The Origins of Virtue: Summary & Review

the origins of virtue book cover

The Origins of Virtue (1996) is a multi-disciplinary inquiry into why humans cooperate.
Why do we cooperate at a level that far exceeds that of any other animal, asks the author Ridley? His answer is that we do it because it’s good for us.


About the Author: Matt Ridley is a science journalist who has been writing for The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times, always on scientific topics.
He is also the author of “The Red Queen“, an evolutionary psychology text that I very much enjoyed.

The Selfish-Gene Is Altruistic

Matt Ridley discusses how the theory of the selfish gene, popularized by Dawkin’s book “The Selfish Gene,” might make some sad and depressed.

The selfish gene theory, in short, says that whatever we do, we are always selfishly motivated to replicate our own genes.

When we do something for others, we only do it because it benefits us.

But Ridley says, that’s not depressing at all.

If something is altruistic, it’s altruistic, whether or not it might have benefited or whether or not it was designed for mutual support.

Conflict Between Selfishness & Public Good: The Politicians

Ridley talks about the “darker” interpretation of Public choice theory.

Says Ridley

They (the politicians) exploit induced altruism, they enforce cooperation and then defect.

They talk about the need for unity and togetherness and the importance of paying taxes… But then they actually take care of themselves and their interests first and foremost. 

That might sound cynical, which Ridley admits himself, but he then adds:

But then the opposing view, that bureaucrats are selfless servants of the public good is unduly naive

My point of view on this is that, of course, we don’t need to go to the extreme of “all bad” or “all good”.
But certainly, we shouldn’t underestimate the selfish drives of anyone invested in power and authority over others.

Also read:

Why Communism Doesn’t Work

A society built on benevolence is riddled with nepotism because humans naturally favor their kins and friends.

Among strangers, the “invisible hand” of the market, which distributes selfish interests, is fair and works.

Then Ridley says that progress and harmony are possible without government, delivering the first salvo of anti-government political bias that characterizes “The Origins of Virtue“.

Prisoners’ Dilemmas Are All Around Us

Any situation where you are tempted to do something, but you know it would be a mistake if everyone did the same, is some sort of prisoner’s dilemma.

We all pay the price for individualism and for what is, for the individual, a rational decision.

All fishermen would benefit if nobody fished at their maximum capacity. But every single fisherman would lose out if they didn’t fish as much as possible because other fishermen would still deplete the common resource of available fish.

But Selfishness Is Not The Right Thing to Do…

For decades, scientists, and economists, first and foremost, derived the wrong lesson from the prisoner’s dilemma.
It turns out that selfishness is not the most rational thing to do… As long as the game is repeated multiple times.

Computer programs mimicking game theory situations and, more importantly, actual human interactions, proved that cooperation paid off.

Tit for that was the most successful program, and future programs will further refine it and shed more and more light on human behavior and cooperation as well.

This is the progression of the best computer simulation strategies as explained in “The Origins of Virtue“:

  • Tit for tat: cooperate first, then do whatever the other did the last time

For tit for that to win, there must be a stable and repetitive relationship. The more casual and opportunistic the encounter is, the more likely a defection (i.e.: cheating) strategy is to pay off.

There is a darker and more dangerous side to tit for that, which can be found in human relationships as well, sometimes: if a tit for tat meets another tit for tat, and by mistake one defects first, then a mutually assured war between the two starts.

This can happen in humans as well, as described in “combative relationships” and “vicious circle in relationships“.

  • Generous tit for that: forgives mistakes and, 1/3 of the time, overlooks a defection

This one breaks vicious cycles of defection while still remaining immune to exploitative strategies.

A strategy of “always collaborating” can thrive among a population of “tit for tat” and “generous tit for tat”.

  • Pavlov strategy: forgives like “generous” but does not automatically revert to cooperate and instead sticks to his last best strategy, whether it is defect or cooperate

The Pavlov strategy can exploit the simpleton strategy of “always cooperating.”. It allows for a cooperating world without allowing that world to descend into a too-trusting utopia where free-riders could easily invade and flourish.

As Sarah Constantin explains, Pavlov can beat Tit-For-Tat and generous Tit-for-Tat-with forgiveness in a wide variety of scenarios.

It’s weaker against “always defect” strategies, though, because it keeps shifting back to cooperation and thus getting the sucker’s payoff.

  • Firm-but-fair: similar to Pavlov but continues to cooperate after having been a sucker in the previous round

Making the game asynchronous makes generosity even more rewarding. This makes a lot of sense in real life among humans: it pays to elicit cooperation by being nice (and that’s why you don’t usually greet people or negotiate partners with a scowl).

  • Discriminating altruism: avoid playing with former defectors

It’s immune to being invaded by selective defectors. 
Contrary to tit-for-tat, it can re-invade an antisocial population.

Punishment Can Foster Cooperation

Any reciprocal strategy is inadequate in explaining cooperation in large groups because otherwise, free-riders would be rampant within it.

That’s why Ridley makes the case that a successful reciprocal strategy must also be highly intolerant of defectors and defecting strategies.

The paradox, though, is that starting from a selfish environment, any strategy that is highly intolerant of rare defectors also makes it harder for cooperation to develop when cooperation is still rare.

That’s when a strategy that punishes not only defectors but also those who fail to punish defectors can thrive (moralistic strategy).

Ostracism and Prevention of Defection

A more powerful solution for free riders in large groups is ostracism.

If people can recognize defectors in advance, they can simply avoid playing with them (discriminating altruism).

Discriminating altruists are immune to being invaded by selective defectors but can invade a population of defectors (if there is at least one more discriminating altruist).

This is likely what’s happening with humans already.
An experiment by Robert Frank proved that people had better than random chances of guessing who would cooperate and who wouldn’t with just half an hour of interactions.

The prisoner’s dilemma is only a dilemma if you have no idea whether you can trust each other.
But most people have a fairly good idea

Reciprocity Requires Recognizing Players and Keeping Score

Reciprocity is uncommon among animals that are not kin.

Higher mammals, humans first and foremost, can be reciprocal because they are able to recognize players from past interactions and keep scores on who defected and who collaborated.

Humans are uniquely good at reciprocal altruism

Why Do Humans Hunt Bigger Preys (Or Donate Money?)

Ridley asks why humans have been hunting bigger prey instead of smaller ones.

Why take the risk at all instead of going for smaller animals? 

He says that it’s because of the “social bonus” points that the big hunters garner. By having more meat to give away, he can give more meat to other females in the group in exchange for sex.

My Note:
Ridley here seems to commit a “correlation is not causation” mistake when he says the best hunters have more sex because they share more meat.
It might equally be the case that women are more attracted to the prowess of the hunters and not so much to the meat. 
Or the best hunters might simply have higher status in the group. Or a mix of the three, of course (likely).

Big Game Hunting Introduced Humanity to Public Good

Ridley says that weapons allowed men to hunt bigger games together from afar.

That meant that nobody had to fear that others would hang back and let the most courageous (or stupid) take the risks.

Once the animal was killed, sharing also made a lot of sense because nobody could eat a whole big mammal by himself.

Weapons Allowed for Reciprocity, Too

Denying anyone who participated in the hunt was also impossible.

You don’t want to deny a hungry man armed with a dart thrower. 
Thus, weapons also allowed for reciprocity.

My Note:
This part also made me reflect, but I wasn’t too convinced. 
Denying a hungry man can also be dangerous if he’s armed with his fists only.

However, I was convinced that weapons could make dominance a riskier business.

I paraphrase Ridley here:

A leader of an armed population must lead more by persuasion than by coercion.

And this is a fundamental truth of ThePowerMoves: never count on power and authority to be kind to you.
Always make sure you can be independent of the authority and/or that you can strike back in case they get nasty.

Checks and balances on power start with your own personal power.

Emotional Allow for Irrational Commitment & Cooperation

If everyone were rational, we would defect much more often than we do.

People would not start a joint venture company because they would be afraid the other would cheat them.

But we don’t bring rationality to the table. We make irrational commitments driven by our emotions.

Love is also an emotion that underpins longer-lasting commitment. Sure, it might not last forever, but it lasts longer than just lust does.

Emotions prevent us from abandoning wounded mates and deserting spouses.
However, negative emotions like revenge allow for group cooperation by making defections more costly.

Indeed, people are much less generous when their identity is protected and when they know they can get away with whatever decision they make without any consequences.

Morality and what others think of us also keep our society in check.
We don’t cut queues because we are worried about what others think of us. Other animals don’t behave like that.

In short:

Emotions are mental devices for guaranteeing commitment (and cooperation)

People who lose control over their emotions indeed lose their inhibitions and start displaying anti-social behavior.

A Case For Humans’ Group Selection?

There is a raging debate among scientists split between those who believe that evolution might be shaped by group selection instead of gene selection.

Ridley repeatedly says that group selection does not overcome individualism in animals.

But then he says that humans might have become the exception because of their increased ability to cooperate.
I quote:

The virtuous are virtuous for no other reason that they can join forces with other who are virtuous.
And once cooperator segregate themselves from the rest of society, a new force of evolution can come into play: one that pits groups against each other rather than individuals.

This is a conclusion I am not too sold on, though.

Ridley says that, genetically, group selection doesn’t work because losing groups are not annihilated and often join in the victorious group.
But the culture does prevail, leading to “cultural selection” (my note: “cultural selection” feels like a misnomer to me, I didn’t agree with this part).

