My review of Matt Ridley’s new book, “The Evolution of Everything”

February 19, 2016 • 9:00 am

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.

130 thoughts on “My review of Matt Ridley’s new book, “The Evolution of Everything”

  1. I loved all of Ridley’s science books.

    However, the others …

    Hi Rational Optimist was a dull polemic.

    So your review of his latest doesn’t surprise me. 🙁

  2. It is wonderful that libertarianism has ideas that are so bad that most everyone can just laugh at them. This is yet another case of someone being competent in one area and totally, irrelevant and incompetent in other areas.

    Ideas of privatization of prisons has been shown to be completely wrong and counter to the benefits of society. The corruption and favoritism run rampant. I got a really big laugh out privatization of law-enforcement. The result would be Syria or some backward African country with tribalism.

  3. The main reason that the Libertarian movement has never gained traction in this country is the simple fact that it makes no sense. In presidential elections in the past, they always drag out another guy to run in the party and it goes nowhere. Even the Rand family had to go hide in the republican mud.

    The idea that privatization of everything is a solution is nuts and that success cannot be found unless you privatize? Maybe they never heard of the Manhattan project or WWII or NASA. We have had private medicine in the U.S. for everyone under 65 and how is that working? If you can last until you are 65 it’s just great.

    1. I’ve never heard of this guy, but I completely agree with both yours and Jerry’s assessment of his ideas.

      Libertarianism is even less popular here – no one has even heard of their candidates and many would be surprised to learn we even have a Libertarian Party.

      As for ideas coming from the bottom up, that is certainly not always ideal. A good example for the US – how many states would still have racist laws if left to their own devices? Even more would continue to ban same-sex marriage. Often leadership is needed to ensure minority groups get equal treatment and opportunity.

      1. In a libertarian county the government would not be in the business of marring people, so the legality of gay marriage would never have arisen.

        1. Having a hard time digesting that one. Sounds like you are saying, if it’s private and not government – legality is not in question?

          I’m not familiar with that form of govt.

          1. The government would not marry people. You could, if you wanted to, write a private contract with whoever you like (male, female, sentimental partner or not) to, for instance, define what will happen to each other’s stuff when the other dies.

            Of course, the fact that the legally married status would not exist doesn’t mean the prejudices against gays wouldn’t exist. But it does mean that no government institutions would need changing when that prejudice dissolves.

            1. There would, of course, be no tax benefit to such an arrangement. So, for example, if you left your half of the house to your partner in the event of you pre-deceasing them, then the 20% inheritance tax would apply, and you’d be due 10% of the house’s market value to the government.

              1. Yes. But most libertarians would argue against an inheritance tax, so in our imaginary libertarian country you wouldn’t owe anything to the government.

        2. Try telling that to Republican libertarians. In a similar vein, I’ve always been amazed that GOP Libertarians are as anti-choice as the base – surely that’s about as unlibertarian as it comes too.

  4. In the Origin of Virtue, which I used for some ethics classes, Ridley says early on that reading political or social (normative) conclusions off of the the behavior of bees, or ants, or beetles, etc., would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Bad bad, he recognizes, don’t do that. Then he proceeds to do it with a vengeance his last chapter–same kind of mindless libertarianism JC points out in his review.

    It’s such a great example for an ethics class. So clear.

  5. Ridley’s books I enjoyed:

    The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

    Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

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

    Genome: The Autobiography of a Species In 23 Chapters

    Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code

    I did not like (or finish):

    The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

    Methinks he may be off the rails with these latest two books …

  6. “top down” ideas proposed or sponsored by governments and bureaucracies.

    Another problem with the analogy is that government and bureaucracies don’t have ideas, people do. Governments and bureaucracies merely implement the ideas of individuals, just like private companies do.

  7. No complex society, from eusocial insects to the community of cells in an organism, can operate long on individual initiative. There must be a system of checks and balances. For the latter analogy, an organism with libertarian cells has what we call cancer.

    1. Social insects and cells in multicellular organisms are poor analogies, because there the important entity is the community, while in the human society, the important entity is the individual, at least according to humanists.
      Many proponents of oppressive caste systems, beginning with Plato, compare the society to the human body and explain how hands (i.e. common people) should work and shut up, because this is their proper role, or the entire system will collapse.

  8. I think the “bottom up/top down” rhetoric is something of a red herring. The brute fact is that efforts at accomplishing anything difficult require cooperation, and cooperation requires organization. In this sense, you could say that governments *are* emergent and “bottom up”.

