Matt Ridley is not only a businessman and a banker (or was—he headed Northern Rock before it went bust in 2007), but also a Viscount with huge landholdings, a member of the House of Lords and, to top it off, holder of a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Oxford (I believe he was Richard Dawkins’s student). (UPDATE: I’m told that he wasn’t Richard’s student, but Chris Perrins’s.) He’s written five science books, among them the highly regarded works The Origins of Virtue, The Red Queen, and Genome.
Ridley is also an extreme libertarian, holding that virtually all functions of the government should be privatized or left to individual initiative. In his latest book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, he claims that there’s a “law of progress” whereby “bottom up” initiatives from individuals always lead to better results than do “top down” ideas proposed or sponsored by governments and bureaucracies. Thus, he argues, we should privatize things like medical care, pensions, schools, the prison system, law enforcement, and even the issuing of currency. Ridley claims that he derived this “law” of social evolution from his work on biological evolution, which he also sees as a “bottom up” process (the sorting of genes leads to adaptation at higher levels).
I’ve just reviewed this book in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), in a review called “Not natural.” Sadly, very few reviews in the TLS are free, so I can’t post a link here, though judicious inquiry might yield you a copy. In the meantime, I’ll just say that while some of the book’s extreme libertarian arguments are good, The Evolution of Everything sinks under the weight of Ridley’s ideology, into which he crams virtually every social institution as best run on libertarian principles, and also under the superficiality of the analogy between natural selection on genes and cultural selection on good ideas (“memes” if you will). But contra regular meme hypotheses, Ridley argues that good memes virtually never come from the top down, but from individual initiative.
I’ll add two bits of my review:
. . . Yet while many of Ridley’s libertarian arguments ring true, his analogy between social progress and evolutionary change suffers from two problems. First, Ridley’s “theory” of cultural evolution is trivial, boiling down to the notion that things change with time, usually for the better, and that change involves testing dif-ferent ideas and keeping the ones that work better. That’s not a “theory” but a description, and hardly a novel one.
Further, the comparison with biological evolution is at best superfluous. After all, while natural selection involves the competi-tion and sorting of genes, it can also be seen as a top-down rather than a bottom-up process: the success of genes depends on the organism’s environment, which imposes the conditions for genetic success. Polar bears are white because their snowy habitat dictates that genes removing their colour – and camouflaging them from prey – leave more copies. Whales and fish are streamlined because that shape reduces the energy needed to navigate a watery milieu they cannot escape.
And, unlike biological evolution, the “mutations” that advance culture – good ideas – are consciously directed. People try different things, like tinkering with the design of smartphones, because they think they will improve matters. DNA mutations, on the other hand, are random – indifferent to whether or not they will improve an organism – and most are harmful. The unique aspect of natural selection, the fact that complexity and change result from an undirected process, is absent from Ridley’s scenario, which resembles goal-directed intelligent design more than evolution.
More important, Ridley’s arguments for the superiority of bottom-up change are not always convincing. For example, although private systems of healthcare have sprung up beside government ones in countries like Sweden and Britain, many argue that this reflects not an endemic flaw in universal healthcare, but a shortage of government funding. . .
I was particularly exercised when Ridley not only knocked environmentalism and mocked those who claim that global warming is produced by humans, but also proclaimed that science funding should be completely privatized and not left at all to governments:
As a scientist, I see Ridley’s argument for privatizing science funding as especially wrong-headed. Few private organizations would fund “pure” research with no clear potential for turning a profit, even though some of that research can eventually become useful. In the case of smartphones, many components such as multi-touch screens, liquid-crystal displays and lithium-ion batteries – not to mention the internet itself – were the products of government funding. Individual initiative combined these elements into something immensely useful, but top-down support was essential.
Crucially, huge swathes of science that expand our knowledge of the universe, but not our pocketbooks, would simply vanish. One of these is the field in which both Ridley and I work: evolutionary biology. Space exploration and much of physics would also fall under the axe. Of the past ten Nobel Prizes in Physics, for example, at least five – involving large and expensive government-funded facilities that discovered marvels like the Higgs boson and “dark energy” – would never have been funded privately. [JAC: add gravity waves to that now!] Government sponsorship of science is vital precisely because it values the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake rather than for our material well-being.
Two other aspects of the book detract from its value. The first are the many digressions – often involving Ridley’s libertarianism – that have little to do with the book’s thesis. There are repeated sneers at environmentalism, including Ridley’s fulminations against the concept of man-made global warming (whose proponents he compares to religious zealots), the green movement (which he smears by associating it with eugenics and Nazism), and governmental attempts to control population growth (he assures us that technology and the free market will solve that problem).
And yes, Ridley did compare the green movement to the Nazis and to proponents of eugenics.
Ridley is very good when sticking to evolution, but when he bangs on about libertarianism and capitalism, the ground becomes treacherous. And don’t even ask me how he manages to blame the failure of his Northern Rock bank—whose bailout cost the British taxpayers £27 billion—on too stringent government regulation! In fact, it was exactly the opposite. But such is the Procrustean Bed that Ridley makes, forcing all phenomena into his theory. And a theory that can’t be refuted cannot be validated.