Chutzpah alert

by Chris Bertram on June 19, 2010

Sometimes an ad hominem attack just seems right. Such is the case with George Monbiot’s latest piece on Matt Ridley, the Dawkinsite pop-science author. I’ve been aware of Ridley in his journalistic capacity for years, but I had no idea that he also had a parallel career in banking. Monbiot on Ridley’s The Rational Optimist :

In the book, Ridley attacks the “parasitic bureaucracy”, which stifles free enterprise and excoriates governments for, among other sins, bailing out big corporations. If only the market is left to its own devices, he insists, and not stymied by regulations, the outcome will be wonderful for everybody. What Ridley glosses over is that before he wrote this book he had an opportunity to put his theories into practice. As chairman of Northern Rock, he was responsible, according to parliament’s Treasury select committee, for a “high-risk, reckless business strategy”. Northern Rock was able to pursue this strategy as a result of a “substantial failure of regulation” by the state. The wonderful outcome of this experiment was the first run on a British bank since 1878, and a £27bn government bail-out. But it’s not just Ridley who doesn’t mention the inconvenient disjunction between theory and practice: hardly anyone does. His book has now been reviewed dozens of times, and almost all the reviewers have either been unaware of his demonstration of what happens when his philosophy is applied or too polite to mention it.

Definitely worth a short post at CT, then, to make this connection more widely known.

{ 120 comments }

1

Anderson 06.19.10 at 11:28 am

Oooh, I did not know that. Many thanks.

I’d merely thought the book was an example of an expert’s stepping outside his field of expertise; I hadn’t realized that Ridley’s career was such an example.

2

Steve LaBonne 06.19.10 at 11:31 am

Not that Ridley doesn’t richly deserve bashing, but jeez, now we’ll get yet another of those delightful libertarianism threads…

3

The Raven 06.19.10 at 11:51 am

Progressive echo chamber. Thanks. But it doesn’t seem to matter what we do, the conservatives are in charge. In the USA, I think for another decade. In the UK…?

4

alex 06.19.10 at 12:21 pm

Just because they’re in charge doesn’t mean you have to pretend they’re right. Well, unless your job depends on it; alienation and all that.

5

Matt Heath 06.19.10 at 12:22 pm

“Dawkinsite” in what sense? I’m pretty sure Dawkins is on record as disapproving of the spinning of biology into free-market apologetics.

6

Seeds 06.19.10 at 1:29 pm

Thanks Matt, I was going to point that out but couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps it’s Dawkinsite in the sense of “pop-science authors I don’t like”?

7

Mrs Tilton 06.19.10 at 1:34 pm

Matt @5,

I’m pretty sure Dawkins is on record as disapproving of the spinning of biology into free-market apologetics

He is. To be fair to Ridley, though, he keeps his pop sci pretty free of that sort of thing — I can recall only one vaguely “libertarian” aside in one of his books, and that was of the “civil liberties” rather than the “keep your hands off my stuff, peasant” sort . What he writes elsewhere is apparently a different kettle of fissioning cells.

Still, I’m not sure it’s really accurate to call him a “Dawkinsite”, though of course he will have read Dawkins. Frankly he and Dawkins both might fairly be called Williamsite-Hamiltonians, as far as their pop sci goes. (Dawkins’s works for a popular readership rarely present original ideas. His role is that of the gifted and lucid explicator of other people’s ideas[FN1] — whether one agree with the ideas he presents or not. One could make an exception for The Extended Phenotype, though that is only borderline pop sci.)

[FN1] That is in no way intended as damning with faint praise, BTW. Dawkins has a genius for clearly and elegantly expressing complex and difficult ideas, culled from sources that are rarely accessible to the layman and almost never user-friendly. As somebody with a non-sciences background, I’m grateful for his repackagings. And he usually writes so very well. There are things about him that I find irritating, but those I am prepared to forgive on the Claudel principle.

8

P O'Neill 06.19.10 at 2:02 pm

Make sure you’re not drinking anything (although you might need something handy afterwards) as you read the prologue

To my intense regret I played a part in one phase of this disaster as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, one of many banks that ran short of liquidity during the crisis. This is not a book about that experience (under the terms of my employment there I am not at liberty to write about it). The experience has left me mistrustful of markets in capital and assets, yet passionately in favour of markets in goods and services. Had I only known it, experiments in laboratories by the economist Vernon Smith and his colleagues have long confirmed that markets in goods and services for immediate consumption – haircuts and hamburgers – work so well that it is hard to design them so they fail to deliver efficiency and innovation; while markets in assets are so automatic ally prone to bubbles and crashes that it is hard to design them so they work at all. Speculation, herd exuberance, irrational optimism, rent-seeking and the temptation of fraud drive asset markets to overshoot and plunge – which is why they need careful regulation, something I always supported. (Markets in goods and services need less regulation.) But what made the bubble of the 2000s so much worse than most was government housing and monetary policy, especially in the United States, which sluiced artificially cheap money towards bad risks as a matter of policy and thus also towards the middlemen of the capital markets. The crisis has at least as much political as economic causation, which is why I also mistrust too much government

[excerpted as part of favourable WSJ review]

9

Irrelephant 06.19.10 at 2:11 pm

Mrs Tilton,

“Dawkins has a genius for clearly and elegantly expressing complex and difficult ideas, culled from sources that are rarely accessible to the layman and almost never user-friendly. As somebody with a non-sciences background, I’m grateful for his repackagings.”

This is all well and good, but I’m afraid you’ve fallen into the consumer trap of confusing the package with the contents. To use a food analogy, science is determining whether what is on your plate is a piece of poo or not. Dawkins may be a very good popularizer of science, but he is an awful scientist. Among his many pant messings, witness the “meme”, for which he deserves several swift kicks in the nads. Like the Vital Principle, the luminferous aether, phlogiston, epicycles, “meme” will go down in scientific history as “not even wrong”.

Oh, and Ridley deserves a Jerry Springer episode: “Simplistic Worldviews and the Simpletons Who Love Them”.

10

Steve LaBonne 06.19.10 at 2:46 pm

Dawkins played a very important role, within the evolutionary biology community as well as popularly, in championing the work of Williams and Hamilton. When he started, fuzzy group-selectionist thinking was very popular even among biologists and Williams was largely ignored. It’s in good part thanks to Dawkins that anybody arguing for multi-level selection nowadays is compelled to try to make careful, rigorous arguments (whether or not one accepts them is another matter.) I would say that this more than makes up for memes. ;)

11

Hidari 06.19.10 at 2:52 pm

12

Neil 06.19.10 at 3:00 pm

Mrs Tilton, I suspect you are misremembering “Origins of Virtue”. It constantly repeats the libertarian refrain.

13

Abi 06.19.10 at 3:48 pm

Monbiot on Ridley: the 2007 edition.

14

Thomas 06.19.10 at 4:32 pm

Neil, Mrs Tilton,

It’s his early writing (The Red Queen’s Race, Genome) that is largely free of politics and is useful science writing. He does come down against government attempts to restrict genetic testing, but that’s a position shared with many perfectly respectable people.

15

Netbrian 06.19.10 at 4:37 pm

Irrelephant @9 —

Could you provide a few more examples? I’ve read almost all of Dawkins’ books, and he only made passing references to memes outside simply using them as an example — he never seemed to take them seriously outside their use as a metaphor for how genes worked.

16

Mrs Tilton 06.19.10 at 4:40 pm

Irrelephant @9,

you’ve fallen into the consumer trap of confusing the package with the contents … Dawkins may be a very good popularizer of science, but he is an awful scientist

As I wrote nothing about Dawkins’s work as a scientist as opposed to popularizer, you’ll excuse me if I fail to see the relephance of your comment. I do note, though, that the “meme” thing was not, SFAIK, in anything peer-reviewed but rather was in effect an extended aside in one of his better-known popularizations. Doubtless your judgement is based on intimate familiarity with Dawkins’s contribution to the professional literature, and there I am happy to defer to you and any other working scientists with a view on the matter.

