»  The New Criterion

January 2016

  Stuff Happens

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
        by Matt Ridley


I am not a fan of "airport nonfiction": the kind of book featured at airport bookstalls and purchased by intelligent young businesspeople to while away a cross-country flight. This genre has brought wealth and fame to Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan), the Levitt-Dubner partnership (Freakonomics), and others. Jolly good luck to them all. I'm just happier with a novel, biography, or history book.

An airport nonfiction book is built around a single big idea. By thirty pages in I have grasped the idea and found it neither original nor interesting. Then … oh, the guy has three hundred more pages of examples and case studies? Uh …

The thing can be done well or badly, though, and Matt Ridley does it decently well. His big idea is the one in his title: that most of the change that takes place in the world is "bottom-up," not "top down." We have a strong predisposition to attribute everything that happens, in both the human and the natural world, to agents: generals win battles, tycoons guide their businesses, nations are shaped by political leaders, new species are created by an Intelligent Designer, the Self — an invisible homunculus located somewhere behind the eyeballs — directs our actions.

Ridley wants to tell us that while agency might occasionally be in play — it would be hard to deny it in the case of, say, the D-Day landings — it is much more often the case that order and progress are emergent, the results of random bottom-up shufflings in the always-in-motion natural or human worlds.

Original? Of course not, and Ridley does not claim originality. His muse is the late-republican Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. Each of Ridley's sixteen chapters has a title beginning "The Evolution of …," and each is prefaced with some lines from Lucretius' tremendous verse work De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things"), in Alicia Stallings' translation.

Thus the chapter titled "The Evolution of the Internet" opens with this, from Book 1 of De rerum natura:

Nothing can be made from nothing — once we see that's so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know:
What can things be fashioned from? And how is it without
The machinations of the gods, all things can come about?

Why, by bottom-up evolution, of course!

As his book title implies, Ridley really does mean "all things." Technology, Culture, Money, Government, Morality — There is a chapter for everything. He borrows innovation theorist Richard Webb's conceit that Darwin's theory of the origin of species by natural selection is the "special theory of evolution." By analogy with Albert Einstein's work, Ridley is giving us the "general theory of evolution."

Well, our agency-attributing tendencies surely do need a good kick now and again. The more we understand about ourselves and our universe, the less we need agency, either human or supernatural, as an explanation.

In his chapter titled "The Evolution of Personality," for instance, Ridley describes one of the most disturbing and counterintuitive results in the modern human sciences: that our adult personalities owe little or nothing to the style of parenting we were subjected to. This fact is now so firmly established by decades of twin, sibling, and adoption studies as to be beyond reasonable dispute. Half the variation in adult personalities is due to genes; the other half to "nonshared environment" — not shared, that is, with the siblings amongst whom we were raised.

Parents thus have no agency. The psychologist Judith Rich Harris, who best-sellerized these findings in her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, wrote that within a wide range of normal parenting practices, "Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around."

Ridley, whose previous book was titled The Rational Optimist, puts a cheerful spin on these rather alarming discoveries.

The fall of social, cultural and parental determinism and its replacement by a more balanced, evolutionary theory of human personality and character is a great liberation from an oppressive and false form of creationism.

(I should explain that Ridley uses "creationism" throughout the book to indicate any false attribution of agency, human as well as supernatural.)

The cheeriness is characteristic. Ridley, who was formerly an editor at The Economist, is the very soul of Whiggish optimism.

The internet, for example, was in the first place the Arpanet, devised and funded by the Pentagon. You can't get more top-down than that! Then, once private access was allowed in 1989, there was a great evolutionary flourishing. In recent years, however, governments and corporations have been re-asserting their control. Ideologues, too: Wikipedia, once a hopefully open and decentralized project, fell under the control of censorious leftist editors, and is now unreliable on any topic or personality that contradicts leftist sensibilities. Chirps Ridley:

I remain optimistic that the forces of evolution will outwit the forces of command and control, and the internet will continue to provide a free space for all. But [sic] only because of human ingenuity staying one step ahead of the dirigistes.

