The right stuff

Are we born good or do we learn it? By ColinTudge; The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, Viking, pounds 20

The 19th century produced revolutionaries in every decade, often flamboyant and sometimes violent, but the most influential of all lived quietly with his wife and children in rural Kent and played backgammon; and the only one remotely to match his significance grew peas and antirrhinums behind a Czech monastery. The ideas of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, brought together in the early decades of the 20th century to create "neodarwinism", first changed all of biology and have for some time been creeping into all aspects of human affairs: economics, moral philosophy, politics. Indeed, the notions of Darwin and Mendel run so deeply and broadly that it has taken well over a century since their deaths to begin to realise where they could lead us. Huge scholarship and the coolest of heads are required to explore what might be involved; and Ridley provides both, as gracefully as ever.

Ridley's themes are the grandest that face humanity. By way of prologue: are our minds a tabula rasa when we are born? Or do we come ready-packed with specific preconceptions and proclivities - known broadly as "instincts"?

This was a key theme of philosophy long before Darwin and Mendel: John Locke, for example, favouring the tabula rasa; Plato conspicuously espousing the notion that we are born with a great deal in our heads. Both kinds of ideas, taken to extremes, have caused millions to be slaughtered or starved. Thus, over-belief in the role of genes in human nature led to the discipline of eugenics for which chairs were established at Oxford and at London - the latter of which, at University College, was discontinued only in the 1960s. Good left-wing intellectuals like H.G.Wells felt that those who were "black, brown, yellow, and dirty-white" should be stopped from breeding. Hitler took the notion to extremes; but it was the same notion.

Such memories have prompted enlightened moderns to deny the role of genes in shaping behaviour at all and to condemn the "genetic determinism" to which, they claim, the idea gives rise. But as Ridley points out, the opposite extreme - which he calls "cultural determinism" - has proved equally grotesque. Thus in Stalin's Russia Trofim Lysenko argued that Mendel was an evil subversive and that living things are shaped not by hypothetical "genes" but by their experiences. This appealed to politicians who wanted to mould Marxian creatures by Marxian politics. But although people might have seemed for a time to adapt to this political conceit, plants are less forgiving; when Lysenko subjected the Russian wheat crop to his theories, it perished, and millions starved.

Interestingly, it has become politically correct to remember and condemn the horrors of "genetic determinism" but to overlook the shortcomings of over-zealous "cultural determinism". Yet the truth as usual lies in between. Human beings are indeed born with "instincts" but these instincts are not determinist in nature. They are, as Ridley elegantly puts the matter, "predispositions to learn". Beyond doubt, we are equipped to learn some things (like language) much more easily than others (like maths). But where genes rough-hew, culture shapes the ends.

Ridley's next and larger brief is to ask whether our instincts, our predispositions to learn, push us towards goodness or badness. Again, philosophers have divided themselves down the middle, and people again have died in the clash of ideologies. A lineage extending from the Sophists of Greece to Thomas Henry Huxley, via St Augustine, Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, held that human beings are essentially selfish and act altruistically only to make themselves feel better. Another lineage, from Plato to Peter Kropotkin, most famously including Jean-Jaques Rousseau, suggests that human beings are innately benevolent, but are corrupted by society.

Modern Darwinian-Mendalian thinking takes the heat out of the issue. Yes, our behaviour is influenced by our genes and yes, as Richard Dawkins put it, our genes are "selfish"; and that seems bad news. Yet as Bill Hamilton began to show in the 1960s, our selfish genes can prompt us to behave unselfishly because they are selfish; that is, a gene will happily sacrifice the individual that possesses it in favour of a greater number of individuals who also harbour copies of itself. But of course, in many circumstances, our selfish genes can prompt us to behave selfishly. In short, we have it in us to be both good and bad. But then of course, G E Moore's warning of "naturalist fallacy" should always be heeded: the fact that our instincts prompt us to do any particular thing, does not make that thing right (or wrong).

In the end, the key task for all human beings is to get along with other human beings: we achieved biological success by sharing work and becoming individually specialised, but on the down side we need other people just as ants need other ants. In short, we need "society". But if society is simply what Thomas Huxley (paraphrasing Hobbes) called "a war of all against all" then the outlook seems grim. Fortunately, we have evolved devices for sociality just as we have evolved a capacity for altruism. As Bob Frank of Cornell has argued, natural selection favours those who form contracts, if only for the selfish reason that there is safety in numbers; and since contracts depend upon trust it is in the interests of each of us to demonstrate our trustworthiness.

Overall, says Ridley, the task is to define and foster a way of living that encourages what can properly be called our better instincts: our capacity for unselfishness and trust. His own suggestion is a return to a structure in which humans deal directly with other humans. It was through such interaction that the capacity for sociality first evolved; and only by such interaction can it be nurtured.

The new neodarwinian ideas are powerful, encouraging, and complex. They should be more widely understood, and it is a great pity that some of the people who write about them most conspicuously don't understand them at all. But Ridley is the real thing: a proper writer. He understands, enhances and conveys.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas