The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The ex-Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley is an apologist for social Darwinism. His book is proof th

Before the run on Northern Rock, practically nobody imagined that the banking system could crash. Financial institutions had been showing signs of strain ever since Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), a highly leveraged hedge fund, blew up in September 1998, nine years before lines of desperate savers began to form outside the offices of the former Tyneside building society. Debt of all kinds had risen to levels beyond anything in living memory. Even so, anyone who suggested that the type of ­turbocharged capitalism released by financial deregulation might be dangerously fragile was dismissed as a doom-monger. Like a successful species that had driven out its evolutionary competitors, hypercapitalism was advancing inexorably throughout the world. How could this Darwinian winner possibly self-destruct?

The failure to perceive the mounting risk of systemic crisis had several sources. Human beings learn too much from the recent past. Despite the meltdown of LTCM, the previous two decades had been a time of apparent calm in the markets. Inevitably, theories emerged - the "long boom", the "end of history" - in which this uneasy interlude was represented as a permanent state of stability. Such theories reinforced the tendency to extrapolate from the near past, but they did more than that. Operating as an ideology, they persuaded many that the unfettered market was not only irresistibly powerful, but also socially benign.

Three years after savers began queuing outside Northern Rock, western finance capitalism is in a worsening crisis, with the bailing out of an insolvent banking system leading to insolvency in government. At the same time, the ideology that legitimated this breed of capitalism is as powerful as ever. As non-executive chair of Northern Rock in the years leading up to its collapse, Matt Ridley can hardly have failed to reflect on the crisis; but there is no sign of him having learned anything from it. He devotes less than a page of The Rational Optimist to the crisis, blaming it on "government monetary and housing policy". The implication is clear: if only governments had not tampered with the market, all would have been well.

As the subtitle of his book indicates, Ridley sees free markets as part of the evolutionary process. This is not evolution of the kind bio­logists understand, however. "Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection," he writes. "But it is selection among ideas, not genes." Like Rich­ard Dawkins, another neo-Darwinian missionary, Ridley is a believer in memes - units of meaning that supposedly explain human development. Applying the idea to economics, he writes that "whole economies evolve by natural selection". Just as biological evolution works by bringing together the genes of different individuals, cultural evolution occurs "when ideas meet and mate" in market exchange. “Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution," he writes. The history of humankind is no more than the working out of this simple equation.

There is nothing new in this kind of thinking. It was the eccentric Victorian sage Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who coined the expression "survival of the fittest" and promoted the idea that laissez-faire capitalism was the final stage of social evolution. Impressed by Spencer's work, Sidney and Beatrice Webb adopted his idea that economic systems evolve in competition with one another, but nominated Stalinist collectivism rather than the free market as the final winner. Laissez-faire was reinstated as the winning system towards the end of the 20th century, when Spencer's ideology was resurrected in the later writings of Friedrich Hayek. Ridley is doing little more than recycle some of the aged Hayek's dafter ideas.

Whatever political goals it is used to promote, the idea of cultural evolution is not much more than a misleading metaphor. Laissez-faire was not the result of any spontaneous process of social evolution; it was imposed on society through the use of state power. Memes are just a pseudo-scientific way of talking about ideas, not actually existing physical entities. 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. They tend to recur, as racist memes are doing at present in parts of the world where economic dis­location is reviving hatred of minorities and immigrants. Knowledge advances, but in ethics and politics the same old rubbish keeps on piling up. The idea of social evolution is rubbish of this kind, a virulent meme that continues to reproduce and spread despite having been refuted time and time again.

The best evidence against Ridley's claim that ideas evolve is the existence of this book, which reproduces some of the most pernicious myths of social Darwinism. Spencer and his disciples thought evolution was a progressive movement from lower to higher forms of life. But 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. Certainly human development has been affected by the material environment - geography, climate and resource scarcity, for example. But rather than evolving, societies regularly break down, and what comes next is determined by power, chance and (occasionally) human choices rather than any supposed evolutionary laws. Evolution is one thing, progress another, and human history something else again.

Disdainful or ignorant of the past, Ridley is uninterested in the forces that shape events. He writes hundreds of pages about the wealth-increasing virtues of free markets, but allots post-Mao China only a few lines. This brevity is symptomatic, as China falsifies Ridley's central thesis; the largest burst of continuous economic growth in history has occurred without the benefit of free markets. Wealth has been created as never before, not as a result of evolutionary change, but as a product of revolution and dictatorship.

For Ridley, rationality has nothing to do with checking that his beliefs are true. If awkward facts crop up, he ignores them. China is one such fact; another is climate change. He does not exactly deny the existence of global warming, but leaving scientific evidence aside, he invokes the spectre of the world's poor. Developing countries need industrial growth, so global warming is beside the point: "The richer they get, the less weather-dependent their econo­mies will be and the more affordable they will find adaptation to climate change." Here, a demotic appeal to sympathy is combined with dogmatic disregard for real-life conditions. 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. In these circumstances, it is Ridley's gung-ho progressivism that is beside the point.

What is needed more than anything else is a clear-eyed view of where we are now and where we might be heading. It is a pleasure to turn from Ridley's febrile visions to Marek Kohn's grimly realistic and yet in many ways inspiring account of how global warming will affect life in Britain. A richly detailed, engrossingly readable history of how Britain came to be the way it is, Turned Out Nice is also a riveting description of what Britain is likely to become. The future Kohn presents is robustly grounded in science, and disturbing. Increased risk of flooding in London and other cities, peak summer temperatures in the capital nearly 7°C hotter than they were in 2000 and inequalities widening further as environmental migrants end up in an expanded servant class - these are only a few of the unsettling changes he anticipates.

The global picture is no less discomfiting. As Kohn writes, "The standard scenarios all confidently expect that wealth will grow along with warmth." In reality, economic development has never been smooth. The growth of wealth has been disrupted regularly by war and revolution, and the rapid recovery that occurred after many 20th-century conflicts will be harder to achieve in a world of accelerating climate change. The conventional wisdom expects that the population will level off around nine billion as a result of higher living standards spread by globalisation. Kohn points to another scenario, in which industrialisation continues while globalisation goes into reverse. In a world of this kind, living standards will rise more unevenly and human numbers will increase to roughly 15 billion.

The picture of the future that Kohn presents is pretty dark, but by no means all grim. Turned Out Nice is full with examples of how we can cope with a shift that can no longer be stopped. We can adjust to intensive city living with "vertical allotments" in stairwells, roof lawns and rejuvenated urban parks. People may be less mobile, but their environment could still be more variegated. Outside cities, the changing climate could be good news for beavers, lynxes and eagles. Britain and the world will be altered, but life will go on.

History is not a process of continuous development, more one of recurrently punctuated equilibrium. In the long sweep of events, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the collapse of Northern Rock, or - in the history of the planet - in global warming. Discontinuity, not gradual change, is the norm. Rather than clinging to flimsy narratives of progress, we need to cultivate the art of intelligent improvisation. That means junking a good deal of rubbish from the past, starting with the idea that free markets are the end point of human evolution.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings" (Penguin, £10.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide