STARRED REVIEW
October 27, 2015

How new ideas percolate from the bottom up

By Matt Ridley
Review by

A noted science writer and the author of two previous bestsellers (The Rational Optimist and Genome), Matt Ridley is no friend to central planning or the implementation of grand schemes from above. It’s better, he says, to facilitate the gradual development of objects and ideas as they adjust themselves to changing circumstances—in short, to evolution.

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A noted science writer and the author of two previous bestsellers (The Rational Optimist and Genome), Matt Ridley is no friend to central planning or the implementation of grand schemes from above. It’s better, he says, to facilitate the gradual development of objects and ideas as they adjust themselves to changing circumstances—in short, to evolution. To make his point, he asks us to imagine how maddeningly difficult it would be to design a system for feeding all the people of Paris. Yet, as he observes, it happens every day through the uncoordinated and unregimented actions of legions of individuals. Language develops the same up-from-the-bottom way, he says. So has the ever-changing code of laws under which most of the English-speaking world operates. His is a ringing, thoroughly secular rebuff to the notion that the universe is human-centric and unfolds according to “intelligent design.”

In support of his ambitious title, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, Ridley offers individual chapters on the evolution of the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, economy, technology, mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money and the Internet.

While he concedes that leadership and a minimal level of government oversight are necessary for social stability, he is wary of their limitations. “The knowledge required to organise human society is bafflingly voluminous,” he contends, too much so to be the province of an enlightened few. “Free-market commerce is the only system of human organisation yet devised where ordinary people are in charge—unlike feudalism, communism, fascism, slavery and socialism,” he maintains.

But in setting up his bottom vs. top dichotomy, he draws too severe a line. Generally the ideas that the top tries to implement have fermented at the bottom—as have the current leaders trying to implement them. And top-down government planning has created advances unthinkable left to the private sector. In the U.S. alone, think of the Manhattan project that yielded the atomic bomb, the interstate highway system, land grant colleges and their enormous impact on agriculture and technology and even the government-designed campaign to curb smoking.

Evolution, as Ridley says, is “inexorable and inevitable.” But so too is knowing how to coordinate it and put it to best use.

 

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