Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ridley’s new book is a great synthesis of a lot of the ways that evolutionary processes are at the heart of everything. Using Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura as his guide, he runs through human history and development. He covers religion, the internet, money, government, and much more. He illuminates the fundamental connections and underlying principles at work across such disparate domains.

Ridley argues that there is a general theory of evolution—biological evolution being the special theory—that explains how all things evolve. This general theory of evolution is, in essence, the view that everything is, too some significant degree, the result of emergent, unplanned, undesigned, and inexorable processes. Things develop gradually through modification and selection. He presents example after example of how bottom-up processes play the essential role in human progress and development and top-down structures are so-often ineffectual or damaging.

He uses the metaphor of creationists and evolutionists to identity whether top-down or bottom-up animates one’s view of the world. A creationist is one who thinks that top-down structures and processes are the way things work and progress. Whether in biology, economics, or the internet, if one things there has to be a designer to bring order to the system, then one is a creationist. On the other side, an evolutionist recognizes that order and design are not identical. These systems are, for the most part, self-organizing and without a design or designer.

If I had one criticism, it was that he tended to underplay the role of individuals. I think he is overreacting to the “Great Man of History” view. While there is – at least in retrospective – an inexorable march of history, I think that certain figures made choices that where not inexorable and would have, counterfactually, changed history if the choice was different or they had not existed. Yes in the 1900s, there were lots of people circling around something like the Theory of Relativity—but I don’t think anyone in the first part of 20th century would have come up with Relativity other than Einstein. There was something about his personality, his skill set, his life that put him a position to identity when he did. And if Relativity isn’t discovered until the 1940s—the 20th century is much, much different. Similarly with someone like Steve Jobs. He had a unique vision of technology and the personality and drive to implement it. I am not sure anyone else had that vision and/or the skill set to make it happen.

I liked the book, but I am in the choir here and Ridley is largely preaching to those like me. I don’t think many “creationists” would find the book convincing – at least across the board. They might acknowledge emergent systems in biology but not economics and politics (or vice versa). Ridley isn’t so much engaging in sustained persuasive argument against creationists. He is, in my view, more setting out to synthesize and bring together into one space the various ways evolutionary processes are at work across human experience. This is not a ground-breaking, path-blazing book. It’s a step back and integrate what we know book.

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