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Human beings are the ants of the ape family: they live in complex societies with subtle divisions of labour. Yet evolution by natural selection relentlessly favours self-interest. So how is it that we are able to construct an omelette called society from eggs called egoists? Ridley's book argues that new research shows how the human mind has evolved a special instinct for social exchange and that it is this mental programme that enables us to reap the benefits of cooperation, ostracize those who break the social contract and avoid the trap of being `rational fools'. Beginning with the social contract theory of Hobbes and Rousseau, The Origins of Virtue traces the evolution of society first among genes, then among cells, then in ants, vampire bats, apes and dolphins, and finally among human beings.
Matt Ridley is a research fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs and a Trustee of the International Centre for Life, living in Northumberland. His last book, The Red Queen, was short-listed for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for science books and the Writers' Guild Award for non-fiction.