The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley

“This book is on three levels. It is about the billion-year coagulation of our genes into cooperative teams, the million-year coagulation of our ancestors into cooperative societies, and the thousand-year coagulation of ideas about society and its origins.” (7) Ridley uses the theory of biological evolution to explain how society is possible.

“Chapter 1, The Society of Genes,” is so full of sociobiology-speak that I almost gave up on the whole book. That would have been a mistake. I recommend reading “Chapter 10, The Gains from Trade, Chapter 11, Ecology as Religion, Chapter 12, The Power of Property, and Chapter 13, Trust.” This will convince the reader that Ridley has an extraordinary understanding of market economics compared to other sociobiologists, albeit from the deeply flawed Chicago School approach, and that he is a libertarian.

Chapter 12 is of particular interest to those of us who are looking for information in support of the feasibility of a libertarian nation. He is solid on the advantages of trade and thinks trade predates government and written history. He promotes Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. He tells the story of mercantile law arising voluntarily and adapting itself to circumstances to work better and then being appropriated by Henry II and losing its adaptability.

Anthropomorphic nonsense used by sociobiologists: “selfish gene” (17) “selfish embryo” (20) “greedy feotus” (23). He finally qualifies one of these terms, thereby negating his usual usage: “The mother’s selflessness conceals the fact that her genes act as if motivated entirely by selfishness (24). Then he goes back to abusing the language. He implies that bees understand genetics: “Bees risk their lives to defend their hive, not because they wish the hive itself to survive, but because they wish the genes they share with their many sisters in the hive to survive.” (179) Selfish herd (175) He sees a fallacy in the notion of group selection: “Anthropologists routinely interpret rituals or practices in terms of their promotion of the good of the group, not the individual. They do so mostly in blithe ignorance of the fact that biologists have thoroughly undermined the whole logic of group selection.” (175)

After devoting a chapter to parallels in the animal kingdom to human behavior, he writes in chapter two, “Kropotkin got it wrong way round. The essential virtuousness of human beings is proved not by parallels in the animal kingdom, but by the very lack of convincing animal parallels.” (38) On page 43 he goes back to making unwarranted parallels between biology and economics. On page 45 he writes, “There is a beautiful parallel between what [Adam] Smith meant and the human immune system.”

“... [Adam] Smith pointed out that benevolence is inadequate for the task of building cooperation in a large society, because we are irredeemably biased in our benevolence to relatives and close friends; a society built on benevolence would be riddled with nepotism. Between strangers, the invisible hand of the market, distributing selfish ambitions, is faired.” (46)

Game Theory: Ridley gives the clearest definition of the prisoner’s dilemma that I have read: “... it applies wherever there is a conflict between self-interest and the common good.” (53) The dilemma is based on the assumption that it is rational to be selfish. “The definition of a Nash equilibrium is when each player’s strategy is an optimal response to the strategies adopted by other players, and nobody has an incentive to deviate from their chosen strategy.” (58) “He [John Maynard Smith] argued that, just as rational individuals should adopt strategies like those predicted by game theory as the least worst in any circumstances, so natural selection should design animals to behave instinctively with similar strategies. In other words, the decision to choose the Nash equilibrium in a game could be reached both by conscious, rational deduction and by evolutionary history. Selection, not the individual, can also decide. Maynard Smith called an evolved instinct that met a Nash equilibrium an ‘evolutionary stable strategy’: no animal playing it would be worse off than an animal playing a different strategy.” (59) “Tit-for-tat ... simply began by cooperating and then did whatever the other guy did last time.” (60) It is nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. It is a strategy for generating cooperation between unrelated individuals. “Tit-for-tat loses or draws each battle but wins the war (73) “Tit-for-tat treats each game as a deal struck between the participants, not a match between them.” (73) “The principle condition required for Tit-for-tat to work is a stable, repetitive relationship.: (63) “... it is singularly bad advice to play Tit-for-tat if you enter a single game, rather than a series of games.” (72) “There is a dark side to Tit-for-tat, ... if one of them accidentally or unthinkingly defects, then a continuous series of mutual recriminations begins from which there is no escape.” (65) “In a world where mistakes are made, Tit-for-tat is a second-rate strategy, and all sorts of other strategies prove better.” (75)

“To play the reciprocity game, they need to recognize each other, remember who repaid a favor and who did not, and bear the debt or the grudge accordingly. Throughout the two cleverest families of land-dwelling mammals, the primates and the carnivores, there is a tight correlation between brain size and social group. The bigger the society in which the individual lives, the bigger its neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. To thrive in a complex society, you need a big brain. To acquire a big brain, you need to live in a complex society.” (69) “Indeed, so tight is the correlation that you can use it to predict the natural group size of a species whose group size is unknown. Human beings, this logic suggests, live in societies 150 string. ... It is roughly the number of people in a typical hunter-gatherer band, the number in a typical religious commune, the number in the average address book, the number in an army company, the maximum number employers prefer in an easily run factory. It is, in short, the number of people we each know well.” (69)

