Matt Ridley has written a fine book on the nature of altruism, not a Blairite manifesto. But neither author nor reviewer has an answer to the "groupishness" problemby Samuel Brittan / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
One compensation for being late with a review is the opportunity to correct for any distortion perceived in previous reviewers. I realised this might be necessary for The Origins of Virtue when I saw its author, Matt Ridley, shaking his head vigorously when someone at a meeting praised him for having written a Blairite manifesto.
“Virtue” is used to stand for all conduct that departs from unalloyed selfishness; and this may have encouraged such misreadings. Virtue is an inherently contestable concept. At my local underground station I am faced on most mornings with the following choices: giving money to a beggar; giving it to a busker; contributing to a bona fide charity.
The number of permutations is indefinitely large. There is the question of how much to give and the option of dividing it in different proportions among more than one of the alternatives. Nor can one rule out the more political approach of making instead a donation to some Old Labour group, which one might hope will make the disadvantaged less dependent on charity. Nor for that matter can one rule out the opposite extreme of donating it to a radical right group devoted to ending the “dependency culture.”
Nevertheless Ridley is right not to squander space on such distinctions. For he has not tried to write a philosophical disquisition on virtue, individualism, collectivism and the like. He is engaged in the more useful task of trying to bring together evidence from the biological and social sciences bearing on the nature of Man as a social animal.
No sermonising on the supposed central message can be a substitute for reading the book in all its detail. This is no hardship. For it is engagingly written-starting with an account of the Russian anarchist Prince Kropotkin’s escape from jail. It is not didactic or schematic; but the price for the readability is that the reader has to make up his own mind about what it all amounts to.
Ridley’s central concern is to persuade the reader to step out of his human skin and look back on his species with all its foibles “and ask him how he would characterise the behaviour of this funny-looking large ape.” As a start, “social: lives in large groups with complex inter-relations among individuals.”
Although the author’s fundamental allegiance is to evolutionary psychology, he is at home in many other fields such as basic…