Neil @12,

you are misremembering “Origins of Virtue”. It constantly repeats the libertarian refrain

I daresay you’re right, but I haven’t read that one. What I have read of Ridley’s are The Red Queen, Genome and Nature via Nurture. And, as I said, there is almost nothing I recall from those works that could have been called libertarian preaching, and the very few instances I recall were things that I (and, I hope, any other liberal) would find congenial but a law-&-order right-winger would not.

But I don’t wish to come across as an apologist for Ridley. I wish Northern Rock hadn’t gone tits, but since it did, I am filled with Schadenfreude to see Ridley and his smug stupid theories looking silly. I just don’t see that smugness or those theories informing the books of his that I’ve read. In any event, I prefer the other M. Ridley, the one always being mistaken for Matt. Decent basic text on evolution, and Mendel’s Demon, though it pushes the envelope of “popular” science, was enormously interesting.

17

dr ngo 06.19.10 at 5:22 pm

In any event, I prefer the other M. Ridley, the one always being mistaken for Matt.

Are you sure you’re not thinking of The Talented Mr. Ripley, featuring Matt Damon?

18

Ben Alpers 06.19.10 at 6:48 pm

But it doesn’t seem to matter what we do, the conservatives are in charge. In the USA, I think for another decade.

Only for one more decade? This seems wildly optimistic to me, unless you know something about 2020 that the rest of us don’t.

19

JP 06.19.10 at 7:18 pm

Both Matt and Mark Ridley were Dawkins’ students at Oxford, and it’s fair to say that the latter, still a professional biologist, and Dawkins belong to the same school of evolutionary thinking. The former, as much as his science writing may still be influenced by his former mentor, is less of a Dawkinsite than a simple arrogant twit.

20

Chris 06.19.10 at 8:15 pm

To see Dawkins take memes seriously, read his forward to The Meme Machine.

Also, I can’t help but point out his support, generally tacit but sometimes explicit, of Evolutionary Psychology in the Cosmides-Buss-Pinker vein. It’s not a coincidence that when speaking at the University of Texas in support of The God Delusion, he was hosted by the psychology department.

21

John Kozak 06.19.10 at 8:37 pm

A comment in the linked Guardian article claims that a Newcastle bank run by a Sir Matthew Ridley (presumably the 2nd baronet, so a great^n-grandfather) was also rescued by government intervention. Didn’t realise there was a gene for that.

22

dsquared 06.19.10 at 8:43 pm

#21 is entirely on point here – Ridley’s chairmanship of Northern Rock is an example of Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution, in that “being chairman of Northern Rock” was an acquired characteristic and MR inherited it, with significant generational variance in styles of chairmanship.

23

Charles S 06.19.10 at 8:46 pm

Irelephant,

Like the Vital Principle, the luminferous aether, phlogiston, epicycles, “meme” will go down in scientific history as “not even wrong”.

The vital principle is the only one on that list that deserves to be classed with the meme.

The luminiferous aether was a serious scientific concept of the late 19th century which was famously proven wrong by Michelson and Morley, who were supporters of the aether concept.

Phlogiston is basically anti-oxygen. It turned out to be provably wrong, but it was basically an elaboration of a wrong hypothesis and was an important theoretical player in the early development of modern chemistry.

Epicycles are obviously proven wrong, but they remain extremely valuable as tools of calculation. We still calculate the tides as a composite of sine waves, and we still calculate the visible position of the planets in the sky using epicycles. Memes should be counted as a very lucky concept if they get to keep company with epicycles.

The meme will never make it into such illustrious company. It deserves more to keep company with the vital principle, animal magnetism, physiognomy, and social darwinism. Untestable hogwash.

24

Hidari 06.19.10 at 8:57 pm

‘Also, I can’t help but point out his support, generally tacit but sometimes explicit, of Evolutionary Psychology in the Cosmides-Buss-Pinker vein. It’s not a coincidence that when speaking at the University of Texas in support of The God Delusion, he was hosted by the psychology department.’

Yes. While I generally admire Dawkins’ stance on religion, and on the whole I think he is on the side of the angels (sic) it seems to me he would do well to train his bullshit-ometer (which is so finely tuned when it comes to, say, 20th century post-war French philosophy) to also detect the pungent whiff of crap that not infrequently comes from the direction of Evolutionary Psychology.

25

Irrelephant 06.19.10 at 8:58 pm

Charles S,

I happily stand corrected. You are right. Not even scientific.

And since the simpletons’ idea of viral this and viral that and thought contagion goes at leat back to Pliny the Younger, perhaps he should receive swift kick in the nads as well.

26

James Conran 06.19.10 at 9:14 pm

The (London) Sunday Times’s review did mention Ridley’s Northern Rock role.

27

Cuchulain 06.20.10 at 12:38 am

How can any adult in 2010 still believe that if business owners are set completely free of all restraints, everyone will benefit?

Seriously. How stupid does this guy think people are?

Business owners have one goal: the accumulation of personal wealth. They seek to maximize profits for themselves. They are also a tiny fraction of the overall population. If a tiny fraction of the population seeks to maximize profits for that tiny fraction, by definition, that’s NOT good for the vast majority of people on the planet.

In 1965, the average CEO made 26 times the rank and file worker. Now it’s more than 430 times. If you’re in the 100 largest companies, it’s a 1000 to 1. The freer ownership is to do as it pleases, the less freedom the rest of us have. By definition. There is a direct and unbreakable correlation between their freedom and the loss of ours.

Good article on why it’s time to bring Marx back to the forefront:

http://nplusonemag.com/intellectual-situation-your-marx

28

Neil 06.20.10 at 2:48 am

‘The Cosmides-Buss-Pinker vein’.

This is a bit like saying ‘jazz in the Coltrane-Torme-Dean Martin vein’ (okay, not a great analogy). Cosmides does science; Buss and Pinker (when he is doing evo psych) do pop science. I think the worst you can accuse Cosmides and Tooby of is dubious overextension of their claims and bad judgment in the company they keep. They wipe the floor with Fodor in the most recent exchanges.

29

Chris 06.20.10 at 9:18 am

Neil, well, no. The biggest faults in that vein lie in the starting assumptions — Stone Age mind, and all that — and those are all T & C. Sure, Buss’ methodological problems are much bigger, but by the time they get to methodology, they’re all already outside of the area code of good science. And really, relying almost entirely on one logically flawed method for more than 20 years, even if it is experimental, does not put you ahead of much of anyone when it comes to doing science.

And a monkey could win an argument with Fodor on evolution (or concepts, for that matter).

30

Earnest O'Nest 06.20.10 at 10:06 am

Really, is Fodor still at it? I thought he had put his methodological solipsism in practice by now. A pity he didn’t.

I really like the pseudonym “Irrelephant”; it is something that will – verifiably – stick in people’s minds ;-)

Anyhoo, it’s good to see that the vital principle is still strong in all of ye, when it comes to meme bashing.

31

Tim Worstall 06.20.10 at 10:24 am

“Ridley’s chairmanship of Northern Rock is an example of Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution, in that “being chairman of Northern Rock” was an acquired characteristic and MR inherited it,”

As he will presumably inherit the Viscountcy (and possibly the Lord Lieutenantship of Northumbria (or maybe it’s Deputy LL)) from his father as he did the Chairmanship.

More about how the county set operate than The City….

32

Zamfir 06.20.10 at 11:03 am

In the good old days, the aristocracy claimed that giving them free reign was good for the country for various reasons, most centered on their god-given position and their natural superiority.

Is “give us free reign because of the invisible hand and Freedom” an improvement in argument, or a step backwards?

33

Hidari 06.20.10 at 11:07 am

When it comes to Fodor could I just say (given his latest scientifically illiterate ramblings about his misunderstandings of natural selection) that he didn’t ‘go off’. He was always out to lunch. The ‘Language of Thought’ hypothesis is demented, the mind isn’t modular and natural selection is the main (although by no means the only) mechanism of evolution. The only one of his books that is worth reading is ‘The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way’ in which he attacks what was essentially his own position (that’s not how he phrases it, but that’s what it essentially comes down to).

34

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 11:21 am

I note even Monbiot seems to assume that all creatures have a basically selfish nature thanks to natural selection, but that, having “gone global”, humans need government to fulfil the role once played by smaller community oversight in our ancestors lives.

Its been a few years since I tore through a pile of pop-sci books on evolution (Dawkins, Gould, Goodwin [i]et al[/i]), so I can’t claim deep knowledge of where the theory is now, but… it seems to me that this assumption that even apparent altruism is informed by individual selfishness is self-evidently wrong.

Species, not individuals, evolve. And that means that compulsions that are life-threatening to the individual but may help preserve the genetic stock of their close kin can be preserved through selective pressure.

It seems quite obvious examining eusocial insects like bees and ants, which exhibit quite suicidial tendencies in defense of hive or colony. I’m thinking about honey bees in Japan, for instance, that pile onto hunting wasps in a ball 10 bees deep, so that their body heat cooks the wasp, and the bees immediately in contact with it, to death.

And while more subtle mechanisms may be in play for most social mammals, it strikes me as obvious that some similarly suicidal-in-service-of-the-community compulsions must exist in social primates, especially when it comes to protecting the young. Watching a golden hyena mother facing off against a male lion about 3 times her size while defending her pups, its difficult to imagine how the compulsions that inform that behaviour arose to ensure the mother’s survival, as opposed to her genetic stock.

Yet even the way Monbiot describes the argument, it sounds like he thinks Ridley is right on the point that natural selection leads inexorably to unopposed compulsion to individual self-preservation (“humans are inherently selfish”) and that any apparent altruism is really just some “win-win” strategy for achieving that.

But if its accepted that any compulsion to lay down your life or suffer permanently debilitating harm in service of others is “true” altruism, then it just seems bloody obvious to me that no, we are not “inherently selfish” in every way and have some truly altruistic compulsions.

35

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 11:22 am

Bah, italics tag fail, keep forgetting comments here don’t use bbcode.

36

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 11:31 am

I mention this of course because it seems to be an essential premise of a lot of utilitarian thinking, especially of the (modern) libertarian and Randian stripe.

Rand’s sophomoric attempt to bridge the is-ought gap, for instance, rests almost entirely on the false assumption that all individual organisms are inherently selfish, and thus fails to appraise the nature of living things correctly, before even falling apart in the logic.

37

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 11:40 am

All of which said, I don’t disagree with Monbiot’s idea that we need an effective means of policing the selfish aspects of our nature, which may lead to collective failure when our communities are too large for natural feedback to make the individual feel its negative effects.

38

kf1 06.20.10 at 12:01 pm

Farren: I don’t think there is any reason for you to suppose that Monbiot actually understood what Ridley was talking about, or that he is representing it accurately. He is an able writer, but a careless reader and a bad journalist. (And, for this reason, a frequent guest in the Corrections and Clarifications column.)

39

Frank S. Robinson 06.20.10 at 12:29 pm

Monbiot, and the bulk of his cheerleading commenters, are 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

40

Mrs Tilton 06.20.10 at 12:33 pm

Jack @38,

Farren Hayden @ #34

Species, not individuals, evolve. And that means that compulsions that are life-threatening to the individual but may help preserve the genetic stock of their close kin can be preserved through selective pressure.

Its good to see group selection coming back into intellectual fashion, after the long reign of dogmatic Darwinian individual selectionists.

Why do you imagine that Farren’s second sentence describes group selection?

41

Mrs Tilton 06.20.10 at 12:34 pm

Formatting Fail. All but the final line of my comment should have been blockquoted.

42

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 12:34 pm

Nice to see both Hayden and Strocchi exhibiting what I mentioned earlier- the kind of extremely fuzzy thinking that prevailed pre-Williams. Given that as a matter of simple algebra the effect of gene-centered selection vastly outweighs effects at any higher level in most situations, it should come as no surprise that biologists long ago stopped being satisfied with such primitive hand-waving. Contemporary models of multi-level selection are a lot more analytically sophisticated than that, and unlike our friends above they make no attempt to claim that group selection is the dominant mode of evolution (an obvious nonstarter to anyone with any grasp of population genetics), only that it can be important in certain situations, most particularly the evolution of social behavior.

By the way, the “orthodox” view is not that “individuals” evolve (that would already be selection at a higher level) but that genes evolve. Dawkins is an admirably clear exponent of the reasons for that view. If you want to disagree with him, reading him with actual understanding is a good place to start.

43

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 12:38 pm

By the way, if we lived according to our biological natures we’d still be a species of a few million hunter-gatherers. Accordingly, anybody attempting to derive political imperatives from biology (socio- or otherwise) should simply be ignored. That’s much easier and much less silly than accepting their gambit and trying to twist the science to get the desired political outcome.

44

Hidari 06.20.10 at 12:50 pm

‘Evolution is mostly random’.

No. You mean mutation. Evolution by natural selection is the opposite of random, as Dawkins has tirelessly pointed out.

45

Earnest O'Nest 06.20.10 at 1:14 pm

@41-42: yep, we love our Dawkins and we’re not going to be bullied into denying it.

@33: thank you for reminding me why I managed to read a whole book by Fodor – and pointing out how much more ridiculous the nativism thing was, compared to even the most ridiculous in the hunter gatherer fairy tales.

If you believe only those that have fun criticizing the extremes one has the choice between one view in which women were born with a less powerful deductive module or that in which they’ve evolved to perfect the behaviour of caring thereby leaving less space for other behaviours.

As in both cases the consequence is that “masculinity rulez!” one may want to entertain that, as the consequence sucks, the premises – in all likelihood – suck too (or 42 again).

46

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 1:31 pm

@41-42: yep, we love our Dawkins and we’re not going to be bullied into denying it.

That’s really the best you can do? Wow.

I wonder what it is about evolutionary biology that makes it so uniquely attractive to so many people as a subject on which to bloviate on the basis of no actual knowledge. For those who actually want to know more, there’s a pretty decent Wikipedia article on group selection which is a good starting point. Suffice it to say that even its most ardent advocates among actual biologists regard it as an emergent phenomenon in certain specific situations, not a primary mechanism of evolution.

47

Current 06.20.10 at 1:39 pm

Farren Hayden,

Read Matt Ridley’s “The Origin of Virtue”. Monbiot has got his argument all wrong. Ridley agrees with group selection, that’s most of what the book is about.

48

Current 06.20.10 at 1:52 pm

As a Libertarian myself I find Matt Ridley’s actions hypocritical. In his earlier books he wrote about how modern states are “corpocracy” a mixture of democracy and crony capitalism. I think he’s right about that. But, he accepted the position of Chairman of Northern Rock. He was happy to take part in crony capitalism himself.

I don’t find it convincing that he’s discovered the Minskyian business cycle theory of Vernon Smith, or the Austrian business cycle theory after leaving Northern Rock. In his earlier books he mentions Vernon Smith and F.A.Hayek often.

That said, I think his books are very good.

49

Current 06.20.10 at 2:00 pm

> Ridley’s attempt to justify neo-liberalism by revamping Social Darwinism

What exactly is “Social Darwinism”?

People have two different ideas about what it is. To some it’s a sort of group selection theory of social entities. That idea is that one particular set of social insitutions may be superior to another. The consequence of that being that societies may be more or less successful and that it’s likely that the less successful one will imitate the more successful ones.

The second idea labelled “Social Darwinism” is that free-market societies produce a kind of actual Darwinism that weeds out the weakest.

Now, Matt Ridley doesn’t hold the second view, but he does hold the first. I generally agree with that point of view myself. I think we can clearly see from history how societies have evolved, and I think many leftists have tacitly agreed that this occurs.

Some may say that the first view is still deplorable since it justifies imperialist wars. I don’t think that it does directly, it must be supported by many other dubious ideas to be used in that way.

50

El Cid 06.20.10 at 2:02 pm

One can only applaud Ridely for carrying out rational optimism in his own pursuit of his own profit motive. Right?

51

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 2:03 pm

I daresay that H. Allen Orr has a decent a”grasp of population genetics”. Every once in a while he has to go into print to curb the excesses of dogmatic Darwinists , like Dawkins and Dennett, in this area.

Nice reading comprehension problem there. I said nothing in defense of, or even about, so-called “extreme Darwinism” and spoke respectfully of contemporary models of multi-level selection (ideas of which I’m quite confident you know nothing.)

