≡ Menu

The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley

Origins of Virtue

RATING: 8/10…READ: September 16, 2012

Using biology as his guide, Matt Ridley demonstrates how we had virtue before religion, cooperation before government, and trade before capitalism. This book breaks down the many misconceptions regarding individualism and society and our role in it, delving into incentives for human interaction and division of labor.

Get at Amazon

If evolution worked by pitting individuals against each other, it also worked by designing them to seek mutual benefit.

The conventional wisdom in the social sciences is that human nature is simply an imprint of an individual’s background and experience. But out cultures are not random collections of arbitrary habits. They are canalized expressions of our instincts. That is why the same themes crop up in all cultures—themes such as family, ritual, bargain, love, hierarchy, friendship, jealousy, group loyalty and superstition. That is why, for all their superficial differences of language and custom foreign cultures are still immediately comprehensible at the deeper level of motives, emotions, and social habits.

It is an organism, with soldiers instead of an immune system, queens instead of ovaries and workers instead of a stomach.

The point is not that a Portuguese man-o-war or an ant colony is really a single organism; it is that each single organism is a collective. It consists of millions of individual cells, each in its own way self-sufficient but also dependent on the whole, just like a worker ant.

Genes team up to form chromosomes; chromosomes team up to form genomes; genomes teach up to form cells; cells team up to form complex cells; complex cells team up to form bodies; bodies team up to form colonies. A beehive is a collaborative enterprise on far more levels than first appears.

If we can allow that individual people are nice to each other, then the ‘motives’ of the genes that cause the virtue can go hang. Pragmatically, it does not matter to us that a man saves a drowning companion because he wants the glory rather than because he wants to do good. Likewise, it does not matter that he is under the order of his genes, rather than choosing the course of action of his own free will. The deed is what counts.

The more you truly feel for people in distress, the more selfish you are being in alleviating that distress. Only those who do good out of cold, unmoved conviction are ‘true’ altruists. Yet what matters to society is whether people are likely to be nice to each other, not their motives. If I am setting out to raise money for a charity, I am not going to return the cheques of companies and celebrities on the grounds that they are motivated more by the search for good publicity than by the cause itself.

Once upon a time the members of the body began to grumble because they had all the work to do, while the belly lay idle, enjoying the fruits of their labour; so the hands, mouth, and teeth agreed to starve the belly into submission, but the more they starved it the weaker they themselves became. So it was plain that the belly also had its work to do, which was to nourish the other members by digesting and redistributing the food received.

Although we have not surrendered reproduction to a queen, we human beings are surely as utterly dependant on each other as any ants or honey bees. As I write this, I am using software I did not invent on a computer I could never have made that depends on electricity I could have not discovered, and I am not worrying about where my next meal will come from because I know I can go and buy food from a shop. In a phrase, therefore, the advantage of society to me is the division of labour. It is specialization that makes human society greater than the sum of its parts.

If a creature puts the greater good ahead of its individual interests, it is because its fate is inextricably ties to that of the group: it shares the group’s fate. A sterile ant’s best hope of immortality is vicarious reproduction through the breeding of the queen, just as an aeroplane passenger’s best hope of life is through the survival of the pilot.

This is the great advantage of the division of labor: by specializing at the level of the individual, the species can generalize at the level of the colony.

Selfish ambitions are bent to the greater good of the body just as selfish individuals are bent by the market to the greater good of society. It is as if our blood were full of Boy Scouts running around looking for invaders because each time they found one they were rewarded with chocolate.

The formal mathematical definition of the prisoner’s dilemma is wherever the temptation is greater than the reward which is greater than the punishment which is greater than the sucker’s pay-off, though the game changes if the temptation is huge.

The permanence and duration of the relationship is vital to the equation. One-shot encounters encourage deflection; frequent repetition encourages cooperation. There are no cleaning stations in the nomadic life of the open ocean.

If you have to act before your partner and vice versa, it pays to try to elicit cooperation by being nice. You do not, in other words, greet strangers with a scowl lest they form a bad opinion of you; you greet them with a smile.

Once they [chimpanzees] have caught a monkey the will preferentially give some of it to the swollen female. And, surprise, surprise, the females proves more likely to have sex with the males that are more generous with meat.

One school of thought is that the sexual division of labor was a critical feature of our early evolution as a species. Without it we could have not have survived in the dry grasslands that were our natural habitat as a species. We were too bad at hunting to make a living by it alone, and the food to be got from gathering was too unreliable and protein deficient for our large bodies and omnivore guts. But put the two together and you have a viable lifestyle. Add cooking, which is a form of predigestion enabling us to eat tough vegetables that would normally reward only stronger stomachs than ours, and you have a viable niche for a large and social savanna ape.

Big game hunting probably began in earnest with the invention of the dart thrower. It had profound social implications. A big animal like a mammoth is large enough to share with a large group. It is so big that sharing becomes mandatory. A carcass is in effect no longer the private property of the person who killed it, but it is public property, the shares possession of the group. Big game hunting not only allows sharing, it enforces it. The risk of refusing a hungry man a share of your mammoth is too great when the hungry man is armed with a dart thrower. So big game hunting introduced humankind to public goods for the first time.

Hawkes believes food sharing is little more than ‘tolerated theft.’ Once the man who killed the giraffe has hacked off as much meat as he can carry, he has little incentive to prevent others helping themselves; to defend the carcass against them would be spiteful and inconvenient.

The Hadza men who are good at hunting enjoy considerable social rewards. Their success is envied by other men and, perhaps more important, admired by the women. Good hunters, to put it bluntly, have more extramarital affairs. This is not confined to the Hadza. It applies to the Ache, the Yanomamo and other South American tribes; it is probably universal and it is no secret.

It is a question of who has the power: the have or the have-nots. If sharing is tolerated thefts, the have-nots are powerful; if it is reciprocity, the haves are in control. Even if the Hadza hunter knows he will eventually lose the giraffe to tolerated theft, he can still influence the sharing; his aim is to turn the sudden surplus of giraffe meat in his possession into some less perishable currency. So he shares it with his spouse and kin; with potential mates; and with his friends from who he has had, or expects to have, a reciprocal favor. This evens out his supply of meat by giving him to expect a share of others’ carcasses in the future. And it buys him prestige.

When a Hadza man shares meat with the expectation of some future return, he is in effect buying a derivative instrument with which to hedge his risk. He is entering into a contract to swap the variable return rate of his hunting effort for a more nearly fixed return rate achieved by his whole group.

In the 1960s Marshall Sahlins noticed rather obvious feature of societies all around the world. The closer the kinship between the person giving the gift and the person receiving it, the less necessary it was that the fit be balanced by a commensurate gift in return. Within the family, said Sahlins, there was ‘generalized reciprocity’, by which he meant no reciprocity at all: people just gave each other gifts without keeping a count of who owed whom.

The human brain is not just better than that of other animals, it is different. And it is different in a fascinating way: it is equipped with special faculties to enable it exploit reciprocity, to trade favors and to reap the benefits of social living.

Christians should pause before they feel superior: they teach that you should practice virtue to get to heaven—a pretty big bribe to appeal to their selfishness.

In a sense, the commitment model does take the altruism out of altruism by making altruism into an investment—an investment in a stock called trustworthiness that later pays handsome dividends in others’ generosity.

With their identity protected from the experimenter, seventy percent of Adams offer nothing in the dictator game.

In short, if you lack all emotions, you are a rational fool.

Instead of trying to arrange human intuitions in such a way as to reduce human selfishness, perhaps we should be arranging them in such a way as to bring out human virtue.

The top male chimpanzee in a troop is not necessarily the strongest; instead, it is usually the one best at manipulating social coalitions to his advantage.

The real significance of the invention of throwing weapons was that they made warfare more profitable and less risky. This would have increased the reward of joining a large coalition, for better defense and attack.

If we were truly like dolphins and lived in open societies, there would still be aggression, violence, coalition-building and politics, but the human world would be like a water color painting, not a mosaic of human populations. There would not be nationalism, borders, in-groups and out-groups, warfare. There are consequences of tribal thinking, which itself is the consequence of our evolutionary heritage as coalition building, troop-living apes.

Bees risk their lives to defend the hive, not because they wish the hive itself to survive, but because they wish the genes they share with their many sisters in the hive to survive. Their courage is gene-selfish.

Groupishness can enhance individual selection—but that is not group selection.

We are an extremely groupish species, but not a group-selected one. We are designed not to sacrifice ourselves for the group but to exploit the group for ourselves.

Music stirs the emotions. The evolutionary benefit of letting the emotions be stirred by music may well be to synchronize and harmonize the emotional mood of a group of individuals at a time when they are called upon to act in the interests of the group, the better to further their own interests.

Hymns, football chants, national anthems, military marches: music and song were probably associated with group-defining rituals long before they served other functions.

Christianity, it is true, teaches love to all people, not just fellow Christians. This seems to be largely an invention of St. Paul’s, since Jesus frequently discriminated in the gospels between Jews and Gentiles, and made clear that his message was for Jews.

The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Thirty Years War and the sectarian strife that still afflicts communities like Northern Ireland and Bosnia, testify to a continuing tendency for Christians to love only those neighbors who share their beliefs. Christianity has not notably diminished ethnic and national conflict; if anything, it seems to have inflamed it.

Yanomamo villages largely trade artifacts, not food. I suspect his is a universal feature of early trade—that it relied on a technological division of labor, not an ecological one.

Chagnon believes that is the feasting that is, so to speak, the aim, the trade that is the excuse, because from the feasts comes the friendship that cements the alliance that is valuable in warfare.

Modern commercial law was invented and enforced not by governments, but by merchants themselves. Only later did governments try to take it over, and with mostly disastrous results.

There is a genuine distinction between the Yir Yoront and the computer trade on the one hand and Messrs Soros and Coeur on the other, and it is this. Whereas the Yir Yoront’s trade makes both sides better off, and do did the shipment to me from Japan of the computer on which I write this sentence, the same cannot be said of speculation on the currency markets.

Trade is a non-zero-sum procedure because of the division of labor; without a division of labor; trade is zero sum.

Winston Churchill was a decent bricklayer—better than many bricklayers (it’s true, he was)—but it still paid him to buy most of his brick-laying services from a professional because he was an even better politician.

Suppose there are two commodities being traded: spears and axes. One tribe, called—for the sake of argument—Japan, is good at making spears and very good at making axes; the other, called Britain, is bad at making spears and very bad at making axes. Superficially, it seems to make sense for the first lot to make their own spears and axes and not indulge in trade at all. But hold on. A spear is worth a certain number of axes. Let us say one spear is worth one axe. So every time the first tribe makes a spear, it is making something it could buy from the other tribe by making an axe. Since it takes this tribe less time to make an axe than a spear, and swap it for a spear made by the second tribe. The second tribe reasons likewise. Every time it makes an axe, it could have achieved the same result by making a spear more quickly and swapping it with the first tribe for an axe. So if the first tribe specializes in axes and the second in spears, both tribes are better off than if each tries to be self-sufficient. This is true, despite the fact that the first tribe is better at making spears than the second tribe.

The implications of trade policy are obvious. Even if Japan is better at manufacturing everything conceivable than Britain is, there will still be things that is pays Japan to buy from Britain, because Japan can get more of them by swapping the things it is best at than by making them itself.

Sharing between individuals reduces the risk of shortage each individual faces. But resources are much more likely to have been short for one whole band at the same time than for distant bands or bands specializing in different activities. A drought may have harmed the hunting but made fishing easier. The old Adam Smith arguments for divisions of labor apply with equal force between groups and within groups.

Ground squirrels routinely eat baby ground squirrels; mallard drakes routinely drown ducks during gang rape; parasitic wasps routinely eat their victims alive from the inside; chimpanzees—our nearest relatives—routinely pursue gang warfare. Yet, as supposedly objective television programs about nature repeatedly demonstrate, human beings just do not want to know these facts.

Environmentalism is something we prefer to preach than to practice. Everybody, it seems, wants a new road for themselves, but less road-building. Everybody wants another car, but wishes there were fewer on the road. Everybody wants two kids, but lower population growth.

Since Native Americans saw no connection between their hunting and game numbers, the system of religious beliefs actually fostered the overexploitation of ungulate populations. Religious respect for animals does not equal conservation.

In other parts of the world, where people arrived suddenly and recently, the ecological effects of them were devastating—irrespective of climate.

History abounds with evidence that the limitations of technology or demand, rather than a culture of self-restraint, is what has kept tribal people from overexploiting their environment.

