Top positive review
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Why be nice?
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.