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

52

Current 06.20.10 at 2:23 pm

> In the good old days, the aristocracy claimed that giving them free reign was good for the
> country for various reasons, most centered on their god-given position and their natural
> superiority.
>
> Is “give us free reign because of the invisible hand and Freedom” an improvement in
> argument, or a step backwards?

This “Aristocracy” argument is interesting…

In my view the consumer sovereignty provided by a free market is something quite different to an aristocracy. The “invisible hand” is quite real. Markets give each particular group role; land owners, capital owners, labour providers and consumers some influence. But, each must cooperate with the others and must compete.

I realise that the leftists here disagree with that view. Their view is that the rich, the capital owners and managers would have too much power compared to others and would form an Aristocracy.

But, what is the actual alternative that the left offers? The normal alternative is suggests is the big state. But, how is this really any different? Ayn Rand pointed this out when criticising JK Galbraith. The big state takes decisions from the masses and a group within the state makes them instead. Such a setup is a form of aristocracy itself – neo-feudalism or red-toryism. The aristocracy is selected by things like civil service examinations, by being promoted through into important government jobs and attainment of influence in the halls of power. Depending on the specific system it could be tempered by democracy, but each important decision can’t be made by democratic authority.

So, leftists can’t really oppose “Aristocracy” because what they suggest is a form of aristocracy. Really, the leftist argument is that the left-wing form of aristocracy is better than the right-wing form that would supposedly become much stronger if there were freer market.

53

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 2:25 pm

I’m curious, Jack. Are you given to pompously lecturing physicists about physics? Mathematicians about math? Why is biology so uniquely favored with your attentions?

54

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 3:25 pm

Steve @41

As I said, I haven’t kept up to date, but your comments about “fuzzy thinking” on my part demand a response.

I’m an analyst/developer by trade and wiled away no small amount of my teen years writing cellular-automata style, trait-propagation simulations for amusement. I’ve seen group selection occurring in simple simulations. There is nothing fuzzy in my thinking at all.

The tone of your response suggests that you think my post was some kind of challenge to the idea of the selfish gene. It was nothing of the sort. Rather, it was a suggestion that selfish genes while inevitably produce some altruism in social species that last long enough.

And the Wikipedia article I did found did not reflect your disdain for the idea. In fact it said group selection has made a minor resurgence recently with better models and much of the criticism which caused its retreat in the sixties was because of poor models.

55

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 3:32 pm

FYI, my objection to Monbiot was the (admittedly inferred) impression that he thinks selfish genes means totally selfish individuals, so that all apparent altruism is itself merely a selfish strategy. My contention is that group selection for altruistic traits becomes inevitable when you have a large population of some social species with intra-group competition.

56

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 3:40 pm

And I think anyone who trivialises the role of group (or kin) selection must have a hard time explaining the behaviour of species like Arabian babblers.

57

Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 3:42 pm

Or the mating patterns of meerkats, come to think of it.

58

Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 4:50 pm

The tone of your response suggests that you think my post was some kind of challenge to the idea of the selfish gene.

No, I simply get just as tired of nonscientists trying to tell scientists their business as I do of the likes of Matt Ridley prostituting science in the service of a political agenda.

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Earnest O'Nest 06.20.10 at 5:02 pm

@46: Hey man, it would really do wonders for the health of your nervous system if you would not take everything anybody says as a challenge of your position. I like my Dawkins, and I will not be bullied into making fun of him.

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Current 06.20.10 at 5:51 pm

Steve LaBonne, I don’t think your view of evolution is really very different from Matt Ridley’s. Have you read his books?

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Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 6:17 pm

@Steve @58

Monbiot is a scientist?

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Steve LaBonne 06.20.10 at 6:53 pm

I don’t know or care anything about Monbiot nor have I mentioned him. I thought I was very clear indeed about what I think of ALL extrapolations from biology to politics.

I’m an analyst/developer by trade and wiled away no small amount of my teen years writing cellular-automata style, trait-propagation simulations for amusement. I’ve seen group selection occurring in simple simulations. There is nothing fuzzy in my thinking at all.

Yawn. Many computer types like to pontificate ignorantly about evolutionary biology. You’re hardly special.

In my experience amateurs who presume to take sides in intra-scientific controversies never actually understand the side they’re opposing. It’s irritating even to those who are on the side they’re supporting.

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Current 06.20.10 at 7:04 pm

Steve, if you don’t care about what Monbiot said then why are you repeating Monbiot’s stories about what Matt Ridley said?

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Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 7:40 pm

@Steve

Firstly, I was criticising Monbiot, not you, so why “I simply get just as tired of nonscientists trying to tell scientists their business”?

Secondly, you appear to be attacking a straw man. I too abhor the habit of extrapolating from biological nature to ethics or ideology.

And yeah, programming attracts a lot of asperger’s sufferers who are inclined to think they’re experts in every other field, but that doesn’t invalidate anything I’ve said. BTW, I’m an autodidact with 150+ IQ last time I was tested and spent upwards of 20 years of my life reading up to 3 science (OK admittedly pop-sci mostly) books a month. I’ve read every book by Dawkins I could get my hands on, the last being “The Ancestors Tale”. I know how cells are structured, the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms, how DNA codes for different proteins. I’m not some antisocial geek kid who swallows every crackpot idea on the Internet and regurgitates it in the comments sections of other people’s blogs, so I object to being handwaved away as a pig-ignorant amateur, even if Im not an academic.

How about taking a little time out of your day to outline for someone who’s I assure you is quite capable of understanding your hifalutin science-talk why group selection is such a crappy idea and why, for instance, examples like the behaviour of the Arabian babbler do not beg for group-selection or kin-selection-type explanations?

Do you teach? Because your arrogance is quite appalling and must be a hindrance to teaching.

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Farren Hayden 06.20.10 at 7:49 pm

Damn I really should proof read my posts there have been grammatical errors in every one so far.

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Cuchulain 06.20.10 at 7:52 pm

No, things aren’t getting better for most humans. That’s one of the biggest fallacies of the right’s argument. Millions of humans die each year because of poverty and the worldwide increase in inequality. Millions die because of the loss of access to clean water and the massive increase in diseases due to man-made pollution. Millions of children die due to easily preventable sicknesses each year.

Because of nearly unrestrained capitalism, more than a third of our wildlife is gone in just the last 35 years. Our fish stocks have declined by 90% in just the last few decades. According to the World Wildlife Federation, we exceeded the earth’s capacity to meet our demand for its resources in the 80s, and will literally need two entire earths to support those demands, if present trends continue, by 2030.

Of course, present trends won’t continue. The developing world will start to consume at higher levels. Right now, the rich nations consume some 80% of all resources, though they have less than 20% of the world’s population. America is the chief culprit, of course, as we have less than 5% of the population, but consume more than 25% of the world’s energy, create more than 25% of its pollution, and 33% of its trash.

In short, America and the rich countries are burning up natural resources and destroying life for future generations, and poorer nations aren’t even in the picture yet. And people in poorer nations live shorter lives if they do survive beyond the age of five. Even in America and in Europe, there is a huge difference in health and longevity patterns between the rich and the poor.

It makes me ill when I read right wing triumphalism about how capitalism has supposedly improved lives overall. There is zero evidence to support such a conclusion, unless one wants to focus on the upper class, or unless one wants to call a DVD player “wealth.” In reality, with the huge increase in inequality worldwide, quality of life, health metrics, and longevity rates are actually in decline for all but the rich or the upper middle class.

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roac 06.20.10 at 8:10 pm

I had been following this in a desultory way, having filed it under “B” for “British people I never heard of before.” When the subject of gene selection came up, I said, Well, I know a little about that, having read that book “Genome” by — Oh! [administers dope-slap to forehead]

Contrary to the assertion upthread that the book was politics-free, I was brought up short several times while reading it to ask, Where did that little nugget of libertarianism come from?

And I have to ask the obvious question — how does a science journalist get to be chairman of a bank? This very seldom happens in the US.

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Neil 06.20.10 at 9:08 pm

Chris,
I think we agree that massive modularity has failed. Nevertheless Cosmides & Tooby have produced impressive evidence for some psychological adaptations. I said they do science; that’s consistent with embedding the results in a faulty framework. Plus if you’re going to link to Mixing Memory, you owe us your readership an update.

