Friday, 13 January 2012

The Origins of Virtue

Listening to:

Bach, double violin concerto in D minor, BWV 1043. Played by Lara St. John, Scott St. John and the New York Bach Ensemble.

Just read:

Matt Ridley, The origins of virtue.

An entertaining and interesting read, speculating on how it is that humans are actually a very co-operative species. Lots of people will readily tell you that humans are unique in their nastiness (waging war, harbouring grudges and seeking revenge, and doing it all quite consciously). However, humans also form huge societies that mostly work, and do so without the requirement that all members be genetically very close (for example, the members of ant colonies are all essentially clones).

The book includes interesting discussions of things like human eating habits, focusing on the fact that humans (and chimpanzees) share food, and not just with family units. In particular, humans (and chimpanzees, but not monkeys) share meat, which is always the most prized component of a meal (reflecting, no doubt, the difficulty of getting it at all, and the fact that it is highly nutritious by weight).

The discussion goes on to cite the Wason test, which demonstrates that people are very good at solving logical problems if they are expressed in such a way that the solution involves the detection of possible social cheats. It seems natural to conclude that humans have evolved good methods for detecting freeloaders and cheaters because their genes have adjusted to their social circumstances.

The book is wide-ranging, and tells engaging stories about research into humans, chimpanzees and other primate species. I particularly liked the discussion of the fact that aboriginal tribes in Australia traded with each other over huge distances. Axes made with stone from particular quarries spread large distances because they could be exchanged for other desirable objects in a network that has been well investigated.

Just as with his other book Genome (reviewed previously), Ridley does occasionally lapse into obvious British right-wingery, or at least, Economist-style liberalism. This is stuff I’m usually pretty sympathetic about, and I think he’s usually pretty careful in his arguments, but sometimes the barrow-pushing does get a bit much. (The page about him at Wikipedia is quite interesting on this topic.)

There’s much, much more that’s good about this book than there is that’s bad; I definitely recommend it.