The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and The Evolution of Cooperation - Matt Ridley
The Origins of Virtue is a non-technical discussion of the evolutionary aspects of cooperation and altruism. That being an extremely complex subject (and still very much an active area of research), a short book like this can only skim the surface. Although I've read other books, magazine articles, and blog posts, there were some things here that were new to me. For example, the pair of chapters introducing game theory are better than other introductory articles I've seen, which (surprisingly) generally don't go beyond the point in the history of computer simulations where the Tit-for-Tat strategy came to prominence: Ridley describes how, as simulations became more realistic, Tit-for-Tat turned out not to be the single most stable strategy after all. But then, a single simple solution is easier to present in a short article, whereas here he has thirty pages to develop the point that will be repeatedly made throughout the book: that a (temporarily) stable solution is a delicate balance of competing interests, adjusted by natural selection and highly dependent on ecological circumstances.

As the subtitle indicates, Ridley is constantly returning to the subject of "human instincts". People who doubt that instincts can be directly selected for reproductive strategizing, or who want methodological caution, will be dissatisfied here: Ridley pretty much takes evolutionary psychology for granted. He starts off the book by invoking nineteenth-century social theorists Peter Kropotkin and Adam Smith, but mostly he cites famous twentieth century work in economics and anthropology; psychological research is brought in to a much lesser extent. The references in the endnotes are a mixture of academic works and other semi-popular books.

At several points Ridley argues against a "noble savage" idea, pointing out that people aren't virtuous because virtue is directly built into them, but because they're (selected to be) able to recognize that living in a virtuous society where you can usually trust strangers is good for them (it seems that humans are the only species that can go that far, not only making fair deals, but using general virtue to promote a far larger cooperative society). Cheating is short-sighted, cooperation allows greater gains. There are discussions of what social circumstances promote and undermine this; it's always a balance. Ridley is somewhat pessimistic about the possibility of ecological virtue, which is not an inborn love of the land but rather a much more difficult problem in far-sightedness. However, it has not proved impossible to solve some problems of destructive self-interest, perhaps this one is not impossible either.

Ridley gets into politics somewhat, with a recurring theme being an argument against coercive institutions, whether they be monarchs or large bureaucratic governments. He is attempting to demonstrate that fluid agreements between individuals or small collectives are far more likely to work to everyone's advantage. This goes for property ownership too: he argues that people can't properly care for land or resources that are nobody's, or held by a very large collective ownership. These themes, like everything else in this short work, are not developed in much detail.

This book covers all the main aspects of its topic, and lays out the basis that beginners will need in order to go further in the field. Ridley writes well and explains his points very comprehensibly, though at the cost of simplification. His greatest flaw is that he takes an excessively confident tone, often presenting a disputed issue as if it was settled. Let me not be excessively negative. I hope that people who finish this good but incomplete book will go on, if not to read some primary sources, at least to seek out other popular works with different perspectives.