A Grand Exploration of the ‘Evolution of Everything’

Published February 4, 2016

Review of The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge, Matt Ridley (Harper, 2015), 368 pp., ISBN-10: 0062296000, ISBN-13: 978-0062296009; $18.44. 

For those whom I convince to buy this book, it is likely you will e-mail me a thank-you when you get to the final page.

This book is the culmination of author Matt Ridley’s intellectual life and is the most informative book I have ever read. Ridley, a widely published science writer, goes back several thousand years in human history to trace “the evolution of everything.”

The author covers 16 fascinating and entertaining topics, each of which could have been published as a separate, peer-reviewed journal article. Topics include the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the Internet.

Ridley’s primary assertion is evolution is happening all around us in nearly every aspect of our lives. Those changes are incremental, inexorable, and inevitable, having no goal or end in mind and largely happening through trial and error. Ridley contemplates the nature of the universe and considers the many possibilities of its creation and working—including Divine design, quantum mechanics and other physics theories, and even the possible role weather had in creation. 

Evolution of Morality

Most readers know Adam Smith well from his “invisible hand” concept of economics, expressed in his book The Wealth of Nations, but in his prior book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, this 18th-century Scottish philosophy professor described morality as a spontaneous, accidental by-product of the way human beings adjust their behavior towards each other as they grow up in a relatively peaceful society. Although recent mass murders and the terrible ISIS war make it easy to think otherwise, Ridley shows the world has just enjoyed a decade with the lowest death rate in war on record, and Ridley says homicide rates have declined 99 percent in most Western countries since medieval times.

This brief chapter on morality also serves as a short course on the development of both common law and case law.

In addressing the evolution of life, Ridley shows himself to be a scholar par excellence of Darwin. He intellectually and fairly examines Darwin’s theory of evolution and latter-day theories of intelligent design.

Ridley’s training in biology also serves him well in the section discussing genes, as he describes molecular biology in terms those of us who are not scientists can understand. He discusses various topics related to DNA and highlights Richard Dawkins’ insights on genes, explaining Dawkins’ expertise in genetics is often lost because of the controversies related to his views on religion and his promotion of atheism.

Cultural and Economic Changes

Ridley shows evolution clearly occurs in culture, and he finds an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of the written and spoken word. Different languages and distinct species both develop through a gradual process and are more diverse in the tropics and relatively less diverse at the poles. The native tongues spoken in Alaska can be counted on one hand, whereas in New Guinea there are literally thousands of languages, some spoken only in a single valley.

Ridley’s discussion of the evolution of the economy provides an upbeat understanding of why systems of command and control, including fascism, communism, and socialism, fail: the “knowledge problem.” Ridley notes the economists Bastiat and Hayek pointed out the knowledge required to organize human society “is bafflingly voluminous and cannot be held in a single human head.”

Ridley also explains how the free market replaced a centuries-old system of wealth creation by plunder at the end of the 18th century, and he demonstrates how markets enable prosperity to grow organically without direction from above and with the lion’s share of improvement going to ordinary workers and the poor.

Ridley says although the rich often do get richer, “millions more have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, [and] cheap travel,” as well as improved health care, nutrition, life expectancy, and other wonderful benefits that come from innovations produced in a free market.

In the section on technology, readers may find themselves surprised by Ridley’s negative view of patents and Nobel Prizes, which are typically seen as motivators for innovation and discovery. He argues they result in little more than a race to the patent office, because it is rare for there to be a moment when there are not multiple people competing to create a similar device or system simultaneously.

As many as 23 people worked on the incandescent bulb, and four different groups discovered the secret of the nuclear chain reaction separately. Both of these developments were incredibly complicated, yet they evolved in the minds of people working independently and in groups.

“[T]his is the story of technology from the Stone Age to the present day, on all continents: wherever you look, technology proceeds in a stately way from each tool to the next, rarely leapfrogging or sidestepping,” wrote Ridley.

Using nearly irrefutable facts and logic, Ridley demonstrates in the best circumstances publicly funded research provides a poor return on investment, and in many instances, no substantial return is gained.