  9. Agreeing with the comments above, the key flaw in the libertarian right argument is always the unexamined assumption they seem to have that government or public sector means “top down” whereas private sector means “bottom up”.

    In third world despotisms there may be some truth in that, but in the first world very often the reverse is true.

    The private sector is often the epitome of top-down, with a small number of rich people giving orders and paying large numbers of people to obey them.

    We need to remember to translate his words:

    “top down” = “I sometimes have to take account of other people”

    “bottom up” = “I give the orders”

    1. In my experience, when a politician calls for a bottom-up approach, what s/he often means is, “You’re on your own, don’t expect any help or (especially) funding from government.”

  10. If people had perfect foresight and perfect empathy and perfect judgment, then pure libertarianism could work. Otherwise not.

    We do not live in a world of perfect anything.

    1. Yes, the fact that we humans do not have perfect foresight, empathy, or judgment is indeed one of the reasons libertarianism wouldn’t work.

      But I don’t think it’d work even if we did have those things. There are many ways to have good judgment, and there is often no one best way to solve a problem. As I wrote above, we would still need cooperation and organization to address most issues. Time for a music analogy: all hundred or so members of a top-tier orchestra will be accomplished musicians who posses excellent musical judgment. But when that fermata can work just as well being held for two seconds as it can being held for one, it simply cannot be left to each individual performer to decide how long to hold it. There has to be a government, ie, a conductor.

      1. Cooperation does exist in the free markets. Indeed, the free market is the only way to get people to cooperate voluntarily.

        Top-tier orchestras work because of the market: their members cooperate because they want to, not because the government forced them. Violinists don’t play because the conductor forces them – they agree to follow his lead because they judge it to be in their own best interest.

          1. I’m not a libertarian, but this particular argument is flawed.
            When were you last asked if you want a government? When was any actual person asked that?

            1. I think it’s safe to conclude that most people see the benefit of government when you observe that most people do not participate in revolutions with the goal of doing away with government.

        1. Further, how would effective cooperation be achieved without a center of command? Sure, it would have to be one that people agreed to follow, but a center of command nonetheless.

          Democratic governments have emerged as the dominant system because people overwhelmingly judge them to be in their best interests, exactly analogous to the violinists. Why hasn’t anarchy emerged as the dominant system if it’s so great?

            1. According to some, it doesn’t.

              And I’m being halfway serious. There certainly exists some art that listeners/viewers/etc simply convince themselves they enjoy, for reasons other than the fact that the art is good.

              To more seriously address your question, 1) in some music, randomness and anarchy are the point. In some music, loosey-goosey and close enough are the point. 2) cooperative improvisation can work with small combos but not 100-member orchestras, if the aim is to achieve some coherence. For large-scale efforts, a center of command will be necessary, but for a small group, talking about the framework for the improvisation before the performance is sufficient.

              1. That’s just the kind of answer I’d expect from you …

                We’re talking about these two approaches in IT development; the traditional, scored, rehearsed, conducted way of building systems of record, v. the experimental, improvisional, collaborative way to quickly take advantage of new business opportunities.

                /@

  11. If genes are the bottom-up forces of evolution whilst the environment is the top-down aspect of it, perhaps we could make the same association for economics, being individuals the bottom-up aspect and, guess what, regulations being the top down aspect. Where would genes have taken life-forms if there were no top-down aspect play the selection part?

    1. Jerry’s first book ‘Speciation’ grapples with a version of this problem: why do we see millions of species with different adaptations? And conversely why isn’t the world dominated by just one jack-of-all-trades species? The answer is not obvious, but it probably involves the kind of top-down regulation by the environment that you pointed out. Those regulations limit how well a specific narrow range of genotypes could succeed across many different combinations of environmental conditions. And those limitations create opportunities for a different set of genotypes to succeed in those different environments. The limitations also create conditions that favour reproductive isolation between groups of genotypes with different adaptations (that is, speciation). So I think the answer to your question (a really good question) is that, without top-down environmental regulation, genes would not have taken life forms very far at all, and there would be little biological diversity.

  12. The libertarian viewpoint may have some merit in the social arena (drugs, abortion, gay rights) and foreign affairs (don’t be the world’s policeman), but in the economic area it would be total disaster, if it were actually implemented. Under the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush deregulation of financial institutions took place. This event played a big role in bringing on the Great Recession. It also helped accelerate income inequality as taxes on the very rich were lowered under the pretext that they were the job creators. In my view libertarianism in the economic area (at one time called laissez-faire) would result in rule by a plutocracy, a situation some would say already exists. This development would ultimately result in much more social unrest than is already percolating as society would be composed of a few rich and almost everybody else poor. The masses would be looking for a man on the white horse to save them (a role Trump would like to play). Thus, this theory of extreme liberty would end up with the exact opposite. Beware of any person whose mantra is to unceasingly chant the word liberty. To create a just society there are other values that need to be honored as well.

