I knew right away that I was going to like Matt Ridley’s book when it started with the famous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s escape from prison in 1874. Ever since Darwin had published  Origin of the Species some 14 years earlier, people were quite distressed over its implications. It wasn’t just that it rocked the foundations of their religious beliefs, but also that they saw in its implications, a cold cruel world of pitiless struggle for survival in competition with every other self interested creature. Death and failure in this competitive struggle, it appeared, were nature’s sculpting tools to carve away the less fit in a brutal process of improvement.

To this day,  it remains a bitter pill to swallow for most folks. People conflate  “survival of the fittest” (a phrase coined  not by Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) with the libertarian and anarchistic movements. One can understand why this ‘selfish, anti community, every man for himself, greed is good, zero sum competition’ would be unpopular even if the result of its cruel process was added value. Who wants to imagine that kind of a sausage factory as man’s natural history?  Kropotkin  wrote Mutual Aid, as a reaction to this cruel version of Darwinism and posed the question, “if life is a competitive struggle, why is there so much cooperation about?” His focus on cooperation within and among species turned the prism ever so slightly and evolution took on a softer hue, one more complementary to his philosophy of communal anarchism.

Flash forward to the current era. When Richard Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene, came out we were stunned at its implications, perhaps no less so than those who first read Origin of the Species. In Dawkins book, we were shocked to discover that we are but a gene’s way of making a copy of itself. That we are just temporary vessels for information. And that we are mere low fidelity copying machines, because variation is necessary for natural selection to occur. And we the copiers had to be adaptive so the copying could continue. But it is the information – the language in our dna – that is in a sense immortal. In the Dawkian world, we humans have two fundamental purposes: to hold information and to pass it along.

It’s just doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy to realize, as Dawkins says, that “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” But just as Kropotkin did for Darwin, along comes Matt Ridley to offer the new Mutual Aid point of view in The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. “Biology softens economic lessons rather than hardens them,” says Ridley. Our genes may be selfish, but they have programmed us for cooperation, even altruism,  because it insures their replication. And so we find a principle of complementarity between  a person’s self interest on the one hand, and “a more powerful engine of behavior; genetic interest.” Within the organism itself, self interested parts harmonize to moderate selfishness. Cooperation and competition are in a kind of Yin/Yang balance. In the same way, as humans evolved ever more sophisticated and complex skills of interaction, including the capacity for language, this same principle of complementarity emerged in the form of society.

Through an exploration of game theory, evolutionary biology, and anthropology, Ridley supports his thesis that “society works not because  we have consciously invented it, but because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions.” Ayn Rand would be flipping out to see her beloved reason demoted in this way. But reason, as symbolized by Virgil in The Divine Comedy, could only guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory. It would take Beatrice, the better angel of our nature, to guide him into paradise.

In my article Liberty, Incentives and Human Nature, I shared a thought experiment on the social pressures that effected natural and sexual selection during the time when humans were hunters and gatherers. Our sophisticated ability to navigate complex social interactions by getting into the mind of those around us  is a key to the evolution of a trust based system of reciprocity. Dawkins recognized this in The Selfish Gene when he famously wrote that “money is a formal token of reciprocal altruism.” Ridley derives something equally fundamental. “Trust,” he says, “is as vital a form of social capital as money is a form of actual capital.” Via reciprocity, society emerged as something greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, the division of labor emerged. “Natural selection has chosen reciprocity to enable us to get more from social living,” says Ridley.

The more you think about it, the more you realize that reciprocity permeates every single human relationship. It moderates selfish behavior, and it leverages it. Now we begin to see our emotions, our evolved predispositions, as a kind of distilled wisdom. Morality itself becomes a phenomenon that emerges as a result of the human capacity for guilt and empathy. In an evolutionary sense, it pays to be good. “Emotions, not reason, are the wellspring of human motivation,” Ridley concludes.

But Ridley goes further than concluding that society is a bottoms up process. These emergent phenomenon can guide even environmental policy and necessarily support the notion of property rights. Governments, in this way of thinking, tend to create the Tragedies of the Commons where none existed before. Ridley offers several case studies to support this point.

Our emotions, our instincts and our reason were sculpted by natural and sexual selection. This is the source of society. Ridley summarizes: “We are predisposed to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit ourselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labor. In this, we are on our own.” And that makes me feel pretty warm and fuzzy.