(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue covers much the same ground that Robert Wright has already explored in The Moral Animal (1994). Both authors summarize the contributions made to the scientific debate about values and their origins by such scholars as Robert Trivers, George Williams, and William Hamilton. Both discuss the relationship between evolutionary strategies and current speculation in the field of game theory. Both interpret a wide range of complex issues so as to make them interesting and understandable to the general reader. The two works are so similar, in fact, that Ridley provides only a slight departure from Wright’s argument. Whereas The Moral Animal dealt with behaviors having survival value for the individual, family, or tribe, Ridley focuses on much smaller biological units: cells and the genetic code contained in their chromosomes.

Taking Richard Dawkins’ concept of “the selfish gene” as its starting point, The Origins of Virtueargues that such phenomena as human emotions, altruism, the instinct for reciprocity, and the tendency toward labor specialization are all strategies aimed at passing one’s genetic code to a new generation. Even behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the interests of an individual can often be justified as increasing the odds that the genes of one’s siblings or other close relatives will somehow be replicated.

To be fair to Ridley, he does expand Wright’s thesis in terms of the conclusions he is willing to draw. Whereas Wright limited the prescriptive content of his book to a vague suggestion that nineteenth century utilitarianism accorded best with his own evolutionary model, Ridley explores the origins of a far more complicated ethical system. He uses current theories in the fields of biology and game theory to argue that survival value may be found in such “cooperative virtues” as trusting other people, assisting individuals and societies outside of one’s own immediate circle, and reducing the level of international conflict. While none of these suggestions seems revolutionary, Ridley offers an interesting exploration of the possible origins of both productive and counterproductive behaviors by tying their results to the needs for cells to reproduce.

Some readers may find the resulting description of human nature rather cynical. (Ridley, like Wright before him, would argue that he is merely being “realistic.”) Nevertheless, the world portrayed in The Origins of Virtue is a “nicer” place than that depicted in The Moral Animal. Much of this results from the fact that Ridley is less interested than his predecessor in seeing evolution as a way of explaining marital infidelity and humanity’s “natural” tendency toward self-interest. In Ridley’s kinder, gentler theory of evolution, natural processes underscore the benefits of cooperation. This helps strengthen the connection between values and evolution that is implicit in the work’s title. Wright’s The Moral Animal seemed misnamed because its author spent little time talking about morals. Ridley, on the other hand, takes the biological origins of virtue as his primary topic and interweaves evolution and human behavior throughout the book.

Rather simplistically, The Origins of Virtue reduces human behavior to an algorithm for survival. Ridley concludes that the strategy human beings have developed for the propagation of their genetic code might be called “generous reciprocity.” According to this theory, cooperation helps one survive, because a group working together is more likely to pass on its genes than are isolated individuals who fall easy prey to hostile forces. Yet individuals who are indiscriminately generous are eliminated as more aggressive individuals supplant them. In a similar way, those who are universally aggressive tend to be isolated as others find little profit in associating with them. This means that the best strategy for survival would be to reciprocate the behavior demonstrated by others—trusting the trustworthy and acting aggressively toward those who are themselves aggressive—while forgiving minor transgressions and thus improving the solidarity of the group. Ridley even believes that human brains developed their capacity to remember, draw inferences, and perform intricate calculations largely as a means of assisting us in reciprocity. The human brain is, in other words, the organ we have developed to keep track of favors owed and debts to be called in.

One of the most persuasive arguments in The Origins of Virtue is that the innately human tendency to think reciprocally can explain universal patterns of superstition, religion, and...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)