    Even the Republican electorate, as deluded as they are, couldn’t stomach the libertarianism of Rand Paul, despite him being touted by the pundits (wrong once again) as a rising star in the Party.

    1. Libertarianism is basically what we had when monarchy had real power, and most people were tied to a feudal overlord (whether religious or secular) in some way. Imo, following libertarianism for the economy would return us back to a time with a plutocracy owning and running everything, and the majority having no power or protection.

      1. I agree. Libertarians seem to think that if their system was adopted all people would simply cease to try to coerce or exert power over others. We could all just completely and perfectly write our own destinies. They don’t see that gvernment is necessary to keep people from inappropriately coercing others.

        1. Yes, there is a strain of that in Libertarianism. The anarcho-capitalists for instance. Private law and such nonsense. But that’s the extreme. There are lots of places where you can just leave people alone to work it out without trying to control them. End the drug war, don’t censor, let beauticians work without onerous and trade-restrictive licensing. Lots of good ideas.

          1. Those things could be realized under our current system of government, as well. There’s nothing about those things that require Libertarianism. Those of us criticizing libertarianism here are criticizing the underlying principles.

        2. Exactly! And there’s never much thought given by libertarians to those who via birth, accident, or illness can no longer care for themselves.

    2. And banking is just one example of how privatization and libertarian thinking have failed miserably.

      I can also cite infrastructure and transportation. Look at China’s and Japan’s and Europe’s bullet trains compared to our underfunded Amtrack. We are pathetic in this regard. When Greyhoud became privatized, they eliminated routes that weren’t profitable. Rural people suffered. The same will happen if Republicans get their wish an privatize USPS.

      Then there is the privatization of water. Flint, Michigan anyone? There are countless other examples of privatized water abuses.

      Privatized health care is obviously a massive failure.

      Privatized prisons is another disaster. Not only did it cause a massive incarceration epidemic for minorities, it also stagnated rehabilitation programs, aggravated prison violence and other abuses. Apparently a prisoner generating 40k a year is worthier than a system that tries to rehabilitate and empty prisons.

      We are far behind other countries on the Internet now due to privatization. Countries like Korea have Internet speeds 200x faster than the US at half the cost. Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have only managed to increase overall prices, though it was said that privatizing these companies would increase competition and lower prices. The exact opposite happened.

      Privatize “charter” schools don’t improve education (they don’t always worsen either) but they create problems by implementing cost-saving strategies: less experienced teachers and non-teacher positions w/o health insurance of good retirement plans; overall, all charter school employees have much lower pay than their public counterparts.

      There are other examples, but I think I’m close to breaking da rool #9.

      1. All very good examples above from everyone on this line or thread. The isolation of the Libertarian ideology would put us back into the post WWI ideas that could have cost us WWII had it not been for the Japanese attack. Where would South Korea be today, I hate to think. Governments make lots of mistakes but it does not mean you throw it out and just wing it.

        1. Thanks for the links. Though I’m not compelled to read libertarian magazine articles, it does seem I’m wrong about Flint. Not that it detracts from the myriad problems of privatizing water.

      2. Minnesota started the charter school thing. We have many and have had them longer than anyone else.

        The verdict? They don’t do as well as the public schools — despite that public schools have to take all comers.

        Most do OK. Some are terrible (one local one was teaching Islam in a nominally public school). The ethnically-based ones often have lower standards (our local ones).

        Whatever else, they are emphatically not the panacea that the GOP and libertarians portray them as.

        1. Thanks for this information. I agree that the worst thing about charter schools are their ability to pick and choose students. If they have the “cream of the crop” it doesn’t bode well that they can’t compete with public schools that take all comers.

          1. From what I see, charter schools are elitist but do no better than regular schools and divert a disproportionate share of money from public schools, therefore a waste of money.

    3. All libertarians I know agree that police is necessary, and quite a few think that a world policeman is also necessary. The libertarian L. von Mises definitely supported the war against Nazi Germany.

