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The Evolution of Everything

For reading matter on my half-term trip away, I took Matt Ridley's latest book The Evolution of Everything. At nearly 400 pages long it's not a short book, but it turned out to be not nearly long enough to keep me occupied and by the middle of the week I had finished it.

There's only one word to describe it: subversive.

It's subversive of pretty much everything - religion, politics, technology, statism, central banking, education, culture. You name it and it's subverted by the book's central hypothesis. This is the idea that while we seek proximal, top-down explanations for change, in truth bottom-up forces are more powerful, more sustained, and more often than not are the true causes.

So on the subject of societal change we read:

In society, people are the victims and even the immediate agents of change, but more often than not the causes are elsewhere – they are emergent, collective, inexorable forces.

One example is that of the general who leads his army to victory, with no credit given to the malaria that killed off the opposing army. Politicians and activists obsess over aid payments and plans for poor countries, while the people there quietly evolve their way to a better life.

The hard of understanding are struggling with this. There was a typically execrable review in the Guardian which asked "What about the exercise of power?", an argument that almost completely missed the point made in the quote above (which appears on page 5 of the book, leaving one with the impression that the Guardian's reviewer didn't get further than the blurb).

Similarly, science-y people on Twitter have been vehemently arguing that Ridley is wrong to suggest that government can't make technological breakthroughs, which is a futile point to make since Ridley argues no such thing. His case is, as throughout the book, that evolutionary progress is much more important than big breakthroughs and that top-down, planned approaches have less impact than unplanned tinkering.

So with this book, Ridley sets the philosophical cat well and truly among the pigeons, and those who make their living in the world of top-down plans are up in arms.

You can see why I call it subversive. Read on.

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Reader Comments (59)

I'm resolutely sober.

Oct 27, 2015 at 4:14 AM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Ok then. You've lost the pot.

Oct 27, 2015 at 4:24 AM | Unregistered Commenterclipe

Mike Jackson
Yes Dyson was not alone but you missed the main point that it is a lot more difficult to move from prototype to production in the UK than in the US because they have a culture of private funding at all levels. The why and the wherefore and just wishing it wasn't so (or quoting Adam Smith out of context) doesn't change that state of affairs. Without government funding here then a lot of really good research would either die or go abroad. That is just a simple, well-established fact.

I agree that Hinckley is a white elephant but it is not clear yet that SMR's are, and a lot of money is going into just such 'new nuclear' ideas in the US. Whilst there is a lot of academic support here and a lot of new good ideas, there is no private money coming through, despite us being virtually the only country outside the US even trying to encourage private nuclear investment. I see far more happening in Argentina* in that regard - and entirely state funded from a county in a far more parlous state than us. What an embarrassment!


Oct 27, 2015 at 9:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Thanks, Andrew, for initiating an interesting discussion. My two-penn'orth? Most people, including those who may rant about the deadening hand of authority, seem happy on occasion to accept the helping hand of the dreaded state.

Oct 27, 2015 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterColdish

@Robert Swan,

Thanks for your reply.

In any complex system, there is a rather wide difference in degree of direction provided by a central authority. So there is some ambiguity in what "top down" means, whether it refers to design or operation. I was trying to emphasize the DESIGN of the system. A top-down, hierarchically designed system, at a minimum, has pre-determined system interfaces between components, and at least a minimal set of programmed responses to expected inputs. All of my examples exhibit that.

If someone invaded British-held land or rebelled within it, that meant a centrally-directed response, usually military. Exhibit A, the American Revolution.

A book with a table of contents is top-down, hierarchically designed. Remember Churchill's description:

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

No matter what a book is in reality or in perception, it is under the control of the author from first thought to royalties (if you have a good lawyer, anyway). Collections can be made into books, but they are compiled according to the editor's central purpose. Look also at this comment board. Some of the comments have nothing to do with some of the others, but they are sequentially numbered, they meet a minimum set of submission criteria, and there is an expectation that they will generally relate to the topic at hand. The good bishop is the head of the hierarchy here.

The world wide web has a set of standards and formats for the packet traffic that will be sent. Whether viewed from the conceptual OSI 7-layer model or from the viewpoint of the lowly but necessary IP address (still v4 here), traffic is routed according to an interface specification that applies to the entire network. No IP address, no message. Even the administrative conventions are centrally managed by ICANN. Yes, the degree of central control is much, much less than many other systems, but the fact that not all traffic goes through a single hub does not mean it's not a top-down, hierarchically designed system in the sense I've described.

Similar things could be said about the international finance system that allows anyone around the world to buy the book on Amazon. To the extent of its worldwide reach, top-down, hierarchical design made it possible.

A single shipping company that exists worldwide is a top-down, hierarchically designed system, as is any passenger or cargo airline system.

Take one example I didn't include, but could have: the human body. It is a system of systems, with a high degree of central control. Complex interfaces that not only did not happened by chance, but could not have happened by chance in the time and space of any conceivable universe are present in every human body. Some operations, such as cell division, apparently happen according to a pre-programmed script; others, such as regulation of hormones, are triggered centrally (as I understand it).

As far as axes to grind, I'm not the one who made false and ridiculous claims for biological evolution and tried try to roll them up into a theory of everything at wide variance with reality. That was Ridley's axe to grind, and grind it he did.

Matt Ridley is certainly on to something, namely that intelligent actors acting independently from central control can do surprising things. But the quintessential concepts at play are intelligence, cooperation and population dynamics. The key concept is not evolution seeded by random events and then shaped on by a nebulous selection principle.


Oct 27, 2015 at 6:07 PM | Unregistered Commenterdean_from_ohio

I thoroughly enjoyed Ridley's 'Rational Optimist' (even though he was still a warmist at the time). 'Ideas having sex' is a rather splendid concept. And his account of the emergence both of trade and ideas was rightly awarded a prize.

All along however I realised that, as with pure Darwinism, there was some finessing going on.

In Darwinist theory, random mutations iterate towards improvements in species by the filter of survival of the fittest.
But pure Darwinism is 'blind', unguided. It has no 'concept' of improvement.
Yet Ridley's approach, even though he uses the evolutionary model, omits the obvious impact of the human mind which decides that this or that innovation has 'legs' as it were.
Ideas indeed may often occur by accidental discovery - metals trickling from rocks used to contain a fire for example. But someone had the idea that this stuff could be useful (or even just beautiful). Then iteration of smelting ores improves metallurgy etc...
But always there is mind, selecting, experimenting, exchanging ideas.
It must surely follow that ideas and developments have to presume a pre-existent mind.
Darwin was right about common descent, he was right about survival of the fittest in nature
but beyond that his theories (and they were plural) start to run into difficulties. Random mutations filtered by selection of the fittest can produce variations, but something far more important is required to generate new more advanced species.
Biochemistry shows us that such huge jumps (like jumps in technology) are not produced by random mutations. It is not understood. Biochemistry has killed off classical Darwinism. We have yet to find a replacement.

I leave folks to take this further.

Oct 27, 2015 at 8:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster


Thanks for your considered response, though I am still not convinced.

The Web can certainly be looked at as layered, but the things I think most people would consider to be the "top" (Google, YouTube, eBay, Bishop Hill) weren't designed before the things most people would consider to be the bottom (TCP/IP, DNS). The Web protocols (HTTP, HTML) happened between, but have gone on evolving as time has passed.

Rather than go one by one through your examples I'll point out that it's no surprise that things can be viewed as hierarchies. It's well known that any connected graph can be transformed into a tree rooted at any point in the network. His Grace, as you say, is head of the hierarchy here; that's one possibility. I can nominate myself as head of the hierarchy. After all, Bishop Hill comes and goes at my whim; at the mere click of a mouse.

I agree with you that it's ridiculous if Ridley wants to consider evolution to be the basis of a "theory of everything", but it is also foolish to think that bottom-up organisation is insignificant. I'm afraid I disagree with most of the constraints you list in your last paragraph. A pretty unequivocal bottom-up structure is the atmosphere. Each molecule is trying its best to "remain in its state of motion" (as Newton would have it) and fly off into the void of space. But when you add all the jostling with the other molecules, and with gravity hauling at it, stir it up with energy coming in from the sun and radiated back out to space, what do you get? Who would expect anything but chaos. And at the molecular level I suppose they'd be right. At a wider level though, mirabile dictu, cyclones, anticyclones, hurricanes, rain, snow, you name it. Order out of chaos; no designer, and not one intelligent actor.

Oct 27, 2015 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Swan

Just previewing Matt's book on Amazon, I suggest he might be enlightened by a careful reading of "Human Action" by L. Von Mises.

Oct 29, 2015 at 8:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJim

".....very little power to do much good but a lot of power to really cock things up..."
You could say the same about generals. But are we really supposed to run an army with just foot-soldiers?

Oct 26, 2015 at 3:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

I didn't say that, JamesG.
Armies are there for the nasty things in life (like death, and to break things). Wealth creation and economic growth are not normally seen as part of their remit.

Oct 30, 2015 at 2:11 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

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