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The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation [Paperback]

Matt Ridley
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 1, 1998 0140264450 978-0140264456 1
If, as Darwin suggests, evolution relentlessly encourages the survival of the fittest, why are humans compelled to live in cooperative, complex societies? In this fascinating examination of the roots of human trust and virtue, a zoologist and former American editor of the Economist reveals the results of recent studies that suggest that self-interest and mutual aid are not at all incompatible. In fact, he points out, our cooperative instincts may have evolved as part of mankind?s natural selfish behavior--by exchanging favors we can benefit ourselves as well as others. Brilliantly orchestrating the newest findings of geneticists, psychologists, and anthropologists, The Origins of Virtue re-examines the everyday assumptions upon which we base our actions towards others, whether in our roles as parents, siblings, or trade partners. With the wit and brilliance of The Red Queen, his acclaimed study of human and animal sexuality, Matt Ridley shows us how breakthroughs in computer programming, microbiology, and economics have given us a new perspective on how and why we relate to each other.

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The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation + The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.) + The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
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Editorial Reviews Review

Human life, scientific journalist Matt Ridley suggests, is a complex balancing act: we behave with self-interest foremost in mind, but also in ways that do not harm, and sometimes even benefit, others. This behavior, in a strange way, makes us good. It also makes us unique in the animal world, where self-interest is far more pronounced. "The essential virtuousness of human beings is proved not by parallels in the animal kingdom, but by the very lack of convincing animal parallels," Ridley writes. How we got to be so virtuous over millions of years of evolution is the theme of this entertaining book of popular science, which will be of interest to any student of human nature. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Relying heavily on game theory, zoologist and science writer Ridley focuses on how cooperation evolved in the generally selfish world of humankind. The result is a fascinating tale incorporating studies in theoretical and evolutionary biology, ecology, economics, ethology, sociology, and anthropology. Ridley details many complex behaviors, such as altruism in animals and humans, and reviews many anthropological investigations to show how these behaviors manifest themselves in differing groups. He also develops some absorbing ideas regarding extinct civilizations. Unfortunately, his conclusions are sometimes at odds with his claim that individual property rights are the key to conservation and that environmentalists are misguided. His criticisms of conservation efforts and of the concept of the "noble savage" can be one-sided, and his sources are limited. Still, the material will captivate a wide audience, including scholars who appreciate the original literature cited. Highly recommended.?Constance A. Rinaldo, Dartmouth Coll. Biomedical Lib., Hanover, N.H.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (April 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140264450
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140264456
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,352 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matt Ridley's books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters). His most recent book, The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, won the award for the best science book published in 2003 from the National Academies of Science. He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist, and is the chairman of the International Centre for Life, in Newcastle, England. Matt Ridley is also a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
81 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quality science writing for the intelligent lay reader December 17, 1997
Matt Ridley's Origins of Virtue is one among many recently published books on evolutionary psychology -- and it's one of the very best. What distinguishes Ridley's book from the pack is his explicit grappling with the question: What does the fact that human moral sentiments are crafted by natural selection imply about the appropriate political order? Ridley presents one of the finest challenges to Thomas Hobbes yet written. According to Ridley, modern scientific research shows that Hobbes was wrong to assume that in the absence of an all-powerful government people would brutalize each other. While each person does indeed have within himself or herself an irreducible core of self-interest, this very self-interest is typically best served by cooperating with others rather than preying on others. In Ridley's view -- which I find convincing -- all that is necessary to channel self-interested sentiments into socially cooperative patterns of behavior is a system of private and freely exchangeable property rights. The government that governs least truly does, on this reading, govern best.
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47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Matt Ridley is a British science journalist who has the estimable quality of relying on facts rather than opinions to make his case. In this short, highly readable book he puts forward the evolutionary biologist's theory for the existence of human cooperation and altruism, and he does it brilliantly. The depth and breadth of material covered is extraordinary, and this book well rewards repeated readings (always the sign of good science writing).
From an introductory description of the ideas of Kropotkin, through game theory and Evolutionarily Stable Strategies, to a discussion of free market economics as the 'best fit' to human models of social cooperation, Ridley introduces a wealth of meticulously researched material with sufficient digs at current bien-pensant wisdom on the acquisition of culture to make the average sociologist's hair stand on end.
Matt Ridley writes a weekly column (Acid Test) in the UK broadsheet newspaper The Daily Telegraph, and his customary penetrating analysis of accepted cultural and environmental theory is always a joy to read. He brings this penetrating style to bear on some of the shibboleths of modern sociology (there is a particularly devastating broadside reserved for the egregious Margaret Mead and her band of fellow travelers in the 'Culture Makes Mind' school).
The book concludes (rashly, as even the author acknowledges) with a defense of economic libertarianism.
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48 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent January 15, 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book should definitely be on your short list of books to read if you are at all interested in what makes us humans behave as we do. The prior review by David Gillies sums up the books nicely. I would just like to add one further detail.
The modern intelligentsia and media have portrayed Native Americans and other Aboriginal peoples as conservationists and environmentalists who were stewards of the earth's resources and were 'at one with nature'. If this is true, then it largely refutes Ridley's whole argument. Ridley devotes a whole chapter to this ( Chapter 11 - Ecology as Religion ) and shows that it is a complete myth. Some of the facts he adduces: Shortly after 'Native Americans' arrived in North America, 73% of the large mammals were exterminated and became extinct. Shortly after man arrived in South America, 80% of the large mammals were exterminated and became extinct. As the Polynesians colonized the Pacific, they extinguished 20% of all the bird species on earth. At Olsen-Chubbock, the site of ancient bison massacres in Colorado, where people regularly stampeded herds over a cliff, the animals lay in such heaps after a successful stampede that only the ones on the top were butchered, and only the best joints were taken from them. If you are incredulous - read the book, all the sources are there. Ridley's final conclusion is that the limitations of technology or demand, rather than a culture of self-restraint or religious respect, is what kept tribal people from overexploiting their environment. One nice touch is Ridley's quote of Chief Seattle's speech which Al Gore includes in his book 'Earth in the Balance'.
"How can you buy or sell the sky? The Land?...Every part of this earth is sacred to my people...
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Materialist Case for Ethics June 20, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Ridley's purpose is not to be the ethicist, but to provide an interdisciplinary account of our constitutional foundations as homo sapiens, in order for a moral theory to reflect these innate foundations. He succeeds masterfully. Indeed, Ridley's "The Origin of Virtue" succeeds in a way that Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" fails. Whereas Wright focuses only on the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology and molecular genetics, Ridley incorporates both and adds ethology, comparative psychology, sociology, politics, economics, game theory, and paleontology. Wright's scope is myopic, whereas Ridley's scope is expansive. The outcomes could not be more radically different.