  13. To see the false dichotomies present in this philosophy, one need only look at the history of the Bell and AT&T telephone companies. The Bell monopoly originated from the socialist ideas of Gardiner Hubbard (a founding investor and president of the company). It was certainly anti-competitive and yet necessary for establishing universal access to a common communication infrastructure. Bell Labs was a byproduct of that monopolistic business. It provided a stable, well funded environment for scientists and engineers to pursue their individual initiatives and engage in scholarly competition. Within Bell Labs (from what I’ve been told by nostalgic former employees) one could find a fairly libertarian environment (lots of freedom for self-directed research; a weak authority structure; high personal security), and it was wildly successful. But it was only possible because of heavy regulation and a healthy dose of socialism in the telephone industry.

    When this model was broken up in the 90s, Bell Labs withered. In spite of all the hype from the startup industry in silicon valley, there hasn’t been a lot of fundamental invention coming from US industry since then. We’re now in an era of remixing and optimizing systems based on ideas that mostly originated prior to 2005 or so. Private industry is really not the idea machine that libertarians make it out to be. In the past decade we’ve seen the highest historical unemployment of engineers, even though we’re in a supposed tech bubble. Managers have developed a habit of chopping entire R&D divisions when they don’t see a short-term return on investment. Meanwhile some of the smartest innovations have been coming out of the stable socialized and protectionist environments in Europe.

    I’ve made enough points here to fill a book if I elaborated on them… Here’s a summary conclusion: there is no “best” economic model for innovation. Different models excel at different purposes. Telecom deregulation has been great for consumers and (some) entrepreneurs, but that kind of innovation is different from basic research. Regulated, socialized, protected environments are great for the kind of deep discoveries that we expect from hard science.

    1. That characterization of Bell Labs, with “lots of freedom for self-directed research; a weak authority structure; high personal security”, is an accurate (if incomplete) description of many university science departments where the professors have personal security, and no top-down determination of research direction, but with a more or less meritocratic determination of funding for the most successful research. Best job in the world.

  14. George Monbiot has written about Matt Ridley many times. This article is especially pertinent to Ridley’s views on evolution, though it’s much more speculative than his other articles.

    It’s hard to take his Libertarian beliefs seriously when they failed spectacularly at his own bank, Northern Rock. And it’s hard to take him seriously when he had to phone the government (which he’d called “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world”) and beg for a bailout, and when he apparently learned nothing from it! He still goes around saying that the free market would provide the best possible outcome for all, if only we eliminated all taxes, regulations, bailouts, subsidies, and other interventions that stand in its way…

    If you don’t believe in bailouts – if you believe companies seeking bailouts are “parasites” – then you shouldn’t go seeking a bailout of your own unless you’ve had a change of heart.

    1. I like Monbiot’s description of libertarians – and by extension – Lord Ridley – as ‘social parasites’. We’ve seen a lot of them recently, at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, of course, but it’s the well-heeled ones with polished scales that are the really dangerous ones.

  15. I thought Genome was excellent, but as you alluded to , once he strays from biology he completely loses my attention. I didn’t know he was a AGW denier, which I find interesting. Can anyone elaborate on his reasoning for holding this position?

    1. Because Ridley is a presuppositionalist in economics just as Ken Ham is a presuppositionalist in biology. Ridley takes it as an iron-clad truth that utterly free markets would lead to the Best of All Possible Worlds. Unfortunately, the existence of environmental problems in general and global warming in particular undercuts that presupposition. So, therefore, global warming must not be true.

    2. My recollection is that he argues that “something will turn up” to solve the problems of global warming as free-market entrepreneurs address the problems – no government involvement needed.

      1. I haven’t read his new book, but I read the Rational Optimist and many of his blog posts on the subject.

        I don’t think he denies AGW, but says it is likely to prove a minor problem, both because its catastrophic potential has been exaggerated and because, as Ben says, we’re likely to come up with a solution.

        Another point he makes, which I think has merit, is that spending a lot of money now to solve this problem for future generations that will be much richer than ours is silly and immoral, when it could be spent in solving the huge problems of today’s poor.

        1. About your last point, that argument ignores the momentum and timescale of global climate change. It would have been relatively inexpensive to solve the problem twenty years ago, but it may be impossible to solve the problem with any amount of money if we wait a hundred years from no to do something.

          And of course the poor are the ones who will be hardest hit in any “no-action” scenario.

