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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/15/17

Review of Matt Ridley's Evolution of Everything

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Matt Ridley is Hereditary member of the House of Lords, and a Tory. "Viscount Ridley is a title in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. It was created in 1900 for the Conservative politician Sir Matthew White Ridley, 5th Baronet, Home Secretary from 1895 to 1900. " (source)

Ridley is a climate change skeptic, has interests in coal mines, is a proponent of fracking, and is in favor of Brexit.

"Ridley was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, during which period Northern Rock experienced the first run on a British bank in 150 years. Ridley chose to resign, and the bank was bailed out by the UK government leading to the nationalisation of Northern Rock." (source)

Evolution of Everything
Evolution of Everything
(Image by Matt Ridley)
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Ridley's 2015 book Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge is a well-written libertarian manifesto that attacks religion, government, regulations, public education, and environmentalism.

Ridley is clearly smart, and he's a good writer. (Few U.S. politicians are as educated.) He's written books on biology, and the first chapters of Evolution of Everything are a convincing account of how life evolved through random mutation and natural selection.

But the rest of the book devolves into an imbalanced libertarian ("bottom-up") screed.

In a discussion of the Nature versus Nurture debate, Ridley defends Nature. He argues that, to a larger extent than people want to admit, it's not society or even parents that determine the personality or success of children. Rather, it's genetics.

He summarizes the intellectual history of such debates. Because genetic determinism could be used to justify racism and sexism, for many years research suggesting a strong role for Nature (versus Nurture) was strongly condemned by the social sciences. More recently, it's been become acceptable to acknowledge that babies are not a blank slate and that there are innate sex differences.

Judith Rich Harris was one of the most successful proponents of the Nurture side of the debate. At first, opposition to her findings was "furious." Ridley says "Natural selection made sure that brainwashing was not easy. And it's time we stopped looking to parenting for the credit or the blame."

Ridley is clever, but his cleverness approaches sophistry. He calls it a "meritocratic result" that children's intelligence and success in life are mostly determined by their genes and not by society or their parents.

"[A] world where nurture was everything would be horribly more cruel than one where nature allowed people to escape their disadvantages through their own talents. How particularly nasty to write people off because they were born in a slum, or fostered
by indifferent parents" Nature is the friend of social mobility.

Believers in Nurture don't want to "write off" people born in slums. They want to help them overcome their accidental disadvantages. A world where everything is determined by genes would be cruel, because people couldn't escape their genetic natures.

Ridley criticizes and ridicules religions, and argues that they too evolve. Christianity and Islam evolved from pre-existing religions, though their followers would like to believe that they were revealed from on high ("sky hooks").

Similarly, legal systems evolved bottom-up, he says. "It is an extraordinary fact, unremembered by most, that in the Anglosphere people live by laws that did not originate with governments at all." Rather, most laws emerged from common law.

He argues that even in the absence of governments, people arrange for justice and policing bottom-up, via ostracism, gangs, and private police forces. In prisons, inmates self-govern. Such government is often brutal and injustice, but the same can be said for a lot of top-down government.

A late chapter tells stories of successful private banking systems with private currency; it portrays central banks as enablers of fraud and bad lending. According to libertarians such as Ron Paul, the Federal Reserve is a state-sanctioned monopoly. Far better to allow private money. "Bottom-up monetary systems -- known as free banking -- have a far better track record than top-down ones."

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Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, activist, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my (more...)

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