The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley, book review

When it comes to evolution, people are a bit like insects, Matt Ridley proposes. Peter Forbes agrees – up to a point

Peter Forbes
Thursday 17 September 2015 14:07

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This book is, in parts, confirmatory of what I'm pretty sure to be true, disturbingly subversive of some of my beliefs and, finally, a lurch into Tea Party absurdity.

The good news first. Matt Ridley is a zoologist by training and a disciple of Richard Dawkins. In a concise survey of the latest biology he demonstrates the great principle of life: that there is no top-down master plan anywhere to be found. All of life's processes resemble the termites' nest: each termite has only a limited repertoire of responses but, in sum, the elaborate architecture of the nest is built, complete with its fungal food factories and cooling vents (termites are unconsciously farmers and ventilation engineers). As the detailed working of genomes emerges, we see everywhere that "local rules create global structures".

This has been hard for people to understand – it is counter-intuitive – but technologists are beginning to create synthetic structures in this way: massed miniature robots that, by obeying simple local commands, can nevertheless build complex structures.

Ridley extrapolates this to a general theory of evolution: in technology, society, morality and so on, everything proceeds from the bottom up. Unfortunately, human beings are programmed to reach for what Ridley calls "skyhooks": God, the government (who must do something), the central banking system; the Great Men who invent new technology or win wars.

I take this book to be Ridley's magnum opus, as he says, decades in the making. A particular catalyst has enabled him to draw all his ideas together: his discovery a few years ago of Lucretius after reading Stephen Greenblatt's book on the great Roman poet. Lucretius's De rerum natura is a long poem that expounds the idea of atheistical atomism and his arguments seem uncannily modern: like those of a Richard Dawkins 2000 years avant la lettre. Every chapter has a Lucretian epigraph that gives a flavour of his range and startling prescience.

Ridley contends that morality evolves from the actual interactions of people just trying to get along, a notion first proposed by his hero Adam Smith (prefigured by Lucretius) and endorsed by another hero, Charles Darwin. But he also suggests that from these interactions we create the idea of the impartial spectator – perhaps a sum of all our experiences of moral encounters – to guide us when we are alone and trying to resolve ethical dilemmas. And it is this impartial spectator who morphs into gods of various stripes.

For me the most satisfying chapter is on technology. Ridley is utterly convincing when he claims that technology has its own momentum and that inventors are secondary. Almost every technical innovation has appeared simultaneously from two or more sources and they do so when the ground has been prepared by previous inventions; just as in biological evolution, technology always moves to "the adjacent possible".

So far so good. But at some point the reader starts to wonder if Ridley has lost sight of his theme. The book morphs into a sustained polemic on behalf of libertarian anti-State ideas not a million miles from those of the US Republican Tea Party. One of Ridley's missions is to recast the definitions of left- and right-wing. He doesn't regard himself as right-wing and indeed he does manage to make such a case. But his cherry-picked arguments should not go unchallenged.

He doesn't like the fact that the modern state has a monopoly of violence and commends the arrangement of the 19th-century Wild West, in which competing law enforcers brought peace and order (so he says) unknown in modern America. This may be the case, but the world today has many examples of states in which there is no central law enforcement and they're not a good advert for Ridley's thesis. Among his most outrageous notions are that gangs can be good: he commends the Mexican mafia for bringing order to US prisons and the drugs trade.

Ridley really does seem to think that the centralised state is the root of all evil. So why are all the most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world centralised states? If planning is so bad why is dirigiste Japan so successful in the world's car and electronics markets?

The authorities Ridley quotes in support of such views are figures like the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell and the US libertarians Ron and Rand Paul, plus a few most readers are unlikely to have heard of (wheeled in sans credentials). He dares to mention that he was chairman of a bank during the crash of 2008 without telling us that Northern Rock was the bank in question. Incidentally, the crash was caused not by bankers but, according to one Jeffrey Friedman, by "the complex web of regulations designed to constrain and redirect modern capitalism". Good to get that learnt.

The overriding contradiction in Ridley's argument is that he insists his approach is the scientific one: do not trust authorities, go for the evidence; do not rely on incidental anecdotes. But anecdotes and numerous supposedly buttressing quotes by his motley crew of authorities make up the bulk of the book.

Ridley is a heretic on most counts. He is right to point out that combating global warming has developed elements of religiosity but you can't judge any subject by its zealots and surely his own libertarianism, with its demonisation of the state and centralised control, is similar? It has its saints – Adam Smith, Hayek – and the state as some kind of Satan or Anti-Christ. Lucretius is, of course, a John the Baptist on an elongated time scale.

The excesses (and there are many more than I have space for here) might make you feel you don't need to read this book. You'd be wrong: he does make a persuasive case that top-down command in many areas of life is inefficient, smothering and often tyrannical. There are the seeds of a revolution here (or rather a bottom-up evolution) but the reader needs to keep a cool head to be able to sort the termites from the Tea Party.

Peter Forbes is the author of 'The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book'

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