Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Evolution of Everything

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

Evolution has always been a subversive idea. Order from chaos, progress without direction, design without a designer. But are humans the last word in natural evolution, or do their societies represent the evolution of evolution; from the biological to the ideational, cultural, and technological?

This is the argument at the heart of The Evolution of Everything by the science writer Matt Ridley. Not only has life and the universe evolved, so do humans over time. These same basic laws of bottom up, spontaneous order are to be found — and celebrated — everywhere. The book argues that what both explains the human world, as well as creates the best of it, is evolutionary. What is bad or harmful, is attributed to command and control attempts, from creationism to communism.

The book works through 16 chapters, each ostensibly focused on a topic such as Morality, Technology, Education, Population, Religion, Genes and so on. Each chapter is packed with different ideas and arguments, bounding around the topic in an always entertaining fashion. The first part of the book which tends to focus more on science or broad social dynamics (morality, culture etc) is especially engaging.


In one fascinating section, Ridley presents a view of humans as sites of ongoing evolutionary competition, as their genes, impulses, histories and circumstances dramatically shape their behaviour. So much for free will it seems, at least in its populist sense. He also rightly challenges the idea of ‘great men’ of history, whether pointing out that many, many ideas are developed simultaneously around the world, while many celebrated world leaders often simply got out of the way of big changes, rather than being the cause of them.

At the half way mark, I was starting to recommend this book to my friends. The compelling idea within is that if you accept evolution in nature, you should encourage it in civilisation. Focus on open, competitive systems. Look to social norms rather than coercion, and have confidence in innovation and creativity as natural byproducts of humans left to live their own lives as they choose. An unrestrained society is a more moral, prosperous and interesting place.

The problem is that as the book moves evermore from science to social science, this thread goes missing. Or rather, Ridley switches from arguing for a pro-evolution explanation, to arguing against management and direction. While these notions are opposed, they are not exclusive. But this distinction often seems lost, and with it an analysis of the role of evolution in human practice. So instead of offering an easily told but important tale of how governance has changed, been tested, failed, adapted and improved over time (and thus perhaps why we should seek further innovation), we get a somewhat banal attack on government as resistant to change, unable to provide services and generally inclined to authoritarianism. Likewise instead of discussing why technology and innovation is our best answer to climate change, we get a lukewarm dismissal of modern environmentalism as a kind of religion.

As Ridley gets out of his comfort zone of scientific issues, the chapters get weaker. Topics bounce around far more, assumptions are less clearly identified and debates and opposing views more quickly dismissed. In one notable case on page 238 the author jumps uses a study of the evolution of social norms in prison to state that “in other words, government begins as a protection racket”. Quite how this study proves this, I never could understand. Worse, we have significant evidence for how government and states have formed, none of which Ridley seems to have engaged (See Fukuyama’s latest 2 volume on Origins of Political Order tome at the very least). Instead Ridley seems to dismiss all government as simply a form of domination forced upon us at the expense of our development and wellbeing.

The Evolution of Everything also seems remarkably unwilling to confront exactly what evolution is or means. We get virtually no discussion of the way it transmits or operates outside of biological environments. And little mention beyond the noble failures of entrepreneurs of the costs of evolutionary change. Instead, when the development of ideas about human eugenics and survival of the fittest is raised, it is done so to lay the entire blame at the feet of those who believe in government and command and control. Certainly in the application of these abuses government mattered, but it is ridiculous to ignore the logic which motivated these movements. Confusingly Ridley also spends time condemning the British willingness to ignore the potato famine in Ireland even though the ‘we shouldn’t interfere, let god sort it out’ logic was directly shaped by competitive, anti-statist notions.

It’s not that we can’t embrace an evolutionary approach because of these downsides, but rather that an honest and ultimately more persuasive analysis of these ideas would confront, accept and discuss remedies head on. Ridley like many libertarians is quick to say he wants government and social aid, while spending most of his time saying how terrible it is and never drawing clear lines for how to do it with the least harm.

Ultimately, I agree with most of this book. At its best it speaks of a philosophy that operates with human nature rather than against. One that celebrates human flourishing and works to remove any barriers and impediments that stand in its way. But too much of this book puts aside discussing the way evolution operates, and instead tries to attack what the author sees as some of the main barriers to it. All are well-known, and the book lands few if any telling blows against them.

That makes it a frustrating read. I enjoyed it, I am glad I read it. I just wish it fulfilled its promise more effectively so I could recommend it more widely. Ridley is not the first to apply evolutionary ideas to human society, so in the spirit of this book, I hope that maybe those who come after will be more adapted to the task than he was.

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