The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

Summary of: The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Human emotions, customs, and institutions enable us to compete effectively with all other species by making cooperative social arrangements among ourselves – a capability that co-evolved with thumbs, speech, and tool-building.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Penguin Books


  • Hunger drove our forebears to coordinate their actions to bring down animals so large that all the meat couldn't be consumed before it spoiled. In those circumstances, everyone in the group was free to eat — even those who didn't take the risk of hunting. The meat wouldn't be available in the first place unless a few people tackled large creatures, but the benefit of the cooperative activity of a few extended even to those who had not participated in the hunt. Ridley wrote, "Big game hunting became the first public good."
  • Altruism is "an investment in a stock called trustworthiness that later pays handsome dividends in others' generosity."
  • Moral sentiments and the emotions that accompany them help enable people to cooperate and to punish those who don't.

Ridley asks why there is so much cooperation about if life is a competitive struggle, and why, in particular are humans such eager cooperators, and traces the evolution of cooperative arrangements for mutual benefit back to the origins of cellular life, the emergence of humans as social animals. Reciprocal altruism and group selection are offered as biological explanatory mechanisms, and the role of moralistic punishment in controlling free-riders links psychological, moral, and economic dimensions of cooperation. Human physiological and cultural capabilities for inventing and exploiting social exchanges – a willingness to cooperate and to punish those who don't, reputational mechanisms for increasing trust, moral sentiments that act as a kind of social glue – are key to the success of our species.