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Friday, December 10, 2010

How Did Ridley Happen?

It's always surprising to me how someone who keeps saying very silly things can find the stars align with his silliness, and he's really big for a couple of years. Recent case in point: Matt Ridley.

Here Ridley tries to compare the role of trade in "social evolution" to that of sex in biological evolution:
The notion that exchange stimulated innovation by bringing together different ideas has a close parallel in biological evolution. The Darwinian process by which creatures change depends crucially on sexual reproduction, which brings together mutations from different lineages. Without sex, the best mutations defeat the second best, which then get lost to posterity. With sex, they come together and join the same team. So sex makes evolution a collective and cumulative process...
Well, this is all very good. Or would be, if not for the facts that:
1) The "Darwinian process" cooked along fine for a couple of billion years without sexual reproduction, so it could hardly "depend crucially" upon it; and
2) In the Darwinian model, there is nothing to "accumulate" -- that implies a telos and some idea of progress, neither of which have any place in Darwin's model.

So, once we take 1) and 2) into account, Ridley is just babbling pseudo-scientific rubbish, in order to give a scientific veneer to his ideas about trade.

And then I came across this piece, in which Ridley tries to make a case that it really wasn't ideas that spawned the Industrial Revolution, but "material forces":
As Gregory Clark has reminded us, it was only in the nineteenth century, when fossil fuels amplified human labor, that wages really began to rise. The rest of the world then borrowed this innovation — fossil energy — and its ability to produce increasing returns through new technology. Today the average citizen of planet earth uses fossil energy equivalent to having 150 slaves working continuous eight-hour shifts on his or her behalf. That is why we are all so rich and that is why per capita economic growth turned upwards so sharply after 1800.
As I say, a materialist explanation.
Because, as we all know, coal did not exist on our planet before 1800, at which point it  arrived from space and began mining and combusting its own bad self.

Say what?! The coal had always been there? And what was new was the fact that people had developed the technology for getting it out of the ground and making use of it? In other words, it was new ideas that were responsible for this change?

As I say, an idealistic explanation.

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