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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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