Posts Tagged ‘Matt Ridley’
Over the holidays I began to read some recent books on cultural evolution. I began with Matt Ridley`s The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (HarperCollins 2015) because it has received a fair amount of attention. From what I had read and heard, I expected to both love and hate this book. I expected to love it because it is about the “general” (largely cultural) evolution of, well, EVERYTHING. Sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue are 16 short chapters on the evolution of each of the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money and the internet!
To be sure, some of the chapters are not about what their titles would lead one to expect. Chapter 1 titled the evolution of the universe is not about the evolution of the universe at all. Instead it is about the history of western philosophy and science from Lucretius through Newton to Darwin told as a tale of more or less linear progress (but with many “swerves”) supposedly towards empiricism and atheism! Chapter 2 titled the evolution of life is not about the origins of life at all, instead it is about biological evolution in general, and more specifically, a pretty conventional account of how the concept of natural selection has largely won out over theories of design from pre-Darwinian natural theology including right up to the American legal wins over scientific creationism and intelligent design. It includes a few (I suspect) deliberately provocative claims such as that Darwin was really “rediscovering” Empedocles and Lucretius (p. 52)! Chapter 4 on the other hand titled the evolution of genes is about the origins of life. Chapter 8 on the evolution of the mind is not about the evolution of the mind at all. Instead it is about how the mind as opposed to the brain is a fiction. Oh well, enough of that.
Ridley’s real aim is to use evolutionary theory as a sort of coat tree on which to hang his neo-liberal or libertarian politics – in support of “private property, free trade, low taxes, limited government and freedom of the individual” while viewing the “modern state” as “liberal fascism” (p.243). Along the way he takes swipes at and not uncommonly pontificates at length against public health care, critics of genetic modification and fracking, the public funding of science, formal and particularly public education, patent systems, the belief that global inequality is increasing, government monopolies on money, fear of the consequences of climate change, that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation and so on. He even claims we could get rid of governments (p. 313) while from time to time piously championing “relief for the needy” (e.g. p. 243). To be sure he avoids the late 19th and early 20th century misuse of Darwinism to advocate for eugenics which came to be associated with forced sterilization, discrimination, and even genocide – in fact, in chapter 11, he explicitly disavows such views. Whether I agree or disagree with his politics is not the point. I resent claims that scientific theories can be used to answer questions of value as opposed to providing those responsible for making such decisions whether in the public, private, or voluntary sectors with useful information. No scientific theory has been more misused in such ways than Darwinism. Anyone who thinks science can answer questions of value rather than providing information to decision makers should read the great 19th century sociologist Max Weber’s wonderful essays on “science as a vocation” and “politics as a vocation”. (Continued)