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The Origins of Virtue Book Summary – Matt Ridley

What you will learn from reading The Origins of Virtue:

– How human co-operation has involved and what this means for you.

– Why our social instincts are refined to sniff out cheaters.

– How reputation and identity places pressure on us to be kinder and more co-operative.

The Origins of Virtue Book Summary:

Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative. This is the paradox The Origins of Virtue tries to explain. 

Matt Ridley argues in the Origins of Virtue that human beings have social instincts.

We come into the world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour.

This he believes can give you huge insight into the way the economy and life works. This book is truly life changing. If you’re interested in understanding the Human world and the way it works then you will love this book. Read on!


But first, remember, Biology is a science of exceptions:

We are unique, we are different, just as every species is unique and different from every other; biology is a science of exceptions, not rules; of diversity, not grand unified theories. That ants are communitarian says nothing about whether man is virtuous. That natural selection is cruel says nothing about whether cruelty is moral. 

Now let’s begin.


Human instincts are cross cultural:

Yet to most people instincts are animal things, not human. 

The conventional wisdom in the social sciences is that human nature is simply an imprint of an individual’s background and experience. But our 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. 

Interestingly we define virtue almost exclusively and universally as pro-social behaviour, and vice as anti-social behaviour.


The link between social nature and brain size:

Throughout the two cleverest families of land-dwelling mammals, the primates and the carnivores, there is a tight correlation between brain size and social group. 

The bigger the society in which the individual lives, the bigger its neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. To thrive in a complex society, you need a big brain. To acquire a big brain, you need to live in a complex society. Whichever way the logic goes, the correlation is compelling.


Division of labour:

On a practical level, it is probably a million years since any human being was entirely and convincingly self-sufficient: able to survive without trading his skills for those of his fellow humans.  

We are far more dependent on other members of our species than any other ape or monkey. We are more like ants or termites who live as slaves to their societies. Think about it, do any of us really know how electricity works? The internet? If these services ceased to exist could we bring them back? 

The key to this success is the division of labour. The whole benefits from the sum of its parts. By specialising and taking particular roles we can all benefit from each others expertise and rely on each other.


The whole is a some of it’s parts:

The division of labour is even expressed in cellular function.

Slime moulds are confederations of separate cells, quite capable both of living alone and of gathering together to make a temporary organism. Looking closer you will notice that even cells are collectives. They are formed from the symbiotic collaboration between bacteria, or so most biologists believe.

Every cell in your body is home to mitochondria, tiny bacteria so specialized as energyproducing batteries that about seven or eight hundred million years ago they surrendered their independence in exchange for a comfortable life inside the cells of your ancestors. Even your cells are coalitions. 


Adam Smith and The parable of the pin-maker:

The reasons for this advantage, said Smith, lay in three chief consequences of the division of labour.  

By specialising in pin-making, the pin-maker improves his dexterity at pin-making through practice; he also saves the time that would otherwise be spent switching from task to task; and it pays him to invent, buy or use specialised machinery that speeds up the task. 

Modern economists are unanimous in agreeing with Smith that the modern world owes its economic growth entirely to the cumulative effects of divisions of labour, as distributed by markets and fuelled by new technology.


Selfishness and Altrusim:

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. 

All human beings share a fascinating taboo, the taboo against selfishness. 

Selfishness is almost the definition of vice. Murder, theft, rape and fraud are considered crimes of great importance because they are selfish or spiteful acts that are committed for the benefit of the actor and the detriment of the victim. In contrast, virtue is, almost by definition, the greater good of the group. 


Co-operation Strategies and Game theory:

Tit-for-tat is a mechanism for generating cooperation between unrelated individuals. It involves matching someones actions towards you. If someone is generous be generous back. If someones is selfish be selfish back.

Babies take their mother’s beneficence for granted and do not have to buy it with acts of kindness. Brothers and sisters do not feel the need to reciprocate every kind act. But unrelated individuals are acutely aware of social debts.” 

However, there is a dark side to Tit-for-tat, as mention of the First World War reminds us. If two Tit-for-tat players meet each other and get off on the right foot, they cooperate indefinitely. But if one of them accidentally or unthinkingly defects, then a continuous series of mutual recriminations begins from which there is no escape. 

In a world where mistakes are made, Tit-for-tat is a second rate strategy, and all sorts of other strategies prove better.

Enter a close relation called Generous-Tit-for-tat (which we will call Generous, for short). Generous occasionally forgives single mistakes. That is, about one-third of the time it magnanimously overlooks a single defection. 

A successful strategy in a large group must be highly intolerant of even rare defection, or else free-riders – individuals who defect and do not reciprocate – will rapidly spread at the expense of better citizens. But the very features that make a strategy intolerant of rare defection are those that make it hard for reciprocators to get together when rare in the first place.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a dilemma only if you have no idea whether you can trust your accomplice. In most real situations, you have a very good idea how far you can trust somebody.


The Invention of Reputation:

There is one vital ingredient of reciprocity that the discussion of game theory has so far omitted: reputation. 

