A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue at a second-hand bookstore, (never give a gene-centric a royalty, I always say!) but I must say that it is well-written, interesting, loaded with facts without being tedious, and worthy of a royalty. It’s worthwhile because it is an honest attempt (in the main) at tackling issues of evolution that deserve to be tackled.

The very issues I have covered in my articles here in fact, and there’s a reason for that.

The Origins of Virtue is largely a critique and extension of Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual  Aid – A Factor in Evolution, the book that inspired my interest in evolution. Ridley used Kropotkin’s views to eventually arrive at an explanation for human social evolution and prescribe its future direction. But the book contains a strange paradox. Despite his competent grasp of a wide range of issues, despite coming to conclusions that are well constructed, and despite Kropotkin being the inspiration for the book and someone he respects greatly, Ridley demonstrated a failure to understand Kropotkin’s work at the most basic level.

He began by describing Kropotkin’s family background and the background to Mutual Aid, fascinating subjects in themselves, and agreed with the conclusion to Mutual Aid that cooperation is a significant factor in evolution. As Ridley put it; “We live in towns, work in teams, and our lives are spiders’ webs of connections – linking us to relatives, colleagues, companions, friends, superiors, inferiors. We are...unable to live without each other.” (This is my kind of biology!)

Then came a definition of virtue, something we need to be clear about in the context of this book; “We define virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behaviour, and vice as anti-social behaviour.” (It’s important that this be kept in mind at all times, because there is a tendency among those raised in a religious faith to assume that virtue is a concept taught to mankind by a higher power.) But in the next sentence we find this, “Kropotkin was right to emphasise the huge role that mutual aid plays in our species, but wrong and anthropomorphic to assume that therefore it applied to other species as well.”

Ridley made this point several times throughout the book, and it is not only wrong, but it is difficult to fathom why he made a case for human exceptionalism when examples of significant cooperation among many species litter the book. He committed a terrible blunder in pursuing this point, with this; “As usual we find that what makes human beings unique is the division of labour.” And this in a book in which the division of labour among the social insects is well covered. It is true that the social instincts of humans are more “advanced” and complex than in most other species, but we are simply products of evolution that happen to have those qualities to a greater degree than others.

The only reason I can find for such an obvious distortion of Kropotkin’s work is that Ridley then made the incredible leap from supporting the basic thrust of Kropotkin, to feeling obliged to explain it in terms of selfish genes. “It is the claim of this book that the answer to an old question – how is society possible? – is suddenly at hand, thanks to the insights of evolutionary biology.” Ridley then began the impossible task of explaining the overwhelming frequency of cooperative behaviour in the human world while denying it in the rest of the natural world, as the result of selfish genes.

I’ll deal with some of these “insights” as they arise.

“After the “(selfish gene) revolution in biology in the mid-1960s...Not only was the human being just another animal, but it was also the disposable plaything and tool of a committee of self-interested genes.” It never ceases to amaze me how intelligent people can make such statements. Genes have no interest, let alone self-interest. Selfish gene theory promotes the fallacy that genes are living entities. They are not alive because they are below the level of life. The primary level of life is the cell, and all gene functions are controlled by the cell. No life – no interest.

If you think I’ve overstated this misperception, consider the delusional nature of selfish gene theory that can be clearly seen in the passage that immediately followed; “Hamilton himself recalls the moment when it dawned upon him that his body and his genome were more like a society than a machine. ‘There had come the realisation that the genome wasn’t the monolithic data bank plus executive team devoted to one project – keeping oneself alive, having babies – that I had hitherto imagined it to be. Instead, it was beginning to seem more a company boardroom, a theatre for a power struggle of egotists and factions...I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire.’“ That was not an insight; that was an escape from reality by a poetic dreamer with no sense of scientific responsibility.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that delusional thinking along these lines became the stock-in-trade of selfish gene theory, and led directly to the nonsensical organism-as-survival-machine.

“Selfish genes sometimes use selfless individuals to achieve their ends.” This became the basis of the altruism-is-actually-selfishness deception, and the “selfish genes create societies” fantasy, but as we’ve seen, genes do not “use” anything.

