The Evolution of Everything: Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

This provocative book raises interesting issues, pursues bold missions, but for me ends in contradiction.

Issue 1. Human culture is not directed top-down by creative geniuses, instead it evolves bottom up through the pursuit of self interest by intelligent hordes. This Ridley details in chapters titled “The Evolution of” followed by topics: morality, culture, economy, technology, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the internet. A few other chapters cover the evolution of how we’ve thought about things: the universe, life, genes, mind. At any time, Ridley demonstrates, the condition of culture acts to elicit from intelligent hordes a barrage of innovations through which, like a crystal, culture grows.

Mission 1. Discrediting of the supernatural. “To say that culture ‘evolves’ is not metaphorical.” Human culture evolves the same way living species do, through selection for effectiveness acting bottom-up in a mass of individuals. If even among humans evolution works bottom-up, as Darwin proposed, not top down, why should evolution among living creatures be any different? In our accounts of where living creatures came from we’ve no need of top-down direction by a supernatural being.

Mission 2. Facilitation of Edward O. Wilson’s consilience. Ridley’s bottom-up generation of culture invalidates how the humanities conceive of their role. Evolution “is not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes: from morality to technology, from money to religion.… The way that human history is taught can therefore mislead, because it places far too much emphasis on design, direction and planning, and far too little on evolution.” Ridley is providing a mechanism through which the humanities can be re-established on scientific principles. “There is an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of written and spoken languages… Cities, marriage, language, music, art—these manifestations of culture all change in regular and retrospectively predictable ways, but in ways that nobody did predict, let alone direct.

Mission 3. Confirm natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. Of cities, marriage, language, music, art, Ridley says they “evolve… driven by natural selection among competing ideas.” This rounds out Ridley’s stout support of three physicalist positions: denial of the supernatural, claim that physics should be made the basis of the humanities, and that evolution is driven by a purely physical mechanism—natural selection. Finally, to support that claim, that human culture evolves through a purely physical process Ridley has to prove that humans are purely physical, too. That constitutes a second issue he covers in his text.

Issue 2. The universe, and we humans within it, are governed by physical laws of the kind we know today. If we are bound by those laws, everything we do must be determined by prior physical events. Of physicalists’ arguments about mind he says “there is no doubt that these thinkers have banished the popular, dualist version of free will, the one that is incompatible with determinism. All that determinists are asking you to accept is that there cannot be effect without cause.” That is, without physical cause. You are not free to consider options and choose between them. Your choice is determined, you cannot create anything genuinely new, your thoughts and behaviors are determined by what’s happened before. The only conclusion, then, is that Francis Crick was right in his “astonishing hypothesis,” namely that “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.” Ridley refers to “the absurdity of the ‘self,’ the mind, the will, the ego or the soul. All, to the extent they are real, are mere manifestations of the body, rather than separate from it… The notion that there is a unitary piece of self-ness somewhere deep within the grey porridge inside the skull is plainly just a powerful illusion.” There’s nothing about us you couldn’t create through a purely physical process such as natural selection, given enough time.

Contradiction. Evolution depending on innovation, and the universe being purely physical “I am going to argue that innovation is an evolutionary phenomenon.” Humans can innovate. “The truth is, almost all discoveries and inventions occur to different people simultaneously…The phenomenon is so common it must be telling us something about the inevitability of invention.” So the ground out of which human culture evolves is whatever it is that allows us to innovate. But doesn’t “innovate” mean coming up with something new, not something that already exists? Doesn’t that demand of us capabilities, creativity for example, that can’t exist in a purely physical universe? Ridley can’t tell. “I suspect that we will never explain innovations fully, for the best of Lucretian reasons—that an explanation would require omniscience.” Ridley’s claim that human nature is purely physical can’t be proved.

Does Ridley really know how evolution works? Except through someone else’s poetry, see below, he provides us with no examples involving the non-living world. He can say “The development of an embryo into a body is perhaps the most beautiful of all demonstrations of spontaneous order” and yet he’s sure that “There is no overall plan, just cells reacting to local effects.” How can he know? Of course, he can’t. It’s physicalist dogma.

There’s a logic to Ridley’s view of evolution that he ignores. If evolution involves a torrent of innovations generated by an intelligent horde, for cultural evolution that horde can easily be identified as made up of individual humans. For the evolution of other living creatures, the corresponding horde may be made up of the genomes in those creatures’ bodies. In my current writings—see sidebar—I argue that evolution is “managed” by intelligences associated with genomes, often likely to be more “intelligent” than the creatures themselves. I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade Ridley of this. “The genome, now sequenced, stands as emphatic evidence that there can be order and complexity without any management.”
Ridley quotes a poet, Emile Chartier (“Alain”), about the design of boats. “It is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” Literally of course this isn’t true, the sea damages boats and the shivers the timbers from them into splinters, it never fashions them into new boats. That’s takes a living creature, able to innovate. Maybe not a genius, but intelligent and creative.