The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

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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.

"Witty and lucid and brimming with provocative conjectures" Wall Street Journal, this fascinating and literate book interprets the latest research in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology to answer an age-old question: Is human nature cooperative or competitive? Vivid examples of animal andhuma n behavior, examine why humans tend generally to cooperate with each other. 13 line drawings. 304 pp. National ads. 20,000 print. Buyer's Choice

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.)
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.
Frank J. Sulloway
Matt Ridley's new book "The Origins of Virtue" reviews and digests what has been learned about human social behavior during the three decades since William Hamilton's conceptual breakthrough....Ridly has many original insights....The scope of his approach, and the thoughtfulness of his analysis, are impressive; upholders of the Standard Social Sciences Model will find that they have much to consider. -- Frank J. Sulloway, The New York Review of Books
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140264456
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 796,002
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet 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.

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Table of Contents

The Origins of Virtue Acknowledgments
Chapter One: The Society of Genes
Chapter Two: The Division of Labour
Chapter Three: The Prisoner's Dilemma
Chapter Four: Telling Hawks from Doves
Chapter Five: Duty and the Feast
Chapter Six: Public Goods and Private Gifts
Chapter Seven: Theories of Moral Sentiments
Chapter Eight: The Tribal Primates
Chapter Nine: The Source of War
Chapter Ten: The Gains from Trade
Chapter Eleven: Ecology as Religion
Chapter Twelve: The Power of Property
Chapter Thirteen: Trust
Sources and Notes

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2002

    Great Book for Scientists and Non-Scientists Alike

    I read this book in a communication theory class. I have a background in biology and chemistry, so I feel like I had a bit of an advantage. However, this book is a good way for people who aren't intrigued by science to perhaps spark a new interest. Ridley's theories are ingenius and this book is great when read by a group. You will definately want to talk with others about the concepts presented in this book. I have taken so much insight from this book--from my understanding of the way humans operate in a group to my understanding of my own personal relationships. After reading this book, one finds it hard to justify tipping a waitress in a restaurant that one will never visit again. Read the book and you'll see what I mean!

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    Posted January 3, 2011

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    Posted February 5, 2010

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