Darwin in the Boardroom: Evolution, Economics, and the Nature-Nurture Debate

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Darwin in the Boardroom: Evolution, Economics, and the Nature-Nurture Debate


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


Matt Ridley has a dangerous idea:

   In every age and at every time there have
   been people who say we need more regulation,
   more government. Sometimes they say
   we need it to protect [free] trade from corruption,
   to set the standards and police the
   rules, in which case they have a point,
   though often they exaggerate it. The dangerous
   idea we all need to learn is that the more
   we limit the growth of government, the better
   off we will all be.

Why is this a dangerous idea? Because most scientists are academics, and most academics are liberals, and most liberals favor more government in the regulation of the economy. But Matt Ridley is no academic scientist. Although he earned a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University in 1983, his career path since that time has been anything but traditional. After a decade as the science correspondent and the science editor and American editor for the prestigious magazine The Economist, Ridley settled into writing books full time after the success of his first treatise The Red Queen, on the nature of evolutionary arms races, a reference to the Red Queen's race in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, when the queen says "It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place." In evolution, arms races develop in order to maintain relative fitness. As lions get fitter by running faster, gazelles must also run faster in order to maintain their relative fitness with their lion predators.

The Red Queen put Ridley on the literary map as a highly regarded prose stylist as well as a lucid explicator of complex scientific concepts, which led to countless articles, essays, reviews, and opinion editorials in the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, New Scientist, Prospect, New Statesman, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Natural History, and others. His writings have garnered him numerous awards, such as the Glaxo science writer's award for best science article, the National Academies Book Award, the Davis Prize for the history of science, and others, which led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary doctorate of science at Buckingham University and an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

In 1996 Ridley tackled the controversial topic of evolutionary ethics in his book The Origin of Virtue, at the end of which he came out of the closet as a fan of Adam Smith and a proponent of free markets, which he believes encourage the better angels of our evolutionary nature. As the human genome project was coming to fruition in the late 1990s, Ridley wrapped his mind around this rich science with his book Genome, followed by Nature via Nurture, in which he teased apart the complex interactions of genes and environment. His last book was a biography of Francis Crick, and and today he is wrapping up the manuscript of what promises to be his most controversial book to date, on why despite the current economic crisis there is every reason to be optimistic, following the dictum of his dangerous idea.

SKEPTIC publisher Michael Shermer sat clown with Ridley at Blagdon Hall, his family estate outside of Newcastle Upon Tyne, in his library /office full of books, andes, journals, magazines, a computer, a Blackberry, and the other indispensable tools of the modem writer's craft.

SKEPTIC: How did you get into science writing?

Ridley: I did a Ph.D. in animal behavior but then realized that I enjoyed writing about science more than doing research, so I got a job with The Economist as their science correspondent, and that opened up opportunities for me to study and write about research in many different fields. It also gave me the chance to hone my skills as a writer.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

SKEPTIC: Being a writer is a tough way to make a living. To what do you attribute your success in terms of book sales, for example? …

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