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A review that misunderstands cultural evolution

I have sent the following letter to the New Statesman

Dear Sir,

John Gray, in his review of my book The
Rational Optimist accuses me of being an apologist for social
Darwinism. This vile accusation could not be farther from the
truth. I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social
Darwinism in several of my books. I have consistently argued that
both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and
practically foolish. In my new book I make a wholly different and
more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among
ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and
die. That is to say, culture changes by the mutation and selective
survival of tools and rules without people suffering, indeed while
people themselves prosper. This is precisely the opposite of social
Darwinism in the sense that it is an evolutionary process that
enables the least fit people to thrive as much as the fittest.

Gray writes `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.’ I refer
him to the wok of Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Joe Henrich and
others on exactly this point, especially their fascinating
`Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution’
. As for the
notion that this cultural evolution is not benign, I prefer to live
in a world where global child mortality has fallen by two-thirds in
my own lifetime, a world where hunger and slavery are slowly
disappearing, racial and sexual equality are generally improving,
the goods and services that the average person can afford are
increasing and many rivers and the air of many cities are rapidly
getting cleaner. These things come about through the selective
survival of technologies and ways of organizing them. Government
plays a role, yes, but so do other human institutions.

Gray writes that `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.’
This remark, worthy of Marie-Antoinette, could not be more wrong.
The suffering caused by climate change is (and is predicted by the
IPCC for decades to continue to be) minuscule compared with the
suffering already being caused by preventable problems: malaria,
malnutrition, indoor air pollution, dirty water. Solving those
problems through the eradication of poverty (ie, economic growth)
would not only save far more lives, it would also enable people to
tolerate climate change better without suffering. The World Health
Organisation estimated in 2002 that 150,000 people were dying each
year as a result of climate change. Even if you ignore the suspect
assumptions behind this number (it includes an arbitrary proportion
of diarrhoea and malaria deaths, and in a later estimate even
inter-clan warfare in Somalia), these deaths represent less than
0.2% of all deaths and are dwarfed by deaths caused by iron
deficiency, cholesterol, unsafe sex, tobacco, traffic accidents and
other things, not to mention ‘ordinary’ diarrhoea and malaria.

Finally, Gray hilariously writes that
`Laissez-faire was…imposed on society through the use of state
power.’ Should a slave be grateful to be released or angry at
having been enslaved in the first place?


Matt Ridley


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist