The Evolution of Everything

January/​February 2016 • Policy Report

Libertarians know all too well that governments place misguided faith in central planning. But could it be that top‐​down systems are equally irrelevant in numerous other aspects of society — like science and innovation? Matt Ridley, the author of the best‐​selling book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, came to the Cato Institute this fall to discuss his new book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, in which he argues that, in more ways than we realize, human society is driven by inexorable forces akin to biological evolution.

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In the last 50 years or so, we've tripled our income, reduced child mortality by two-thirds, and increased lifespan by a third. We should get our minds around why that happened, why it happened in this generation, and why it's possible for it to happen to human beings and not to rabbits and rocks. Of course, the answer is innovation. But then the question becomes: where does innovation come from?

Innovation comes from the combination and recombination of existing ideas. That's a very similar process to the combination and recombination of genes, which produces the raw material for biological evolution. But in biological evolution, you then have a process of selection where the environment selects some of the combinations over others. Is that happening in human society? Well, of course it is, because some of the combinations that inventors come up with don't get accepted and others do. The closer you look at the way innovation works to change society, the more it looks like biological evolution.

I wanted to see how far I could take that idea — whether I could turn everything onto a procrustean bed of Darwinism. (Procrustes, as you remember, stretched his guests so they fitted the bed that he made them stay on.) That's what this book is trying to do — and I've kind of been working up to this all my life, in a way. John Tierney told me, "Well, now that you've written a book called The Evolution of Everything, there's nothing left to write about." Unless I can write The Evolution of a Few Things I Forgot to Mention, which is possible.

I think Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection is one of the great ideas that human beings have ever come up with, and it's counterintuitive. When we look at the natural world, we see design, we see purpose, we see function. You can't look at the structure of the human eye and not conclude that it was designed for seeing. And yet, Darwin says that it got that way spontaneously and without ever having a goal in mind.

I'm arguing that the same is likely to be true of society. When we find really wellfunctioning human institutions or human technologies, we should consider the possibility that they have emerged without a plan, in a bottom-up way, rather than through topdown command and control. And therefore, Darwin's version of evolution by natural selection in genetic systems is the special theory of evolution — rather like special relativity was the special theory of relativity — and there's a general theory of evolution that we should look at. Evolution happens everywhere, and what happens in human societies is much more incremental, much more gradual, than we tend to assume. Society doesn't change in great big jumps. When you look at it closely, it tends to be a case of moving to the adjacent possible step: you take one step, and then you move to the next. It shows descent with modification, so you can trace the family tree of an idea or a technology from its ancestors, just as you can with a biological creature. And there's something inexorable about it: it moves forward whether we like it to or not.

Of course, crucially, if you're going to have an evolutionary system there must be an element of trial and error. In biological evolution there has to be mutation and selection in which the bad combinations of genes get rejected and the good ones get accepted. And that must be the case in societal change if you're going to have an evolutionary change. So the question is, do we see trial and error? Do we see human beings, when they're trying to change a technology or an institution or a system, trying different ideas, some of which succeed and some of which don't? I would argue that yes, we do — the closer you look at how things change in human society, the more trial and error you find. Just a little example: in the first few decades of airplanes, there's a ferment of experimentation in how you design the tail or the wings, how many wings you have, whether you have the propeller in the front or in the back. There are all sorts of different designs which are tried, some of which survive and some of which don't.

The corollary of this is that we're not recognizing that evolution is the way in which society changes. We are creationists. Now it's certainly true that there are top-down things in the world. There are individuals who make a difference in history. But I think that we have erred on the side of thinking that things are more top-down than they are.

The book is full of anecdotes of things that have changed in an evolutionary way in human society. Take music — there's a continual evolution of music. There are certain people who get called "revolutionaries" in music, but when you look at it, they're building on what came before: the Beatles are building on Elvis Presley, who is building on blues and rock. You can also see the crossfertilization that is characteristic of an evolutionary system, where two types of music come together and swap ideas and come up with a third. You can see descent with modification in music very clearly.

Gods are another thing that evolve. In the Bronze Age, gods were vengeful and petty tyrants who got very upset if you offended them, and had really rather mundane concerns in their lives. Now they're disembodied spirits of benevolence, and there tends to be only one of them. That's a change that you can see gradually coming through history at different times and in different places.

You can trace the history of governments pretty clearly as a gradual evolutionary thing. They evolve out of protection rackets. Government starts as somebody asserting a monopoly of violence on society, saying, "Look, instead of us all fighting each other, I'm going to be the one with the weapons and the rest of you are not, but that's all right, because there will be peace." Of course governments move on and become very different things, and they start providing other services, and eventually they come up with welfare states and so on.

I would argue that these phenomena are the product of human action, but not of human design — a phrase from the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, who said there's a whole category of things out there that are not designed, and they're not natural objects either, they are somewhere in between. They're man-made in the sense that clearly human beings were involved in their creation, and yet there's no sense in which they were designed. The clearest example of that, I think, is the English language. When you think about it, the English language is clearly man-made, it's not a natural phenomenon, and it's full of rules, it's full of structure, it's full of order, it's extremely complex, it's got a beautiful fit between form and function, and yet it's ridiculous to say that it was designed by anyone or that it's run by anyone. There is no chief executive of the English language, thank goodness. There is no central committee. There is no constitution of the English language, and it's full of rules that we all obey but we don't even know half the time.

