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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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain