons for politics too, and good to see a science journalist unafraid to draw those lessons.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is a brilliant and thought-provoking book that seeks to explain, from an evolutionary perspective, the origins of human virtue. If you are hostile to the idea that human behaviour is shaped by its evolutionary origins you may find this book uncomfortable reading, but only its most unfair critics will fail to be impressed by its well supported and carefully argued findings.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
What is enjoyable about reading The Origins of Virtue is that it is not only accessible and interesting to read but eclectic in its reference to human reason of sociability. Whilst prominent and respected biologists work is drawn upon such as Darwin, Hamilton, Dawkins, Jay Gould, Alexander and Manyard Smith, those who have not contributed directly to biological thinking like Rousseau, Smith, Hobbes and Hume are also included to produce a nexus of thoughts on human society. Ridley writes in a style that does not confound the layman with biological jargon and yet does not bore those with a previous knowledge of the subject. The book takes us through each step of the field, from the collaboration of cells to form an organism to the collaboration of organisms to form societies. Much biological thought, such as game theory, is explained clearly and concisely whilst he masterfully illustrates the paradoxes and hypocrisies of our own morality. Yet we do not come away depressed with a sense of each human animal for itself but rather an appreciation of co-operation that socio-biology can sometimes seem to deny us. I would recommend The Origins of Virtue not only because it is extremely well written but also because it opens our eyes somewhat into why we live together and the conflicts that form because of it. Let us hope that Ridley can delight us like this yet again.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not his best
Very, very strong start, meandering middle, and delving into 1990s British politics at the end. I've got a lot of time for the author due to his other books, but this one strays a... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Jessica Catchpole
5.0 out of 5 stars It's in your interests to be nice
We are the only species on earth that cares about the difference between right and wrong. There is plenty of human wickedness in the world but we are not unique in this respect,... Read more
Published 24 months ago by F Henwood
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading on evolution
In a similar way to Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, a zoologist turned journalist, has studied evolutionary biology sufficiently well to convey its messages in a clear and... Read more
Published on 19 Mar 2011 by anozama
5.0 out of 5 stars Very important reading
Start with the Selfish Gene, then this, then Miller's Mating Mind, then Kwatz's Conscious Robots. Ridley wrote this before he became chairman of Northern Rock, a position his... Read more
Published on 14 Mar 2009 by Ian D. Charles
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
This is an excellent book, agree with it or not it cannot but fail to make you think. A combination of biology, economics and mathematics are used to explain why people do good,... Read more
Published on 7 Sep 2007 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Why can't we all just be nice?
The truth is, most of us for most of the time, are a lot nicer than we might be entitled to expect under the circumstances. Read more
Published on 15 Oct 2004 by Sally-Anne
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary psychology for the masses!
The title suggests a dry as dust ethics type tome; in fact this is a wonderful explanation of why we act in the way we do. Read more
Published on 28 July 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely thrilling read..
Matt Ridley is a journalist rather than a hard and fast scientist and his writing reflects this. Compared to some 'popular' science books he is lucid and eloquent, the complex... Read more
Published on 21 May 2001 by
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent presentation of the logic of co-operation
Ridley's book is not just about moral philosophy, although it has serious implications for ethics. It is based on a logical, game-theoretical analysis of the interplay between... Read more
Published on 20 Jan 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars a very important work
matt ridley has written one of the greatest books about the origins of human morality and hopefully it will make a contribution to the unity of the natural and social sciences,... Read more
Published on 24 Dec 1999
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