The Origins of Virtue

Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

[Amazon Link]

I bought this 1996 book from Matt Ridley awhile back, but it got shuffled off deep into the TBR non-fiction stack. Thanks mostly to the closure of the two libraries I borrow from, I've been checking out such moldy oldies. And this is pretty good.

It is a polymathic assault on the problem of (roughly) why we humans act as decently toward each other as we do, given that evolutionary "selfish gene" theory demands that our behavior should be entirely governed toward the goal of sending our DNA into the future via our biological offspring.

(You know how that works, right? I don't need to explain it? Good.)

Matt draws his discussion from an impressively large number of fields. Genetics (of course), anthropology, economics, game theory (especially Prisoner's Dillema scenarios), history, theology, psychology, animal behavior, …. Really heavy on that last one: under B in the index we have baboons, beavers, bees, birds, bison, blue tits, blue whale, bonnet macaques, bonobos, bottlenose dolphins, and bumblebees. Something to learn from everyone. And you'll be guaranteed to learn something you don't already know.

Ridley is no Pollyanna: he knows that evolution has also encouraged the (literally!) beastly behavior we too often exhibit. I wish (however) he'd been a little more clear about how we (when at our best) are pretty good at recognizing virtue and differentiating it from vice. Although, as current events are never far from demonstrating, we're too seldom at our best in that regard.

Last Modified 2022-10-02 7:12 AM EDT

URLs du Jour


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  • At the Federalist, Tristan Justice notes The False Dichotomy On Race Is Tearing The Nation Apart.

    CNN’s S.E. Cupp on Sunday reckoned it’s time for Americans to “pick a knee,” declaring which side of the latest culture war they’re on. “The one that knelt on the neck or the one that knelt to try to prevent it.”

    In other words, you’re a racist operating to oppress black people, or you’re a repentant sinner bowing to collective groupthink to seek desperate exoneration for the inherent crime of being white.

    Cupp’s binary choice is emblematic of the kind of thinking that has long existed within fringe, left-wing movements but has now permeated throughout mainstream American institutions, on full display in the cultural civil war following the outbreak of domestic terrorism sweeping the nation.

    False choices don't have to be binary. There's the old trinary chestnut "Lead, follow, or get out of the way"; its origins are murky, but it's pretty odious when used by politicians. Like Mitt Romney who compounded the damage by misattributing it to Thomas Paine. As does our Amazon Product du Jour (added 2023-05-10).

  • Kevin D. Williamson's summary of the Great Battle of the NYT op-ed page: The Mob Wins.

    The case for firing New York Times opinion editor James Bennet was the almost unrelieved mediocrity of his pages. Instead, they fired him for cooties.

    The Times’s opinion pages have long been the worst thing in a very good (by no means perfect) newspaper, America’s RDA-exceeding daily dose of insipid liberal conventional wisdom. It is where you go to watch Charles Blow’s long, slow slide into a journalism of exclamation points (“Stop Airing Trump’s Briefings!” “No More Lynching!”), though the Times’s style guide presumably will prevent his descending into the all-caps Facebook Dad mode of very very angry typing. From the intellect of Paul Krugman, who is famously in possession of a Nobel prize in economics, the Times has managed to extract only the shallowest and lamest kind of barstool partisanship (“Republicans Don’t Want to Save Jobs,” “Good People Can’t Be Good Republicans”). Jamelle Bouie? Elizabeth Bruenig? I like avocado toast as much as the next guy, but that’s an awful lot of the stuff.

    The Bayesian probability that any given NYT op-ed will be thought-provoking or interesting has significantly dropped over the past few days. Not that I was in the habit of evading their paywall enough to find out.

