- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (30 Oct. 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140244042
- ISBN-13: 978-0140244045
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.7 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 347,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Origins of Virtue (Penguin Press Science) Paperback – 30 Oct 1997
- Choose from over 13,000 locations across the UK
- Prime members get unlimited deliveries at no additional cost
- Find your preferred location and add it to your address book
- Dispatch to this address when you check out
There is a newer edition of this item:
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Why are people nice to each other? What are the reasons for altruism? Matt Ridley explains how the human mind has evolved a special instinct for social exchange, offering a lucid and persuasive argument about the paradox of human benevolence.
About the Author
MATT RIDLEY is a research fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs and a Trustee of the International Centre for Life, living in Northumberland. His last book, The Red Queen, was short-listed for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for science books and the Writers' Guild Award for non-fiction.
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
But we know that the world is not this bad - not at all places, at all times. Networks of trust and reciprocity do exist. The world simply could not function if this were not so. Altruism is a fact of life. Can a natural explanation account for it? Yes, it can.
Paradoxically, our selfish genes can make us altruistic. Genes themselves are neither moral nor immoral. They want to replicate themselves. When it comes to humans, forget all that stuff about rugged individualism. An individual in a state of nature is a puny, fragile being at the mercy of the elements and predators. Humans must live in a society to survive. So it makes sense for genes to select for social tendencies in order for humans to combine in a society and hence survive to pass on their genes. Otherwise those genes end up in a predator's stomach.
Society provides protection but that is not all. No man is an island. None of us alone can provide for all our needs - food, clothing, and shelter. To overcome this, society has a division of labour. Even `primitive' societies have complex gradations, in which individuals pool talents and abilities to create networks of reciprocation. A team of hunter-gatherers out on the hunt will consist of men of different abilities and talents. None could catch a big game animal alone. But together they can pool their talents to do the job. For this sort of teamwork to function, we need trust. We want to be seen as someone who can be trusted, can pay our social debts so we in turn call on others to pay their debts to us. To renege is to violate trust. To lose trust means to break the social bonds that sustain you. Ostracism from society for our ancestors would have meant a death sentence and the extinction of the genes of those so excluded. Keeping your word and your reputation is in your interests.
However, genes combine to form groups for their own advantage, not the group's. The downside of such behaviour is of course the in-out group distinction and the tendency to dehumanize the outsider and exalt the insider. Our xenophobia and group chauvinism are not expressions of individual but group selfishness. They emerge alas from our social natures. In warfare, our selfish streaks can be given full vent to those who are considered outsiders and for whom ties of reciprocation and obligation do not apply. But groups are not necessarily doomed to be locked into such competition if they can trade - i.e. generalize the division of labour within groups to comparative advantages between groups, exchanging things that your group cannot provide for itself with another group that can. Ridley shows that hunter-gatherer groups practised the division of labour and comparative advantage long before Adam Smith and David Ricardo theorized about these things.
Individual genes want to go their own way of course and overtly selfish and anti-social people have not disappeared from the gene pool. Society is a compromise after all between our own desires and social demands. Occasionally, the benefits of cheating outweigh those of compliance with social norms. It is often an uneasy balance. There is no way the tension can be neutralized. The best hope is to make altruism pay - literally. It is better to trade with a rival society or group and both be enriched in the process, rather than to indulge in a mutually ruinous war of conquest. It is better to keep your customer happy by offering him discounts rather than to cheat him. Self-interest means we can curb our worst instincts. We do not need religion or the heavy hand of an oppressive police state to achieve this.
All this is a cool, pragmatic view of the possibility of altruism. Some cannot accept that altruism is possible if it is the outcome of conscious or unconscious self-interest, rather than purity of motive. But this objection is to wish that human beings were something that they are not. It can be plausibly argued that even altruistic actions are selfishly motivated. But some things we do are worthy of praise while others are not, regardless of our motives (which are difficult to discern anyway). We cannot be indifferent to this distinction. This is because some actions have bad consequences and some have good ones. By your deeds you shall be known. Make them good ones. It's in your own interest.
Fundamental to understanding and accepting the `Selfish Gene' hypothesis is an appreciation of the true nature of morality. Ridley provides a very readable introduction to biological game theory, describing the `prisoner's dilemma', and `tit for tat'. He explains reciprocal and kin altruism, and unfolds the mysteries of the natural basis of morality and trust.
I would include this book in any `essential reading' list.
Would you like to see more reviews about this item?
Most recent customer reviews