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on 13 October 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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on 7 September 1999
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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on 27 November 2000
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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on 15 October 2004
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. The circumstances being that our natures - our instincts - have been shaped from below, by evolution and our 'selfish genes' rather than above, by some kindly supernatural agency. This book follows on so neatly from Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" that he says, if there had been a volume two of that book, focused on humans, it would be pretty much like "The Origins of Virtue". Another thing that this book has in common with Richard Dawkins' books is its readability. Plain English at its very best. Not all popular science books are as interesting or as well written as this.
Matt Ridley argues that, even though our genes and evolution ensure that we are selfish, what has made our species so successful is our inclination to trust and co-operate with each other. We don't only co-operate with members of our own family (looking out for our own genes), we also help and co-operate with other members of our community and even total strangers. He examines the reasons for this apparent selflessness and his reasoning is very convincing. The main thread that runs through the book, upon which all the explanations of our apparent altruism and frequent treachery hangs, is "Game Theory" and, in particular "The Prisoner's Dilemma". According to this theory, we carefully weigh up (not necessarily consciously) the pros and cons of situations where we have something to gain or lose by co-operating, pretending to co-operate, or not co-operating with others. In these situations certain strategies work better than others, depending on the strategies exercised by the other participants in the group. It's possible to be too nice (selfless and trusting) or too nasty (selfish and greedy). Being very nice or very nasty works well when there are mostly nice people in the group but nice people/strategies don't last long when they are exploited by the nasty people/strategies. Everyone suffers when all the people/strategies are nasty. The best kinds of strategy allow for the fact that the other person's strategy is unknown: so start by being nice (co-operative, generous) and if the other person reciprocates, continue to be nice until and unless the other person cheats. Then punish them by refusing to be nice and co-operative. There are variations of this "Tit for Tat" strategy but generally, it's the tit for tat strategies that are employed by the most successful groups - and within successful social groups, trust has come to be highly valued.
To illustrate how selfish we have been throughout human history, often to our own detriment, Ridley lists some of the horrors our species has visited on our environment. Large numbers of species have been destroyed within a short period following the arrival of human kind in an area. The myth of the 'noble savage' is exploded. When homo sapiens first arrived in Australia, New Zealand, America and all the rest, species were wiped out ruthlessly and carelessly. Any notion of native peoples living in harmony with the land is a modern invention, contradicted by the evidence of recent (on a geological time-scale) extinctions. Convincing reasons are offered to explain this destructive insanity and they are to do with private and group ownership. It's argued that owning resources (like land) that can be controlled and protected (unlike herds of animals that migrate across borders), generates a sense of personal and shared responsibility. People will decimate resources that are deemed to belong to everybody in general (ie the state or nobody in particular) because if they don't use those resources to destruction, someone else will. That's "The Prisoner's Dilemma" in action. State ownership of resources and state responsibility for individuals can actually be the cause of selfish behaviour (deforestation, over-fishing and so on). When people have ownership and the ability to trade their produce, trust can be built up between individuals and groups and, Ridley concludes, "trust is the foundation of virtue".
This is a fascinating book, very densely packed with ideas, presented in a logical, coherent and persuasive way. Highly recommended.
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on 18 August 2002
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. These traits are built into our nature by evolution.
Matt Ridley carefully argues his case. He uses findings from many disciplines like biology, psychology and economics. Very important parts of this book, and a delight to read, are the chapters where he explains the great work of Robert Axelrod (see: The Evolution of Co-operation, 1984) and the inspiring theory of moral sentiments of economist (!) Robert Frank (see: Passions within Reason, 1988).
The message of this book is important. One lesson is that it is wise to teach our children to be good, because in the long run it pays. If you only act rationally (in the sense of the rational man from economic theory) you can only expect to reap short-term benefits. Another wise suggestion is that we need to build our institutions in such a way that they draw out our co-operative instincts (instead of building mechanisms aimed only at suppressing our supposed selfish nature). Ridley: "Pre-eminently this means the encouragement of exchange between equals. just as trade between countries is the best recipe for friendship between them, so exchange between enfranchised and empowered individuals is the best recipe for co-operation. We must encourage social and material exchange between equals, for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the foundation of virtue."
Inspiring material...
Coert Visser
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on 20 January 2000
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 individual and group advantage, between competition and co-operation. It is easy to see how Ridley's approach could be distatsteful to someone who has a strong personal moral ideology. His approach is rigourously objective, almost mechanical, verging on the mathematical. He frames contractual associations into "prisoner's dilemma" style puzzles, and provides a very competent analyisis of them. They are not frivolous puzzles. They go to the heart of contractual associations. This is the stuff of game theory, with a practical bent. If you have an ideological axe to grind, you may not like this book. If you are motivated by a desire to understand why people (and other creatures) behave as they do in groups, you will love it. It is book I have read several times, each time with greater enjoyment.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 September 2012
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, when compared to our closest primate relatives. The question is why there is any human virtue at all. On the face of it, there shouldn't be any such thing. First of all there are our selfish genes. The right thing to do from their perspective is to take what we can get, and damn everyone else. Arguably it is rational to be immoral, if to be moral is to harm your own interests. We see in countries with entrenched corruption. You loathe the idea of paying a public official to provide a service that he is already being paid to do. But if you don't, someone less fastidious will jump the queue. The rational thing to do then is to swallow your distaste and pay the bribe. Game theorists have much to say about this. Much of what we call immoral is a rational response to situations that leave us little other choice.

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.
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on 21 May 2001
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 ideas addressed in this book are deftly handled and easily understandable.
He's mechanical approach to explaining human behaviour can be abit disturbing at times but I don't believe anyone can deny it's explanatory power. Once you understand the principles of 'prisoner's dilemma' and game theory you will see it everywhere! (All those office power games will suddenly fit into place.) This book is a series of 'aha' moments; it's a truly thrilling read.
If you're at all interested in why we do the things we do (and find the old style psychology of Fraud and Jung unconvincing) then I strongly recommend you read books such as this one and Steven Pinker's 'How the Mind Works'. Evolutionary psychology (the ideology that underpins both these works) is simply the most credible and believable explanation of human behaviour we have and Matt Ridley is one of the most persuasive exponents of it.
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on 7 September 2007
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, it's a fascinating book with numerous anecdotes to support the points. The theme of the book is that most people do good not because of some moral imperative but due to a underlying sense of self-preservation. Admittedly Ridley doesn't answer every question satisfactorily but even so, this book serves as a useful tool for helping understand human nature and reasons for conflict. His conclusions are little grandiose and self serving, but nevertheless his agenda is fairly overt and it's easy to read around bits of the book where his personal views intrude upon the science. Overall a fantastic read and one that you'll learn an incredible amount from,
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on 19 March 2011
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 comprehensible style. These illuminating accounts, including this book, Ridley's `The Red Queen' and Wright's `Moral Animal', complement perfectly the more intensely scientifically informative works of Professor Richard Dawkins.

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.
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