Mark Buchanan examines a treatise on evolution as central to processes in a vast, varied range of domains.
The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
- Matt Ridley
Evolution is an almost magical idea. First proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859 as an explanation for the manifold diversity of biology, the concept has turned out to be much more profound than its inventor could have imagined. Evolution is a general strategy, or class of strategies, for finding solutions to very difficult problems through iterative, combinatorial exploration in high-dimensional spaces of possibilities. Organisms evolve, and so do algorithms for image recognition or for financial trading.
Matt Ridley, an accomplished science writer and Conservative member of the UK House of Lords, has explored the power of evolution in biology in half a dozen books. In his latest, The Evolution of Everything, Ridley makes a powerful argument that evolution in a more general sense has created most of the things that we treasure — from modern technology to decent government and reasonably stable economies. He also ponders the mystery of why, despite this overwhelming evidence for the value of evolution in design, so many people still long for the apparent order of top-down planning and control, solutions designed and implemented by policy experts.
Over 16 chapters, Ridley explores processes that involve incremental change through trial and error. He considers the evolution of the Universe, morality, the economy, technology, money and more — even the future. In each, he examines how attempts to solve human problems through logical planning and purposeful intervention so often fail.
Take overpopulation. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of writers — most prominently, the ecologist and demographer Paul R. Ehrlich — proclaimed that global famines would soon devastate humanity unless drastic action were taken to stop the population explosion. The problem, one expert suggested, required the creation of a planetary authority with responsibility “for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region”. The idea was a non-starter, and even trying to implement it would probably have caused immense suffering. As Ridley argues, it was the evolutionary inventiveness of science and changing human practices that offered a solution, at least temporarily. We found much more efficient agricultural methods, and people, as they grew more prosperous, started to have fewer children.
In this case, and in many others that Ridley examines, solutions to important human issues were discovered not through conscious planning, but through undirected experimentation. We defeated the dark of night through the slow accumulation of many discoveries — fire, the production of metals, the steam engine, vacuum technology and so on — none of which were expressly aimed at illumination. Similarly, nearly all human societies have created powerful, flexible written languages for communication — not by design, but through slow adaptation, adjustment and modification.
Ridley is generally correct. The world is teeming with systems — anything from the Internet to New York City traffic — that are much too complex to engineer and control with top-down thinking. And his book offers revealing examples of how evolution has improved approaches across essentially all fields, from software design and telecommunications to the economics of housing and basic human morality. The Evolution of Everything will be enjoyed by anyone interested in the origins of order and organization in human societies, and how we might put evolutionary forces to better use in managing our lives and communities.
One thing that I liked less about the book, however, is how Ridley's political views often intrude on his arguments. His examination frequently gives way to complaints about all manner of things that he — a libertarian — despises. Too much government and meddling in health care; too many taxes and layers of social policy to protect people. Ridley manages to blame the good intentions of left-leaning people for the persistence of global poverty, for the demise of the British health-care system, even for fascism. Most of the intelligent public, Ridley grouses, believes that government is the foundation of all that is good, and is generally infallible.
Does anyone actually believe this? Most people just think that government does some necessary and useful things — helping to ensure the stability of the financial system, for example, and providing basic levels of education. Most economists think the same. This aspect of the book will no doubt appeal to the libertarian element in right-wing organizations, but for many readers, the asides will interfere with the discussion.
If you filter out the political cheerleading, Ridley's argument emerges as edifying. It is almost certainly true that solutions to our most pressing problems — from global poverty to climate change — are not going to spring from the mind of any lone genius or planning committee. We will find them through the collective tinkering and evolutionary exploration of tens of millions of diverse minds working together.
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Buchanan, M. Evolution: Parsing the cycles of change. Nature 526, 36–37 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/526036a