The Evolution of Everything

How New Ideas Emerge

[Amazon Link]

There's a well-known saying popularized by Isaiah Berlin: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing". Thus distinguishing between thinkers whose worldview is dominated by a Big Ass Idea, and those who draw from more diverse sources.

Check out the title of Matt Ridley's recent book; which category does he fall into, do you think?

That's not to say that the book isn't fun, provocative, and usually insightful. It is! His overall theme is, on many occasions, just not convincingly or even plausibly applied.

All chapters are titled "The Evolution of X", where X is, respectively, the Universe, Morality, Life, Genes, Culture, the Economy, Technology, the Mind, Personality, Education, Population, Leadership, Government, Religion, Money, the Internet, and (epilogue) the Future. Each enthuses over emergent orders, bottom-up innovation, and unplanned combinations. Ridley optimistically views such development as generally progressive and beneficial. (Not "progressive" in the modern political sense, of course.) Such processes are not inevitably good, but that's the way to bet.

Since Ridley sees "evolution" in all these areas, he also usually detects the know-nothing forces of "creationism" in opposition. This is usually simpatico with my own views, so I didn't mind it that much. Especially in this political season, when it's hard not to be dismayed at the array of hucksters who promise to effortlessly "solve problems" by Intelligently Designing just the right array of taxes, regulations, mandates, subsidies, prohibitions,… (Even more dismaying: the gullibility of the voters who seem to be buying it.)

Ridley is less convincing in other areas. In the "Evolution of the Mind" chapter, he finds it necessary to debunk "the illusion of free will". I've always found such arguments to be self-refuting. He approvingly quotes the philosopher Sam Harris as a sage explicator; when I read Harris's book, I thought it was sloppy and unconvincing.

There's an interesting section where Ridley admits that he is "not a fan of patents and copyright laws." This makes sense: if progress results from "ideas having sex" in unpredictable and unplanned combinations, patents and copyrights are like condoms and morning-after pills, preventing beneficial offspring.

I note, however, that Ridley's book is copyrighted, and has the "no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner" boilerplate up front. So we aren't in Ridley's ideal world yet.