In the book, I go back 2,000 years to try to find the first person who really sees this clearly, and I fasten on Lucretius, the Roman poet, who died in the middle of writing his only poem, as far as we can tell, because it ends rather abruptly. The poem is called De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things. It had an enormous influence on later history, particularly on Thomas Jefferson — he had five different copies of it in his library. The poem disappeared for about 12 centuries because the Christian church didn't like it — it's a very atheistic poem, it says there's no such thing as gods or spirits, and it's unbelievably modern in some ways. He says that the world consists of atoms and voids. Nothing else, there's just atoms and voids — there's no spirits, there's no essences, and a living creature is made of atoms and voids just as a non-living creature is atoms and voids, it's just they're different combinations. Now we know that's true — how he knew that 2,000 years ago, it almost boggles the mind to understand. And in places he gets terribly close to sounding like Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins.

But jump forward to 1759, the year in which Adam Smith publishes The Theory of Moral Sentiments — exactly a century before Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species — and you find the same idea. He says that morality emerges from the way we interact with each other as ordinary people. It doesn't emerge from priests telling us what to do. We don't need to be told what's right and wrong, we work it out for ourselves. We calibrate our behavior according to how people react to us. If we go around killing people and people lock us up for doing it, we learn that that's a bad thing to do. Essentially you can have different versions of morality in different societies according to how people are getting feedback for their behavior. Smith then goes on to write the Wealth of Nations and make very much the same sort of point about the economy, that it's an emergent phenomenon, that it's driven by an "invisible hand" — a phrase that he uses in both Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations — and that it is not possible to plan the economy of a country or a city, it emerges through supply and demand, and trial and error, and the price mechanism.

I just want to say something parenthetically at this point, which is that to say society evolves and technology evolves and culture evolves is not social Darwinism. It's the very opposite. Social Darwinism was essentially the 19th- and early 20th- century idea that we need to help biological evolution happen by telling people who they can marry and who they can't marry, whether they should be sterilized or not, and eventually telling people whether they should be killed or not. It's about helping social progress through assisting biological evolution, and I'm saying quite the opposite: that we should encourage ideas to die so that people don't have to die, essentially.

One consequence of this way of looking at society is that it's very skeptical of the Great Man Theory of history. The Great Man Theory is that history is caused by great men rather than great men are caused by history. Clearly there can be huge topdown influences on history from individuals. We have Mao, we have Stalin, we have Hitler and others to show us that. But I think it's true, as Lord Acton said, that great men are usually bad men. It's much easier to take history by the scruff of the neck and change it in a bad direction than in a good direction.

And if I'm skeptical of the Great Man Theory in history, although I'll admit they do exist, I'm even more so when it comes to technology. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in the 1870s — so did 22 other people, in the same decade, independently. In Britain we give the credit to Joseph Swan. He came from the town I come from, Newcastle, so we're very firm in Newcastle that Edison is a fraud and Joseph Swan deserves all the credit. In Russia they say it was Alexander Lodygin who invented the light bulb. And of course, everybody's right — the point was the light bulb was a ripe idea by the 1870s; it was the next possible step to take. The technology was all in place to produce the idea of a light bulb, and it's inconceivable that if Edison hadn't existed we wouldn't have light bulbs. And that's true of almost every invention you can think of. Think of the search engine, one of the great innovations of my lifetime. It is as important to my generation as the steam engine was to the 18th century, and yet if Larry Page had never met Sergey Brin, do we think we would not have search engines now? In fact there were about 20 search engines on the market when Google was founded in 1994. It's just that Google came up with the best one and managed to sweep the pool. This is true of scientific discovery too: Charles Darwin hit on the idea of evolution, and then so did Alfred Russel Wallace a few years later. It is because Wallace was about to scoop him that Darwin rushed into print. Even Einstein, who tends to stand out as being a unique genius who saw things that nobody else did — had Einstein fallen under a tram in Switzerland before he got to special relativity, Hendrik Lorentz would have come up with it.

Kevin Kelly documents in his book, What Technology Wants, that we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, four of decimal fractions, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, three of logarithms, five of the steam boat, six of the electric railroad. I'm not saying scientists and inventors don't matter, clearly they do. But I am saying that there's an inexorable, inevitable, evolutionary nature to this. And the more you look at innovation, the more what really counts is ordinary people interacting, not one or two geniuses.

The best example of this that we've got in front of us today is the internet. The internet is clearly something that is the result of human action but not of human design, in the sense that nobody had a plan for it, nobody's in charge of it to this day, there is no central committee, thank goodness, although people keep trying to be in charge of it. And it doesn't originate in a couple of brilliant individuals. Sure you can give Tim Berners-Lee or Vint Cerf credit for certain parts of it, but they're pretty dispensable in the sense that if they hadn't been there somebody else would have come up with these technologies. And yes it came out of government to some extent, but it also came out of industry, it came out of ordinary people on networks.

I want to end with one clear story of an evolutionary system versus a command and- control system, and that's China's onechild policy which recently came to an end. The "demographic transition" is the reduction in the birth rate that happens all around the world when people get a little bit more prosperous and better-educated and somewhat healthier. Once child mortality drops, people plan smaller families and they invest in quality rather than quantity of kids. It's happened on pretty well every continent, and it's happening in Africa at the moment.

But China decided that it wanted to do a top-down transition instead, and the one child policy was both futile and inhumane. It was futile because it genuinely didn't work. The Chinese birthrate fell more in the 10 years before the policy came in than in the 10 years after, which is truly remarkable when you think about it. We should learn to be more suspicious of top-down plans, but also of top-down interpretations of how the world works.

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