  • Samantha Harris has a Modest Proposal at Reason, given the increased interest in getting rid of qualified immunity for cops: It’s Time to End Qualified Immunity for College Administrators, Too. And she knows whereof she speaks:

    As an attorney defending students and faculty whose free speech and due process rights have been violated by public university administrators, I can attest to the fact that qualified immunity is a huge barrier that limits accountability even in the case of seemingly obvious constitutional violations. Just a few days ago, for example, a federal court in Connecticut dismissed, on qualified immunity grounds, the First Amendment claim of Noriana Radwan, a former University of Connecticut soccer player who lost her scholarship after she was captured giving the finger on national television. In one sentence, the court captured everything that is wrong with qualified immunity, and why it is an albatross around the neck of every lawyer fighting against the abuse of power by state officials:

    "While Ms. Radwan does have a viable First Amendment claim, because of qualified immunity, the Defendants' motion for summary judgment on this claim will be granted."

    In Radwan v. University of Connecticut, the district court held that it is conceivably possible that the administrators' conduct could have been justified by Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, a Supreme Court decision allowing K-12 schools to regulate "vulgar or offensive" speech among schoolchildren. The court acknowledged that "university students, largely over the age of eighteen, are no longer children," and that the Supreme Court has explicitly stated that there is no reason "First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large." The court even acknowledged that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, of which Connecticut is a part, has "expressed skepticism that universities and colleges have as much latitude to regulate student speech as K-12 schools do." But because the 2nd Circuit has never explicitly held that Fraser does not apply to universities, the court dismissed Radwan's "viable First Amendment claim." 

    We can only hope for additional incentives for public university employees to behave more like decent human beings instead of petty tyrants enforcing arbitrary and vague codes of conduct.

  • Jonah Goldberg writes on The Left’s Strange New Respect for Mitt Romney.

    What you see is what you get with Romney, if you don’t have partisan blinders on. He’s a transparently decent man who is also a transparently conventional, if a bit stiff, Republican politician. He’s not immune to the charge of flip-flopping on issues like abortion or healthcare, but that hardly makes him unique. What he isn’t—and wasn’t in 2012—is a racist, a sexist or a cold-hearted monster. And yet, that is how he was routinely depicted by his opponents, including commentators across the mainstream media, with precious little pushback from mainstream reporters.

    Put aside for a moment that New York Times columnist Gail Collins mentioned a trivial incident with Romney’s dog in more than 70 columns to make him sound like an abuser of animals (ignoring the equally trivial fact that Barack Obama ate dog while living in Indonesia as a child). Recall instead the time when Romney explained how, when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, he bent over backward to work with women’s groups to get names of qualified women to staff his administration. He said he got so many recommendations—which he used!—that he needed binders to hold all the resumes. In other words, a Republican governor did exactly what feminist groups want elected officials to do, but the internet exploded with condemnation and liberal commentators reacted to his phrase “binders full of women” like he was a character from A Handmaid’s Tale.

    Then Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky called Romney a “race-mongering pyromaniac.” Why? Because he referred to Obamacare as—wait for it—“Obamacare” in a speech to the NAACP.

    Ah, those golden days of the previous decade, when political debate was undergirded by mutual respect and the understanding that you and your opponents shared a large swath of common values! We don't even pretend to do that any more.

  • Our LFOD Google News Alert rang for an LTE in the Conway Daily Sun from resident Lori Mills:

    On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, our son was on his way to Center Conway from Rhode Island with his girlfriend to check on us and help out. He had not been up here in a while due to the virus. They stopped at the Dunkin Donuts in Ossipee and went through the drive-thru. On the back window of a car two cars in front of our son was a sign that said “If your license plate does not say Live Free or Die, turn around and get the ‘expletive’ back home.”

    Like most places, Ossipee has its share of stupid people panicked about the invading infected hordes from elsewhere, and are not reluctant to express their fears via obscene signs. But as I type, the entirety of Carroll County (which contains Ossipee) has had a total of 49 Covid-19 cases and zero deaths. Ossipee itself records 1-4 cases. (The state doesn't reveal finer-grained counts for that range of cases.)

    But that's a fact-based gripe. I'd suggest that signmaker was also too stupid to note the contradiction between LFOD and demanding that other people behave the way he wants them to.

    The remainder of Ms. Mills' letter contains a heartwarming story, bringing a ray of optimistic sunshine: the Dunkin' customers in Ossipee aren't all obscenity-scrawling troglodytes.

Last Modified 2023-05-10 5:26 AM EDT