The Origins of Virtue

by Matt Ridley

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

The Origins of Virtue is a 1996 nonfiction scientific book written by science writer, journalist, and businessman Matt Ridley. To classify it as merely a science book is theoretically and technically incorrect, as The Origins of Virtue covers several literary genres. First, it can be considered a sociological book, as it explores how evolution affects the social behavior of humans; second, it can be considered an ethical study, as it analyzes how people shape their moral and ethical compasses based on their genetics and their origin; finally, it can be considered an anthropological and psychological book, as it explores human nature and human behavior in general.

Even though it covers all of these various genres and thematic representations, The Origins of Virtue focuses on one important theory: We as humans have evolved to be somewhat dependent on our social relationships, and we tend to modify our behavior to better fit in our social groups and communities. Thus, we are generally more altruistic and generous towards the people that we find trustworthy, reliable, and approachable, and we push away those who we deem unfriendly, confrontational, and isolated. We tend to cooperate and work together in groups and units so that we can enjoy the benefits as individuals. Ridley defines this occurrence as ‘generous reciprocity’ or ‘reciprocal altruism.’

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 cooperation. We must encourage social and material exchange between equals, for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the foundation of virtue.

Aside from stating his own views and opinions, Ridley analyzes and cites the works of several 19th and 20th century sociologists, such as Peter Kropotkin and Adam Smith. He doesn’t elaborate much on the psychological aspect of their researches and chooses to focus mainly on their anthropological and socioeconomic theories. He argues that the people are not generous and cooperative because they evolved to be generous and cooperative, but because they have realized that living and working in a virtuous society, where the people are trustworthy and altruistic, is better for them.

The Origins of Virtue received mixed reviews. On one hand, Ridley was praised for his well-organized and thought-provoking narrative; on the other hand, he was criticized for not providing enough evidence to back up his theories and for his overly scientific language.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access