Saturday, August 7, 2010

John Gray on "The Rational Optimist"

John Gray, writing in The New Statesmen (here), doesn't like Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper 2010). He blames Ridley for liking memes, markets, and Julian Simon, and labels him a "Social Darwinist" for believing that  social welfare can and does improve (more so in some institutional circumstances  than others).

I have not yet had a chance to read the book, which Matt was kind enough to have the publisher send to me. But I'm feeling motivated to do so soon by Gray's review, which strikes me as more than a little vitriolic and in some respects quite unfair. For instance, Gray's suggestion that memes-talk and a belief in social progress commit Matt (or Richard Dawkins, who comes in for a gratuitous slap in Gray's review, or  anyone else for that matter) to Spencerian "Social Darwinism" strikes me as ridiculous. A vast middle ground exists between the extreme position that evolutionary forces determine social relations and Gray's apparent view that culture and society are completely uninfluenced by biology.

I don't imagine that when I read his book I will agree with Matt on all points - his general attitude is definitely more laissez-faire than is mine - but I think I'm likely to agree with him more than with Gray. I'll let you know after I've had a chance to read the book.

1 comment:

  1. It is difficult to know where to begin in critiquing the extreme foolishness of Gray's review. For example, it is downright idiotic to say that economic growth won't help poor countries cope with climate change. This disdain for economic growth is common among supercilious intellectuals who live cushy lives of affluence as a result of economic growth, and bemoan the plight of the poor while opposing everything that would actually help them become not-poor.
    John Gray is 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


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