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Cooperation Makes It Happen

Lee Dugatkin

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Matt Ridley. 295 pages. Viking Press. 1996. $24.95.

Although our interest in human cooperative behavior can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle, it is only in the past few decades that evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists, economists and mathematicians have shared their diverse ideas on this most fascinating of subjects. This synthesis, still in its early stages, has great potential for unraveling the riddles surrounding human cooperation and altruism. In this well-written book, Matt Ridley, American editor for The Economist magazine, brings his impressive credentials (a Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University) to bear on this topic. The Origins of Virtue does for cooperation what the same author's Red Queen did for sexual selection: It makes a complex subject accessible and interesting for a broad readership.

Early in the book, Ridley makes a cogent argument that any understanding of human cooperation must be grounded in sound evolutionary theory. He moves gracefully from animal to human examples of cooperation and peppers The Origins of Virtue with just enough spicy stories to keep the reader hungry for more. His descriptions of cooperation in ants, fish, naked mole-rats, baboons and various human societies across time and space are lucidly written. Although it is always difficult to summarize the evolution of any trait in a few words, Ridley's argument about human cooperation boils down to two items: trust and trade. When these two items are in place, humans tend to cooperate; without them we tend not to.

I do have two theoretical and conceptual bones to pick with Ridley. First, he gives the typical brush-off to group-selection approaches to cooperation and relies on what has been labeled the "selfish gene" approach to social behavior. Recent work (Wilson and Sober, "Re-introducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17: 585–654, 1994 and Dugatkin (this reviewer), Cooperation Among Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective, Oxford University Press, 1997) demonstrates that epitaphs for group-selection explanations of altruism and cooperation have been premature. In addition, I found the ultralibertarian view taken in the last chapter (aptly entitled "Trust: In Which the Author Suddenly and Rashly Draws Political Lessons") a bit difficult to swallow. But both these qualms are relatively minor. The Origins of Virtue is an excellent book for general readers as well as professionals.—Lee Alan Dugatkin, Biology, University of Louisville


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