28 Mar 2011

The Origins of Virtue -- The Review

Matt Ridley wrote this book (subtitle: "human instincts and the evolution of cooperation") in 1996, but it's certainly not dated (and it's been cited by hundreds of scholars).

Ridley draws very heavily from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in explaining how we balance between selfishness and cooperation -- and does so in a clear and engaging way. Ridley's discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma [p. 56] is case-in-point:
All fishermen would be better off if everybody exercised restraint and did not take too many fish, but if everybody is taking as much as he can, the fisherman who shows restraint only forfeits his share to somebody more selfish.
The good part about this book is Ridley's path through history and ideas, to explain how we ended up with more virtue than the scenario above might indicate. He goes on to explain why a firm-but-fair strategy in a repeated Prisoner's Dilemma (I cooperate if you cooperate and defect if you defect, but continue to defect if you continue to cooperate and cooperate again after a mutual defection) is not only more robust but also more realistic. He later shifts to multi-person cooperation games, which are what life is REALLY about.

The book then shifts from logic and calculation to emotion [p. 136]:
Complicated emotions... prevent us deserting wounded mates or forgiving unfamiliar slights. This, in the long run, is to our advantage, for it allows us to keep marriages together in bad times, or warn off potential opportunists.
Goes to war:
A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Quoting Charles Darwin's Descent of Man (1871)
And discusses in-group versus out-group behavior [p. 193]:
Hitler perfected the double standard of in-group morality and out-group ferocity by calling his movement national socialism. Socialism stood for communitarianism within the tribe, nationalism for its vicious exterior. He needed no religious spur.* But given that humankind has an instinct towards tribalism that millions of years of groupishness have fostered, religions have thrived to the extent that they stressed the community of the converted and the evil of the heathen.
These words alone make the book worth a read (I quoted them for my book :). Ridley is just on point so often, and so clearly, that it's a pleasure to feel the ideas in your head forming into neater relationships. And he goes from that dark side to the light, to trade, which Ridley explains is not just unique to humans but also the source of our great wealth (I am now reading In the Company of Strangers, which also covers this material).

Ridley also undermines the idea that humans are going to discard their selfish ways for Gaia. Lester Brown, for example, announces that "building an environmentally sustainable future depends on restructuring the global economy, major shifts in human reproductive behavior, and dramatic changes in values and lifestyles" [p. 214. Thismay be how Lester Brown sees the world and acts, but can he get nearly seven billion people to agree with him?

Some claim that's easy, since humans were not so greedy and destructive in the past. They were like Chief Seattle, whose 1854 speech to a white man offering to buy his land evoked a gentle wisdom:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us...Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people...Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth...This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family...Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
But Chief Seattle did not give this speech; it was written for TV in 1971. The real Chief Seattle was happy to sell his land. And his ancestors were responsible for hunting many species to extinction. Human respect for the environment -- living simply so that others may simply live -- is a modern -- and minority -- belief.

I've written many times in this blog on the need to pay attention to incentives and personal choices for managing water (or the environment), and the "20/80 rule" is a short-hand reference to the 20 percent of people who have an intrinsic desire to do the right thing (take shorter showers, for example) while the other 80 percent (or 93 percent or whatever...) will only take shorter showers if its costs them too much money. That's why I tend to bang on about prices and markets, because self-restraint and virtue are not sufficiently widespread to prevent overexploitation of resources or the environment.

Ridley also does a good job explaining why the Hardin's 1968 vision of a Tragedy of the Commons is just as naive as the prisoner's dilemma. As Lin Ostrom and many others have shown, humans have sustainably managed their common resources (lobster fisheries, timber lands, grazing territories, etc.) for centuries, using various combinations of communal management and private property. The tragedy of the commons, in fact, is much more likely when the government takes away private property, to protect it from "selfish owners," because bureaucratic managers have little incentive to protect it from poachers and illegal harvesters (examples are all over the world, from India to Brazil to Russia to many parts of Africa).

After giving an example of a tribe's sustainable and egalitarian method for managing its resources in Papua New Guinea, Ridley quotes an ecologist who worries about "unusual property rights... that restrict the ability of the government to implement conservation measures..." Do we need to remember that tribal people are the first to oppose massive environmental destruction of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia? Do we need more examples of forests being sold for a song (or a bribe) in exchange for promises of jobs and palm oil exports? Indeed, NGOs are enabling the rape of the Gaia through their inability to accept the fact that selfish government workers care more about themselves than their countries' natural resources. In other words [p. 246], "government is the cause of most [environmental] problems, not the solution to them, precisely because it creates tragedies of the commons where none existed before."

Bottom Line: I give this short but wise book FIVE STARS. It should be required reading for every high school student, politician, activist and economist.

* Just above, Ridley describes "a continuing tendency for Christians to love only those neighbors who share their beliefs."


Tim Gieseke said...

David - thanks for the book review on a topic that is at the leading edge of the human economic front. The criteria for survival of the fittest species is that the specie adapts when necessary. The recent finding of "tragedy of the commons" was moot when new lands were on the horizon. Now that the globe and its interconnected ecosystems are the commons, the economic values will migrate toward "opportunities of the commons". O of V is now on my reading list.

The Pasadena Pundit said...

Your snarky footnote the Ridley "describes a continuing tendency for Christians to love only those neighbors who share their beliefs" is not empirical. How would Ridley explain Evangelical Christian Francis Collins helping atheist Christopher Hitchens find a cure for his cancer? Read here:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8407326/Atheist-Christopher-Hitchens-could-be-saved-by-evangelical-Christian.html

David Zetland said...

@PP -- you've disproven "all" but not "tendency."

BTW, I am an equal-opportunity critic of religious zealots. There are haters in every belief. I'm an agnostic, but I think that religion has an overall positive impact on individuals and groups.

DW said...

"humans have sustainably managed their common resources (lobster fisheries, timber lands, grazing territories, etc.) for centuries, using various combinations of communal management and private property".

That quote may be true, but ignores the role of evolving technology.

We were able to perserve our fisheries, timberlands, ranchlands over the years because

1) there was less demand for them due to smaller population growth and
2) because we didn't have the technologies we have today.

In the old days one man caught one fish at a time using a rod and reel, but today we have drag and drift nets that vacumn up every fish in the sector of the ocean fished. We also didn't have the heavy excavation equipment that today allows developers to grind down whole mountains and fill in whole river valleys. Today, overzealous fishermen and real estate developers can wreak far more damage to the communal assets than they could in years past and we don't really have any political or economic ways to restrain them in a free market economy.

Jay said...

I am a fan of Ridley and would reccommend any of his books and articles to readers of this blog.

Other books reinforcing the ideas presnted by Ridley are "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright, and "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins.

This blog is a great example of the theme Ridley explored in his most recent book, "The Rational Optimist", of Ideas Having Sex. Knowledge, ideas, culture, values, etc. evollve as readily as biological entities.

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