The Origins of Virtue

by Matt Ridley

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

This passage is in reference to the sociological concept of “othering,” that which is still relevant throughout society—from competing beverage companies, to warring countries, to clashing religious ideologies. Ridley argues that this is an evolutionary tactic, one that furthered the survival of humans. As such, it is instinctual and part of our nature.

Society works not because we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature.

This quote grasps one of the main points of Ridley’s text, which argues that for humans, survival of the fittest does not apply to individual survival; rather, survival of the human species was (and continues to) rely on groups of people mutually benefiting from each other. As such, over thousands of years, behaviors that facilitated group survival became part of human nature on a socio-biological level.

The conventional wisdom in the social sciences is that human nature is simply the imprint of an individual's background and experience. But our cultures are not random collections of arbitrary habits. They are canalized expressions of our instincts.

This passage expands on the previous quote I provided, and Ridley’s central argument. Ridley argues that these common instincts, that which are present across the entire species, are the reason why the same themes are present in all cultures; hierarchy, friendships, superstition, group loyalty, etc. Essentially, humans are biological beings, and have instincts just as animals do. Our species developed higher cognitive capacities, so instincts in humans are pre-dispositions to learn.

While we universally admire and praise selflessness, we do not expect it to rule our lives or those of our close friends. We simply do not practice what we preach. This is perfectly rational, of course. The more other people practice altruism, the better for us, but the more we and our kin pursue self-interest, the better for us.

This passage illustrates what Ridley refers to as the “prisoner’s dilemma,” when there is a conflict between self-interest and the common good. Ridley provides one particular example to illustrate this method of thinking: larger cities are characterized by ruder people, casual insult, and violence compared to small towns or rural areas. In a large cosmopolitan city, it is common to see drivers honking their horn and making rude gestures, because cities with high populations are anonymous places. If you are rude to someone in a small town or village, where there is a greater chance you will meet that person again, or even rely on them for some aspect of life, selflessness and by extension kindness is more beneficial to you.

Compared to nepotism, which accounts for the cooperation of ants and every creature that cares for its young, reciprocity has proved to be scarce.

I included this quote as Ridley’s text is filled with references to animal studies and behavior, to convey the biological elements that apply to human nature. Ridley argues that reciprocity is scarce because human societies are so large that, in modern times, many elements of life do not depend on specific interactions between individuals. Nepotism, by comparison, is more common as it mutually advances people who are in favor of each other and can experience mutual benefit. Our lives are filled with reciprocity (deals, contracts, exchanges, etc.), but due to the nature of these systems, this is out of obligation rather than kindness.

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