If evolution by natural selection relentlessly favors self-interest, why do human beings live in complex societies and show so much cooperative spirit? In The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley, a zoologist and former American editor of the Economist, shows that recent research in a number of fields has suggested a resolution of the apparent contradiction between self-interest and mutual aid. Brilliantly orchestrating the new findings of geneticists, psychologists, and anthropologists, The Origins of Virtue re-examines the everyday assumptions upon which we base our actions towards others, whether we are nurturing parents, siblings, or trade partners. The Origins of Virtue searches for the roots of that capacity for trust, contrasts it with the social instincts of ants, baboons, and naked mole rats, and draws provocative conclusions for our understanding of politics. Ridley not only traces the evolution of society but shows us how breakthroughs in computer programming, microbiology, and economics have all played their role in providing us with a unique perspective on how and why we relate to each other.
Are humans inherently nasty and untrustworthy, as proposed by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, or are they more like the noble savages described by 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Ridley (The Red Queen) addresses this question in this comprehensive work, published last year in Britain to wide acclaim. Ridley doesn't provide a simple answer, but he does provide a magnificent tour of the animal kingdom in search of his resolution. We learn of both cooperation and treachery in some of our close relatives, fellow primates such as chimpanzees, baboons and macaques, as well as in our most distant relationsants, naked mole rats, stickleback fish and lions. In an engaging fashion, Ridley successfully integrates the fields of evolutionary biology, anthropology, economics, game theory, political science, psychology and philosophy without being either too arcane or too superficial. Along the way he discusses such phenomena as the selfish gene, trust and the source of war. The author's conclusion to his thought-provoking and enjoyable book is best caught in one quote: "persuasive calls to be good are themselves a powerful human instinct; obeying them is not." (Apr.)