A critique of Matt Ridley’s meme-based social darwinism

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 savages Matt Ridley’s neoliberal tract, The Rational Optimist:

“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.”

6 Comments A critique of Matt Ridley’s meme-based social darwinism

  1. AvatarFrank S. Robinson

    It is difficult to know where to begin in critiquing the extreme foolishness of this review. For one thing, China may have an authoritarian government — but its economy is essentially one of the most unregulated on Earth! And it is downright idiotic to say that economic growth won’t help poor countries cope with climate change. This disdain for economic growth is common among supercilious intellectuals who live cushy lives of affluence as a result of economic growth, and bemoan the plight of the poor while opposing everything that would actually help them become not-poor.
    John Gray is quite simply in denial about the big picture: 1) life has gotten hugely better for the average human over the past few centuries; 2) there are powerful reasons for that, which are continuing to operate; and 3) more freedom is better than less, not only because it is morally preferable, but also because it makes people better off, with more rewarding lives. ?These are Ridley’s basic messages. And also mine, in my own book: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  2. AvatarDavid MacRae

    Laissez-faire was not the result of any spontaneous process of social evolution; it was imposed on society through the use of state power.

    What an astonishingly stupid statement. You have to spend many years beating every last drop of common sense out of your system in order to come up with such an oxymoron of this magnitude.

    Laissez-faire is, by definition, the antithesis of state power. The notion that it can be imposed by the state is quite absurd as it is what exists in the absence of state power. By definition.

    The author is vaguely right about one thing, however, although unsurprisingly he completely misses the point. Laissez-faire is (and kindly use the proper tense of the verb) not the result of any spontaneous process of social evolution. On the contrary,laissez-faire is the cause of social evolution, the motor on which it runs. All development, all progress, all innovation is a consequence of the hard work of free men. The state and its sycophants produce nothing; they only steal from the productive.

    Given such fundamental ignorance about the nature of human societies, is not surprising that the rest of the piece is pure drivel.

    There is nothing in society that resembles the natural selection of random genetic mutations

    Like I said, pure drivel. Does Gray honestly believe that all societal change is random and that there has been no progress since the creation of the human race? It’s all been a random walk? Of course, that’s nonsense. Apparently he does because he says it in so many words. According to him, human societies have evolved from spears and clubs to space travel and antibiotics simply by pure accident.

    Other people (let’s call them people who think) take the opposite position – that there clearly is something driving change and progress. What’s more that something has a name. That name is laissez-faire. Laissez-faire is simply the process of the evolution of ideas. It is the cause, not the effect,of
    social evolution.

    Ridley wrote a book about this. You seriously have to wonder whether Gray ever opened it before demonstrating the depth of his ignorance of human societies and of evolution (natural evolution is also an example of laissez-faire; after all, it too exists in the absence of state power).

    Ridley’s points are scarcely original. Jane Jacobs wrote an entire book, “The Nature of Economics”, on this exact topic and F.A. Hayek discusses it extensively in “Socialism: The Fatal Conceit.”

    I’m sure that Gray has never read either of them, although he has likely heard of the authors. There would be no point in reading them anyway. He has done a far too good a job of destroying his common sense and so would never understand either of them. If can’t understand Ridley’s simple and manifestly obvious point, how could he possibly follow the more subtle arguments of a Jacobs or a Hayek?

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear David,

    You can of course define laisser-faire as you want, but if you define the way you do, then it has no historical reality, since laisser-faire was historically imposed, and it required dispossessing the mass of the population from their productive resources, in order for them to become ‘free labour’ that could operate in a marketplace. This has been documented multiple and multiple times by any historial who studied the period, but Polanyi’s Great Transformation is a good start.

    So laisser-faire, as a historical reality, is dependent on the force of state power to achieve that dispossession. There can be no market or free market, without institutions to protect and maintain it.

    I’m assuming that your anti-statism is ideological, and therefore without possible correction.

    This is of course not to say that state power is beneficial ‘as such’. The role it plays has evolved over time, but no differentiated class society is really possible without it, and that’s a reality that humanity left in tribal times, at least 5,000 years ago.

    Similarly, Gray’s point of natural selection having no direction is pretty mainstream. Again this is not to say that some things progress, but other things decline. I am myself partial to the idea that human consciousness has evolved, and I believe there can be evidence for this. However, saying there is progress ‘in general’, is very contentious and pretty much dead in scholarship, where it is considered a 19th century idea.

    Gray is a pessimist, others are optimistic, in my view these are basic attitudes, that are not necessarily dependent on reality, but on one’s personal disposition.

    Gray is also a extremely well read philosopher, he probably read all the books you mention, he just interprets them differently.


  4. AvatarBrad Potts


    While I do not particularly argue with your description of the origination of modern capitalism (I will fully acknowledge that modern economies largely exist as a privileged political class standing on top of a consistently undermined laboring class), but this conflation of modern capitalism with laissez-faire is silly.

    You must understand the difference between government maintenance of an economies constitution (setting ethical rules and upholding them), and active management (managing the rules in order to pursue certain economic goals). A laissez faire economy can certainly rest on government intrusion, its just that the intrusion goes towards maintaining the rules of the system. And that system is not beneficial because it is a result of social evolution, but because it allows for social evolution.

    Ultimately the question is whether society better organizes itself (contrary to Gray’s comments, it does at all times), or if it is better directed.

    Arguments for oversight are certainly valid, but I think history shows pretty conclusively the power of the free market for wealth generation and overall quality of life improvement.

    I suppose the obvious track record of governments to intervene on behalf of the politically connected that Gray seems to reference and which shows up pretty much universally throughout history would probably serve as a better reminder of the benefits of the free market. I think Gray’s critique of the free market can probably be shuffled into the “Free markets fail because government intervenes on behalf of the rich” garbage bin.

    And to David, John Gray has written a book on Hayek that was apparently good and fair, although I haven’t read it.

  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Brad,

    History can be read in many different ways. For example, despite the lead of laissez faire Britain in the 19th century, Germany started overtaking it, as it developed new industries such as the chemical industry. Accident of laisser-faire, no!, the result of an active and ‘intelligent’ government policy. Or take the U.S. was it more successfull from 1945 to 1975 or after, i.e. with more government intervention rather than less, well, growth rates plummeted in the 80’s. Or take current success stories, China, Korea, Brazil, all characteristized by strong government policies. So where you say the free market has demonstrated, I would the regulated market has demonstrated, while time and again, unregulated liberal versions, before WWI, before 1929, before 2008, have each time led to enormous social catastrophes and ultimately to large scale civil war and revolutions … In this sense, governments and the state always had to protect the business elite and its ideology, against its own excesses .. In practice, laisser faire, though it has its genuine enthusiasts, in practice has always been used against state interventions that have socially beneficially goals, and to replace social welfare with corporate nanny states … so the fiction of capital without the state is used to restrict the benefits of state policy, rather than abolish it.

    The state can never be replaced or transcended by private for-profit logics only, but only if civil society develops its own collective regulation mechanisms.


  6. AvatarPhilip Shaw

    You say that Ridley dismisses China’s rise in a few paragraphs. But you miss the point entirely. China’s rise has occurred precisely because, post Mao, they embraced most aspects of a free market economy, while still retaining the facade of communism as a subterfuge to prop up a fascist style dictatorship. No wonder Hong Kong scares the hell out of them.

    The defeat of poverty and the rise of middle class prosperity in China is entirely consistent with Ridley’s thesis.

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