Exploring the Mind

In Ridley’s section on the human mind, he describes the mind as separate from the brain—and at least as complex. I agree with Ridley’s assertion no one has ever adequately described thought processes, though perhaps Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, did it best in his 1994 book The Scientific Search for the Soul.

The multiple theories people have put forward to explain the development of personality have evolved over time. There was a time when it was thought parents or culture solely explained the development of a child’s personality. Evidence from the study of twins, however, showed genes played a key role. Studies have conclusively proven the aisles of toy shops, with their different appeal to the two sexes, are responding to innate preferences in human beings, not causing them.

Though perhaps not his intention, Ridley’s chapter on education dismantles Common Core in a way no other writer has done before. He demonstrates government schools were established and are run today solely so that the government can transform people into “good citizens,” according to the desires of government officials. Public education is often not done for the sake of educating pupils.

Ridley writes, “those centralized systems are worse than useless at facing the educational challenges.”

Ridley describes the development of private schools, which existed before government claimed its near-monopoly over the education system, and Ridley explains why he favors private schools now more than ever: If a teacher in a private, for-profit school fails to provide a quality education for a child, his parents can vote with their dollars by withdrawing him or her from the school. This encourages private schools to take the quality of education seriously.

Population and Productivity

In his section on population, Ridley castigates biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, for being wrong on virtually every prediction he made in his controversial book, and he lauds the late economist Julian Simon, who understood that as people and societies become richer and healthier, birth rates decline.

Ridley says the road to survival “does not lie in the neo-Malthusian prescriptions to eliminate surplus people, nor in birth control, but in the effort to make everybody on the face of the earth productive.”

Politics and Religion

Ridley’s chapter on leadership details a cornucopia of failed examples of leadership under various ideologies, including communism, socialism, and cults of personality driven by charismatic dictators.

Using examples of innovators at Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other organizations, Ridley explains how events often shape leadership styles.

The chapter on government is very rewarding. I suspect many readers will for the first time learn the truth about the Wild West. Despite there being very few government officials, the American West was far from a haven for the lawless and violent. Private law enforcement emerged to address problems, and it improved through competition.

Ridley also discusses in this chapter how “fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all,” but rather of the political left. He points out how little difference there is among the “isms” of the 20th century: communism, fascism, nationalism, corporatism, protectionism, etc. They are all central planning systems composed of people who inevitably end up worshipping at the feet of a political leader or group.

If you are not a religious scholar, Ridley’s insightful description of the similarities and differences between Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism in the chapter on religion will enlighten. He pulls no punches in stating his opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the beliefs held by each of these faith groups, and he challenges the weakness in some belief systems using an extraordinary discussion of famous, highly controversial crop circle appearances.

Having examined some of the world’s major religions, Ridley then goes on to show how the theory of manmade global warming is a new religion. 

Money Then and Now

Ridley’s description of the evolution of all things financial is marvelous, although at times it’s dry. He explains how money emerged gradually among traders and was not initially created by rulers, despite the fact the heads of kings often ended up being depicted on the currency.

Ridley eventually brings the reader to the 2008 recession, which he says was triggered by top-down, government interference in a system that should have been operated from the bottom-up.

Ridley wrote, “Greed, incompetence, fraud and error were in abundant supply but they always are. A plethora of regulations encouraged and rewarded them.”

You will be amazed to learn how wrongheaded decisions made by the George W. Bush administration and the disastrous Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage programs greatly contributed to the creation of the financial meltdown.

In the book’s final chapter, Ridley puts challenges the commonly held idea the Internet owes its existence and success to a government-sponsored electronic communication system called Arpanet, instead saying the Internet revolution might have occurred 10 years earlier if academics had not been dependent on a government network.

Ridley also discusses the unfortunate bias of many open-source information providers, such as Wikipedia, and he explains how anyone can become a journalist today, for better or worse.

The author concludes his book positively, writing, “The digital revolution is a coup d’etat against the tyranny of the elite.”

I can’t wait to reread this excellent book.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.