Reputation: “In a society of individuals that you recognize and know well, you need never play the prisoner’s dilemma blindly. You can pick and choose your partners. You can pick those you know have cooperated in the past, you can pick those whom others have told you can be trusted, and you can pick those who signal that they will cooperate. You can discriminate. (70) “Large, cosmopolitan cities are characterized by ruder people and more casual insult and violence than small towns or rural areas.” (70)

Social ostracism can answer the problem of free-riders in large groups if the players can recognize defectors and refuse to cooperate with them. “... human beings, with their astonishing ability to recall the features of even the most casual acquaintance and their long lives and long memories, are equipped to play optional prisoner’s dilemma games with far greater aplomb than any other species.” (83)

Sharing food: “It is simply part of our makeup that food is communal and sex is private.” (87) “The food we share most is meat.” (87) “... because meat tends to come in larger packages than other food.” (89) “We human beings are the most carnivorous of all primates.” (89) “... men are cooperative hunters who depend on each other for success and simply cannot afford not to share the results.” (101) “... sharing spreads the risk as well as the rewards of hunting. ... one man trades in his current good luck for an insurance against his future bad luck (102) “When a Hadza man shares meat with the expectation of some future return, he is in effect buying a derivative instrument with which to hedge his risk. ... he is entering into a contract to swap the variable return rate on his hunting effort for a more nearly fixed return rate achieved by his whole group. He is just like a farmer who contracts to receive a fixed income for his wheat in six months’ time by selling a forward contract or buying some futures.” (115) “Those tempter to scoff at hunter-gatherers for being far too unsophisticated for this sort of thing would be wrong. Their brains are the same as ours, and their instincts for good deals are as closely honed within their own cultural environments as those of any broker on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, And by seeing it in this light, an important insight emerges. The defense that derivatives traders give for their trade is that they are in the business of reducing risk by matching together individuals who have different exposures. They argue that a futures market or a swaps market benefits everybody. It is not a zero-sum game. If they are not able to swap risks, businesses are exposed to more risk, for which they have to pay. Exactly the same argument applies to the origin of hunting and food sharing in human beings. Hunting is risky; sharing reduces the risk. Everybody benefits.” (116)

Sex differences: “Men are innately better at throwing things than women; they are on average more carnivorous (women are roughly twice as likely to be vegetarians as men of the same age group ...); and they generally prefer large meals to frequent snacks. ... Likewise, men prove consistently better at map reading, learning their way through mazes or mentally rotating objects to see how they fit together. ... Women are more verbal, observant, meticulous and industrious, skills that suit gathering.” (95)

Grass: “grass is the master of the planet, because it has employed us as its slave.” (106)

Moral Sense: “Morality requires an innate capacity for guilt and empathy, something children of two years old clearly lack. Like most innate capacities (language, say, or good humor), though, the moral one can be nurtured or suppressed by different kinds of upbringing; so to say that the emotions that fuel morality are innate is not to say they are immutable.” (142) “... even if you dismiss charitable giving as ultimately selfish--saying that people only give to charity in order to enhance their reputations--you still do not solve the problem because you then have to explain why it does enhance their reputation. They do other people applaud charitable activity?” (143) “There is a small part of the prefrontal lobe of the human brain, which, when damaged, turns you into a rational fool.” (143)

Uniqueness: Helen Cronin “Admittedly we’re unique. But there’s nothing unique about being unique.” (156)

Evolutionary perspective: “An evolutionary perspective inevitably eluded Hobbes and Rousseau; less forgivably it still eludes some of their intellectual descendants. The philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine how rational beings would come together and create a society from nothing ... there never was a ‘before’ society.” (156)

Conformity: “Human beings are terribly easily talked into following the most absurd and dangerous path for no better reason than that everybody else is doing it. In Nazi Germany, virtually everybody suspended their judgment to follow a psychopath. In Maoist China, merely by issuing a series of pronouncements a sadistic leader induced vast numbers of people to do ridiculous things like denounce and attack all school teachers, melt down cooking pots to make steel, or kill sparrows. These may be extreme examples, but do not comfort yourself with the thought that your own society is immune to fads. Imperial jingoism, McCarthyism, Beatlemania, flared jeans, even the absurdities of political correctness are all telling examples of how easily we can be rendered obedient to the current fashion for no better reason than that it is the current fashion.” (181)

The Commons: “Hardin was wrong about grazing commons. Medieval commons were not disastrous free-for-alls. They were carefully regulated communal property” (232) He gives examples of voluntarily regulated commons (234) He has a great section titled, “The tragedy of Leviathan” (236) in which he argues that the state creates tragedies of the commons where none existed before and that private property is the solution.

Naturalistic fallacy: He gives the first clear definition of this fallacy that I have seen. “The naturalistic fallacy ... is to argue that what is natural is moral: deducing an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. (257) “... the reverse naturalistic fallacy: arguing from ought to is. Because something ought to be, then it must be. This logic is known today as political correctness” (257-258)

Published by Viking Penguin, 1997.

Year Read: 2001


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