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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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem