Peter Kropotkin was a Russian aristocrat, political agitant, contemporary of Marx and radical anarcho-communist. Besides being an all-time great class traitor, he also had a passion for science. My favorite work of his is a book called “Mutual Aid,” a collection of essays written during the late 19th century. In it, Kropotkin leveraged early ecology and biology against a pernicious set of proto-Social Darwinist ideas, which were percolating amongst pseudo-intellectual British aristocrats at the time. Social Darwinists held that rivalry of man against man was the natural way of life, and that humankind’s first instinct was to fight or compete. Out of this competition, the “fittest” and most valuable people emerged victorious. It followed from this thinking that governments were to support the free market, which utilized and rewarded humankind’s propensity for competition, and society should accordingly celebrate the rich capitalists and powerful politicians who succeeded within it. Kropotkin responded to these Social Darwinists with a vibrant and radically different interpretation of ecological data. He showed that among hundreds of species and nearly all human societies, cooperation was the norm rather than competition. Kropotkin emphasized that the same was true of human societies; he viewed mutual aid as the rule and violence as an exception. Other books and general trends in academic social science dealt the death blows to Social Darwinism, leaving it a fully discredited and outdated ideology.
Or so it seemed. Today, many Social Darwinist-style assertions have simply been repackaged, their surface ugliness sanded over, painted in bright new pop-science colors and presented back to the public. We no longer invoke “survival of the fittest” in discussions of individuals — such an argument would clearly be just a small step removed from eugenicism or imperialism. But what about survival of the fittest with regards to ideas — the notion that the best and “fittest” theories necessarily outlast weaker doctrines? This is the sort of argument put forward by Matt Ridley, a British aristocrat, proud coal mine owner, failed banker and popular science journalist, who has been invited by the Political Theory Project to give a public Odyssey Lecture at Brown University today. As we will see, this quasi-scientific historical narrative goes hand-in-hand with Ridley’s denial of real science.
In recent books such as “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” and “The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge,” Ridley makes the case that technology and ideas co-develop through decentralized interactions between people, in an emergent process beyond the control of any one person or institution. Over time, Ridley argues that failed ideas lose prominence while successful ones remain, and this process has resulted in the enormous gains in prosperity that (some of) humanity has experienced over the past three centuries. According to Ridley, commerce and market institutions have played a central role in spurring economic and intellectual progress. This is because commerce encourages interaction and competition between people, and therefore between their ideas. As one enthusiastic reviewer put it, “where people are free to trade in the broadest sense — including the free exchange of everything from genes to ideas — prosperity ineluctably follows.”
At the very least, Ridley has some interesting takes on old ideas. His contributions prove valuable to the extent that they remind pessimistic leftists that romanticizing peasant lifestyles or deifying the State are good ways to make millions of people go hungry. Of course, not many leftists actually hold such naïve beliefs, and there is no shortage of public intellectuals to reprimand those who do. But Ridley says all of this in an entertaining way, and he manages to incorporate a wide variety of ecological anecdotes and historical tidbits to fill in his picture. In this regard he almost represents a modern, libertarian Kropotkin, albeit with marginally better credentials (if a PhD in pheasant mating practices counts).
But that’s about where Ridley’s appeal ends. For the most part his skill is limited to weaving scientific anecdotes into a compelling but ultimately blinkered and amateur argument for libertarianism, as multiple less enthusiastic reviewers have attested. If this were his only shortcoming, his visit would not be worth a column. After all, at any time there are plenty of popular writers who use biology, physics or a rough reading of history to support their own Theories of it All.
But Ridley also has a more insidious tendency to reject or ignore facts that he disagrees with (or that disagree with his conclusions), even as he points to his own scientific credentials. Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in the case of climate change — a major obstacle to the kind of “Rational Optimism” that Ridley promotes. A non-linear and potentially catastrophic process like climate change threatens Ridley’s simplified narrative of human progress: it suggests that many of the technological wonders that humans have achieved over the past two centuries are eroding the very environmental stability on which that progress depends. On the one hand, Ridley is correct that without fossil fuels, we probably couldn’t have made amazing things like refrigerators, indoor plumbing and “Age of Empires II: The Definitive Edition.” But he fails to acknowledge if we keep using fossil fuels — which currently power nearly all of our production, transportation and communication (and therefore all of our trade) — the resulting harms will begin to outweigh the benefits of past progress.
Accordingly, Ridley expends a lot of energy disputing “climate alarmism” and the scientific consensus around climate change. His claims range from sensible (that human extinction from climate change is unlikely) to very misleading (that economic models prove climate change won’t have a serious impact) to completely false (that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says climate change is not a large threat) to patently absurd (that climate alarmism was responsible for the Boeing 737 crashes). He is a member of the Global Warming Policy Forum, a nakedly climate-denialist think tank. He believes that Greens in the United Kingdom are conspiring with Russians to destroy the fracking industry in Europe. And when multiple scientists dissected a climate-centered interview with Ridley, they found almost no straightforwardly true statements. It is hard not to conclude that a good deal of Ridley’s “Rational Optimism” depends on an irrational rejection of pessimistic scientific findings.
All of this goes to show the difficulty that the PTP faces in fulfilling its stated mission —“to investigate the ideas and institutions that make societies free, prosperous, and fair” — when it invites speakers like Ridley. Though Ridley’s writing may be engaging if not convincing, it seems wrong to grant him the privilege of speaking at the University. After all, Ridley’s main conclusions depend on his repeated and systematic denial of three decades of modeling and observations in ecological and physical science. He has demonstrated his unwillingness to accept criticisms from climate scientists, and continues to promote false narratives while claiming the authority of scientific credentials. The PTP can do better.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.