In a society of individuals that you recognise and know well, you need never play the prisoner’s dilemma blindly. You can pick and choose your partners. You can pick those you know have cooperated in the past, you can pick those whom others have told you can be trusted, and you can pick those who signal that they will cooperate. You can discriminate.


Punishing Defectors:

Reciprocal cooperation might evolve if there is a mechanism to punish not just defectors, but also those who fail to punish defectors. 

Boyd calls this a ‘moralistic’ strategy, and it can cause any individually costly behaviour, not just cooperation, to spread, whether it causes group benefit or not.

This is actually a rather spooky and authoritarian message. Whereas Tit-for-tat suggested the spread of nice behaviour among selfish egoists without any authority to tell them to be nice, in Boyd’s moralism we glimpse the power that a fascist or a cult leader can wield. 

This moralistic strategy can be a more powerful answer to the problem of free-riders in large groups: the power of social ostracism. 

If people can recognise defectors, they can simply refuse to play games with them. That effectively deprives the defectors of Temptation, Reward and even Punishment. They do not get a chance to accumulate any points at all. 

Now, suddenly, there is a new and powerful reason to be nice: to persuade people to play with you. The reward of cooperation, and the temptation of defection, are forbidden to those who do not demonstrate trustworthiness and build a reputation for it. Cooperators can seek out cooperators. 


Looking deeper into Reciprocity:

“There is no duty more indispensable than that of returning a kindness. All men distrust one forgetful of a benefit.” Cicero

In the light of how rare reciprocal cooperation is in the animal kingdom. Compared to nepotism, which accounts for the cooperation of ants and every creature that cares for its young, reciprocity has proved to be scarce.  This, presumably, is due to the fact that recriprocity requires not only repetitive interactions, but also the ability to recognise other individuals and keep score.  Only the higher mammals apes, dolphins, elephants and few others – are thought to possess sufficient brain power to be so discriminating for more than a handful of individuals. 

The lesson for human beings is that our frequent use of reciprocity in society may be an inevitable part of our natures: an instinct.

Think about it: reciprocity hangs, like a sword of Damocles, over every human head: 

  • He’s only asking me to his party so I’ll give his book a good review.
  • They’ve been to dinner twice and never asked us back once.
  • After all I did for him, how could he do that to me?
  • If you do this for me, I promise I’ll make it up later. 
  • You owe it to me.


Obligation; debt; favour; bargain; contract; exchange; deal … Our language and our lives are permeated with ideas of reciprocity. 


Sharing and Risk Removal:

Sharing food:

The most fundamentally selfless and communitarian thing we do is to share food; it is the very basis of society. 

Sex we do not share; we are possessive, jealous and secretive, prone to murdering our sexual rivals and guarding our partners given the chance. But food is something to share. 

Sharing as hedging risk:

When a Hadza (an indigenous tribe referenced in the book) man shares meat with the expectation of some future return, he is in effect buying a derivative instrument with which to hedge his risk. According to Hill and Kaplan, he is entering into a may be contract to swap the variable return rate on his hunting effort for a more nearly fixed return rate achieved by his whole group.


Weaponising Reciprocity:

Gifts as Weapons:

Amotz Zahavi and leading evolutionary biologist concluded that gifts are used to signal an investment in a relationship. He observed this in marriage at least in birds. ‘I suggest that, even in collaborations of two, a large part of the investment can be explained as an advertisement of the quality of the investor and of its motivation to continue collaborating, in order to decrease the partner’s tendency to cheat or desert.’ Zahavi’s conclusion depicts generosity as a weapon. 

In the 1960s Marshall Sahlins noticed a 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 gift be balanced by a commensurate gift in return. Within the family, said Sahlins, there was ‘generalised reciprocity’, by which he meant no reciprocity at all: people just gave each other gifts without keeping a count of who owed whom. Within the village or the tribe, it was necessary to be fairly exact in balancing a gift.

By creating obligation, the gift is a weapon. But it is only a weapon if there is a sense of obligation in the first place. Gift giving and competitive generosity is not some human invention that shaped our natures; it is a human invention to exploit our pre-existing natures, our innate respect for generosity and disrespect for those who would not share. 

So you could argue that a true altruist would not give a gift, because he would realize that he was either motivated by vainglory of doing good or expecting reciprocation, in which case he was unkindly putting the recipient in his debt. A truly altruistic recipient would not insult his donor by reciprocating the gift, throwing the debt back and implying that the motive was not selfless.


Asymmetries in social cognition:

People are bad at looking for altruism; better at looking for cheating. 

There is a part of the human brain that is a ruthless and devastatingly focused calculating machine. It treats every problem as a social contract arrived at between two people and looks for ways to check those who might cheat the contract. It is the exchange organ.

All the exchange organ does is robotically employ specialised inference engines designed by natural selection to find violations of exchange contracts agreed between two parties. 

We are obsessed with reciprocity. We are concerned to protect our personal reputation for being somebody who can be trusted not to be too nakedly opportunistic at others’ expense. We are generous as far as we are identifiable and have a personal reputation to uphold. We are found to be more opportunistic when anonymous.