I dismissed Wright's book - not because it failed to explain Darwinism (it does so very well) - but because it failed to provide any moral insight from the Modern Synthesis. Ridley does not make this mistake: He takes homo sapiens as we are, both one with Nature, yet tellingly distinct and unique as a social and rational species. Ridley does this by using a broader armamentarium from which to analyze the origins of human virtue. Consequently, Ridley accomplishes far more than Wright in half the space and time..

Ridley's territory is too sophisticated and nuanced to be summarized into several single propositions. But he leaves no stone unturned, examining a plethora of human dynamics, i.e., the innate characteristics with which we are born, the usual pattern of development after our birth, and what is factual about the real, rather than the metaphysical, world.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding human "Virtue"
Very good summary of some of the new understandings of human evolutionary development resulting from primatological research. Read more
Published 15 months ago by B Leyden
1.0 out of 5 stars A case study of the art of politcal rhetoric disguised as science
First, I defer and refer to the excellent review penned by "Cebes." I do offer the following additional thoughts though. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Brad M. Purdy
4.0 out of 5 stars Ridley keeps the reader engaged
A lot of what is in here reminded me of Dawkins "The Selfish Gene" Ridley weaves together our understanding of evolution and it's effect on behavior through selection in an... Read more
Published 17 months ago by cbligerman
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful book for anyone interested in genetics, sociology and...
a very enjoyable reading. a lot of human behaviors and phenomena of societies explained with evolution and genetics. Read more
Published 17 months ago by bor
4.0 out of 5 stars Expert wanders off
The first 3/4 of this book are really excellent and engaging. The last 1/4 is another case of an expert launching himself into outer philosophy space. Read more
Published 18 months ago by J. S. Judd
4.0 out of 5 stars worth sticking with it
I nearly gave up on this book at a little over the half way point. While he explores a number of interesting angles in the first half, it seems that all of them end up being blind... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Merna Moose
5.0 out of 5 stars Be selfless or selfish, what to do, what to do
"The cohesiveness of groups that conformity achieves is a valuable weapon in a world where groups must act together to compete with other groups. Read more
Published on June 16, 2012 by Laurence Chalem
5.0 out of 5 stars On Cooperation
Ridley provides ample research to back his claims about human nature, cooperation, and the development of virtue. Read more
Published on November 8, 2011 by Tate
4.0 out of 5 stars Why are we so nice?
The question may seem absurd, because the bias of journalists towards the nastier aspects of human life (bad news sells more newspapers than good news) means that we tend not to... Read more
Published on September 20, 2011 by John Duncan
3.0 out of 5 stars Ridley sabotages his own book
It's a shame. Chapters 1 and 3-8 must be some of the best popular science writing out there. Ridley has a rare gift for both synthesis and explanation, as he effortlessly and... Read more
Published on May 24, 2011 by whiteelephant
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