The Origins of Virtue

by Matt Ridley

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

The Origins of Virtue reads like an informal textbook on sociobiology, and as such, there is not character development like there would be in a novel. Ridley's book provides a sweeping account of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet Age. He discusses a variety of different societies and cultures, in most cases providing brief examples or passages to illustrate an argument. For example:

Montagues and Capulets, French and English, Whig and Tory, Airbus and Boeing, Pepsi and Coke, Serb and Muslim, Christian and Saracen—we are irredeemably tribal creatures. The neighbouring or rival group, however defined, is automatically an enemy. Argentinians and Chileans hate each other because there is nobody else nearby to hate.

However, Ridley does go into further detail about certain groups of people. Ridley recounts the story of Santee and Gantowisa of the Haudenosaunee society. Santee is the granddaughter of Gantowisa, a respected clan mother. Santee has a dream in which an old woman, weak and tired, rests by a bed of corn stalks and tells Santee she wants to rest. Gantowisa believes the old woman in Santee's dream is Mother Earth asking the tribe to move the village so her land can rest. In moving to a new place, other tribes would cooperate due to the Great Law of Peace between five Aboriginal nations, all of which work together to maintain balance and order in the land and among societies. The Haudenosaunee are one of the earliest Aboriginal First Nation Societies, in which leaders are chosen by the tribe and decisions are made as a group. Leaders have authority by general agreement, having proven themselves to possess beneficial skills and knowledge. The dynamic of Haudenosaunee society is the antithesis of totalitarian rule and demonstrates the reciprocity Ridley argues for all of humanity.

Moreover, the Hutterites are a group of communal people living in hundreds of scattered colonies throughout the prairies of northwestern North America. Everyone works to serve others, demonstrating selflessness and cooperation. Ridley claims that “we are all Hutterites at heart,” only the value of individual contribution in Hutterite society, and other smaller societies, is greater than it is in larger cities and towns. The average Hutterite colony has about ninety people, and Ridley argues the ideal group is around 150 people.

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