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The Origins of Virtue

At TAM5, in response to a question to a panel of speakers regarding their suggested reading list for us right now, Christopher Hitchens recommended Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Hitchens said it was a good book about how humans came to have a moral sense derived from nature and not from a supernatural being.

In a short 265 pages, Ridley covers a lot of ground in a very readable way. He approaches the evolution of virtue from the genetic level, through animal behavior, on to mankind’s early societies and today’s world. Along the way, the reader gets a survey of related game theory, the gene selection v. group selection battle, some fun debunking of cultural myths and a high-level refresher on the great thinkers in evolutionary biology and related economics.

Ridley’s style is easy to read and the vocabulary is accessible (until the last twenty pages, oddly). I did tire of one device he used: explaining something for several paragraphs as if it were true, then explaining that it’s not true because of reason X. After the first few times, it stopped being fun. When I read him again (his next title for me is Genome, sometime next year when my copy and I are in the same country again), I’ll be wary of this trick.

I was predisposed to Ridley’s premise (evolutionary biology explains a lot of things) and goal (describing a way to understand how humans evolved into having morals), and I still learned a great amount from the book and I have a much better logical understanding of the subject now. I am also a bit more loving and suspicious of everyone!

The book was good. I am glad Mr. Hitchens recommended it.


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