        2. …to solve this problem for future generations that will be much richer than ours is silly and immoral…

          As if future generations being richer is inevitable. Why does he (or you) think future generations will be so much richer? Only a handful of people hold the vast majority of worldwide wealth today and almost all new wealth generated goes directly to the top 1%. As I see the trend, there will be a lot more wealth for fewer and fewer people, not wealth for the majority. And even if the future generation is “much richer”, why would that indicate they’d tackle AGW?

          1. “…almost all new wealth generated goes directly to the top 1%”. I think you’re wrong about that, and about the trend. Yes, in several countries inequality is increasing, but globally the poor have been getting much richer, and fast: In 1990, more than 40% of the people living in developing countries lived in extreme poverty. That amounted to 1.9 billion people. By 2010 the poor represented about 20%, and 1.2 billion people. An huge improvement, wouldn’t you say? Check out the World Bank’s webpage, which has all the numbers by region and year.

            “[E]ven if the future generation is “much richer”, why would that indicate they’d tackle AGW?” I agree it doesn’t. Still, the best way use of today’s money is where it will have the most impact. That sort of cost/benefit analysis is what Mr. Ridley advocates. The Copenhagen Consensus has attempted such an analysis for several world problems, and solving global warming comes way down the list. You might quibble with their particular cost/benefit analysis, but I don’t see how you can disagree with the necessity of performing one before recommending money be spent on any one project.

            1. The trick to cost-benefit analyses is how to define “benefit” and “cost”. Do we look just at the costs and benefits to the people alive today, or do we consider the next generation, or some kind of weighted integral of costs and benefits for all future generations? You can get any answer you want by playing with these parameters.

              1. It may at times be a bit difficult to define benefits and costs, but I don’t think “you can get any answer” if you stay within the bounds of rationality. Some ways of helping others are clearly better than others – the latter being what Peter Singer calls “effective altruism”.

                The Gates Foundation and GiveWell rank projects by an estimate of lives saved per dollar spent.

        3. Yes, this is what I remember from Mr. McCawber’s Philosophy Primer, er, I mean The Rational Optimist: Something is going to turn up from technology to solve all problems.

          It didn’t seem so rational to me. Couldn’t finish it. Turned into a boring polemic. I was shocked at first because I had liked his other books so well. I kept expecting something to flip and the good book to begin. Never did.

  16. “Ridley is also an extreme libertarian, holding that virtually all functions of the government should be privatized or left to individual initiative.”

    I imagine he’d feel at home amongst the gun-toting survivalists of Idaho and similar places in the USA, but in the UK and the rest of Europe these ideas put him on the outer fringes of crankdom. Most people over here would find it hard to take such arguments seriously. Our historical experience and cultural background are very different in crucial respects from the USA, and we tend to criticise our governments for not doing enough, rather than demanding that they abolish themselves.

    Personally I just can’t see why these anarchists/libertarians think that a completely individualised society would be a pleasant and stable place to live. Maybe I just have less faith in human nature, but I suspect it would be more like a Mad Max movie than a hippy commune.

    1. I share your opinion regarding the Mad Max scenario. I have experienced first hand as both a student and a teacher, the results of policy enacted by politicans whom extol the virtues of running public schools, “like a business.” The results are abysmal. The Milton Friedman fever dream that libertarians of Ridley’s cut live in is deeply out of touch with reality. Libertarians can’t seem to ever find a correlation between guns and gun violence. Matt Walsh publishes Reason Magazine to celebrate a fundamentally philosophical approach to fiscal policy that is obsessed with the size of government and is thoroughly obtuse to the actual results of it’s application in the form of public policy, which is measured using fincial calamities as a metric. But taxes are totes low. And none of these other things are of much concern to someone like Ridley who is on the side of the wall with the concertina wire facing out.

  17. …a businessman and a banker … 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 …

    A righteous, old-school toff, that one.

  18. I am not sure about Matt Ridley, but I know that Mark Ridley was Dawinks’ graduate student (and also an author of a great undergraduate textbook in evolutionary biology).

      1. He is certainly a friend – I was once a guest at a reception for Dawkins at Blagdon Hall (the Viscount Ridley’s estate in Northumberland).

        I was able to access your TLS piece through our university library and it is terrific. In disparaging climate change science does Ridley disclose that his estate includes the largest open cast coal mine in the UK?

          1. Here’s one more interesting bit of information about Matt Ridley:

            Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking.[55] However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for failing to disclose in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group,[56] which has been described as, ‘the world’s largest provider of special equipment used in the process’ of fracking.[57]

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley

          2. I spent a few years in the area and would pass the mine each day on the train – it is enormous (to get an idea google “Shotton surface mine”). It is hardly surprising that Ridley would come out in opposition to environmental causes: as reported in the Guardian an environmental group calling themselves “Matt Ridley’s Conscience” were arrested at his estate back in October. With a mine like that his conscience should be uneasy.