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gmoke 06.20.10 at 10:07 pm

Ridley was on CSPANII talking about his book today. It was obvious from his Panglossian view of history and numerous asides that he is a neoliberal true believer.

At the end of his talk, he went into a disquisition on climate change and opined that we will probably get off coal and oil before it becomes a “real” problem. For some reason, among all his charts and graphs, I didn’t see one on Arctic ice coverage nor anything about ocean acidification.

He was self-deprecating but still very sure of himself. Reminded me of another historical figure whose mantra was “Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.”

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Hidari 06.20.10 at 11:35 pm

#68 It’s worth point out that David Buller, in his book Adapting Minds, re-analysed the empirical data of Cosmides et al, and decided that the evidence for ‘some psychological adaptations’ is less than overwhelming. Indeed, CT did a piece on this very subject a while back.

Regardless of whether or not one accepts this, however, it is unquestionably true that ‘massive modularity’ has failed as a serious research programme.

http://www.amazon.com/Adapting-Minds-Evolutionary-Psychology-Persistent/dp/0262025795
http://crookedtimber.org/2005/06/06/evo-psych-factoids/

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Mrs Tilton 06.21.10 at 6:05 am

Farren @54,

I’ve seen group selection occurring in simple simulations. There is nothing fuzzy in my thinking at all…. selfish genes while inevitably produce some altruism in social species that last long enough.

See, right there is where your thinking is fuzzy. We’ll spot you the “inevitably”, even though a pedant might insist the statement should be “selfish genes will with very high probability produce altruism”. That is certainly the case. But it is not group selection.

Well; in a few cases it might be. As Steve has reminded you, there are very few biologists who “don’t believe in” group selection. It’s just that, under most circumstances, it is not an important driver of evolution, and most examples of “niceness” in nature can be explained without resort to it.

In any event, the sort of “niceness” that you apparently wish to see more of in human society (and I think most of us do) is probably much more culturally than genetically mediated. People who argue for group selection because they want a nicer world are better people that those who argue against income tax and industrial regulation because Darwin/survival of the fittest/nature red in tooth and claw. But they’re both wrong.

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Anarcho 06.21.10 at 8:33 am

“Read Matt Ridley’s “The Origin of Virtue”. Monbiot has got his argument all wrong. Ridley agrees with group selection, that’s most of what the book is about”

Have we read the same book? Ridley goes out of his way to dismiss group selection in that book. He also distorts Kropotkin’s arguments in Mutual Aid in order to create a straw man for his propertarian ideology.

Ridley’s book is a bit of a joke, self-contradictory (because it is so ideologically driven). At one point he invokes “the tragedy of the commons” to explain how altruism does not work then, later, to attack nationalisation he remembers that the commons were not unmanaged! Sad, really, but such is the power of ideology.

I discuss Ridley (and lots of other misunderstandings of Kropotkin) in my introduction to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid

And I should note that Ridley is NOT a libertarian (in the grand tradition of Kropotkin and other anti-state socialists). He is a propertarian and a Thatcherite.

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Samir Okasha 06.21.10 at 11:47 am

Interesting. I wasn’t aware of Ridley’s Northern Rock link either.

Readers might want to note that Matt Ridley bears no relation to Mark Ridley, who is an excellent evolutionary biologist, author of some really good books including Mendel’s Demon.

Incidentally, it’s very unfair to accuse Cosmides/Tooby of pop-science, whoever it was.

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Farren Hayden 06.21.10 at 12:22 pm

Mrs Tilton @ 71

As I said at the outset my understanding of the topic comes from books by Gould, Dawkins, Goodwin and Margulis, along with Scientific American articles and biology books passed on by friends who actually studied it at varsity. I’m not an academic.

So I wasn’t actually aware, coming into this discussion, that “group selection” was a term of art. I’ve read a fair amount about “kin selection”, but haven’t encountered or don’t remember “group selection”.

Someone appended that label to my original musing and I thought “OK, if that’s what its called…” at which point Mr LaBonne went into affronted scientist mode and not only assumed I was defending a particular set of ideas I hadn’t really heard of before but further assumed, as you apparently do, that I thought demonstrating fundamental altruism in human nature is a necessary precondition for arguing that that niceness should be reflected in political policy. I don’t

On the first point, just googling a little made me realise that Inclusive Fitness pretty much covers most of what I was trying to articulate and on the second, my only reason for speculating on the question of niceness in human nature is because other people employ the fundamental, biological and total selfishness of human nature as a premise on which their political philosophy rest appear to be employing a false premise. I recognise this thinking as a kind of naturalistic fallacy and reject it on those grounds. I just happen to also reject the idea that we are a totally selfish species and that is an inevitable consequence of natural selection.

I can’t help feeling I’ve been totally misread here.

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Farren Hayden 06.21.10 at 12:39 pm

A correction: Steve complained before I even used the term “group selection”.

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Mrs Tilton 06.21.10 at 1:15 pm

Farren @74,

I can’t help feeling I’ve been totally misread here

To a degree you have been, but only because you’ve been totally miswriting here.

As you’ve now discovered, what you’ve been referring to as “group selection” is, rather, inclusive fitness, something very different. To be fair, it sure can look a lot like “the good of the species”, and as Steve LaBonne noted upthread, consensus evolutionary theory routinely invoked group selection until the 1960s. Hamilton’s pair of papers on the evolution of social behaviour — you’ve probably heard of them described as explaining why worker bees forgo reproduction to assist their mother in producing more sisters, but that was just a dramatic example of a general principle — are incredibly tough going (they were for me, anyway). But Williams ‘s Adaptation and Natural Selection is very accessible to the laity (among whom I too am numbered). His prose doesn’t sing like Dawkins’s or Gould’s can, but he writes clearly and explains lucidly, and the book is worth looking into if you don’t know it yet.

I agree with you that using evolutionary theory (whether of a “group-selectionist” or “gene-centric” sort) to justify political structures is a very bad idea. The thing is, just about everybody would agree with you on that. Certainly Dawkins does; he has stated repeatedly that a society organized along “evolutionary” lines would be horrific. So on that note, you’ve been bashing away at selfish genes of straw.

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Farren Hayden 06.21.10 at 1:27 pm

Am I? I was referring to the second Monbiot article linked to in comments, containing these gems:

To permit these beneficial genetic tendencies to flower, governments should withdraw from our lives and stop interfering in business and other human relations. Ridley produced a geneticist’s version of the invisible hand of the market, recruiting humanity’s selfish interests to dole out benefits to everyone.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.

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Anarcho 06.21.10 at 1:42 pm

“Certainly Dawkins does; he has stated repeatedly that a society organized along “evolutionary” lines would be horrific.”

Except that Dawkins is assuming that “evolution” and co-operation and ethics are mutually exclusive. That is NOT the case. As Dawkins himself has noted at times, our ethics have an evolutionary basis so a society organised along “evolutionary” lines does NOT preclude co-operation, mutual aid, altruism and such like.

Indeed, Trivers makes the point “very agreeable feature of my reciprocal altruism, which I had not anticipated in advance, was that a sense of justice or fairness seemed a natural consequence of selection for reciprocal altruism. That is, you could easily imagine that sense of fairness would evolve as a way of regulating reciprocal tendencies.” As such, our sense of fairness, justice and ethics are just as much a product of evolution as our selfishness, injustice and so on. Dawkins, at times, forgets this and paints nature as purely “red in tooth and claw.”

Of course, I must point out that Kropotkin had anticipated this back in Mutual Aid 70+ years previously:

“Moreover, it is evident that life in societies would be utterly impossible without a corresponding development of social feelings, and, especially, of a certain collective sense of justice growing to become a habit . . . And feelings of justice develop, more or less, with all gregarious animals.”

As Kropotkin was well aware, evolution can favour co-operation as much as competition. In short, that mutual aid gives an evolutionary advantage to those individuals which practice it. It also produces our sense of fairness and justice, it lays the basis for ethics and altruism.

