The Evolution of Punditry

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 9.53.04 AMMatt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything, explores a simple but profound thesis: Most of what goes on in the world — particularly, most of the good stuff — comes from bottom-up, emergent, unplanned processes:

Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place. Patterns emerge, trends evolve. Skeins of geese form Vs in the sky without meaning to, termites build cathedrals without architects, bees make hexagonal honeycombs without instruction, brains take shape without brain-makers, learning can happen without teaching, political events are shaped by history rather than vice versa. The genome has no master gene, the brain has no command centre, the English language has no director, the economy has no chief executive, society has no president, the common law has no chief justice, the climate has no control knob, history has no five-star general.

Ridley spends the rest of the book going through examples, one chapter at a time, explaining how order and complexity arise without intention or command in morality, education, demographics, language, money, and about a dozen other topics. He also takes a lot of the air out of the Great Man Theory, arguing that it’s far more true that conditions shape men and that ideas are ripe for picking by the first qualified minds to grasp them. (Ridley not only rehashes the famous examples of Darwin and Russell and Newton and Leibniz, but — rather humbly — shows how a number of other authors published works remarkably similar to his previous book at very nearly the same time).

It’s sort of Friedrich Hayek cross-pollinated with Daniel Dennett and a bit of Richard Dawkins, and in a good way. If you’re interested in getting a flavor, I highly recommend this 30-minute presentation to the Cato Institute.

It’s a powerful and — I found — deeply persuasive idea. Even though I felt Ridley overshot reality by a few steps, I’m convinced he’s brought me much closer to it after than I had been before. (Speaking for myself, I kept noting the irony of being convinced of this particular thesis via my top-down reason, rather than experience. But maybe that’s just an illusion my brain feeds me. Neuroscience is unsettling.)

Though the staff occasionally cajoles or encourages particular writers on specific subjects, this site doesn’t work by top-down order. Claire, Jon, and I have absolutely no idea what you folks are going to write about on any given day, and that’s what makes our jobs — and this site — so interesting and unique.

Maybe Dan Hanson is going to write a multi-part series on SCUBA diving. Perhaps C. U. Douglas is going to treat us to a a small-screen review. Or maybe, just when we were expecting another pro- or anti-Trump post, we find the Reticulator’s fascinating post about Indian captivity narratives and what they say about our contemporary culture. How about a deep dive from Skipsul into circuit-board manufacturing? We leave it up to you folks and you surprise us all the timeAnd even the Code of Conduct overwhelmingly works not through top-down interventions from The Powers That Be, but because our members take it upon themselves to self-regulate and self-enforce it.

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  1. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    I recently read Ridley’s book and it is interesting but, as you say, he oversteps himself.

    For instance, “termites build cathedrals.” No, they don’t.

    Another is: Is it morality that evolves, or merely our understanding of morality that evolves?

    “Speaking for myself, I kept noting the irony of being convinced of this particular thesis via my top-down reason, rather than experience. But maybe that’s just an illusion my brain feeds me. Neuroscience is unsettling”

    Only if you exempt neuroscience from the same acid you apply to everything else. If our thinking is an illusion of the brain, then neuroscience is also an illusion and this entire way of thinking destroys itself. Generally holders of this view implicitly allow a magical exception for their own thought.

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  2. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    I just read the book as well.  Ridley may go a little overboard in places,  and he admits this – it’s more an exploration of the ideas behind complexity and self organization.

    I’ve been fascinated by this topic for a long time.   Complexity science is upending a lot of traditional ideas about economics,  social organization, climate, and other complex systems.  Our approach to them has been wrong, generally.   For example,  Our economic theories are based on equilibrium models developed in the 1800’s,  and which we now know are not a good depiction of how the economy works.

    For Conservatives and libertarians,  the ideas behind complexity theory are critical because they actually validate what we believe – smaller and more distributed is better than centralized.

    Social structures evolve for a reason, and are adapted to fit well within a complex environment.  The urge to mess with them willy-nilly for ‘social justice’ reasons is dangerous.

    Economic structures evolve and emerge to meet the needs of the marketplace,  and we mess with them at our peril.   Grand schemes to reshape the economy through ‘stimulus’, redistribution,  regulation and other coercive means will result in bad outcomes and unintended consquences.

    Complexity theory validates these ideas and helps us understand why, for instance,  macroeconomists have a dismal track record in predicting the future or in designing interventions that actually work.

    Any book that helps spread these ideas is useful,  and Ridley’s book is readable and pretty much on the money.

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  3. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Ridley is always original, happily contrarian and fun to read. The Rational Optimist and the Red Queen are both worthwhile and thought-provoking.  I also like his blog.

    If Ricochet commentary were to rise to this level, we’d be the jewel of the internet.

    • #3
  4. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Old Bathos:Ridley is always original, happily contrarian and fun to read. The Rational Optimist and the Red Queen are both worthwhile and thought-provoking. I also like his blog.

    I enjoyed The Rational Optimist immensely, and it’s a great gateway to Hayek (The Red Queen is on my to read list). Ridley’s also done a number of excellent presentations, including:

    • #4
  5. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    J, how do you know that termites don’t build cathedrals?

    One ought not to presume to know the spiritual capacities of other species.

    • #5

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