The Origins of Virtue

by Matt Ridley
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

The Origins of Virtue is a 1996 book written by Matt Ridley about the issues surrounding human morality and how it develops. Ridley is a British journalist. In this book, he makes a connection between human morality and evolution. This book is considered a popular science book.

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Ridley writes this book from a sociobiological standpoint, discussing how both society (socio) as well as genetics and biology (biological) can affect the development of human morality.

Throughout the book, Ridley argues that humans live in a society in which they would rather cooperate. He believes that humans must learn to trust one another and assist each other in order to limit the amount of conflict between societies.

Ridley states that this behavior is genetic and therefore is passed down from one generation to the next through evolution.

Ridley also argues that society works best in groups of 150 people. This number of individuals is ideal because members of this group will know who to work with and who to exclude from the group. When the societal group becomes too large, this is harder to decipher. This is an introduction to one theory that Ridley presents called "generous reciprocity".

Generous reciprocity means that cooperation will help humans survive. Ridley states that by working together as a whole, it will be easier to pass on genes to future generations, and these generations will be less aggressive. Ridley sees aggression as a negative behavior. He essentially believes in "The Golden Rule" and states that reciprocating the behaviors demonstrated by others will help further survival. If individuals reciprocate behaviors such as trusting those who are trustworthy, more goodness will spread to society.

Critics of this work argue that Ridley changes his thesis near the end of the book and is unable to provide sufficient elaborations on his theories. He also discusses how government and politics influence human beings and their morality.

Former President Bill Clinton named this work as one of the books that influenced his thinking.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1924

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 occult. “We frequently and universally anthropomorphize the natural world as a series of social exchanges. The gods are angry because of what we have done’ we say to justify a setback in the Trojan war, a plague of locusts in ancient Egypt, a drought in the Namib desert or a piece of bad luck in modern suburbia. I frequently kick or glower at recalcitrant tools or machines, cursing the vindictiveness of inanimate objects, blatant in my anthropomorphism.” Reciprocal treatment is such an intuitive part of human behavior that we expect everything around us to act reciprocally. When our favors are not sufficiently rewarded by nature or technology, we lash out in the same way that we would punish an uncooperative member of our own species—and if that does not work, we attempt to increase the size of the bribe.

Ridley’s belief that reciprocity is centered in the brain does not mean that he views human behavior as a rational series of equations. In fact, Ridley argues that it is through emotions (which he regards as even more uniquely human than reciprocity) that people primarily communicate with one another. By reading the nonverbal cues of others, we attempt to form connections with those who are most likely to be fair in how they treat us (that is, good reciprocators) and to avoid those who are inclined to be selfish. Using once again the approaches of the game theorists, Ridley demonstrates that people can be remarkably perceptive about the signals conveyed in a group. In a game where a person’s own score increased through selfish activity while the scores of all players increased through cooperation, players who were not acquainted with one another tended to use trial and error to locate those most likely to be cooperative. Yet when allowed to talk among themselves for as little as half an hour, most individuals knew immediately who was “reliable” and who was going to be motivated merely by selfish gain. The players thus adapted their strategies in such a way as to maximize their return.

The Origins of Virtue explains certain aspects of human behavior by drawing parallels between people and animals. Ridley notes that animals appearing to be “altruistic” usually place the good of their families ahead of themselves; they are not merely working for the greater good. Seemingly selfless behavior is thus a strategy developed by a species in order to promote transmission of genetic code at the cost of inconveniencing or even destroying specific individuals. Expanding on this pattern, Ridley explains human altruism as arising, at least in part, from a natural drive to protect kin that has been expanded to the larger kinship of humanity as a whole. “But we are not like animals in every respect,” Ridley is quick to point out. “We are unique, we are different, just as every species is unique and different from every other; biology is a science of exceptions, not rules; of diversity, not grand unified theories. That ants are communitarian says nothing about whether man is virtuous. That natural selection is cruel says nothing about whether cruelty is moral.” In this way, Ridley’s view of humanity differs greatly from that of earlier social Darwinists.

The Origins of Virtue is persuasive when examining social skills that would have benefited the survival of early humans. These skills—which Ridley himself catalogs as “local specialization, cultural conformism, fierce antagonism between groups, cooperative group defence and groupishness”—may explain the origins not merely of social values but of contemporary economic practices as well. For example, local specialization meant that early tribes were able to focus energy on tasks to which they were best suited and for which raw materials were abundant. Since each tribe could then trade its commodities for items produced by neighboring peoples, there was profit in specializing locally even if a variety of raw materials were available: Productivity increased when people were able to concentrate on making a limited number of products; more goods were thus available for trade, and greater material wealth then flowed into the community. As Ridley demonstrates, this same phenomenon helps explain certain aspects of international trade today. Similarly, cultural conformism had survival value for early societies because it meant that individuals did not have to discover everything for themselves but could rely on the collective wisdom of the tribe. An impulse that once protected the individual by accelerating his or her education may now explain seemingly random shifts in fashion and the powerful commercial attraction of a product’s “popularity.”

Unfortunately, Ridley’s book is marred by its ending. After a consistent argument of more than two hundred pages, the author seems to begin a wholly different topic with chapter 11. He suddenly shifts his focus to attack the follies of ecological extremism, “political correctness,” and the romanticized case studies of Margaret Mead. Ridley’s chapters on these topics, while persuasive by themselves, are only loosely connected to his earlier discussion. The result is that he undermines the effectiveness of the argument he has made patiently throughout the earlier chapters. Many readers will dismiss the book’s entire thesis because Ridley proved unable to draw more convincing examples at the end of the work.

Only one of Ridley’s final arguments seems at all persuasive. The author uses his discussion of evolution and game theory to suggest that big government is not a natural state of affairs for human beings. “We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive government, nor so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst in us, both as its employees and as its clients. . . . The collapse of community spirit in the last few decades, and the erosion of civic virtue, is caused in this analysis not by the spread and encouragement of greed but by the dead hand of government. The state makes no bargain with the citizen to take joint responsibility for civic order, engenders in him no obligation, duty or pride, and imposes obedience instead. Little wonder that, treated like a naughty child, he behaves like one.” Human beings, Ridley has demonstrated, tend to protect what is their own and to exploit what is shared by the community as a whole. Though he tries to make this same case in his attacks on ecological extremism, the change of focus seems too abrupt, and he fails as a result.

The Origins of Virtue provides a quick and readable survey of recent thinking about possible connections between evolution and human behavior. General readers will find it informative and thought-provoking, although the book makes no real contribution of its own. In particular, those who have already read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal will make few additional discoveries in Ridley’s summary of the same material.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1368.

The Economist. CCCXLI, December 7, 1996, p. 5.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 30, 1997, p. 3.

National Review. XLIX, June 2, 1997, p. 52.

Nature. CCCLXXXIII, October 31, 1996, p. 785.

New Scientist. CLII, October 19, 1996, p. 49.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 11, 1997, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 10, 1997, p. 60.

The Spectator. CCLXXVIII, January 11, 1997, p. 32.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 29, 1996, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. March 26, 1997, p. A17.

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