Kropotkin was also well aware that we can ignore all this and act in ways which horrify — by exploiting and oppressing others. The difference between him and Dawkins is that Kropotkin consistently recognised the evolutionary basis for our ethics while Dawkins invokes it occasionally while usually uttering Spencer-like assumptions that we are driven purely by individualistic competition and “nice” behaviour is somehow non-“evolutionary”

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Substance McGravitas 06.21.10 at 1:49 pm

Except that Dawkins is assuming that “evolution” and co-operation and ethics are mutually exclusive. That is NOT the case. As Dawkins himself has noted at times, our ethics have an evolutionary basis so a society organised along “evolutionary” lines does NOT preclude co-operation, mutual aid, altruism and such like.

It seems to me that this is a confusion of the evolutionary product with the evolutionary process. The latter is somewhat unforgiving, the former may not be.

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ajay 06.21.10 at 1:58 pm

Dawkins is assuming that “evolution” and co-operation and ethics are mutually exclusive
[citation required]

I think this is a bit strong. Even if evolution leads to cooperation under some circumstances, that doesn’t mean that a society organised along evolutionary principles would necessarily be a pleasant one, because not all cooperation is necessarily evolutionarily rewarded, and some fairly horrific actions are also rewarded by evolution.

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Chris 06.21.10 at 2:35 pm

Neil, I’d ask what evidence that is, but I already know, and it must be said that we disagree about whether that evidence counts for much, on my end not only because it relies almost exclusively on one method with a tenuous logical connection to their hypothesis, but because there’s so much counterevidence as well.

I only link to the old site to distinguish myself from other Chris’, but perhaps someday I’ll start again.

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Current 06.21.10 at 3:00 pm

Have we read the same book? Ridley goes out of his way to dismiss group selection in that book.

He dismisses group selection at the higher level, at the level of the species and large conglomerations such as rook colonies. However, he agrees with the idea at the level of the family, such as bees, ants, mole rats, mongooses and so on.

If I understand Farren Hayden’s argument correctly then it’s similar.

He also distorts Kropotkin’s arguments in Mutual Aid in order to create a straw man for his propertarian ideology.

I haven’t read Kropotkin so I’ll take your word for it on that. He also get’s Hayek’s arguments muddled up, or possibly distorted, elsewhere in his book.

Ridley’s book is a bit of a joke, self-contradictory (because it is so ideologically driven). At one point he invokes “the tragedy of the commons” to explain how altruism does not work then, later, to attack nationalisation he remembers that the commons were not unmanaged! Sad, really, but such is the power of ideology.

In the early chapters of the book Ridley points out the tragedy of commons through various examples. He points to the hunting of mammoths for example.

He then in the chapter “The Power of Property” he goes on to explain how private property and communal property supported by state and private enforcement. He gives the example of Maine lobster fishermen and of the systems of regulating the use of common land. He mentions Elinor Ostrom who recently got the Nobel for working on this.

He then points out that we should not jump to the conclusion that a tragedy of commons type setup must lead to an actual tragedy of commons. He points out that local solutions are possible, and that allowing them is better than nationalization. He goes on to point out how nationalization can cause tragedies of commons by removing existing extra-legal arrangements that worked well.

The point here is that on local levels the tragedy of commons problem can be dealt with by local rules – formal or informal. But, when there is a more non-local tragedy of commons there is a real problem. This is consistent with his view on the evolution of altruism.

Personally, I think it’s pretty reasonable, what do you think is wrong with it?

And I should note that Ridley is NOT a libertarian (in the grand tradition of Kropotkin and other anti-state socialists). He is a propertarian and a Thatcherite.

Well, I’m a “Propertarian” too, that is what Libertarian is generally taken to mean these days.

I can see how an old-fashioned anarchist may not like that use of language though.

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Current 06.21.10 at 3:35 pm

Farren Hayden,

Am I? I was referring to the second Monbiot article linked to in comments, containing these gems:

Do you seriously expect George Monbiot to understand this correctly? I think even people who like his stuff must recognise that he isn’t very good at understanding other points of view.

Anyway, Monbiot doesn’t really get Ridley right. Ridley argues that humans are selfish but have some capacity for altruism. Ridley’s argument is that forms of local altruism are the result of evolution, certainly. However, Ridley doesn’t argue that this evolutionary underpinning makes our altruism less genuine. Ridley doesn’t argue that simply because this behaviour is natural and evolved that it should be given free reign, he’s not an “social darwinist” of the second type I mention. His argument is for a free-market classical-liberal with some aspects of conservatism, he thinks that sort of society is utilitarian. He takes great pains to point out that such a society is in no clear sense “natural” and classical liberals who think it is are wrong.

He says somewhere that humans are not so naturally nasty that they need heavily intrusive government and central direction from an authority to be able to cooperate. That rules out authoritarian socialism and the sort corporatist capitalism we have today. But, on the other hand, humans are not so nice that we can do without rules, that rules out pure anarchism. And, we aren’t so nice that we will tolerate central authorities impositions on us without acting in our self-interest, that means authoritarian socialism won’t work.

If you have the time read “The Origin of Virtue” it’s a pretty good book. Though it certainly has problems as Anarcho and I have discussed. I’m sure you won’t agree with it, but then again I’m sure it’ll make you think about the issues.

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Farren Hayden 06.21.10 at 6:49 pm

Current I’ll give it a gander, although I’m generally hostile to propertarian ideas, I’ll admit :)

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Tim Worstall 06.22.10 at 7:24 am

“And I have to ask the obvious question—how does a science journalist get to be chairman of a bank? This very seldom happens in the US.”

Think of it this way (some imagination might be required a I’m not sure if the US quite works this way). Take some lightly populated out of the way place. Say, Maine. There’s some small number of families which provide the Great and the Good over the generations. Senators, Governors, head up the mutual banks (Northern Rock was the UK equivalent of an S&L not all that long ago), own big chunks of land etc. (Perhaps Boston with Cabots and Lodges might be a better example).

OK, the scion of one of these families goes off and becomes a science writer. Has a pretty decent career at it. But at some point he comes back to the home area and starts picking up the chairmanships, running charities, the local S&L etc, taking over from where father, or uncle etc, had been that local member of the Great and the Good.

The S&L, meanwhile, has demutualised, become a bank and expanded nationwide. We’ve now got one of the local Great and Good trying to run a national bank.

That is pretty much how it happened.

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ajay 06.22.10 at 9:18 am

Supposedly the Academy had a sign over the entrance: “LET NO MAN ENTER HERE WHO IS IGNORANT OF MATHEMATICS”. It might be an idea, for future posts on evolution, to post a warning: “LET NO ONE COMMENT HERE WHO IS IGNORANT OF THE CONCEPT OF INCLUSIVE FITNESS”. I suspect that would cut this thread to about eight or nine comments, but it would be worthwhile. Some of the comments here are the equivalent of a discussion about War and Peace by people who a) haven’t read it and b) think it’s set during the Second World War.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.22.10 at 9:30 am

It’s ‘free rein‘. (Reins is a backward string for hurting horseface to stop.)

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roac 06.22.10 at 2:56 pm

Tim Worstall @85: I get it — he’s the Old Squire’s Son, returning to take possession of the broad paternal acres (I have read lots of 19th-century novels.) Does the peasantry still touch its collective forelock when he strolls through the village?

The US state that I am familiar with which is still run by an entrenched hereditary aristocracy is not Massachusetts, but Alabama. And a deplorable shithole it is, too.

By the way, I gather from more recent reading (D. Francis thrillers) that in Britain the right accent and bank balance still automatically qualify you to be a Magistrate, with discretionary powers to lock up and/or flog the proletariat. Can somebody clarify that for me?

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Current 06.22.10 at 3:28 pm

> It’s ‘free rein‘. (Reins is a backward string for hurting horseface to stop.)

Thank you Tim I didn’t know that.

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Steve LaBonne 06.22.10 at 3:33 pm

On the first point, just googling a little made me realise that Inclusive Fitness pretty much covers most of what I was trying to articulate

And what I was trying to articulate is that next time you might want to think about doing that BEFORE you comment. Fair enough?

