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Notes from "The Origins of Virtue"

These are my notes from "The Origins of Virtue" by Matt Ridley. Matt is the author of one of my favorite books ever, "The Rational Optimist". In this book he describes how cooperation evolves and gives us insight into how human interaction works. I'm also reading "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod at the same time (highly recommended), which Matt refers to a lot in his book. Both books lean on a fundamental concept in game theory called the Prisoner's Dilemma to explain how cooperation evolves.



This is the great advantage of the division of labor. By specializing at the level of the individual, the species can generalize at the level of the colony.


Adam Smith made the argument that social benefits derive from individual vices, and that the cooperation and progress inherent in human society are the result, not of benevolence, but of the pursuit of self-interest.


Big cities are anonymous places. You can be as rude as you'd like in New York, London, or Paris, and run only a minuscule risk of meeting the same people again - especially if you are in a car. What restrains you in your home town or village is the acute awareness of reciprocity. If you are rude to somebody, there is a good chance they will be a position to be rude to you in turn. If you are nice to people, there is a good chance your consideration will be returned.


There is another and potentially more powerful answer to the problem of free riders in large groups: the power of social ostracism. If people can recognize defectors, they can simply refuse to play games with them. That effectively deprives the defectors of temptation (5), reward (3), and even punishment (1). They do not get a chance to accumulate any points at all. (referring to the Prisoner's Dilemma)


The Wason test is a well know psychological puzzle, usually played with 4 cards. You are required to turn over the minimum number of cards to test a certain if/then rule. People are surprisingly bad at the Wason test in some circumstances, for instance, if presented with it as an abstract piece of logic, but surprisingly good at it in others. In general, the more the puzzle is presented as a social contract to be policed, the easier people find it, even if the contract is deeply foreign and the social context unfamiliar.


Individual ambition always gets its way against collective restraint. And there is simply no good example to this day of an animal or plant that has been found to practice group selection unless in a clone or closely related family, except in the temporary and passing condition of new colony formation in the desert seed harvester ant.


The problem with the information cascade is that the blind can end up leading the blind. If most people are letting their judgments be swayed by others, a million people can be wrong. To argue that a religious idea must be true because other people have been convinced by it for a thousand years, is fallacious. Most of the other people have been swayed by the fact that their predecessors had been swayed. Indeed one of the theories of human fads that only the Hirshleifer theory can explain is that they are as fragile as they are spectacular. With only the slightest new piece of new information, everybody abandons the old fashion for a new one. Our faddishness then appears as a rather foolish characteristic, which sends us bouncing from one craze to another at the whim of cascading information.


People have a very sensitive awareness of where their interests lie - with which group. We are an extremely groupish species, but not a group selected one. We are designed not to sacrifice ourselves for the group, but to exploit the group for ourselves.


Environmental damage is caused by a form of the Prisoner's Dilemma, except that it is played by many players, not two. The problem in the Prisoner's Dilemma is to get two egoists to cooperate for the greater good, and to eschew the temptation to profit at the other's expense. Environmentalism is the same issue: how to prevent egoists from producing pollution, waste, and exhausting resources at the expense of more considerate citizens. For every time an individual exerts restraint, he only plays into the hands of a less considerate fellow human being. My forbearance is your opportunity, exactly as it was in the Prisonner's Dilemma. Only this time the game is even harder to play because there are many players, not two.


"Give a man the secure possession of bleak rock and he will turn it into a garden. Give him nine years lease of a garden, and he will turn it into a desert. The magic of property turns sand into gold." - Arthur Young, Travels, 1787


A Prisoner's Dilemma played between many people is known as a tragedy of the commons.


Cooperation, that is, restraint, by one party, is opportunity for another. The rational individual would, did, kill the last two mammoths on the planet, because he would know that another individual would get them if he did not.


"Everybody's property is nobody's property. Wealth that is free for all is valued by none, because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for it's proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another. The blade of grass that the manorial cow heard leaves behind is valueless to him, for tomorrow it may be eaten by another animal. The oil left under the Earth is valueless to the driller, for another may legally take it. The fish in the sea are valueless to the fisherman because there is no assurance that they will be there for him tomorrow if they are left behind today." - Scott Gordon, 1954


The key to solving commons problems is the assertion of ownership: communal if necessary, individual if possible.


In addressing the environment, government is the cause of most problems, not the solution to them. Precisely because it creates tragedies of the commons where none existed before. Ecological virtue must be created from the bottom up, not the top down.


Our minds have been built by selfish genes. But they have build to be social, trustworthy, and cooperative. That is the paradox this book has tried to explain. Human beings have social instincts. The come into the world with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labor. In this we are on our own. No other species has been this far down the evolutionary path before us. This instinctive cooperativeness is what sets us apart from other animals.


Just as trade between countries is the best recipe for friendship between them, so exchange between enfranchised and empowered individuals is the best recipe for cooperation. We must encourage social and material exchange between equals, for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the foundation of virtue.



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