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.