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Donald Johnson 06.22.10 at 4:12 pm

“It might be an idea, for future posts on evolution, to post a warning: “LET NO ONE COMMENT HERE WHO IS IGNORANT OF THE CONCEPT OF INCLUSIVE FITNESS”

Yes, certainly we wouldn’t want anyone posting here who isn’t an expert, admits it, and eventually learns something new along the way.

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Steve LaBonne 06.22.10 at 4:22 pm

Yes, certainly we wouldn’t want anyone posting here who isn’t an expert, admits it, and eventually learns something new along the way.

The way you do that is by asking questions, not pontificating.

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Farren Hayden 06.22.10 at 8:15 pm

Steve, every other day I have clients who don’t know a thing about dev second guessing me. Telling me this is the best way of approaching a problem when that over there is the industry best practise of the last 20 years, with good reason. Having an opinion on technical matters they really aren’t qualified to speak about.

Sometimes they’re pretty sure of themselves and need a lot of convincing. Occasionally, after working things through with them, I realise they’re right, even though all my well-trained instincts say otherwise. And sometimes I realise they’re really intuiting the right way of doing things, but lack the jargon. In any event, I’ve listened to devs complaining about clients telling them their business for more than 2 decades now, so this is all very familiar to me.

But I’m not sympathetic to it, because I’m not one of those devs. I’m the guy who listens carefully and makes a real effort to intuit what the client really wants and really means. Because its often not what they’re saying, at least not exactly. So I can’t say I’m sympathetic to your whole affronted scientist schtick.

I mean come on man “Its been a few years since I tore through a pile of pop-sci books on evolution (Dawkins, Gould, Goodwin et a), so I can’t claim deep knowledge of where the theory is now, but… it seems to me” is pontificating? Rlly?

Sure, maybe I said “species” when I was thinking about “closely related populations” and yeah, I certainly didn’t articulate very well that I understood that selection mostly acts on genes, not higher levels of biological organisation. As Mrs Tilton said, I was misread in part because I miswrote. But I’ve actually read a ton of stuff about kin selection and as I said even amused myself by writing simulations based on simple assumptions to see how it might work. I probably have read about inclusive fitness somewhere but it doesn’t stand out in my memory.

Sometimes, articulating half remembered patterns you once thought about very clearly and in great detail in, but haven’t paid much heed in a long time, just before you’re about to go to bed, you fail to get coherently across what you’re trying to say. Which in this case was “it seems obvious that genes that impart traits that increase the fitness of a population of carriers of similar genes, while decreasing the fitness of particular carriers, can arise and probably will, which means that, in a social species, selfish genes probably produce some altruistic traits”. Hell maybe I’ve still got it wrong, but thats my thinking.

In any event, a better man might say “hold on, you sound like you’re not a biologist and aren’t aware that until Hamilton brought some rigor to the whole affair, that coat of paint was splashed over everything that looked even vaguely altruistic in nature. But are you aware…”. While a grumpy expert with little concern for spreading light in the world and a very short fuse might immediately rage about “fluffy thinking” and “primitive handwaving” on the part of “amateurs”.

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Farren Hayden 06.22.10 at 8:32 pm

In any event its somewhat depressing to learn from you that, being part of that tiny percentage of the population outside of your profession that have actually taken the time to read Margulis, Goodwin, Gould and Dawkins, who you say is a great communicator of science, any opinion I express is still “bloviation” on the basis of no actual knowledge. Did I waste my time.

You know Steve once in a blue moon I get called upon to improve the systems of small business owners who’ve gotten hold of some rapid application development tool like Microsoft Access and created some unholy string-and-sticky-tape contraption with it that they use to run their business. As messy as these systems are, as amateur as they appear, it does not fill me with scorn for them or their efforts. Rather, I feel a little affinity to them, because unlike most of the population they have an interest in what I have an interest in, even if they’re not professionals.

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Tim Worstall 06.23.10 at 7:21 am

“I get it—he’s the Old Squire’s Son,”

Slightly grander than that. His Pop is the third Viscount Ridley (his uncle was Nicholas Ridley, a minister under Thatcher) and Matt is the heir. Pop is also Lord Lieutenant (or maybe Deputy, I forget) of the County….the Queen’s representative in the area. Purely a formal thing nowadays of course.

“that in Britain the right accent and bank balance still automatically qualify you to be a Magistrate, with discretionary powers to lock up and/or flog the proletariat.”

No, distressingly you now have to both pass some entrance requirements and actually receive training. And there are rather determined efforts to get people from “non traditional” backgrounds to do the job. Given that the job is unpaid yes, the local landowners do tend, in rural areas, to rather dominate the local bench, given that they have the time and money to do it, but urban benches are much more mixed. If a 25 year old factory worker (of good character, no criminal record etc, useful things to have in what is, after all, a member of the judicial system) turned up and asked to do the job they would just about weep with joy at getting her onto the bench.

There’s a rather good blog written by one of them:

http://thelawwestofealingbroadway.blogspot.com/

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roac 06.23.10 at 2:16 pm

TW: Thanks for that. I actually suspected, of course, that that would be the answer.

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roac 06.23.10 at 3:27 pm

I can’t believe I actually pursued this (I was curious as to which county), but: the source I found online says the current Viscount Ridley is the 4th Viscount, and he stopped being Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland in 2000. He went to Eton (of course) and was an officer with the Coldstream Guards (of course) in WWII. Subsequently he was an aide to the Governor of Kenya, presumably, although dates are not given, in MauMau times. Our man’s mother was the daughter of the 11th Earl of Somewhere.

So yes, a couple of rungs above the Squire, as you said.

(The Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland is also the Custos Rotulorum of Northumberland. I did not click on the link to find out what that is as I prefer to fantasize about it.)

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Mrs Tilton 06.23.10 at 4:36 pm

roac @97,

(The Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland is also the Custos Rotulorum of Northumberland. I did not click on the link to find out what that is as I prefer to fantasize about it.)

Appropriately enough given Ridley’s zoological bent, that ancient Latin phrase means “Keeper of the Queen’s Rotifers” in that county.

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piglet 06.23.10 at 4:48 pm

100

piglet 06.23.10 at 4:49 pm

Well that was a good one. I almost believed you.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custos_rotulorum

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roac 06.23.10 at 6:11 pm

If the Keeper of the Rolls had come to the attention of Terry Pratchett, he would surely have provided one for Ankh-Morpork, along with a Keeper of the Pies (Custos Tortaram) and a Keeper of the Teacakes (Custos Crustorum).

102

alex 06.23.10 at 6:22 pm

I can’t believe that there are people out there who don’t know what custos rotulorum means. Next you’ll be telling me that socage and petty-serjeanty are going out of fashion.

103

roac 06.23.10 at 9:35 pm

A confession: In my head, I had been saying Lord LOO-tenant instead of Lord LEFT-tenant. I promise not to do it again.

104

AnotherTom 06.24.10 at 11:09 am

@66

“It makes me ill when I read right wing triumphalism about how capitalism has supposedly improved lives overall. There is zero evidence to support such a conclusion”

It is ironic that an argument about the lack of evidence presents no evidence. The fact that millions of people suffer is neither an argument for or against capitalism. That people use assertions about the suffering of others to advance different political agendas is also a further relevant fact.

Ridley appears to be advancing the argument that the commentariat have adopted a mirror-image to the positivism of the 1950s/60s, a form of cultural pessimism over and above factual analysis, and one that prevents societies from choosing the best policies (just as over-optimism in the previous era also misinformed policy).

As Monbiot – with an equally privileged background to Ridley – is one of the leading proponents of the pessism as progress point of view, it is hardly surprising he finds counter arguments so difficult to accept. However, it is a mark of the man that he reaches so quickly for sloppy ad hominem attacks.

105

valuethinker 06.24.10 at 4:27 pm

Another Tom

Monbiot has an ‘equally privileged’ background as Ridley?

You’ve got to be kidding. Matt Ridley is a genuine aristocrat. I’d have to check, but he is within 150 people in line to the throne, I think (I’m not sure whether the lineage goes offshore before it goes to the Dukes, after Grosvenor/ Westminster?).

Maybe you don’t know the UK, but going to Eton and Oxford etc. is about as privileged as it gets.

