Strange case of Charlie's ant

THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE by Matt Ridley Viking pounds 20

This is not in fact a science book. Granted, it covers the latest thinking in evolutionary theory and for this reason alone is well worth reading. Ridley has a refreshing approach not only because of his ability to explain complicated and unresolved issues in evolutionary thought, but also due to his unabashed defence of the reality of self-interest. The paradox that Ridley returns to again and again is this: does self-interest contradict co-operation?

If evolution occurs by the natural selection of properties that ensure

individual survival and reproduction, how can co-operative and even self-sacrificing behaviour be accounted for? How could such exquisitely complex co-operation arise between ants, bees and wasps, when originally they led solitary lives? What mechanism could endow advantage to individuals becoming sterile workers?

Up until the Sixties there was a widespread but unstated assumption that such behaviour could be for the "greater good" of the group or even the species. Once this assumption had been made explicit, a vigorous debate ensued as to whether natural selection takes place at the group, individual or genetic level.

The new approach of considering natural selection at the level of the "selfish gene", popularised by Richard Dawkins, resolves many evolutionary problems in unambiguously Darwinian terms. Most "selfless" behaviour actually takes place between related individuals and is known as kin selection. Co-operation or altruism is also witnessed between unrelated indivi- duals, but it transpires that such "reciprocal altruism" is very rare. What at first appeared to be "altruistic" behaviour in the animal kingdom turns out to be no more than anthropomorphism. The behaviour is simply that of a survival machine produced by natural selection.

Ridley concludes that human beings might be special because "we are uniquely good at reciprocal altruism". Being an economist as well as a zoologist, Ridley suggests the mechanism that may have given rise to this unique reciprocity is man's division of labour, making us as dependent upon one another as ants or honey bees. We have become "the ants of the ape family". But is there anything natural about man's division of labour? The author argues that society's division of labour must reflect the outcome of a Darwinian process, because he recognises no qualitative difference between the ancestral stone age and a modern division of labour. In keeping with the tradition of positivism, Ridley sees no social development in history, only the accumulation of technology, which unlike our evolutionary heritage, is not decisive.

The motive for writing the book is only made explicit in the final chapter, which is entitled "Trust", with a sub-section headed "Who stole the community?" Here Ridley attempts a marriage between self-interest and co-operation based on the contingency that man is "instinctively social". He is apprehensive about the idea that co-operation is instinctive, since the argument of his book stands or falls by the premise. For many the implications of a gene-centred theory applied to humanity are unsettling. Ridley tries to present an upbeat message that big government, not human nature, is to blame for the social fragmentation witnessed today, and that left to ourselves individuals would be co-operative.

He rightly questions the retrospective presentation of the 1980s as responsible for the breakdown of community in recent years. "Taught in the 1980s against our better natures to be selfish and greedy, we have dropped our civil responsibilities and caused our societies to descend into amorality. This is the standard, soft Left explanation for rising crime and insecurity." Ultimately, however, Ridley cannot sustain the logic of his own argument. Compared to the robust individualism of Adam Smith that he quotes, Ridley's call for devolved government is distinctly unconvincing.

Although the book is eloquent and thought-provoking, it fails to explain the social character of humanity today. It is a shame that in our self- conscious age, on the rare occasion that people are bold enough to ask big questions such as "what makes us social?" the courage to do so can only be found by drawing on the authority of nature.

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore