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The Path of Progress

By: Paul Schwennesen
January 11, 2017

“It is an important and popular fact,” quipped Douglas Adams, “that things are not always as they seem.” Matt Ridley couldn’t agree more. In The Evolution of Everything, he posits that the world moves along evolutionary lines, and he challenges the idea that it functions through design and top-down control. This isn’t a particularly profound position unless we acknowledge that, by and large, most of us believe that things are (or should be) under some form of control. Ridley hacks at the roots of this vicious little predisposition, reminding us at every turn that everything is not, after all, as it seems.

Prescient design and top-down planning, Ridley insists, are likely illusory and counterproductive. The order we see around us is nearly always spontaneous and unorganized—the outgrowth of atomistic competition and unguided recombination. Systems evolve along complex self-organizing principles, not only in the natural sciences, but also in the humanities, technology, and politics. Most of our world is the result of evolution—and no dirigiste at the helm can claim credit. In this sense, “You didn’t build that” is technically true, yet the corollary that “government built it” does not follow. We all built it, each contributing tiny additions and alterations to an evolving symphony without a conductor.

Ridley admits that this thesis is not original, noting that Epicurus postulated it twenty-five centuries ago. The rediscovery of this bottom-up way of seeing the world, facilitated by the translation of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in 1417, helped spark the Renaissance and fuel the Enlightenment. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and fellow luminaries quoted Lucretius at length. Jefferson is purported to have owned five copies of De Rerum in three languages.

What is startlingly original is Ridley’s broader synthesis. He presents evidence of spontaneous order in genetics, neuroscience, education, morality, population, economics, culture, crime, technology, and even our personalities. Take, for example, the notion that a person’s temperament is the product of parental involvement or childhood trauma, a theory that sustains the entire “therapy” industry. New science showing that personality is a plastic, individual response to social cues and status-seeking unravels this apparently self-evident concept. Genetic variation makes up the other half of personality; our persona is just another example of a bottom-up, unfolding-from-within phenomenon.

Ridley is at his best when writing about life processes, so his tendency to view the world in organic terms is not surprising. This inclination is less confirmation bias than studied intuition—Ridley brings a sophisticated understanding of biological systems that can be carefully extrapolated to the systems we ourselves construct. The spontaneous order found in nature buttresses Ridley’s conviction that order arises from below, rather than descending from above. The ten trillion cells transcribing several thousand genes each and every moment of our lives are autonomous, relying neither on a preordered blueprint nor a central coordinating power. Ridley ties this insight to our quotidian lives: “Millions of trillions of these immensely complicated events are occurring every second in your body to keep you alive, very few of which go wrong. It’s like the world economy in miniature, only even more complex.”

Ridley emphasizes the vast difference between human action, which is generally uncoordinated, and human design, which generally comes from on-high. Most of the social phenomena we value (culture, education, faith, technology, etc.) are the byproducts of evolutionary forces, not the gifts of an enlightened elite. And yet we tend to forget this most basic fact. Perhaps it’s one of those pesky vestigial human responses—like the “chalk screech” that reminds our amygdala of saber-toothed doom—but we seem to have an unshakeable propensity for believing that what creates order around us is the result of external, deliberate planning. Ridley shows that this belief is flawed, eviscerating fundamentalists, cultural-determinists, and gender-identitarians along the way. Much-vaunted “planners” are, in reality, myopic meddlers wielding a blunt instrument.

Ridley’s bottom-up worldview emphasizes innovation over planning within an evolutionary fabric that capitalizes on mistakes—or “discoveries” as they’re known later. This worldview does not square with the idea of rigid, formulaic policy generation since “the political system, with its bias in favor of the status quo, its precautionary mistrust of the new, and its elite assumptions, is almost perfectly designed to frustrate all attempts at innovation.” This argument warms the cockles of an anti-authoritarian heart, but as Ridley romps from one broad category to the next, one cannot help wondering whether this argument is too pat. If Ridley’s thesis strikes even a receptive audience as a bit forced, then it seems unlikely to sway the opinions of the uninitiated.

Some of this nagging concern could have been addressed. A coda differentiating levels of planning, for example, would have been helpful. Clearly we do not build our own homes in an evolutionary free-for-all, but it is likewise true that home designs at large evolve through time as minor site-specific alterations to the “plan” are adopted. Ridley could have spent more time shining light in this gray area between discrete, local planning and the naïve “planning” done around hopelessly complex systems like economies.

Critics will deride The Evolution of Everything for its overt libertarian, anti-government, and anti-clerical themes. All the better! If Ridley is pilloried as our era’s apostle of anti-planning, as a landed viscount he will suffer little, and the rest of us will gain much by the exposure. It is difficult to say whether we are riding another crest in the cyclical path toward greater centralization of power (the rise of the Administrative State, police militarization) or whether we are collectively awaking to a newfound distrust of elite, entrenched bureaucracies (Brexit, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election). Either way, Ridley’s book is a welcome contribution to an empowering and optimistic view that the world runs quite well without overlords. With that comes the encouraging corollary that we can help ourselves. 




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