“But what is the organism? There is no such thing. It is merely the sum of its selfish parts;...a group of units selected to be selfish...” But the parts of an organism are not selected. It is the organism that’s selected. And the organism is selected for the cooperation of its parts. Ridley actually takes this to extremes by talking of parts of an organism being in conflict. There is actually a sub-chapter titled The Rebellion of the Liver. But an organism made of parts in conflict, or selfish in any sense, would be selected out of existence.

“It is as if we had to do with a parliament of genes: each acts in its own self-interest, but if its acts hurt others, they will combine together to suppress it.”  This is the great deception behind gene theory. Genes do not act in their self-interest, because genes do not act. To “act” implies independence. Genes merely function, and their functions are controlled by the cell. If they malfunction, then the controls outlined in the quote come into play. It’s by subtle changes in meaning such as this that selfish gene theory weaves its magic.

The end result of all these misguided positions was that the central argument of the book is also misguided; “...people are...calculating machines intricately designed to find cooperative strategies only when they assist enlightened self-interest”. It is possible to mount an argument along these lines. Not a strong argument, but an argument nevertheless. But here it was just a selfish gene argument. No comment needed.

But here’s the great paradox. After all this false reasoning, Ridley actually came to a sensible, well-argued position (apart from a couple of minor blemishes) regarding the need for humans to re-think their approach to sustainable resource management. A position moreover, that he happily conceded was in line with the philosophical brand of pro-social anarchism advocated by Peter Kropotkin. How unfortunate that he ruined all this truly good work by also concluding that self-interest (in this case code for selfishness) is the basis of pro-social behaviour.

But if self-interest is not the foundation of virtue, what is?

The origins of virtue are to be found in the nature of life itself. In an earlier article, What is Life?, I put the case that life is spontaneous independent cooperation. If one accepts this view, then many of the mysteries of biology begin to look less mysterious, less problematical. For example, we don’t have to agonise over why cooperation is so pervasive. We don’t have to ask why social groups develop. We don’t have to ask why cooperation, as Kropotkin said, is more important in evolution than competition. And we can suddenly see the origins of virtue.

Cooperation and sociality are the stuff of life, which is why pro-social behaviours are so highly regarded, are considered virtuous. These behaviours contribute to social strength and harmony. They are the means by which we give our lives purpose.
Virtue therefore, as pro-social behaviour, is as old as life itself.
And so, in one sense, virtue IS life.
Kropotkin has been criticised, even by supporters such as Stephen Jay Gould, for advocating a naive form of group selection as a result of not understanding basic Darwinian concepts. The criticism is unjustified. Kropotkin understood Darwin only too well, and better than the legions of biologists who have not read Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and so have an incomplete picture of his views. Kropotkin’s aim was to show the overwhelming influence of cooperation in evolution; that he did this using terms and concepts that his readers could understand in no way detracts from his work, and should not be used as a weapon against him.

In his comments on Kropotkin’s work Gould revealed a misconception of his own. He spoke of “...Darwinian logic (where organisms work, albeit unconsciously, for their own benefit in terms of genes passed to future generations).” Now there is a logic to natural selection and gene transmission as Gould says, but to raise the matter as a criticism of Kropotkin is not logical, or appropriate, and it shows how much selfish gene theory has corrupted public and professional opinion in both biology and philosophy. The benefit-genes-future generations link has come to be accepted, not as an interesting outcome of natural selection, but as the purpose of life! I recently watched a documentary on a male gorilla whose life in the wild has been filmed almost from birth. At the conclusion the narrator expressed just this view; that the purpose of the gorilla’s life had been to pass his genes into future generations. The actual purpose of his life was to produce and nurture life, and at this he was remarkably successful.

It’s often said that the value of a hypothesis can be seen in its ability to predict future outcomes. The value of Kropotkin’s analysis of cooperation should be considered with that in mind. In Mutual Aid-A Factor in Evolution he wrote;

“Mutual aid is met with even amidst the lowest animals, and we must be prepared to learn some day, from the students of microscopical pond-life, facts of unconscious mutual support, even from the life of micro-organisms.”

It’s only in recent years that we have discovered that micro-organisms do in fact cooperate and exchange information. When we consider that Kropotkin’s prediction was made in 1902, we can only regard him as a thinker of the highest calibre.