Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Lofty Instincts

The Origins of Virtue
By Matt Ridley
Viking(1997), 295 pages, $24.95

By Miriam Schulman

Just as moralists have been known to search the Bible or history to find support for what they already believe, Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue, has searched in the realm of evolutionary biology and come up with an argument against big government.

Ridley's book purports to explore the biological underpinnings of altruistic behavior: Is virtue innate, and if so, what evolutionary forces might have produced the human instinct to do good? But while the book begins with that subject, it ends with a battle cry: "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."

While the road between these two ideas is paved with lively anecdotes and useful explanations, the connection, at least to this reader, does not seem entirely inevitable.

Ridley begins his argument by examining the idea that people are naturally inclined to altruism and cooperation. For evolutionary biologists, this hypothesis originally seemed to make no sense. If survival is the engine of evolution, why would any organism do something that was not to its own advantage?

Then, in the 1960s, an idea that has come to be known as the selfish gene theory was first put forward. Basically, it says that evolution selects animals who behave in ways that favor not necessarily their own survival, but the survival of their genes. As Ridley explains:

Often the interest of the genes requires a creature to do things that benefit its offspring.... Sometimes it means doing things for the benefit of other relatives.... Occasionally, it means doing things that benefit the larger group.... But always, without exception, living things are designed to do things that enhance the chances of their genes or copies of their genes surviving and replicating.

This insight has powered a growing willingness among evolutionary biologists to see altruistic or cooperative behavior as innate predispositions.

Another argument for innate altruism had its genesis in-of all places-mathematical game theory. The gist is in a little anecdote called the prisoner's dilemma, where two criminals are apprehended for a crime they committed together. Since the evidence against them is weak, if they both stay silent, they will be convicted on a lesser charge, which carries a one-year prison term. This is the best outcome for the two of them together.

However, the police have offered them each a deal. If they tell on their cohort, they will go free and their accomplice will get five years. If both tell on the other, each will get three years.

From a purely logical point of view, the only thing to do in the prisoner's dilemma is to rat. Of course, the criminal will make out best if he tells and his partner does not. But even if both are disloyal, each individual will do better if he tells than if he keeps his mouth shut while his partner squeals, leaving him holding the bag.

This conclusion—that cooperation does not pay—seemed too gloomy even for mathematicians. Ridley describes how they began to try various computer models of how to beat the game. They even held tournaments, pitting one strategy against another.

These tournaments produced remarkable results. While a nasty strategy triumphed early on in the game, over the long haul, the squealer was not the last man standing-especially as more sophisticated programs evolved that could "remember" the past behavior of their playmates. Indeed, some of the most successful strategies based their next moves on their opponent's previous moves, learning which programs could be "trusted" and playing accordingly. In such circumstances, it paid to be altruistic toward other players who had been nice in previous games.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with the biology of altruism, Ridley answers like this: People have evolved unique skills that help them remember how they have been treated, and they can adjust their behavior accordingly.

Human beings, with their astonishing ability to recall the features of even the most casual acquaintance and their long lives and long memories, are equipped to play optional prisoner's dilemma games with far greater aplomb than any other species.... Indeed, it might be what is special about us: we are uniquely good at reciprocal altruism.

A related concept is something Ridley calls "groupishness," the tendency of creatures to put the greater good ahead of their individual interests because their own fate is tied to the fate of the group. This characteristic, he argues, has two conflicting results: intragroup cooperation and intergroup warfare. Ridley writes:

It is a rule of evolution to which we are far from immune that the more cooperative societies are, the more violent the battles between them. We may be among the most collaborative social creatures on the planet, but we are also the most belligerent.

For Ridley, the way out of this dilemma (to which we are all prisoners) can be stated in one word: trade. From the axe/spear exchanges of the aboriginal peoples of Australia to the irrigation systems of Nepal, Ridley is full of examples where voluntary cooperation between individuals and tribes results in peaceful coexistence between groups that might otherwise be at each others' throats.

You probably see by now where this is heading: Left to their own devices, people are guided by their instincts for altruism into workable arrangements. They do not need Big Brother to tell them how to cooperate quite the opposite. Many of the voluntary arrangements Ridley cites have been squashed by the heavy hand of government. In Nepal, for example, the government-controlled irrigation systems average 20 percent less crop yield than those run by the farmers themselves.

"If my argument in this book is right," he writes, "the human mind contains numerous instincts for building social cooperation and seeking a reputation for niceness. We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive government, nor so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst in us, both as its employees and as its clients."

To give Ridley credit, he obviously understands that this part of his argument represents something of a leap of faith. In fact, he titles the last chapter, "Trust: In which the author suddenly and rashly draws political lessons."

You could draw different lessons from Ridley's own examples. To return to those irrigation systems, it's worth noting this sentence from his book: "Where the government helped build some of the downstream branch canals..., there has been a coming together of users to create an efficient system of self-governing committees that allocate water, and the area served by the water has doubled" (italics mine).

Obviously, government is not a complete fiasco; even Ridley does not argue for its elimination. But it's hard to shake the impression that Ridley is a British subject who spent one too many hours waiting to be seen by his National Health Service physician. His last chapter, without more evidence than simple assertion, blames the collapse of Britain's sense of community on the welfare state.

Such polemics suggest that Ridley may have gone into his research on evolution looking for evidence that people's best nature is thwarted by an inhuman state. In the final analysis, however, government is a product of people. Could it not, then, much like self-governing irrigation committees, also reflect the human instinct for altruism and cooperation?

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.