Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Book: The origins of virtue; Screwy on memes

Author: Matt Ridley

Details: (c) Matt Ridley 1996; Pub Penguin Books 1997; ISBN 0-14-024404-2

Verdict: The origins of virtue overreaches and doesn't make it.

Reasons for reading it: I generally like Ridley as a science writer, and I'm interested in the topic of evolution even though I don't have much to learn from popular biology books at this point.

How it came into my hands: I don't remember; it's the sort of thing I would only have bought if I happened to find it cheaply.

I wanted to like The origins of virtue, partly because it's a book that needs to exist, discussing some of the mechanics of how selfish genes can give rise to altruistic behaviour, and partly because I have a lot of admiration for Ridley's earlier book, The Red Queen. Indeed, I still recommend that book if you want a readable and rigourous introduction to modern genetics unpolluted by Dawkins' anti-religion polemic. Although Ridley is clearly an intelligent person and a strong writer, in The origins of virtue he's trying to be Jared Diamond and doesn't quite make the cut.

The origins of virtue seems to be assuming an audience who have a basic lay grasp of what natural selection is and are not completely ignorant of modern genetics; the book is more or less blurbed as a sequel to The selfish gene and it works at about that level. This hypothetical audience hasn't fully understood the later chapters of the Dawkins and needs some examples and expansion of the idea that organisms may be driven by their genes to do things which disadvantage them in the short term. All fair enough. There's some pretty nice stuff about game theory and the overlap between biology and economics, synthesizing the two approaches to give a clear picture of apparently paradoxical ways that self-interest can manifest. The one thing that Ridley seems to miss altogether is that game theory views of evolution predict an equilibrium with a mixed population of cooperators and defectors; an evolutionarily stable strategy doesn't mean that every individual in the population will behave identically. But other than that, not at all bad, a decent overview which argues cogently from the history of science to explain the state of the art today. Ridley also strikes a good balance between accepting that humans are animals and subject to biology like everything else, and acknowledging that humans do make conscious decisions and there are features of human biology that have no exact analogues in the animal world.

However, as the book progresses, it gets increasingly political, and does so in rather a naive way. I don't hugely disagree with the conclusions, namely that the free market is a better and more equitable way of running society than excessive statism and central control. But just because I happen to find that kind of mild libertarianism appealing, it doesn't make me any less annoyed at trying to claim that the fundamentals of biology make this particular political conclusion inevitable. 1996 is frankly a bit late to be writing hagiography of Thatcher and Gingrich, and trying to force your description of the process of evolution into a vindication of Adam Smith (!) makes for bad biology as well as bad political science. And he Godwins all over the place, too.

I have the impression that Ridley is trying to write a synthesis of various different fields of endeavor and show that the same abstractions can be applied at different levels, which is certainly an admirable aim. However, he doesn't seem to understand economics, political science and particularly sociology and anthropology half so well as he understands biology. (The same is true of me; I'm clearly far more expert in biological sciences than social sciences, but I have enough to see where Ridley is making autodidact errors.)

He falls a bit into trying to create a just-so story for why gender roles are biologically determined to be just they way they happened to fall out in modern western society (which he tries to soften with a bit of apologetics about how women are generally nicer than men). And in his enthusiasm to refute Rousseau's Noble Savage theory he goes on at great length about people in low tech societies doing horrible things, and the disclaimer that he only thinks brown people are as bad as white people, not worse, doesn't really balance the negative impression created by sheer weight of text. There's a long passage where he gives the Jews, who think of themselves as the chosen race (why use that loaded term rather than the more neutral "chosen people"?), as an example of how human societies are often very community-oriented and charitable within the group but can be extremely aggressive towards outsiders, such as Joshua implementing a highly moral code for the Israelites while committing genocide against the Canaanites. But of course it's just an example, he's doesn't have anything against Jews. I don't think Ridley is actually racist and sexist and anti-semitic, just crass. He's so determined to believe that he is the sort of person that treats scientific facts "objectively" and isn't swayed by "political correctness", that he is completely blind to his own cultural biases.

There are certainly some fun tidbits in The origins of virtue. I enjoyed the discussion of some of the historical reality behind the Tragedy of the Commons, for example. I also liked the proposed reason for why it is such a common belief that people get what they deserve, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary. And the introductory chapter explaining why there is no more in principle reason for the cells of the body to cooperate than for different organisms in the same pack or community to do so is a lovely essay. Overall, though, this is one to skip (though I would be amused to see a takedown of this from one of the left-leaning economists around here, like lavendersparkle or smhwpf.)

This reminds me that I've been meaning to post about how Screwy doesn't think that memes are a useful concept. I know he reads the blog sometimes, so if you feel like clarifying your position here, J, that would be great. I don't want to misrepresent your arguments. Anyway, what I understood from our lively discussions over Pesach is this:

  • The spreading of and competition between memes isn't meaningfully analogous to genetic inheritance, and trying to use biology to argue about ideas and beliefs leads to erroneous conclusions.
      I think this is the thing I disagree with most; I think the ideas of evolution and natural selection are extremely powerful and they can be abstracted to things which are not inherited between parents and children. Basically, they apply anywhere where something can be replicated but imperfectly (perfect replication is about as likely as perpetual motion, so mutation is more or less a given), and where some types of individuals survive while others disappear. Both those conditions are true for memes, IMO.
  • The meme concept and the underlying selfish gene idea were associated with 80s, highly individualist politics, and the whole framing was created to justify that attitude.
      This may be partly true, and certainly it's possible to misuse modern evolutionary ideas, just as Darwinism was misused to justify eugenics and other nasty things. But I think that kind of misuse is based on deep-rooted misunderstanding of what the theory actually says (basically, survival of the fittest doesn't mean might is right). Ridley makes an albeit imperfect argument against this kind of stupid conclusion, as do many other thinkers including Dawkins himself. In general, the fact that the idea of memetic evolution has been politically misused doesn't make the theory wrong in the first place!
  • There is no clear definition of what a meme is; is it the Iliad or a few words of quotation from it?
      I think this is a strength, not a weakness, of the meme model. Dawkins makes it clear in The selfish gene that he isn't using "gene" to imply the sequence of DNA which encodes a single polypetide, but rather any trait which can be inherited. The power of gene selection is precisely that it can be abstracted to any level, and the same forces apply to making a particular enzyme the shape that it is, to the makeup of human society.
  • Calling something a meme doesn't give you any more explanatory power than simply calling it an idea. You don't need the theory of evolution to explain why the popularity of an opinion isn't a reliable guide to its rightness. The Bible and Plato were already aware of this!
      This I find hardest to answer. My first point covers it partly, in that I think meme theory allows the use of a certain set of mathematical tools to reason about sociology and psychology. But I'm not sure I can come up with a convincing example where you can make a stronger argument about a meme than about an idea or a cultural artefact or whatever.
    Anyway, what do you think? I think it's a very interesting challenge and one that some of you guys would have informed opinions about.
  • Tags: biology, book
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