Book reviews – Our relentless drive to cooperate

Elizabeth Brubaker
The Next City
March 21, 1998


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

by Matt Ridley (Viking, 1997. 304 pages) $32.99

SCANNING THE INDEX OF The Origins of Virtue, a prospective reader will be hard-pressed to guess what the book is about. The index’s references are anthropological (from the !Kung’s intoleranceof hoarding to competitive gift giving among the Wakayse), biological (from B-chromosomes to cell replication), and zoological (from ants’ division of labor to brain size in vampire bats). The index refers to economists, political theorists, and historical events. A prospective reader may well find the array bewildering. What on earth can one make of a book that discusses the International Rice Research Institute, the emperor Justinian, and lie detectors in fewer than 300 pages? What do the Hutterites have to do with honey bees? How will author Matt Ridley manage to pull together elements as disparate as slime mould and Sophist philosophers?

Remarkably, what emerges is a coherent and engaging examination of cooperation in the natural world. Ridley demonstrates an impressive ability to synthesize; he has the imaginative flexibility “to see in the actions of hunter-gatherers distant echoes of the origins of modern markets in financial derivatives.” In layering dozens of dissimilar examples and arguments, he builds nothing less than a theory of human society, concluding that societies will thrive if governed by small-scale, local institutions that promote private ownership (either individual or communal) and protect property rights. Such institutions will permit easy communication, provide accountability mechanisms, and foster social and ecological responsibility.

Ridley wants to know why people behave virtuously. Why do self-interested men and women cooperate to achieve apparently selfless goals? Ridley (who holds a PhD in zoology) looks for the roots of human society in evolutionary biology. He finds collaboration everywhere — at the cellular level, within bodies, and among insects and animals.

Genetic interest explains collaboration within insect groups and most other animal families. Virtually all cooperators are either behaving selfishly (finding safety in numbers, for example) or aiding their families (who share their genetic material). Human beings are the exception to this rule: We are distinguished by our altruism toward a group of genetically unrelated humans.

But Ridley has no illusions about our altruism. He concludes, after surveying our evolutionary ancestors, primitive peoples, and vastly different contemporary societies, that we cooperate not because we are inherently nice, nor because we are compelled to do so by church or government, but because we have learned, as we have evolved, that cooperation works. Cooperation is a successful evolutionary strategy.

Central to Ridley’s analysis of cooperation is the prisoner’s dilemma. This game theory classic supposes that two prisoners are being questioned separately. Both will eventually go free if both remain silent since the authorities will lack evidence to convict them. But since neither can be assured of the other’s silence, both have an incentive to “defect,” or to give evidence against the other. When players play just one round of a prisoner’s dilemma game, they quite wisely defect. When they play the game repeatedly, however, they learn that selfishness is irrational since defections will be repaid in kind in future games. It pays to cooperate. And it pays to establish a reputation for trustworthiness to encourage others to play the game with them in the future.

Ridley sees prisoner’s dilemmas wherever individual self-interest conflicts with the public good. Fisheries provide a perfect example: If all fishers were to cooperate and limit their fishing efforts, all would benefit from healthier stocks. But because no fisher can be confident his restraint will be followed by others, each has an incentive to catch as much as he can. Otherwise, the fish he leaves uncaught might well end up in his competitors’ nets. The result? Overfishing by all to the long-term benefit of none. But just as repeated interactions and the establishment of reputations encourage players in prisoner’s dilemma games to cooperate, so do they in real life fisheries. Small-scale, communally managed fisheries, where fishers regularly communicate among themselves, set rules, and retaliate against cheaters, have proven remarkably sustainable.

Ridley argues, however, that some resources won’t be sustainably managed because humans have no innate environmental ethic. In resource use as in other areas, we are governed not by instinctive virtue but by enlightened self-interest. Only resources that can be owned — protected against use by outsiders — will be conserved, since their conservation will benefit the owners. It was because wild game could not be owned that our ancestors “extinguished their way across the planet.” Without the tools to establish property rights, our ancestors lacked the incentives to restrain their resource use. Property rights, Ridley concludes, are “the key to ecological virtue.”

Tragically, governments, oblivious to the essential role of property, have destroyed many traditional systems of sustainable resource use. The replacement of common law property rights with government regulations and the nationalization of forests, rivers, and fisheries have been responsible for much pollution and resource depletion.

Governments are the problem rather than the solution not only in environmental matters but also in social matters. As government intervention has destroyed people’s incentives to preserve resources, so has the heavy hand of the state dulled people’s sense of social responsibility. A system based on authority rather than reciprocity, coercion rather than self-interested development of reputation, and edict rather than communication creates prisoner’s dilemmas writ large and threatens the social instincts that have so successfully evolved in our species.

Given our instinct for cooperation, Ridley is confident that virtue and harmony can make a comeback. The key is to devise institutions that bring out our virtuous instincts and harness our self-interest in productive ways. Given that civic virtue predates both church and state, workable social institutions need not rely on the authority of either. Indeed, they should be as fully devolved as possible. Local institutions that are small enough to encourage communication and generate trust will engender cooperation. Built from the bottom up, they will reflect and promote our virtue.

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