Ray Hames found that Yanomamo and Ye’kwana hunters spend more time in areas where there is more game. Since these areas are generally farther from the village, the hunters usually have to pass through depleted areas to reach these hunting grounds. If they were to practicing conservation, they would ignore any game they encountered on the way through the depleted area. But they do not. They always—without exception—pursue an animal they happen upon when in the depleted area, so long as it is big enough to worth the wasted effort and ammunition on.

Environmental ethics are therefore to be taught in spite of human nature, not in concert with it.

If anybody tried to let his animals browse a certain clump of trees without first negotiating permission from a committee of elders, he risked being driven off with sticks and, for a second offence, being killed.

Order emerges perfectly from chaos not because of the way people are bossed about, but because of the way individuals react rationally to incentives.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that the poverty of the Third World is to be cured largely by creating secure property rights without which people have no chance to build their own prosperity. Government is not the solution to tragedies of the commons. It is the prime cause of them.

Ostrom’s conclusions are that communication alone can make a remarkable difference to people’s ability and willingness to exercise environmental restraint: indeed communication is more important than punishment. Covenants without swords work; swords without covenants do no work.

The key to solving common problems is the assertion of ownership—communal if necessary, individual if possible.

Polluting companies adore regulation by government, because it protects them from civil suits and discourages new entrants to their business.

Private property is often the friend of conservation; government regulation is often the enemy.

A more egalitarian system is hard to imagine. It rewards labor at the expense of capital, directing wealth away from those who have material possessions. This creates a strong disincentive to narrow the means of production: the large the clan, the more labor it provides (rewarding) and the less capital (unrewarding).

But it is a wonder anybody ever makes a net or a canoe. When asked about this, the Ponams reply that they recognize the problem. When pressed they claim that the owner generally gets more fish—but they admit with further pressure this is not true. They then claim that the owner gets an intangible reward: the esteem in which his clan is held up. The motive for ownership is social, not economic.

Government is imperfect, at least as much as markets as imperfect. It always diverts money to itself, where corruptly or through Parkinson’s Law. In addressing the environment, government is the cause of most problems, no the solution to them, precisely because it creates tragedies of the commons where none existed before.

Social contracts between equals, generalized reciprocity between individuals and between groups—these are at the heart of the most vital of all human achievements: the creation of society.

Given their immunity from criticism, Communist officials have consistently proved more corruptible and more nepotistic than democratic ones. Universal benevolence evaporates on the stove of human nature.

I am not going to fall into the trap of pretending that our dim and misty understanding of the human social instinct can be instantly translated into a political philosophy. For a start, it teaches us that Utopia is impossible, because society is an uneasy compromise between individuals with conflicting ambitions, rather than something designed directly by natural selection itself.

Said Margaret Thatcher, notoriously and scandalously: ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ Of course, Thatcher had a serious point. At the core of her philosophy was the idea that if you fail to recognize the basic opportunism of human beings, then you fail to notice how government is composed of self-interest individuals rather than saints who only work for the greater good. Government is then just a tool for interest groups and budge-maximizing bureaucrats to d up each other’s power and reward at the expense of the rest of us. It is not a neutral, motiveless machine for delivering social benefits. She was against government’s inherent corruption, rather than its ideals.

The state makes no bargain with the citizen to take joint responsibility for civic order, engenders in him no obligation, duty or pride, and imposes obedience instead. Little wonder that, treated like a naughty child, he behaves like one.

Where authority replaces reciprocity, the sense of community fades.

In Britain, the welfare state ad the mixed-economy ‘corpocracy’ replaced thousands of effective community institutions—friendly societies, mutuals, hospital trusts and more, all based on reciprocity and gradually nurtured virtuous circles of trust—with giant, centralized Leviathans like the National Health Service, nationalized industries and government quangos, all based on condescension. Because more money was made available through higher taxes, something was gained at first. But soon the destruction wrought to Britain’s sense of community was palpable. Because of its mandatory nature the welfare state encouraged in its donors a reluctance and resentment, and in its clients not gratitude but apathy, anger or an entrepreneurial drive to exploit the system. Heavy government makes people more selfish, not less.

If we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power and scope of the state. That does not mean a vicious war of all against all. It means devolution: devolution of power over people’s lives to parishes, computer networks, clubs, teams, self-help groups, small businesses—everything small and local.

Let everybody rise and fall by their reputation.