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Nice and Nasty

THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. By Matt Ridley . Viking: 296 pp., $24.95

March 30, 1997|RICHARD WRANGHAM | Richard Wrangham is a Harvard biological anthropologist. His most recent book is "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence," which was nominated for a New England-PEN award

If you think of people as machines made up of nothing more than atoms and quarks, it's hard to explain why people are nice. That's the problem that worries Matt Ridley. And what's worse, if people aren't naturally nice, the political complications are nasty.

Take Thomas Hobbes, for example. Living through the chaos and insurrection of the English civil war, this 17th century materialist denied that we have any inborn tendency to be socially responsible. He claimed that everyone is motivated by selfish concerns of power or fear, so that without enforced rules, the human condition is a "war of everyone against everyone." Therefore, a strong central authority is the only route to peace. You might think that, in a time of strife, this wouldn't be such a far-fetched view, but in fact Hobbes' harsh ideas shocked his contemporaries. Yet his claim that a central authority is the only trustworthy route to peace was never effectively rebutted, and repressive social policies were justified in his name for the next 300 years. As Ridley would have it, the Hobbesian search for a perfect society ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Based purely on its lurid implications, this "people are nasty" view deserves to have died out a long time ago. But Hobbes' essential concept, that humans are self-interested machines, thrives all around us in Western academia. Most important, it is the central theme of both economics and evolutionary biology. In the hearts of these disciplines, the uncomfortable notion is that virtue is illusory. At base, we are all emotional Scrooges, doling out charity to others only to serve our own self-interests, never for the sake of joy. Self-interest theory (from economics) and selfish-gene theory (from biology) suggest that the milk of human kindness, when carefully tasted, is sour with cynicism. It implies that even when people act in apparently kindly ways, they are actually calculating and devious.

All this is rather disturbing for people who want to understand the deep roots of human motivation but don't like Hobbesian politics. So what's a poor liberal to do? One escape is denial, a route trumpeted by biologist Steven Jay Gould. Full of good intentions, Gould is so alarmed by the prospect of being forced to view humans as fundamentally selfish that he claims special exemption from evolutionary rules. Human emotions, he suggests, simply aren't subject to the same evolutionary laws that apply to the rest of the natural world. Maybe we're too clever, or . . . ahem . . . well, something like that anyway. Yes, well. . . . By placing the human species on a special pedestal, Gould and his ilk follow a fine tradition of romantic thinkers. But this unique escape from evolutionary rules is a luxury few evolutionists allow themselves.

So, are people basically nice or nasty? In "The Origins of Virtue," Ridley argues for a new answer to this old question. First, he offers the familiar background. If you say we're nice until corrupted, you join Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx in having faith in a society based on inherent human goodness. If you think we're nasty unless reformed, you're with Hobbes and Machiavelli and looking for a strong dose of social authority. Either way, you've got problems; there's not much to choose between Marx and Machiavelli. But Ridley is out to challenge the old dichotomy. He wants to have it both ways, that we're both nasty and nice. We're nasty at one level (the unconscious genetically driven self); but in the real world, we're nice, genuinely pleasant. And this gives him new political ideas. He presents himself as a modern-day Rousseau in Hobbesian garb.

Special pleading certainly doesn't satisfy Ridley. Determined to show that gentle politics can coexist with intellectual honesty, he escapes the Hobbesian vortex by arguing that deep self-interest creates not cynical manipulators (as most would have it), but genuinely nice people. Armed with a doctorate in zoology from Oxford and several years of writing for the Economist, Ridley is well-schooled for the effort. Evolutionary psychology was named as a subfield within the last decade, and this is one of the first books to present it in readable form. But the Darwinian approach to economics is in its infancy, so Ridley's journalism is put to good use here, linking economic theory to natural selection in the most novel parts of the book.

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