It’s not a sloppy ad hominem attack. It’s a real issue. Ridley champions free markets, but then is Chairman of a bank bailed out for £20bn by the British taxpayer.

*your* attack on Monbiot is ‘ad hominem’. Monbiot is a pessimist, but less of one than Lovelock, say– Lovelock is the real pessimist. Monbiot says things are bad, but we can do something about it. Lovelock says there is no point.

Reading Ridley’s chapter on Global Warming, this is a writer who doesn’t take the time to really understand the science and its implications. He just says ‘I think it’s going to be a slow warming, and that’s that’. The geological evidence is that climate change is often abrupt, and he doesn’t address that.

106

valuethinker 06.24.10 at 4:33 pm

31. Tim Worstall

Ridley is what the KGB used to call a ‘useful idiot’. A guy who promulgates our ideology and helps our cause, but cannot be fingered as being in our employ, who seems a genuine independent thinker.

In that sense, the City and the County go together. The City loves to put figurehead Chairman in charge, who don’t get in the way of the grubby business of financial institutions making lots of money (for their employees and especially their senior executives).

Then the City goes and buys a country estate, and has sherry with the Ridleys of this world.

The elites, as in all power structures, are interlocking. David Cameron just ‘getting a job’ in the City at a very senior level at Carleton for Sir Michael Green. George Osborne and his City career, consultant to Rothschild, etc.

Ridley’s ideology is extremely useful. Just as the Social Darwinists provided useful propaganda cover to the Robber Barons. Or various left wing sympathizers to Stalin and his Gulags.

107

ajay 06.24.10 at 4:35 pm

Monbiot has an ‘equally privileged’ background as Ridley? You’ve got to be kidding. Matt Ridley is a genuine aristocrat.

So is Monbiot. And I think that the Ducs de Coutard, however ci-devant, probably outrank the Viscounts Ridley.
Ridley grew up in Blagdon Hall? Monbiot grew up in a large country house in Henley-on-Thames.
Ridley’s Eton and Oxford? Monbiot is Stowe and Oxford. (Brasenose College, yet; slightly more aristocratic than Magdalen, though the distinction is a fine one.)

So, yes, Monbiot and Ridley are pretty much equally privileged.

108

ajay 06.24.10 at 4:37 pm

If the Keeper of the Rolls had come to the attention of Terry Pratchett, he would surely have provided one for Ankh-Morpork, along with a Keeper of the Pies (Custos Tortaram)

Not necessary. Torts are the business of the Lord Chancellor. (Tarts are the business of the Director of Public Prosecutions.)

109

belle le triste 06.24.10 at 4:52 pm

“Duc de Coutard” is surely the French for “Keeper of the Pies”, or at least the guy one along

110

Mrs Tilton 06.24.10 at 5:52 pm

ajay’s comment @108 is the second best thing to happen today.

111

roac 06.24.10 at 6:14 pm

I assume the comment Mrs. T. seeds at the top is Zamfir on the Pantload thread. If so, I concur with her ranking.

Since this thread is still twitching, let me acknowledge that I bungled the Latin. Custos Tortarum, not Custos Tortaram. Assuming I got the declensions right in the first place. (I never saw torta or crustum before, I got them from an online dictionary.)

112

roac 06.24.10 at 6:22 pm

The City loves to put figurehead Chairman in charge, who don’t get in the way of the grubby business of financial institutions making lots of money (for their employees and especially their senior executives).

Or, as noted by W.S. Gilbert in The Gondoliers (1889):

I sit by selection upon the direction
Of several companies bubble.
As soon as they’re floated, I’m freely bank-noted;
I’m pretty well paid for my trouble.

113

Mrs Tilton 06.24.10 at 7:11 pm

roac @111,

no, my category of “thing” was broader than just blog comments. I was thinking of, shall I say, Slovakia’s progress to the last 16.

114

Tim Worstall 06.25.10 at 7:30 am

“Matt Ridley is a genuine aristocrat.”

Yes.

“I’d have to check, but he is within 150 people in line to the throne, I think (I’m not sure whether the lineage goes offshore before it goes to the Dukes, after Grosvenor/ Westminster?).”

No, absolutely not.

One of the peculiarities of the English aristocracy is that they’ve not really got much blood contact with the monarchy. The Scots are a little different. But the list of heirs is here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_succession_to_the_British_throne

Roughly, it goes through the obvious members of the current Royal Family, then through inheritance from various Royal Dukes (Gloucester, Kent…..these are very different indeed from the non royal dukedoms) and then veers off to the Norwegian royal family, the Romanian, Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Danish etc.

You don’t get to what might be called the traditional English aristocracy until number 350 or so with the Wellesleys (Duke of Wellington…actually, the son, not the current Duke) ….and that’s through the female line, not male. Then it’s back off to the Preussens (Prussia) and you don’t come back to the local aristocracy until the Marquess of Milton Haven at 460 or so (the Mountbattens)…..at 497 we actually get the Duke of Edinburgh through this line in his own right.

After 500 no one’s really keeping count any more. But the remarkable thing is really how little contact (in terms of marriage) there is between the royal family and the aristocracy. The latter tend to think of the former as parvenus to some extent.

The Ridleys, Grosvenor/Westminster, (both reasonably new creations, a few generations each), the more ancient aristocratic familes, the dukes, marquesses, earls and so on, are absolutely nowhere at all on this list (with the couple of exceptions noted above). The inheritance doesn’t go anywhere near the traditional aristocracy….and having worked for a couple of them thank goodness for that.

115

ajay 06.25.10 at 11:15 am

112: or the Aytoun story, “How We Got Up the Glenmutchkin Railway and How We Got Out Of It” about the splendidly fraudulent IPO of the Glenmutchkin Railway Company; much of the story involves picking sufficiently grand-sounding directors, including “Sir Polloxfen Tremens, Bart.”, “Augustus Dunshunner of St Mirrens” and an unemployed mechanic called McCluskie who is simply listed as “THE McCLUSKIE”.

116

ajay 06.25.10 at 11:18 am

“Duc de Coutard”: what Bernard-Henri Levy repeatedly fails to do.

117

AnotherTom 06.25.10 at 12:06 pm

@valuethinker (105)

Again, it is curious to read criticism about facts from someone who has not done any research!

Monbiot’s aristocratic and privileged background has been noted above @107 so I won’t repeat his correction of your mistakes.

I will, however, add that describing his output as “pessimism as progress” is not an “ad hominem” attack; it is merely a stylized – but accurate – depiction of his witless columns and books.

Describing him as an earnest fool with a messianic streak would meet that criteria, and reflects my growing belief that many latter-day conservatives now find environmentalism a happy repository for their reactionary instincts.

That he throws out “policies” is interesting; it would be useful if he had the faintest grasp of how politics works. His utter and complete ignorance of the world – masked by his self-styled earthy radicalism – is alternately shocking and hysterical.

I haven’t read Ridley’s book and have no strong views on it, but it is hardly surprising that people will occasionally explore if the often flimsy basis to the declinist thesis that has so gripped opinion-formers.

118

roac 06.25.10 at 3:14 pm

115: Aytoun is someone I had never heard of. When I looked him up, I learned that he was a Writer to the Signet, which shows once again that Britain is to quaint titles as Saudi Arabia is to oil.

116: You’re on quite a roll here.

119

roac 06.25.10 at 4:54 pm

I know I am in danger of wearing out the subject of British quaintness here but:

Over at the Atlantic, Fallows and Sullivan are talking about William Dalrymple on Afghanistan (they both got his name wrong). I said, Isn’t that another British author with an aristocratic background? I looked him up, and yes, his father is a Baronet in the Baronetcy of Nova Scotia. (Can’t tell if he’s the heir.) Just an hour before, I would have said the Baronetcy of What? But I had just looked at the story ajay mentioned, in which such a baronet appears.

Moreover, Dalrymple’s father used to be the Lord Lieutenant of East Lothian. The multiple convergences had to be noted.

(Another author who is the son of a baronet: Peter Dickinson. Almost enough for a Jeopardy category.)

120

Tim Worstall 06.26.10 at 8:23 am

Another baronet…..Jonathan Porritt of Friends of the Earth. Son of one, obviously, but he was oldest son and thus inherited it.

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