Coal baron and part-time climate denier Viscount Matt Ridley has suffered a stinging rebuke from the political professor John Gray in a review of his new popular science title, The Evolution of Everything.
Gray, the “pre-eminent philosopher of [the] day”, has attacked Ridley’s latest opus as “a bumptious and tediously repetitive tract”, and a “dated and mechanical version of rightwing libertarianism”, while suggesting his arguments are “primitive and incoherent.”
Ridley has taken the extraordinary step of defending social Darwinism: the belief that the fittest societies and institutions survive historical development and, therefore, represent progress or a higher form of existence.
‘Anything but New’
The view is anything but new. As Gray points out, social Darwinism was popularised by Friedrich von Hayek during the 1940s as the central justification for extreme free market economics, and is known in academic circles as neoliberalism.
But social Darwinism has always been tainted by its association with Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the same period, and, more generally, its association with Fascism. The idea that humans are like rats fighting to survive is pernicious and is not supported by the latest developments in evolutionary physiology.
Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics (where Hayek once taught), and is lead book reviewer for the Guardian. His attack on Ridley’s latest work is scathing.
Ridley apparently claims that free market capitalism is the highest form of human evolution, but fails to recognise that, if the state and regulations exist today, they must logically be part of the same evolutionary progress.
Worse still, Ridley goes back on what appeared to be a sincere apology for his central role in the collapse of Northern Rock, which left thousands of families destitute, instead blaming state regulators and outside interference.
Gray compares Ridley’s new revelations to the predictions of the 19th-century “prophet of early capitalism”, Herbert Spencer.
He adds: “Spencer’s last years were spent in baffled gloom. On the basis of this bumptious and tediously repetitive tract, it’s difficult to imagine Ridley displaying a similar capacity for realistic observation or self-criticism.”
The philosopher attacks Ridley as holding “a dated and mechanical version of rightwing libertarianism,” and asks: “Why should anyone accept Ridley’s libertarianism?”
Later in the review, he adds: “If he was a more serious and reflective writer, Ridley might have given some thought to Evolution and Ethics, a lecture given in 1893 by T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s first and greatest disciple. Huxley was concerned to debunk the idea that evolution could teach anything of ethical importance.”
He goes on to say: “Ridley recommends letting evolution take its course. But any halfway civilised morality involves interfering with the evolutionary process. There is nothing in any theory of evolution that tells us to protect the weak and help them live independent and worthwhile lives.”
“If The Evolution of Everything has any value, it’s as a demonstration that, outside of science, there isn’t much progress – even of the vaguer sort – in the history of thought.
“Bad ideas aren’t defeated by falsification, and they don’t fade away. As Ridley’s book shows, they simply recur, quite often in increasingly primitive and incoherent forms.”
The demolition by Gray is even more effective because the English philosopher has demonstrated no tribal political allegiance, attacking Communism, Enlightenment philosophy and Humanism.
Human progress itself is a myth. We are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”. He has, however, expressed increasing concern about the destruction of the natural environment.
Photo: IAB UK via Flickr