Strongest VS Smartest: Who Dominates?

In chimpanzees, it’s not the strongest who dominates and becomes the alpha male, but usually, it’s the one who’s best at forging political alliances (and manipulating others).

Power and sexual success can be achieved by coalitions of weaker individuals over stronger ones, a process taken to even stronger extremes in human beings

We Are Designed to Exploit The Group For Ourselves

Ridley says we are always and only in groups because it serves our interests.

We are not designed to sacrifice ourselves for the group but to exploit the group for ourselves.

My Note:
Yes, for some people.
And yet, many people have died for their country, or done very stupid things for a flag or for their “comrades”. Or simply for a football team.
So I cannot agree fully here.
Plenty of humans do not use the group but are manipulated by it (or by its leaders, also read “corporate manipulations“).

the origins of virtue book cover

Bullet Point Wisdom

  • Monogamous societies are often more cohesive and better at conquering rival territories 
  • The pursuit of self-interest is not mean, as Adam Smith is often misunderstood: the butcher is not motivated by benevolence, but it doesn’t mean it’s motivated by spite, either
  • All societies divide labor between men and women and, even more so, between wives and husbands, including egalitarian societies. So it’s not a question of “patriarchy” 
  • Always defect easily invades a population of “perennial collaborators”
  • Sharing food lowers the variance availability, making every single member better off (risk reduction hypothesis)
  • Pregnancy could be seen as a battle for resources between mother and infant (this is fascinating)
  • After birth, kin relationships can be seen as a struggle for resources among kins
  • Dolphins are as nasty as any other animal. They kidnap women and force themselves onto them in groups of two or three
  • Similarly, the notion that underdeveloped tribes live in unison with nature while respecting nature is a myth: they do exploit nature and fall for our exact same “tragedy of commons”
  • The interest of the individual always outweighs the interests of the group. When that’s not the case, we are looking at kin and not strangers. If animals live in herds is because it’s good for the individual

And I loved this quote the most, which has become a central theme of ThePowerMoves:

Dawkins drew attention to the selfish-gene, not to justify it, but to alert us to it, so we can be aware of the need to overcome it.
He urged us to the need of rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish Replicators


I loved “The Origins of Virtue” but on top of the political bias (more in the review section), I didn’t agree with the following:

  • Evolutionary deterministic

Ridley seems to consider all traits we possess as “good for ourselves”.

But first of all, not all universals are necessary adaptations.

Second, there is much randomness and many adaptive traits can also become maladaptive as the environment has changed.

It’s always possible to come up with some nice story to tell, but that’s storytelling and not science (see the example below of people supposedly picking the best groups while that’s obviously not always true)

  • Humans are very good at guessing which group their interests lie (are they?)

Ridley says that as a “groupish” species, we congregate in groups that support our individual interests and that we are very good at picking the best groups to represent us.

I strongly disagree with that: we are not very good at picking the best groups. 
We are very bad, actually.

Just look at idiotic football fans assaulting each other and going to prison for a game. 
Or being depressed because the millionaires they support lost a match.

No, we’re not that good at picking groups.

Also see:

Enlightened Self-Interest: Making of The Ubermensch
  • Defection (and robbing banks) does not pay

Ridley says that the real question is why don’t more people defect, and by asking so he seems to imply that defections pay.

But I’m not so convinced. 
Certainly not with the example he uses of “the occasional bank robber,” supposedly proving defection pays.

The last statistics I read were from Baumeister, and he shows that nope, robbing banks doesn’t pay because most bank robbers get caught.


The Origins of Virtue is an excellent analysis of cooperation among animals and humans and how that cooperation intersects with the selfish gene theory of evolution.

Disappointed by Political Bias

I was a bit disappointed by the last couple of chapters, where a wonderful analysis devolved into politics and an anti-government tirade.

The negative reviews on Amazon are from people who disagreed with Ridley’s political devolvement, not the rest of the books. And let me say these people are idiots for having missed the genius analysis in the rest of the book: I appreciated Ridley “ring-fenced” most of the politics to the last couple of chapters (except a couple of political zingers earlier).

I was also a bit disappointed to see that Ridley is a staunch supporter of Brexit.
Albeit, I prefer Britain to leave the EU ASAP with a very clear cut, I personally don’t care that much.

But let’s be frank: between us, I also secretly wished I would not like the author because of his anachronistic blue-blood royal title, his Ivy League education, and his banker background.
But he won me over simply by virtue of his work.

But It’s Still A Gem

I loved “The Origins of Virtue” and I might make it one of the “Power Moves” recommended because some of its content goes at the core of this website’s values.

So yes, I do recommend “The Origins of Virtue“.

Also see:

Get the book on Amazon.

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