  19. Private industry does not do enough basic science, the prerequisite for the work that applies that research.For example, before immunotherapy, there had to be a fundamental understanding of the immune system.
    Another example. no private company would have paid to investigate what makes red fruit flies versus white ones. Without have that work done, there would be no foundation to build technology on top of.

  20. Someone like Ridley who espouses the virtues of a neo-con philosophy when he was born into privilege and wealth makes me vomit.

    This ex-Etonian toff (this will have an immediate resonance for UK readers)became the 5th Viscount Ridley and Baron Wensleydale on the death of his father.

    Struggle, self-sacrifice, supremacy of will over human adversity…from a long line of aristocratic brats.

    1. I think you are misusing the term “neo-con,” which is not the same as libertarian. Maybe it’s different in the UK, but in the US (where the term originated), “neo-con” would not be an accurate descriptor of Ridley’s philosophy.

  21. Ridley is very good when sticking to evolution, …

    Mark Ridley (Dawkins’ student) is okay when he writes about evolution but Matt Ridley (the rich Visount) is not.

    He’s too much of an adaptationist for my liking even though he’s on the right side of the junk DNA debate. He managed to write an entire book about the human genome without ever discussing how genome evolve.

  22. “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 Nathan Myhrvold wrote in the January issue of Scientific American, Matt Ridley’s arguments are not just wrong, they are “dangerously wrong.”

    From the article:

    “In his new book, The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), for example, British science writer Matt Ridley claims that government just gets in the way of the natural evolution of science and invention. Many in the U.S. Congress agree. We spend too much taxpayer money on science, some politicians say. Government should leave it to companies to finance the research they need.

    These arguments are dangerously wrong. Without government support, most basic scientific research will never happen. This is most clearly true for the kind of pure research that has delivered enormous prestige and great intellectual benefits but no profits, such as the work that brought us the Higgs boson, or the understanding that a supermassive black hole sits at the center of the Milky Way, or the discovery of methane seas on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. Company research laboratories used to do this kind of work: experimental evidence for the big bang was discovered at AT&T’s Bell Labs, resulting in a Nobel Prize. Now those days are gone.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/basic-science-can-t-survive-without-government-funding/

  23. I worked for Northern Rock at the time of its collapse. Matt Ridley as chairman was almost totally invisible, and whilst that didn’t matter at my relatively lowly level, it was clear that both he and the rest of the board had not the least clue as to what was really happening in the company.

    The collapse was absolutely not caused by overly stringent regulation! What an extraordinary claim. At a ‘shop floor’ level it was caused by a system of credit scoring that was marketed as being risk averse, but in reality allowed mortgage loans that should never have seen the light of day, and would have been declined by manual intervention; by a tsunami level of fraud that was totally out of control; and by the massive manipulation of default statistics for which three directors were fined. At a more senior level, there was a total lack of effective supervision by executive officers, by the board of directors, by the chairman (Ridley), and by the Bank of England and its regulators. All seemed to be in frightened awe of an overly dominant chief executive who didn’t himself understand the business.

    Matt Ridley is a good science writer. When it comes to his wider views on the economy he’s a bit of a fruitcake.

    1. “At a ‘shop floor’ level it was caused by a system of credit scoring that was marketed as being risk averse, but in reality allowed mortgage loans that should never have seen the light of day, and would have been declined by manual intervention”

      Yes: As you said: Fraud.

    2. Little Matt Horner
      Sat in his corner,
      Sucking his clients dry:
      ‘We’re all selfish cads,
      So bugger you, lads –
      The one who is fittest is I!’

  24. This seems very close to social Darwinism which Dawkins detests. We know it is factually wrong. Dawkins is very good at using analogies when explaining scientific facts, but he is also careful to point out their limitations. Evolutionary biologists have a difficult (impossible?) enough time trying to convince the scientifically illiterate of the beauty (because it is a fact) of evolution that they shoot themselves in the foot when they try to extend it beyond the biological world.

  25. Can anyone imagine a completely privatised military, you know, with heavy artillery, gunships and attack helicopters? I think such armies currently roam some African countries, maybe have a look there.

    1. I think we can actually. It use to be called Black Water but I think they have changed the name for obvious reasons.

  26. Interesting review (based on the summary here – I have not seen the full version). Your excerpts and comments push all my buttons as to why I tend to dislike libertarianism, and many libertarians. They are especially prone to all-encompassing statements, like “bottom up is always better than top-down” and “privatization is always better than government run.” Leaving aside that most of such statements are silly on the face of it, the problem is these statements aren’t made just to frame a debate or discussion, but are posed like a mathematical axiom, or a religious doctrine. And, just like religion, they are defended to the death by ignoring contrariety evidence and (as greatly exemplify by Ridley) denigrating their opponents. As an over-generalization, libertarians remind me of sophomores who’ve crystallized their world view for the first time, but have very little real-life experience.

  27. “But such is the Procrustean Bed that Ridley makes, forcing all phenomena into his theory.”

    This seems very similar to what David Sloan Wilson was trying to do with his recent book, only he was doing it from a group-selection perspective.

    1. Add to that bank-busting, coal-mining, fossil-fuel aggrandizing, climate change shrugger/denier.

      I am reminded of all those cigarette companies who assured us all that there was no problem to see, so move right along now public.

  28. I must admit I have not read the book. However, I do find it surprising that so many libertarians dismiss problems associated with things like health care and the environment when it comes to the role of the state.

    The analysis underlying libertarianism is, I take it, the competitive neoclassical economic model. That model provides an economic optimum as an equilibrium solution. However, it does so under very stringent assumptions. And that should give someone pause when claiming a lot for libertarian ideas. In the case of health care, there are problems associated with local monopolies (hospitals), imperfect information (we are not all doctors, insurance), etc. In the case of the environment, obviously there are externalities and public goods; for biologists, think of humans as engaged in ecosystem engineering but oftentimes with uncompensated damage done to others, including to other species. In each case, pure market solutions are suboptimal.

    And what I’ve just said is not necessarily anathema to all libertarians. If you read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (and I’m not a fan of that book), you will see a recognition of both of these classes of problems. It seems many other libertarians ignore all that in an effort to avoid seeming muddle-headed. Unfortunately, the result is they look simple-minded instead.

    Suggestion: as an antidote, you might try Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers. It’s a very good read.

    1. Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society” was the first thing that came into my mind.

      My take on it would be that bottom-up problem solving works good in environments where predictions and planning are likely to be overtaken by new events.

  29. I found his assessment/reassessment of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene on the occasion of its 40th year, a very good read. Ridley can write and his short summaries of Dawkins’s books are remarkable.

    It can be read for free–not the usual firewall–at Nature. “In Retrospect: The Selfish Gene.” Google gets you there quickly.

  30. I’ll have to read this post in greater detail when time allows, PCCE, but your review reminds me of what Jonathan Miller once wrote about John Updike’s book, The Centaur”:

    “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

  31. “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 would have to check this, but I think private healthcare here in Sweden was instituted with some thought towards lowering healthcare cost or else improving quality at the same cost.

    Or at least it was surveyed for that later. Alas, so far (and it is now old enough to have passed beyond any teething problems), the bad news it isn’t lowering cost or improving quality. The good news on the other hand is that it isn’t raising costs or degrading quality…

  32. Hasn’t libertarianism been tried and rejected? I think of Dickensian England, or turn of the (20th) century US. Americans demanded government regulation of food safety after The Jungle was published. And they demanded government regulation of medicine after thousands were poisoned by harmful snake-oil “cures.” Over and over, societies have demanded government intervention when private industry has taken advantage of people for increased profits. Why do think this will not happen again?

    1. Libertarians, with the possible exclusion of Ridley, acknowledge the role of state to protect citizens against violence and fraud. Selling snake-oil “drugs” and poisoned food without disclosure is fraud.

      1. Selling snake-oil “drugs” and poisoned food without disclosure is fraud.

        So … you say “I know of no problems with this [food, drug, sexual prosthetic, whatever]” and you are careful to not do any testing and to insulate yourself from any criticism. You’ll need a minion to answer the “your [stuff] ate my baby’s head” letters and to explicitly keep them away from your attention.

        1. Actually, they do not say just “I know of no problems”. They make brave claims. E.g. the Danone company claimed that its yogurts regulate digestion, and flooded our TV channels with stupid ads. I and many my compatriots gloated when Danone was fined for trying the same in the USA. The bad US authorities demanded evidence for the yogurts’ magic action and when none was produced, issued the fine.

          1. While Danone and such like may be useless, they’re not likely to be noticeably harmful. Which is not how “snake oil” is normally considered – along with ethylene glycol as a wine sweetener, and homoeopathic AIDS treatments.
            But even so, I’m surprised they were fined in the USA. They must have annoyed some established company.

      2. Maybe we’ve been dealing with very different Libertarians, but every one I’ve ever spoken to wants to eliminate government regulation of trade, wants to do away with the Food and Drug Administration, wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, and wants the Invisible Hand of the Free Market to bring peace and harmony to the world. They say things like, “If someone sells a drug that kills people, people will stop buying it and they’ll go out of business. The market will take care of it.”

        1. The historical (not to mention ethical) naivite is astonishing, isn’t it? (I remember arguing online once with a US-sense libertarian and I had to have him read the history of why the FDA and such exist, because that’s always omitted from their “materials”.)

  33. Funny, I see libertarian ideas falsified in evolutionary biology because we are not arachnids. We didn’t evolve as independent individualists. We evolved and thrived in tribes and then, much later, in civilizations. Our survival and flourishing has been dependent upon the stability and harmony of our tribal organisations. Like wolves, we’re social animals. And like in nature, a lone wolf soon becomes a dead wolf.

  34. I can’t wait to get back to the pre-1861 era of private money [there were no federal banknotes before 1861.] There were a couple thousand private banks, issuing maybe fifteen to twenty thousand different bank note designs. Of course, I would have to subscribe to a bank note reporter [a publication that told me how many pennies on the dollar a particular bank’s currency was worth – every bank or major merchant had to have one in that era.] And I’d need a counterfeit detector – but at least I wouldn’t have to pay for a new one each month.

  35. Ridley put in his political views in his Origin of Virtue book and it seemed really out of context. Like he just couldn’t leave without adding it. I wrote this on Goodreads;

    the very end of the book, it seems Ridley couldn’t hold in his own personal political opinions about “big government” and the desire to get rid of government (which he thinks is too authoritarian) & relegate it to only defence to leave local groups to get on with the rest themselves. He is very much against the Leviathan. I might have given his ideas more of a chance if he had shown statistical proof that such a model works. Instead, he backs it up only with a notion of success being in the ability to trust one another and become invested in outcomes. I agree with this part, but I don’t think he argued well enough that this necessarily translates into a great reduction in the reach and protection of the Leviathan.

  36. “But such is the Procrustean Bed that Ridley makes, forcing all phenomena into his theory.”

    Sounds to me a lot like another ideology we all know and love: religion.

    It’s clear that some aspects of libertarianism are very attractive. We all want to maximize individual freedom and to unleash the creativity of markets, etc. But, oddly advocates like Riddley always seem queerly stupid when they start talking about eliminating government. There has to be a balance and I think most modern Western governments are probably circling around that balance as it is. There are certainly many fixes that can be made to modern governments to make a libertarian/socialism work.

  37. reading 3/4 of Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature… and really it looks like a Hobessian State is a bottom-up idea: most groups tend to self organize and coalesce. Democratic States are a 2-way function: those in power cannot just do whatever they want, the system self regulates them. A Health Care bill it is just not a bottom up decision, it is the result of several forces and checks and balances. Sometimes the solution is not the “optimal” (usually to some group), it took “longer” to reach (to some again), etc. Those non democratic governments that really take top down decisions are really bad: just think Mao and Stalin. The best conclusion is that strong/good states, democratic systems and systems of check and balances (free journalism) work in a system that tends to take the fittest decision at the time, sometimes looking that the final objective is not well defined (non directed government). Really good that no more 1000 years Reichs!

  38. Lots of folks initially confuse Matt Ridley with Mark Ridley.

    Mark Ridley is an evolutionary biologist, and fellow grad student of Alan Grafen; both studied under Dawkins at Oxford (Ridley: D. Phil 1982). Mark Ridley has written a lot of books, but few are pop-science. One of his most important contributions, in my mind, was to resuscitate the comparative method in biology using discrete characters (1983: An explanation of organic diversity); this book predates the other influential books by Brooks/McLellan and Harvey/Pagel by many years.

    Matt Ridley has no relation to Mark, but also writes on Evolutionary Biology (e.g., The Red Queen), and also has a D. Phil from Oxford in Zoology (1983).

  39. [JAC: add gravity waves to that now!]

    Gravity waves have been known for centuries. The recent instrument detection measured gravitational waves, not gravity waves.

    Gravity waves are the ripples in water when you drop a pebble in it. Similar effects occur in the atmosphere when wind blows over a mountain range.

    Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by varying gravitation. Any moving mass causes gravitational waves.

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