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The Origins of Virtue


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About the Author

Matt Ridley has worked as a science editor, Washington correspondent, and American editor for the Economist. A research fellow of the Institute for Economic Affairs and a Trustee of the International Centre for Life, he lives in Northumberland, England.


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.

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 relations‘ants, 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.)

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