Sunday, September 14, 2008

Original Virtue

The Origins of Virtue is a book about the genetics and evolution of things like altruism and cooperation. It begins with Peter Kropotkin's escape from a St Petersburg prison. Kropotkin is often thought of as an anarchist, but he was also the author of Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution in which he argues that the most successful animals are the most cooperative.

Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue, seems to think that cooperative animals are the exception rather than the rule. But he also thinks that humans are one of the exceptions. He believes in the 'selfish gene' and spends a chapter talking about it, and another chapter talking about Adam Smith, the Hutterites, and the division of labor. Then he spends two chapters talking about 'Prisoner's Dilemma' and the computer games built to test it. I talked a bit about this in an earlier post (7/16/08) and mentioned a "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear" computer program that won several competitions. The program is called 'Tit-for-tat' and the book discusses it and its implications, along with several games that eventual succeeded it, 'Generous-Tit-for-tat', 'Pavlov', and 'Firm-but-Fair'. One of the points Mr Ridley makes is that in a single game, 'Tit-for-tat' is more likely to lose than win, but it's in a series of games that 'Tit-for-tat' comes out the winner, just as you can be rude to a stranger that you will probably never see again, but you are unlikely to be rude to a neighbor or coworker that you will have to deal with again in the future. Thus he sees cooperation built on trust and reciprocity, and thus more prevalent in small groups than in larger ones (villages versus cities for example).

From there he goes on to a couple of chapters about food sharing (who shares food with who in tribal societies, and why) and from there to a chapter on reciprocity, cooperation, generosity, commitment, and altruism that he entitles 'Theories of Moral Sentiment'. He begins the chapter by focusing on something called the Wason test and claims that the test consistently found (even when done in many different cultures) that people are better at identifying those who cheat than those who are altruistic. Mr Ridley claims this is because we humans are ruthless at trying to calculate what people get out of things--we are hardwired to look at social contracts. He even claims that there is a part of the brain that is an 'exchange organ'.

Then he looks into alliances in baboon, chimpanzee, and dolphin societies. (Unfortunately, he has little about bonobo behavior--see my post of 7/30/08 for more on them and the chimps. Matt Ridley's most notable remark on the bonobos is that they "all have sex with each other to celebrate" when they find a cache of fruit. Actually, if he knew more he'd realize, they were having sex to reduce competitive tensions and facilitate cooperative behavior. I think studying the bonobos might alter some of his theories. He does quote Frans de Waal's chimp studies quite a bit, however.) An interesting insight he has along the way is that after reading a study on chimpanzee alliances (de Waal's) and how two chimps formed a coalition against a third and took power this way, Ridley began reading the history of the Wars of the Roses and said it seemed "uncannily familiar" until he realized that the shifting alliances among the English royalty almost precisely mirrored the way the alliances changed among these chimpanzee.

Ridley goes on to look at the advantages of conformity, and from there to claiming that religion and culture (including ritual, music, and dance) are markers to define a group in opposition to other groups. However, he says that people may pretend--or even believe--that they are putting the needs of the group first, but really we only go along with the group when it suits us--although we would never admit this.

In further chapters, Ridley claims that trade is the basis of interactions between groups (and precedes governments), that ecology is a lovely idea but one that we want everyone to follow except ourselves (he insists that the idea that indigenous tribes lived ecologically and sustainable is pure mythology, and points out that the very ecological parts of Chief Seattle's famous speech--quoted by Al Gore in Earth in the Balance--were actually written in 1971 as part of a TV drama), and that private property (or, if not, community-owned property--anything that doesn't involve government intervention) is the only way to insure sustainably managed resources. He finishes the book off in a chapter called 'Trust' (subheading: "In which the author suddenly and rashly draws political lessons") where he claims that people act on the basis of self-interest but shouldn't be encouraged to do so, since that only leads to further selfishness. "In other words, the reason we must not say that people are nasty is that it is true." But he further claims "...the human mind contains numerous instincts for building social cooperation and seeking a reputation for niceness."

This book is definitely biased in favor of sociobiology and against government and I suspect Matt Ridley selected the studies he uses to support his arguments. (He certainly seems quite libertarian.) Still, some rather interesting research is cited. One study with implications for social change was done by Elinor Ostrom, James Walker, and Roy Gardner. They gave groups of students a chance to play on certain markets set up on computer. One of the markets was much like the prisoner's dilemma game--if everyone exercised restraint, all players would do better. After the students anonymously played this market, no one did well--they made 21% of what they could have. When the students had a chance to discuss the situation in the middle of the game, the take went up to 55% of the maximum. With repeated discussions they got 73% of what they could have. However when the students were able to punish people who took advantage of the situation (but not discuss it among themselves) they only made a return of 37%. But when the students could have a discussion and set up a strategy to fine people who tried to take advantage of the situation, they managed to take 93% of the maximum. "Ostrum's conclusions are that communication alone can make a remarkable difference to people's ability and willingness to exercise environmental restraint: indeed communication is more important than punishment. Coventants without swords work; swords without covenants do not." (Quoted from Ridley's text) Would that governments got that!

Matt Ridley ends The Origins of Virtue with this statement: "The roots of social order are in our heads, where we possess the instinctive capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and virtuous society, but a better one than we have at present. We must build our institutions in such a way that they draw out those instincts. ... We must encourage social and material exchange between equals for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the foundation of virtue." Summation: Egalitarian reciprocity, done in small enough groups to make it possible, engenders trust, which builds cooperation and community.

Quote of the day: "If we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power and scope of the state. That does not mean a vicious war of all against all. It means devolution: devolution of power over people's lives to parishes, computer networks, clubs, teams, self-help groups, small businesses--everything small and local."-- Matt Ridley
Word (or phrase) of the day: Cultural hegemony
Hero(es) of the day: Harvey Milk

1 comment:

SoapBoxTech said...

*sigh* if only there was more time for reading...there is so much than should be read.