Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Evolving Situation

Sorry I didn’t get around to writing about that book on the Victorians (or anything else) in the latter half of last week. I’m still adjusting to my new work schedule at Fox and other tumult — but here, as compensation, is an entry praising a man from England who thinks a bit like a Victorian, or at least like a combination of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, which is not such a bad thing to be.

I mean Matt Ridley, for whom a book release party was thrown tonight. (A grad student friend of mine studying evolutionary psychology will be jealous that she wasn’t visiting New York City tonight instead of next month.) Ridley made the wise decision to become a highly popular and respected science writer, specializing in matters evolutionary, before really coming out of the closet as a libertarian — not that it’s surprising to some of us that there’s so much overlap in these two worldviews.

Culture, like biological evolution, can be seen in part as a process of continual refinement, and Ridley argues in his new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, that the specialization of labor, beloved by capitalists, should be seen as a significant evolutionary step forward for humanity that allowed us to outsource many of our thoughts/behaviors to a collective, mutually-beneficial hivemind, radically more efficient than any lone organism. This is also the topic of an animated clip Ridley created that has become a YouTube sensation, one of the few libertarian videos to achieve that enviable viral state, as June Arunga noted in her comments introducing Ridley.

To get a feel for the man and his ideas yourself, simply see his early-evening talk at the New York Academy of Sciences (down at the Trade Center) tomorrow (Wednesday), and be prepared for rational optimism of the sort that people who call themselves “progressives” usually don’t exhibit anymore. I mean the libertarian kind of optimism summed up in this passage of cover copy from the book: “Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.”

Speaking of reason for optimism, the closest thing I have to a regret about attending tonight’s event is that I wasn’t partying with another batch of libertarians as Rand Paul won his Senate primary in Kentucky, part of a libertarian/Tea Party wave presaging global anti-government revolution.

But given my broadly-fusionist ambitions, how, I ask myself, can we get the conservative-leaning Rand Paul types who love markets and the science-loving Darwin buffs to work together more often, uniting these estranged strands of the culture in the way that Ridley does (like Michael Shermer and a few others)? It strikes me that writing a popular bio about the friendship between Popper and Hayek wouldn’t be a bad place to start. If only there were more hours in the day…

P.S. And I believe a quantitative analyst friend of mine was at an event attended by Freeman Dyson’s daughter tonight, so there’s more markety and scientific activity  around here than you can shake a stick at (after the Monolith teaches you to use tools, if I understand the precise mechanics of natural selection).

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