Social Glue


The role of Conformity:

There is one kind of cultural learning that makes cooperation more likely: conformism. If children learn not from their parents or by trial and error, but by copying whatever is the commonest tradition or fashion among adult role models, and if adults follow whatever happens to be the commonest pattern of behaviour in the society – if in short we are cultural sheep – then cooperation can persist in very large groups. 


We think in groups but rarely act:

People do not live in groups, says Palmer, they merely perceive the world in terms of groups, ruthlessly categorizing people as us or them. Yet this is a double-edged discovery. 

Craig Palmer argues that human groups are largely mythical. People do undoubtedly think in terms of groups: tribes, clans, societies, nations. But they do not really live in isolated groups. They mingle continuously with those from other groups. 

The problem arises, according to John Hartung, because we are so instinctively groupish that we prefer to pretend – and perhaps even believe – that we are group-selected. In other words, people claim they are putting the interests of the group first and not their own interests, the better to disguise the fact that they only go along with the group when it suits them. Pointing this out to them makes you unpopular, as every Hobbesian since Hobbes has discovered.


Trade – The glue of alliances:

There is nothing modern about commerce. For all the protestations of Karl Marx and Max Weber, the simple idea of gains from trade lies at the heart of both the modern and the ancient economy, not the power of capital. Prosperity is the division of labour by trade; there is nothing else to it. 

A complex network of variously intimate ententes binds together different villages into competing alliances. Just as chimpanzee and dolphin individuals succeed by building alliances between individuals, so human groups succeed by building alliances between groups. The glue of such alliances is trade. 

The same lesson applies: trade is the precursor of politics, not the consequence.


Trade is non-zero-sum only with division of labour:

Whereas the Yir Yoront’s trade makes both sides better off, and so 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. 

Mr Geroge Soros’s profit was a straight transfer from the idiotic government that thought it could fix the exchange rate of its currency. Mr Coeur’s was a straight transfer from the French economy, whose silver he effectively stole. 

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


Moralising and Action Taking:


We are moral in our concerns but not in our actions:

On an ethical level, respect for the sustainable use of the planet’s resources has become one of the defining marks of a modern person. To express environmental sentiments is as politically correct today as to express any other bias in favour of the greater good. 

The human race is addicted to moralising (though not necessarily acting) in favour of the greater good, for evolutionarily sound reasons, then it is no surprise that we seize upon political issues to express this instinct whenever we can.

This is, of course, hypocrisy. Just as we wish other people to turn the other cheek when hurt, but seek revenge on behalf of close relatives and friends, just as we urge morality far more than we act it, so environmentalism is something we prefer to preach than to practise.

Little wonder that environmentalists repeatedly and reflexively call for a change in human nature (or human values, as they prefer to call it). Fondly imagining that our instinctive egoism can be waved aside by persuasive calls to be good.

To make this millennial cry more believable they point to how naturally ecological virtue seemed to come to our ‘savage’ ancestors. Like Rousseau they imagine that greed was invented just the other day, along with capitalism and technology.


Confusing ‘ought’ and ‘is’

Margaret Mead committed, and many modern sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists continue to commit, a sort of reverse naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy, identified by Hume and named by G. E. Moore, is to argue that what is natural is moral: deducing an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. 

But the same establishment shows no embarrassment in continually and enthusiastically committing the reverse naturalistic fallacy: arguing from ought to is. Because something ought to be, then it must be. This logic is known today as political correctness.


Seeing the world as selfish makes us more selfish:

If we declare that Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman are right, and that man is basically motivated by selfinterest, do we not by that very declaration encourage people to be more selfish? By recognizing the inevitability of greed and self interest, we seem to approve it. 

As Robert Wright has argued: The new [selfish gene] paradigm strips self-absorption of its noble raiment. Selfishness, remember, seldom presents itself to us in naked form. Belonging as we do to a species (the species) whose members justify their actions morally, we are designed to think of ourselves as good and our behaviour as defensible, even when these propositions are objectively dubious. 


The Value of Property (ownership):


The Tragedy of the Commons:

The shaman who reads the bones, remarkably, tells the hunters to avoid areas where game has been depleted by overhunting. 

Restraint is exercised and the game recovers. But a second’s thought shows how flawed such an example is. Avoiding depleted areas makes sense anyway for the most selfish and straightforward of reasons there is less to hunt. All the shaman does is pass on the information that he gathers from the hunters about which areas are depleted. 

The bones are irrelevant; they just add to the aura of professional indispensability, like the pompous language of a lawyer. 


Property brings about responsibility:

Ponam is a parable for us all. Private ownership of wealth or property brings esteem and prestige, but it also brings envy and ostracism. Thus, however much we may recognise the arguments for property as a means to successful conservation of resources, we deeply dislike the argument. 

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

When incentives aren’t there, progress stagnates. Regulation with noble intentions often makes things worse by ruining incentives. 


Let Reputation rule:

Let Kropotkin’s vision of a world of free individuals return. Let everybody rise and fall by their reputation. Indeed, given  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.