The Evolution of Everything
Oct 26, 2015
Bishop Hill in Books, Matt Ridley

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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