I thought The Evolution of Everything was written by Matt Ridley--the one with a doctorate in zoology, the former science journalist from The EconomisI thought The Evolution of Everything was written by Matt Ridley--the one with a doctorate in zoology, the former science journalist from The Economist, the author of the well-researched Red Queen and Genome. Instead, the Matt Ridley who wrote the Evolution of Everything is a British aristocrat, bank chairman, and Conservative member of the House of Lords. Actually, these two Matt Ridleys are the same person, but the journalist Matt Ridley is a much more compelling writer. The contemporary Matt Ridley seems to prefer quoting Ron Paul to quoting Charles Darwin, even within a book that is supposed to be about evolution.
The Matt Ridley who wrote The Red Queen and Genome seemed to have familiarity with scientific literature and access to leading researchers in evolutionary biology and genomics. The bibliographies of these books are full of peer-reviewed journal articles, and Dr. Ridley had a talent for distilling their contents in a way that could be comprehended by the enthusiastic non-scientist. The sources of The Evolution of Everything are mostly popular books, newspaper articles, and the occasional talk from a libertarian think tank. Apparently, Ridley no longer has access to academic sources, but this is not a problem for his purposes. He is no longer a science writer and instead is a right wing op-ed writer who finds it convenient to make an occasional biology-based metaphor.
Matt Ridley is not writing as a science writer but as a conservative politician, but these are not sound reasons to dismiss his ideas. Briefly stated, Ridley believes that the best ideas and solutions to problems arise spontaneously when "top-down" forces (i.e., governments in most cases) aren't involved. I would hope that Ridley, a trained scientist, would use an evidence-based method to persuade me that everything will flourish in a libertarian Utopia. He does not. He simply makes things up when convenient, and dismisses or ignores evidence that is inconvenient to his cause.
Ridley asserts that publicly funded academic research results in little innovation compared to what would arise from a system in which all research was privately funded. He concedes that it is hard to find evidence for this assertion, because so much research is currently publicly funded that few private foundations would want to waste their money on research. His evidence for his assertion is an article by Terence Kealey from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank formally named The Charles Koch Foundation) that says public research and development spending does not result in economic growth. This article pedals exclusively in anecdote. If I may provide my own anecdotes, I will argue the majority of discoveries for which researchers were awarded Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine in the past 50 years would not have been made with profit-driven, private R & D spending. The history of biological discovery is a treasury of cases in which huge, ultimately rewarding, innovations arise from the investigation of topics far removed from profit-seeking. The betting on short-term winners and losers by private investors would be even more of a top-down allocation of resources than the broad federal funding system of the Nation Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation in the US. In the dream world of Ridley, the study of zoology or evolution, devoid of immediate economic returns, would be a luxury reserved for members of the aristocracy.
Ridley claims that opposition to fracking in Europe largely arises from the unpleasant sound of the word. Regardless of the merits of the technique, I think he is entirely neglecting the concerns of those who would disagree with him.
Ridley describes the National Health Service of the UK as a New-Coke-like failure in which consumers were stripped of choice and offered an inferior product to that which would be available in a market. His analysis is interesting, but he makes no attempt to compare or contrast the failures of the NHS with the non-nationalized, but more expensive US system. Interestingly, his only reference to US health care is to quote the eminent medical historian, Dr. Ron Paul, who states, that before Medicaid and Medicare, "every physician understood that he or she had a responsibility towards the less fortunate, and free medical care for the poor was the norm." As with many libertarian arguments, this is so emotionally compelling that it can exert its effect without factual support.
Most egregiously, Ridley devotes a good portion of the book to dismissing global warming, using mockery as his primary method of persuasion. First, he links concern for the environment to Nazism, by quoting a famous global warming denier: "As Martin Durkin has observed, green thinking was no mere sideline for the Nazis. '.... It was their green anti-capitalism and loathing of bankers which led them to hate Jewish people.'" Ridley then goes to say that to believe that man-made climate change is dangerous is to take a non-scientific leap of faith. Ridley asserts that because so many scientists argue that man-made climate change is real, the idea is unscientific, because "the whole point of science... is the rejection of arguments from authority." Since both religion and belief in man-made climate provide explanations for cataclysmic weather, Ridley argues, both are equally ridiculous. Besides, fewer people die from floods now than in the past. This is the crux of Ridley's argument, and it is hard to fathom. Is he denying climate change? He claims not be. He just believes that maybe it might not end up being as bad as many scientists believe; therefore, we should do nothing about it, and if it is bad, we can figure out what to do about it later.
If only more science were exclusively privately funded by Big Oil-funded think tanks, I suppose, Ridley would have stronger evidence to support his belief that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a cabal of Nazi scientists.
This is a strange, strange book, and I suppose it is because Matt Ridley has a strange biography: a scientist, turned journalist, turned banker, turned member of Parliament. He has transformed from an effective communicator of science, to a guy who writes about the books he got at the bookstore and how they remind him of how he was interested in evolution when he was younger. ...more