Good luck with that.

The Whiggism sometimes tips over into Panglossian assertions of moral order in the cosmos. "Letting good things evolve, while doing bad, has been the dominant theme of history." To argue that in detail calls for some rhetorical juggling of definitions. Is it really so easy to distinguish between top-down and bottom-up changes? Ridley:

In my lifetime, disapproval of homosexuality has become ever more morally unacceptable in the West … [These] changes did not come about because some moral leader or committee ordained them, at least not mainly … Rather, the moral negotiation among ordinary people gradually changed the common views in society.

Is that a true picture of what happened? Funny: I lived through the entire period of that change, and don't recall any "moral negotiations." I do recall a relentless decades-long campaign of advertisement, intimidation, and jurisprudential sleight of hand by cultural elites to force the normalization of homosexuality on a reluctant populace. Whatever you think of this change, was it really "bottom-up"?

Nor will it do to argue, as Ridley tries to do, that the direst calamities in human history resulted from "top down" control. In this context he actually cites the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which he blames on the ideas of the deplorably pessimistic Dr Malthus. The famine, he writes, "was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power."

Well, possibly: but those politicians — Robert Peel and Lord Russell — were, like Ridley, devotees of bottom-up laissez-faire economics, then at its high tide. Peel, though a Tory, was Whiggish in outlook — he pushed repeal of the price-fixing Corn Laws. Lord Russell was an actual Whig, and a very pure specimen of the breed, with whom Ridley would have gotten along famously. A top-down government project of famine relief would have saved many Irish lives.

For the most part Ridley observes the Prime Directive of airport nonfiction, which is to steer well clear of topics regarded as controversial by leftish social scientists (excuse the pleonasm). He does, however, show a flash of heterodox ankle when discussing human intelligence.

Today, everybody accepts the relentlessly consistent verdict of the twin studies and adoption studies: differences in intelligence owe a great deal to differences in genes.

Again, though, the Panglossian twist:

Despite sending their children to elite pre-schools, the richest of the rich in a city like New York can do little to make up for their children's genetic mediocrity; and despite getting little opportunity, brilliant kids from the slums can make it big. Nature is the friend of social mobility.

You have to wonder whether Ridley understands the meaning of "heritable."

That's all the ankle we get. Race, for example, goes quite unmentioned. The word "race" does not even appear in the index. Instead we get this in the "Evolution of economic development" section:

South Korea and Ghana had the same income per capita in the 1950s. One received far more aid, advice, and political intervention than the other. It is now by far the poorer of the two … Trade, not aid, proved the best way to achieve an increase in prosperity.

That is a gross distortion. South Korea benefited greatly from U.S. aid. "From 1953 to 1962, U.S. aid financed an average of 69 percent of imports," according to our Seoul embassy. And if it's top-down dirigiste economics you seek, the first three of South Korea's Five-Year Plans [sic], 1962-1976, were organized under a governmental Economic Planning Board, which remained in business until 1994.

The greatest global issue of our time, the vast movements of people from poor, dysfunctional countries to rich, stable ones, likewise goes unmentioned. The word "immigration" appears with just one reference in Ridley's index. The single reference is to the restrictionist 1924 U.S. Immigration Act, whose passage, Ridley tuts, was influenced by Madison Grant's 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race. The Great Race of the title was "Nordic" northwest Europeans.

If the Act was so influenced — the matter has been disputed — then the United States owes a debt of gratitude to Madison Grant, whatever we may think of his racial theories. The forty-one-year immigration pause from 1924 to 1965 allowed the full assimilation into American society of the pre-World War I Great Wave, thereby creating the robust nation that dominated the world, mostly for good, in the postwar years.

What is more "bottom-up" than assimilation? Perhaps we should have another immigration pause to assimilate the millions we have taken in this past thirty years. Ridley and his former colleagues at the open-borders Economist would probably find that suggestion deeply scandalous.