Friday, July 31, 2009

The Origins of Virtue

Matt Ridley is a noted populariser of the discoveries and insights of the developing science of human evolution. His The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation is a very engaging and accessible short book on the evolution of cooperation given that genes are passed on by individuals, not groups.

Ridley is a good populariser. His prose is clear, his examples vivid and he is happy to weave the insights of various disciplines together. Moreover, in the areas I have prior knowledge of, his renditions are clear and accurate.

The book covers so much, despite being a mere 265 pages of text, that I will not attempt to cover it all. I particularly liked his discussion of trade and property, demonstrating that both are well-developed in hunter-gatherer societies (so completely predate any sort of state, which can as readily undermine them as support them). Ridley notes studies of 40 hunter-gatherer societies only found one where women hunted. That one exception was a case where the “hunter-gatherers” traded with local farmers for plant products (i.e had become specialist hunters). Having men hunt and women gather was a rational division of labour. Homo sapiens are not particularly good hunters or particularly good gatherers. But if the larger gender hunts and the smaller gender gathers, the combination creates a viable ecological niche. And provides a cheap and easy sorting device for allocating training.

Again and again, common patterns—such as humans eat (and share food) in public but have sex in private—are shown to have understandable evolutionary sources. Evolution in the human case being understood as creating both an inherent nature and a capacity for culture.

Even the asides are entertaining. Ridley provides a nice summary of political correctness as reversing the naturalistic fallacy. Instead of inferring oughts from is (the naturalistic fallacy), PC tends to infer is from oughts. (E.g. it ought to be the case that men and women are identical in nature and range of capacities so it is the case that they are. Ridley’s suggestion is compatible with the virulence with which contrary factual assertions are denounced—they are moral affronts.)

Ridley shows that we are groupish rather than group-orientated—i.e. like to congregate together but remain individualists. Hence conformism. (It is notable that those who make most of a fetish of cooperation are usually particularly conformist within their group.)

Ridley examines the public policy disasters that flowed from Garret Hardin’s misanalysis of common property. Hardin had claimed that medieval village commons were unowned and therefore subject to overgrazing—the tragedy of the commons. Hardin was drawing attention to a very real problem (consider problems with overfishing). The flaw in his analysis was that the medieval village did not function as Hardin implied. The medieval commons was at the centre of a network of property rights that acted to stop overgrazing. Practices that had analogues all over the world. As Ridley shows, fortified by Hardin’s (misanalysis) of customary rights and contemporary Western intellectuals typical obsession with state action (given that such action increases the value of abstract intellectual capital and the likely status of the possessors thereof, but that is me not Ridley), the normal aggrandising tendencies of state bureaucracies created local disaster after local disaster around the developing world as functional customary rights were abolished and replaced by nationalisation run by sub-functional bureaucracies which then created tragedies of the commons were none had existed before.

Ridley identifies cases where customary/common property rights arrangements are not likely to work. Typically, moving resources that do not involve repeated interactions with the same folk. (Those fish again.) Ridley has an extra take on environmentalists typical disdain for property rights beyond what I would suggest (property rights are generally disliked by those whose identity centres around the possession of intellectual capital, since they elevate the decision making of the vulgar masses and undermine status claims based on possession of abstract intellectual capital). Ridley suggests that anti-property rights environmentalism—responsible for perennial creation of public policy disasters, many of which Ridley elucidates—tap into deep human instincts against hoarding. (Which fits in with a longstanding line of critique against socialist and collectivist thinking as being fundamentally primitivist.)

An enjoyable and enlightening work.

No comments:

Post a Comment