Sunday, September 18, 2016

Annoying books, cont'd: Matt Ridley's "The Evolution of Everything"


Matt Ridley's book, The Evolution of Everything, answers the question, “What if everything in the universe were to be understood as differentially-replicating elements, whose bestest alternatives have been tested in free competition and have thrived to produce all the good stuff in the world?” The first few chapters deal primarily with the evolution of the natural order, and the remaining dozen with the evolution of socio-cultural forms, and the big message is: Systems spontaneously create and maintain themselves efficiently without governmental interference.

The meaning of evolution is that all social planning is bad. In fact, it’s creationist.  Leave it all alone, and the cream will rise naturally to the top, as it always has, and the future will be as rosy as the past.

In the midst of all this cry for freedom and deregulation – including the environment, by the way, which the author apparently believes can also take care of itself – we encounter the occasional grudging admission that such freedom might not actually evolve the best of all possible worlds. “The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people is to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course contraception” (p. 214). But Ridley never mentions how this “doing” and “giving” will come about, when his entire social desideratum involves allowing the free market of natural selection to work without any centralized plan. Perhaps I can be forgiven, then, if I doubt the author’s sincerity when he sheds a few tears on behalf of common folk.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and historian Richard Hofstadter are helpfully identified as Marxists, although the latter’s identity is merged with that of the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who may or may not be a Marxist. Just in case you’re worried about who the Marxists are. 

Apparently the author is.  Perhaps his obsession with Marxists arises from the fact that he is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, holding the rank of Viscount.  Much of the book consists of historical vignettes, but Ridley’s history is notably bloodless; one without colonialism, slavery, destitution, or exploitation, on which Marxist histories tend to harp.   It’s a happy history, of free trade, free markets, and free progress.  In other words, someone whose ancestors were busily rigging the system so that your ancestors and mine would suffer, now wants to tell you that the system works fine, so leave it alone.  

I actually found myself trying to suppress a sense of moral outrage as I worked my way through this book. Ridley idealizes a system of social behavior that runs on greed, maximizes inequality, and fails to engage with issues like justice and fairness.  It is a troubling caricature of Darwinism, and I frankly came to see the book as an abuse of science, as an attempt to rationalize an evil social philosophy by recourse to nature. “The whole idea of social mobility,” he explains, “is to find talent in the disadvantaged, to find people who have the nature but have missed the nurture” (p. 166). Well, no.  Actually the idea of social mobility is to reduce the overall proportion of privileged, wealthy douchebags who think that they owe their station in life to their inherent virtues.

You know what? Fuck him. Fuck his ancestors too.  What some inbred twit thinks the about the evolution of human society is about as relevant as what a raccoon thinks. The reason this kind of pervy-Darwinistic thought was repudiated many decades ago is that it was recognized as the vulgar self-interested bio-politics of the rich and powerful. If there is a Darwinian lesson to be extracted from the history of the 20th century, it is probably that the poor require constant protection from the ideologies of the overwealthy and underpigmented. 

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