Matt Ridley on John Gray

Former Northern Rock chairman responds to the NS's lead book reviewer.

The next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow, carries a letter from Matt Ridley, science writer and former non-executive chairman of Northern Rock. Ridley is responding to a review of his book The Rational Optimist by the NS's lead reviewer, John Gray. We were only able to run a truncated version of the letter in the magazine. Here is the letter in full:

John Gray, in his review of my book The Rational Optimist accuses me of being an apologist for social Darwinism. This vile accusation could not be farther from the truth. I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social Darwinism in several of my books. I have consistently argued that both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and practically foolish. In my new book I make a wholly different and more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and die. That is to say, culture changes by the mutation and selective survival of tools and rules without people suffering, indeed while people themselves prosper. This is precisely the opposite of social Darwinism in the sense that it is an evolutionary process that enables the least fit people to thrive as much as the fittest.

Gray writes:`"There is nothing in society that resembles the natural selection of random genetic mutations; even if such a mechanism existed, there is nothing to say its workings would be benign. Bad ideas do not evolve into better ones." I refer him to the wok of Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Joe Henrich and others on exactly this point, especially their fascinating paper "Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution" (pdf). As for the notion that this cultural evolution is not benign, I prefer to live in a world where global child mortality has fallen by two-thirds in my own lifetime, a world where hunger and slavery are slowly disappearing, racial and sexual equality are generally improving, the goods and services that the average person can afford are increasing and many rivers and the air of many cities are rapidly getting cleaner. These things come about through the selective survival of technologies and ways of organizing them. Government plays a role, yes, but so do other human institutions.

Gray writes that "In Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the small Pacific nations, some of the world's poorest societies are already suffering from climate change. Telling them they need more economic growth is not very helpful when they are being destroyed by drought or rising sea levels." This remark, worthy of Marie-Antoinette, could not be more wrong. The suffering caused by climate change is (and is predicted by the IPCC for decades to continue to be) minuscule compared with the suffering already being caused by preventable problems: malaria, malnutrition, indoor air pollution, dirty water. Solving those problems through the eradication of poverty (ie, economic growth) would not only save far more lives, it would also enable people to tolerate climate change better without suffering. The World Health Organisation estimated in 2002 that 150,000 people were dying each year as a result of climate change. Even if you ignore the suspect assumptions behind this number (it includes an arbitrary proportion of diarrhoea and malaria deaths, and in a later estimate even inter-clan warfare in Somalia), these deaths represent less than 0.2 per cent of all deaths and are dwarfed by deaths caused by iron deficiency, cholesterol, unsafe sex, tobacco, traffic accidents and other things, not to mention "ordinary" diarrhoea and malaria.

Finally, Gray hilariously writes that "Laissez-faire was...imposed on society through the use of state power." Should a slave be grateful to be released or angry at having been enslaved in the first place?

I don't presume to speak for John Gray (he's more than capable of defending himself), but I can't resist making one or two observations about Ridley's letter. Let's take first the "vile accusation", allegedly made by Gray, that Ridley is an "apologist for social Darwinism". Ridley says he has "resolutely criticised both eugenics and social Darwinism". He protests too much, for Gray nowhere accuses him of being an apologist for eugenics. Rather, he argues that Ridley's book "reproduces some of the most pernicious myths of Social Darwinism". It's clear from the rest of the paragraph in which that claim appears that Gray has one particular "myth" in mind (and, indeed, says nothing whatsoever about eugenics) - and this is that evolution is synonymous with human progress. Gray writes, citing Darwin, not the founder of Social Darwinism Herbert Spencer, that "natural selection has nothing to do with progress - as Darwin put it in his Autobiography, it is like the wind, which blows without any design or purpose". Moreover, if Ridley knows anything about Gray's work, he'll know that he's an unsparing critic of all versions of this distinctively modern "myth" - Marxism, certain forms of liberalism, indeed any view of the world according to which human beings are converging ineluctably on some secular paradise or other (communism or the perfectly free market, say), which, once attained, will never be lost.

Ridley goes on to attribute, at least indirectly, to Gray the view that "cultural evolution", if there is such a thing, is "not benign". He says he prefers to "live in a world where global child mortality has fallen by two-thirds in my own lifetime, a world where hunger and slavery are slowly disappearing, racial and sexual equality are generally improving, the goods and services that the average person can afford are increasing and many rivers and the air of many cities are rapidly getting cleaner". I can't see that Gray anywhere says he doesn't prefer that such conditions obtain, nor that there is no such thing as moral improvement. But I suspect he would warn against assuming such gains to be permanent and ineradicable effects of ironclad historical necessity.

Do let us know what you make of Ridley's attempt to refute Gray in the comments box below.


Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.